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Wine Country, California: Off the Beaten Path in Napa and Sonoma

Updated on August 21, 2011

Just north of San Francisco sits the premier United States wine producing region. This area, known as "wine country", is the combined counties of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino in California. The wine country's climate is tempered by its proximity to several major bodies of water making this the perfect place to grow the best grapes for wine production.

Visitors to the area usually come to visit the wineries either during growing season or the late summer "crush" when the grapes are harvested. But they generally leave having fallen in love with the region's rich arts, entertainment, culture, cuisine and the laid-back demeanor of its citizens.

When you arrive, however, be prepared to spend some quality time in your car, as most of the roads are two-lanes only. And remember what I said about the laid back demeanor? Let's just say that you'll be doing quite a bit of driving. Fortunately, as you meander Highway 29, you will pass miles and miles of spectacular scenery consisting of precision-like rows of grapevines and spectacular homes and wineries.

Be sure to stop in at the wineries that you pass, as most have a tasting room where, for a few dollars (some at no charge) you can sample some of the most exquisite wines produced in the country. If you're driving, however, don't forget to take advantage of the strategically-placed spit bowls.

While wine connoisseurs visiting wine country head right for the wineries that make the highest quality wines, and average tourists generally head for wineries that have names they are familiar with, I prefer destinations with ambiance, character and history to them.

Wine Country: Calistoga's Sterling Vineyards

Located in Calistoga, Sterling Vineyards has been producing superior wines for 40 years. Perched atop a hill, its mission-style buildings do not do the winery justice. Inside, you will find it filled with 1960's memorabilia, and the views from the floor-to-ceiling windows are absolutely breathtaking. What makes Sterling Vineyards unique is the aerial tram that you need to take to reach the winery. Each gondola gives its riders 360 degree views of the countryside, and if I had to find a downside to this, I would have to say that the ride is just too short.

Word of warning -- If you are slim, pick similar friends to ride with as the gondola feels much more precarious than it really is.

A little trivia on the history for you. Until approximately 2000, Sterling Vineyards was owned by Seagrams which also owned Perrier-Jouet, Mumm and Chivas Regal.

Wine Country: Rutherford's Beaulieu Gardens and the Rutherford House

Beaulieu Vineyards is located on St. Helena Highway in Rutherford, and has been producing wonderful wines since 1900. The public wine tasting building is small, modern and minimalist -- a complete yawn. But do whatever you can to get a pass to visit Beaulieu Gardens, one of the most spectacular horticultural experiences in the area. There, acres and acres of every flower you can imagine, puncuated by buildings dating back to the late 1800's will take your breath away. Just a few minutes on the grounds and you will swear that Tinkerbell is standing by with a remote control to switch on the hummingbirds as you walk by -- it's simply that perfect.

Rutherford House is located in Beaulieu Garden and is typically reserved for use by visiting corporate dignitaries and industry folk. But wheel and deal to get a pass. It will be well worth it. Oh, and don't forget to try their Georges de Latour and Beauzeaux wines while you're there. They are two of my favorites.

1930's Inglenook Vineyards visitor list
1930's Inglenook Vineyards visitor list

Wine Country: Napa's Inglenook Winery

The cavernous stone buildings on this property and the stone archway that greets you upon entry bely the history of the Inglenook winery, now the Rubicon Estate Winery. Gustave Niebaum passed through San Francisco for the first time in 1868. He settled there, married and established the Inglenook winery. Niebaum was Finnish and was an avid sailor. Inglenook, loosely translated, means 'seat by the hearth' where undoubtedly his wife waited for him as he was out on his seafaring adventures.

Cut to modern day where, although Inglenook has passed through various corporate hands and the wine itself has, disappointingly, become almost synonymous with 'jug wine', the winery itself is astonishing and filled with history.

In 1975, famous movie director Francis Ford-Coppola purchased Niebaum's Victorian home, its olive groves and 120 acres of surrounding vineyards. Not only is it a sublime experience to stroll through the olive groves overlooking the vineyards and Coppola's spectacular home, but tasting the co-produced Niebaum-Coppola wines is well worth the experience.

Wine Country's Other Great Things To Do

  • Hot air balloon rides over the vineyards: Very touristy, I know. But breathtaking nonetheless. Be forewarned, the locals will scoff at you for having done this, but your photos will blow your friends away.
  • Napa Valley Mustard Festival: Originally designed to boost tourism during the off season when wild mustard was in bloom and the vineyards were resting, this festival has become a celebration of wine country cuisine, arts, culture and entertainment. Check their calendar for events running from January through March. Depending on when you visit, you may also want to check out the Sonoma Valley Olive Festival, the Russian River Winter Wonderland, Mendocino's Crab and Wine Days, and the Yountville Festival of Lights.
  • Jellybeans anyone? No ambiance here, but a lot of character and history. The Jelly Belly factory is open for tours to the public. Jelly Belly was founded in 1869, and was known as the Herman Goelitz Candy Co.until 1976 when a Los Angeles candy distributor had an idea about making jelly beans with unique and natural flavorings. They contacted Goelitz, and the Jelly Belly was born. The first factory is located a mere 20 miles outside of Napa, so make the detour. You will enjoy the sugar rush.
  • Outpost Winery: If you're looking for spectacular views of Napa and exquisite Zinfandal, you've found it in the Outpost Winery. Outpost is located off the Silverado Trail and is a gem in the world of boutique wines. They are definitely into quality more than quantity and have even been written up the the Wine Spectator magazine. And when you're there, be sure to ask for Frank.
  • Restaurants: My personal favorites: Solbar in Calistoga, offering California cuisine and an unbelievable dining room situated under solar panels and Taylor's Automatic Refresher in St. Helena offering a California twist on the burger. Here, you can watch the sun set over the vineyards while you munch on an ahi burger with wasabi-ginger mayo.
  • Anyone for Spelunking? Just kidding. The Jarvis Winery is unique in that the owners, William and Leticia Jarvis, built the winery inside of a cave to ensure consistent temperatures. The result? Ultra-premium, must-try wines, and an experience you will remember for a lifetime.


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    • profile image

      Dan 6 years ago

      I visited Ravenswood on my Sonoma trip last year, and even though they're on of the more popular vineyards and not one of the hidden gems, my wife and I loved it! So beautfiful and I thought I wasn't a Chardonnay fan, but there's was to die for!

    • WannaB Writer profile image

      Barbara Radisavljevic 7 years ago from Templeton, CA

      I live in in and write about the Paso Robles, California wine country. I agree about walking through the vineyards. They are beautiful all year in different ways, but I love them most right before harvest when the vines are loaded. Although I have been through your wine country a couple of times, it was, unfortunately, on the way to somewhere else and I had to rush through with no extra stops. You make it sound tempting enough to go back for a look.

    • profile image

      funky23 7 years ago from Deutschland

      helpfull article thank you for the time :)

    • lrohner profile image

      lrohner 7 years ago from USA

      Thanks, REL! Yes, I also enjoy Kenwood, but I'm not sure if I've ever visited Chateau Montelena. Guess I need to schedule another trip out there!

    • Real Estate Lady profile image

      Real Estate Lady 7 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      What a lovely hub! I lived in the wine country for over 20 years (Sonoma County). My favorite winery is Chateau Montelena, mainly because I love their wine. But it's a nice place for a picnic as well. And the Kenwood Restaurant was always a favorite of mine. Eat on the patio if you ever go.

      And I must agree about the limo. It is by far the best and most comfortable transportation for wine tasting.

      I loved reading this. . .brought back some memories. Thanks.

    • lrohner profile image

      lrohner 7 years ago from USA

      Glad you enjoyed your trip, Meggan. Now it's your turn to write a hub about it! :)

    • profile image

      hamburghotels 7 years ago

      That tree of grapes is really

    • EggmanMeggan profile image

      EggmanMeggan 7 years ago from Shadow of a volcano, Washington State

      I just got back from a trip to Napa. My wine rack is full. Our best tasting was at Honig where they let us try a young wine set to release next year. They treated us like family and then waved the fee because we purchased a bottle. Great people and even better wine : )

    • profile image

      Rose Barrett 7 years ago

      Great hub! I love the little bits of trivia on the vineyards you add to your story. Nice touch.

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 8 years ago from Western US

      Thanks for a wonderful stroll down a nice memory lane for me. Love what you wrote and love the area!

    • MsSimple profile image

      MsSimple 8 years ago from Redmond

      Great post, my gf and I flew to San Fran recently and plan to go back to experience some of the Wine Places out there. Thanks for this Hub!

    • lrohner profile image

      lrohner 8 years ago from USA

      Thank you, RooBee! Glad you enjoyed it.

    • RooBee profile image

      RooBee 8 years ago from Here

      Very nicely written - I am now lost in a fantasy that I'm traveling through wine country, stopping at these places you've mentioned. Will bookmark this for sure! :D

    • maven101 profile image

      maven101 8 years ago from Northern Arizona

      Informative and well-written Hub of one of my most favorite areas on earth... I have owned and worked a winery in Escalon, a bit more commercial than the rich soils of the Valley of the Moon, but providing table wines for the locals, mostly Portuguese...Nothing fancy there, just good reds that pair well with most foods...

      I must mention my favorite winery in Mendocino, near Booneville, a small family owned coastal winery named Husch...They put out a remarkable Chard and Sauvignon Blanc. Buy a bottle or two of these great whites and continue on to Fort Bragg for some of the freshest seafood fare in California...Thanks for this Hub..Brought back some fond memories of the California I once loved...Larry

    • lrohner profile image

      lrohner 8 years ago from USA

      Thanks Madame X. I'm so jealous. Wish I could take a drive up there almost every weekend, but the East Coast is pretty far away! :)

    • profile image

      Madame X 8 years ago

      Irohner - great hub - I always wanted to get into vineyard branding (I was a graphic designer for 25 years) but I ended up staying in a little Valley to the south . . . makes me want to take a drive up there next weekend just for the fun of it :)

    • lrohner profile image

      lrohner 8 years ago from USA

      Wow, Mighty Mom, I didn't know that about you either! I did it forever -- 15+ years. But I was doing spirits, coolers and beer as well as wine. Pint of Guinness anyone? :)

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 8 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Napa and Sonoma are beautiful any time of year! But with drunk driving laws being what they are, the prudent way to "do the wine country" is in a limousine. You'll see quite a few of them wending their way up and down Route 29.

      Great restaurants in the valley, too. And Calistoga is a destination unto itself: the "spa capital" of the Valley.

      Irohner, I did not know that about you! I did wine marketing briefly, too!

    • lrohner profile image

      lrohner 8 years ago from USA

      Hi Peggy! I used to work in marketing for the company that owns BV, Sterling and others (Diageo), but left them about 5 or 6 years ago. I do miss Napa quite a bit, but certainly not Corporate America!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hello Irohner,

      We've been to the 3 wineries you featured at the top and many more. Used to be part owners of a vineyard in Mendocino. Now my husband is importing wines. Great industry. Are you now retired or doing something else?

      Nice hub, BTW.

    • lrohner profile image

      lrohner 8 years ago from USA

      I spent 20 years in the wine industry, so it was difficult for me to pick the places I most wanted to highlight. Having said that, because I was in the industry, I've never ridden the wine train OR seen the film "bottle shop". Hub for you, my dear???

    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 8 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      A wonderful area beautifully described. I was fortunate enough to ride on the wine train worth saving up for! The film "Bottle Shop" paints a great picture of the area too.