California Wine Country 101

by  ShermansTravel Editorial Staff | Mar 31, 2008
Napa Valley
Napa Valley / erperlstrom/iStock

By: Laurel Delp

A trip through Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties is an American feast for the senses like no other, a journey where savoring the best wines, food, spa experiences, and outdoor adventures (picnic, anyone?) is commonplace. In 1824, Franciscan monks kicked off winemaking in the area by planting the first grapes in Sonoma. Now, founding fathers’ names like Krug, Niebaum, Schram, and Beringer live on in a time when women have become equally influential in the business. After being devastated by Prohibition, the wine industry began rebuilding in the 1960s as a new group of vintners set out to create world-class wines when wine was not regularly consumed in the U.S. That’s changed, of course, and these pioneers were vindicated in a famous blind tasting in Paris in 1976, when two Napa wines—Chateau Montelena’s chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon—triumphed over French entries.

Today, the region has also become known for its pinot noirs and zinfandels, along with the environments in which you can experience them: everything from imposing châteaux to daring modern architecture, complete with art collections, in-house restaurants, and striking gardens and grounds. Big-name vintners and small-production cult wineries are thriving; hotels and resorts that are the last word in luxury share space with charming B&Bs; and top-flight restaurants showcase fresh, seasonal ingredients. Organic wines are no longer considered quaint, since enriching the soil naturally can produce grapes that make some monumentally good wines. You can bike, hike, river kayak, even ride in hot air balloons—and detox in spas ranging from cheap and cheerful to super high-end.

Luxury prices tend to be the norm, but our guide will help you plan ahead, live like the locals do, and pick your splurges wisely. Spring is the ideal time to visit, when prices are lower than during the summer high season (and even lower midweek than on weekends), the crowds are manageable, the gardens burst with flowers, and the vineyards are blanketed in green leaves.


A Traditional High-Society Enclave with Cutting-Edge Flair

Thanks to its renowned wines and chichi events like the yearly wine auction, Napa has a higher glamour quotient than its neighbors. It’s long been a summer retreat for San Francisco’s old-money set, and a whole new wine aristocracy has moved in, including the Mondavis, Martinis, Trefethens, and Grgiches. Geographically, the county is a northsouth valley 25 miles long, making it easy to navigate. The main towns of Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga are connected by two roads—Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail— that run up either side of the valley.

The city of Napa is experiencing a rebirth, kick-started by the opening in 2001 of the nonprofit Copia, the American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts ( In an airy, modern building you’ll find everything from exhibits on the history of the wine region to a tasting bar. (The morning wine-tasting class for beginners is a great way to start a day’s vineyard hopping.) We love the Friday night farmer’s market known as the Chef’s Market, but the biggest
foodie news is the brand new Oxbow Public Market, a grand expanse (modeled after San Francisco’s Ferry Building Market) of restaurants, wine shops, and gourmet merchants ( Stay at the Napa River Inn (from $199;, a reasonably priced option that’s walking distance to downtown and next to several good restaurants, including Celadon (707/254-9690) and Angèle (707/252-8115). The Inn on Randolph, a B&B in an 1860 Victorian, is another great buy (from $169; The 12-room Milliken Creek Inn & Spa sits on three acres beside the river and offers elegant campaign-style rooms with fireplaces (from $425;

If it weren’t surrounded by vineyards and full of Michelin-starred restaurants, Yountville could be mistaken for a small town in the Midwest. Here you’ll find the legendary French Laundry (, for which you still have to make reservations months in advance, unless your concierge or innkeeper engages in the local dirty secret of passing on an unused reservation to you. Chef Thomas Keller also owns the stylish Bouchon (, and his “temporary” casual American café Ad Hoc is still open, probably because locals would’ve rebelled if it had closed ( At Bistro Jeanty, traditional dishes like daube de boeuf are served in a room that could have been plucked from the French countryside ( The cuisine at starkly modern Redd is equal parts Asian, Mediterranean, and Californian (

Some of the don’t-miss wineries in the Yountville area are Stag’s Leap Cellars (, Beringer (, Robert Mondavi (, and Opus One ( In nearby Rutherford, stop at Rubicon Estate (, for which director Francis Ford Coppola is winning accolades. If you want a picnic worthy of the wines you’re tasting, visit the Oakville Grocery on Highway 29 north of Yountville (800/736-6602).

St. Helena is one of the oldest towns in the valley, where Highway 29 slows to a quiet main street lined with Victorians. Try Terra, with its Asian-touched Mediterranean food (, and Martini House, which serves California cuisine ( On the outskirts of town, the Culinary Institute of America’s western branch is home to the imposing Greystone mansion. Along with its organic gardens, restaurant, demonstration classes, and kitchen store, there are new classes for serious amateur cooks under the direction of respected local chef John Ash (707/967-2320).

Calistoga used to be a quiet, Old West–looking town with most of the action centered around the spas, but with the opening of the 89-room Solage Calistoga, that’s changed. Locals have taken to the resort’s Solbar bistro, the expansive spa offers “mud cocktails,” and rooms (all cottages) come equipped with bicycles (from $450; A less pricey option in Calistoga is the Cottage Grove Inn, where each of the 16 Craftsman-style cottages has a fireplace and a whirlpool tub (from $275;


Pleasures Abound in this Gourmet Cornucopia

Everything in Sonoma is more casual than in Napa, and prices are somewhat lower (but still not cheap). At about the size of Rhode Island—with varied geography including coastline, hot dry basins, cool foggy hills, and the redwood-lined Russian River—the county dwarfs Napa in size. The Sonoma Valley, including the towns of Sonoma and Glen Ellen, where writer M.F.K. Fisher lived, parallels Napa Valley. Off Highway 101, the main artery, you’ll find Santa Rosa, then Healdsburg, both hubs from which to explore the Russian River Wine Road, a large wine region with worthwhile vineyards and small towns dating from the 19th century.

In the town of Sonoma, shops and historic buildings surround a greenery-filled plaza. The six-room Ledson Hotel & Harmony Lounge on the plaza caters to luxury- loving music fans with live music and spacious rooms (from $350; Also on the plaza is the El Dorado Hotel, a great value with rooms boasting four-poster beds and balconies. The hotel’s restaurant is run by an ex–French Laundry chef (from $175; On the edge of town is Benziger Family Winery, a biodynamic winery inspired by the beyond-organic style of farming espoused in the 1920s by the philosopher Rudolf Steiner ( Historic Buena Vista Carneros Winery, which also sells cheeses and charcuterie, is an ideal picnic spot (

Though a large hub, Santa Rosa retains a small-town charm. Visit the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens to see the world-renowned horticulturist’s hybrids (707/524-5445). If you’re with kids, don’t miss the Charles M. Schulz Museum ( On Wednesday nights, local winemakers gather at Zazu, an old roadhouse commandeered by innovative young chefs (707/523-4814).

Healdsburg, with its leafy square, countless tasting rooms, artisan food shops, coffee bars, and casual restaurants, is many people’s sole stop for a Sonoma weekend. The chic, modern Hotel Healdsburg has wood floors and Frette bathrobes (from $325; Honor Mansion, a Victorian B&B, is walking distance from the square, with lovely grounds and cottages (from $230; Quirky and hip, the Duchamp hotel (named for the Dadaist) has six modern cottages with fireplaces, all arranged around a pool (from $350; Stop in for a bite at the Palette Art Café, then browse its gallery showing local artists ( Splurge at Sonoma’s worthy challenge to the French Laundry, Cyrus, which features Asian influenced French cuisine ( We love the picnic options at the Jimtown Store, a gourmet shop started by a Silver Palate partner (

From Healdsburg, you can explore the Russian River Wine Road (pick up the indispensable area map at any shop or restaurant). Check out Iron Horse’s sweeping vineyards and their sparkling wines (, then visit the Spanish-style tasting room of Marimar Estate, owned by Marimar Torres, who comes from a long line of Spanish vintners ( If you’re an environmentalist, you’ll love the award-winning Ridge Lytton Springs, where the power is solar, the tasting room is built from hay bales, and the wines are made using only wild yeasts (

The Farmhouse Inn in tiny Forestville has 10 rooms with fireplaces and either a redwood sauna or a steam shower—plus a recently Michelin-starred restaurant (from$225; The 16-room Applewood Inn near Guerneville is another fave, with its Mediterranean-style decor and a restaurant that draws from an organic garden (from $195; Join vineyard managers who’ve been up before dawn at Hoffman House Café, a popular Geyserville breakfast spot (


Dramatic Terrain and a Laid-Back Vibe Distinguish this Still-Rustic County

When you get to Mendocino, another huge county, you’ll notice that things move more slowly here. With massive redwood forests, miles of agricultural  countryside, and a dramatic, rocky coastline, outdoor activities like river kayaking and mountain biking are a natural. The vineyards are mostly in the south, around Ukiah and in the isolated Anderson Valley, which many say mirrors the Napa of the 1960s. You can take the 101 north from Sonoma into the Ukiah area, a beautiful drive through ranches and vineyards, or take even more beautiful Route 128, a country road that winds through vineyards into the Anderson Valley, where sleepy Boonville is the main town. The valley, now a mass of vineyards, was not so long ago home to lumberjacks, hippies, and old-timers who spoke “Boontling,” a local lingo designed to confound outsiders.

In Boonville, stay at the Old West–flavored Boonville Hotel, where owner John Schmitt is the restaurant chef and the 10 rooms have elegant wood decor (from $125;

Up the road in tiny Philo, Schmitt-family dominance continues at Apple Farm, a farmstand (featuring fresh cider and preserves) and weekend cooking school run by John’s parents, along with their daughter Karen ( Mexican restaurant Libby’s, also in Philo, is crammed with locals who go into mourning when it closes for a month each winter (707/895-2646). Take in the beautiful grounds and champenoise-style sparkling wines of Roederer Estate, the French company that produces Cristal (, or the vine-covered terrace at Handley Cellars (, where the tasting room is filled with exotic craft items. Both wineries are outside Philo on 128, which, if you drive northwest along it, becomes surrounded by redwoods and then, suddenly, opens onto the coast, where waves pound into driftwood-filled coves.

In windswept Mendocino, perched on cliffs over the water, wander the streets on foot among art galleries and shops selling art glass, jewelry, and clothing. Stop at the Moosse Café ( for a delicious lunch and a great view, or have a bistro-style dinner near the hearth at Café Beaujolais ( Just south of Mendocino,
Stevenswood Spa Resort—with its amenity-rich rooms (espresso machines, TempurPedic beds, and ocean views) and small, personalized spa—is a gem. The resort’s restaurant, guided by innovative chef Patrick Meany, is one of the area’s best (from $325;

Sometimes a touristy expedition is popular for a reason. The hokey Skunk Train leaves from Fort Bragg, chugging through redwoods and spectacular mountain gorges. The roundtrip covers 40 miles in a worthwhile three hours ($47;

San Francisco and Beyond

The Jump-Off Point to Wine Country

This legendary city on the bay, a typical staging area for a wine country trip, is worth a few days in its own right. Stay at San Francisco’s only luxury waterfront hotel, the 199-room Hotel Vitale, across from the Ferry Building Marketplace, which is renowned for its fantastic food offerings (including the popular Vietnamese restaurant, the Slanted Door). The hotel is a modern mix of wood and stone, with great views above the seventh floor (from $299; For even more spectacular views, cozy up in the recently redecorated rooms at the towering Mandarin Oriental (from $455; Or, to be slightly removed from downtown’s hubbub, check into the hundred-year-old Hotel Drisco in posh Pacific Heights (from $259;, where you’ll be a stone’s throw from Spruce restaurant, which boasts its own organic farm. This place has been packed since it opened last summer, so be sure to reserve early ( The tiny former diner Canteen is a quintessential Frisco experience, with a menu of artfully prepared local bounty that changes weekly (

Serene, Accessible Beauty

South of Napa and Sonoma, with a toe nearly in San Pablo Bay, the cool, windy area of Carneros is often overlooked as travelers make their way directly to the more famous regions. But this is perfect pinot noir country, filled with water fowl and wetlands. Catch the spectacular views from Artesa, a winery built into a hillside with exterior walls made of native grasses ( Don’t miss the diRosa Preserve, an impressive collection of works by Northern California artists, all quite zanily housed in and around the buildings of a former winery (707/226-5991). Splurge on the Carneros Inn, where at first glance cottages resemble farmworker dorms, but turn out to be modern realms with cherrywood floors, fireplaces, and private patios with outdoor showers. Locals love the inn’s restaurant, with its local-produce-driven menu, fire pit, and bocce court (from $430;

A Rural Retreat Full of Wonder

This unhurried county—an easy day trip from Calistoga or Ukiah—is enticing, especially when compared to the more expensive and established parts of wine country. Vineyards and orchards dot the countryside, and at the foot of the dormant volcano, Mt. Konocti, lies the county’s heart, Clear Lake. California’s largest natural freshwater lake (and possibly the nation’s oldest) teems with bass and catfish. You can kayak through Rodman Slough, a wetlands preserve that’s home to bald eagles, herons, and otters, or take one of the hikes guided by the Lake County Land Trust ( There used to be no particularly appealing lodgings in the area, but that changed in 2006, when the 17-room Tallman Hotel opened in Upper Lake (from $139; Antiques abound in the restored building, and some rooms come with Japanese-style soaking tubs. The Blue Wing Saloon & Café next door serves local wines and comfort food. Further south, Jim Fetzer’s biodynamic vineyard and hacienda style tasting room, Ceàgo Vinegarden, can be reached either by car or boat (

Best Boutique Wineries

Daniel Dawson was sommelier at the French Laundry for over a year before opening Back Room Wines ( in the city of Napa, where he specializes in small-production gems. Here, his insider picks.

Barlow Vineyards ( This family winery near Calistoga makes wonderfully big cabernets, merlots, and zinfandels from their own vineyard (tastings by appointment).

Neal Family Vineyards
( At this open-by-appointment winery near Calistoga, owner and second-generation vineyard manager Mark Neal crafts hearty cabernet sauvignons with grapes from all over the Napa Valley.

Sojourn Cellars ( Already known for their pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, Craig Haserot and Erich Bradley launched Sojourn wines (tastings available by appointment) just five years ago.

Mauritson Wines ( Clay Mauritson started his winery on land near Healdsburg that had been farmed by his family for more than a hundred years. Try his bold, delicious zinfandel, petite sirah, and sauvignon blanc at the tasting room.

Londer Vineyards
( Larry and Shirlee Londer produce superpremium, bigger-style chardonnays and pinot noirs, along with dry Gewurztraminer. They host informal tastings in the area by appointment.

Claudia Springs Winery
( This nearly 20-year-old winery makes  some of California’s better value premium wines. Sample the especially good pinot noir at the winery’s tasting room near Philo.

Tasting Room Tips

Tasting rooms are always a bit crowded on weekends, and during high season (June to October) you may find cranky tasters five deep at the counter. Aim for off-season, midweek visits.

Tastings average around $12, though some wineries subtract that from purchases. For an extra fee, try a private barrel tasting, with a flight of the winery’s best production in fine glasses.


Connoisseurs use spit buckets or take small swallows. Even small sips can add up to something you’ll regret in the morning.

Some smaller vintners require appointments. Call a day or two in advance (sometimes you can call the same morning).

Spa Secrets

Napa’s Calistoga was founded in the 19th century by a Gold Rush entrepreneur who saw even more gold in the geothermal hot springs considered sacred by local Indians. Today, tourists still soak in mud baths, rinse in hot mineral waters, and bask in herbal wraps. At one of the traditional spas, like the ’40s-era Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resorts, the treatment with a massage costs around $129 ( If you’re queamish about recycled mud, try Lavender Hill Spa, which is nestled in a hillside garden ( At Meadowood, treatments use antioxidant-rich grape skins in products developed by Robert Mondavi’s grandson, Carlo ( At the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, you can luxuriate in thermal mineral springs ( For something different, drop by Osmosis in Sonoma’s Sebastopol, where you can be massaged in a Japanese pagoda after soaking in a bed of rice bran heated by fermentation (

Getting There and Itineraries


The best hub is Oakland, which is approximately an hour and a half from Napa and Sonoma. From L.A., Portland or Seattle, take one of the new Horizon Air nonstop turbo-prop flights to Santa Rosa.

Whether you have just a few days or two weeks to spend in the area, our itineraries will help you make the most of them.

Four Days: Divide your time between Napa and Sonoma, with a side trip to Carneros.

One Week: Spend two nights each in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino, with a Lake County side trip. Stop at wineries as you drive back to the airport on your last day.

Ten Days: Start with a couple of days in San Francisco, then spend two nights each in Sonoma and Mendocino, go east for a night in Lake County, and finish in Napa.

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