Dave and I made our third trek out to wine country recently, and I swear that my soul belongs on that coast. I don’t know why my family stopped short in the Midwest when emigrating from Italy, but they should have kept going. Each time, we return with a little more knowledge and a lot more wine snobbery, and I’ve come to realize that the Napa/Sonoma region is to our 30’s what Vegas was to our 20’s: there is a constant barrage of alcohol, obviously, but the quality, food, and views are a bit more appealing to our aging tastes and bedtimes.
So if you have an extended weekend to spare and an itch to hop on a plane, allow me to give you the hard sell on wine heaven.
What to Pack:
- Layers. Midwesterners may envision California as a sunshine land of tank tops and cutoffs, but it is complete weather trickery. The last time we went in April, it was chilly and rainy nearly the entire time. This time around it was gorgeous, but temps still swayed from the 50s in the morning to the 80s mid-day.
- Flats. You will be gallivanting through vineyards, literally. This is not the time to bust out your 5 inch heels. Besides, after six hours of wine tasting, you will be sloppily teetering on those stilts, looking like Bambi learning to walk.
- Hats. Girls, we are no longer of age where basking in the sun all day comes with no consequences. Ward off crows feet [and, oh, skin cancer] by shading that gorgeous face of yours. Besides, I think wide-brimmed felt hats were invented precisely for wine country.
- Cross-body bags. You will NOT have the presence of mind on winery number 5 of the day to pick up your purse on your way out. Save yourself the worry and just make the bag a part of the ensemble. I may have packed three different ones for variety’s sake.
- Hair ties. I didn’t realize until this trip how necessary this was. I had read some advice about the importance of wearing your hair up all day when wine tasting, and man, am I glad I heeded that advice. That wind is a-ruffling your tresses all day long, and you want that hair out of your face so you can focus on swirling and throwing back the wine.
Where to Go:
There is a huge Napa/Sonoma rivalry, and when most people think of wine country, they think Napa. Napa is all well and good, don’t get me wrong, but having been to both locations, I think I have a soft spot in my heart for Sonoma. Last time around, we stayed in Glen Ellen, which is outside of Sonoma, so most of our wine tasting focused on Napa and Sonoma counties. This time, we stayed in Healdsburg, which is farther north, so we checked out Russian River and Alexander Valley, which just blew us away. So here is the sage advice I have garnered through much research. And by research, I mean drinking.
- Get a car service to drive you around. You do NOT want anyone in your party driving from winery to winery. There are people you can hire to drive your car, but those are super shady, especially if you have a rental, so I would strongly encourage you to stay away from those. There are two huge advantages to hiring a service: 1. Everyone can get nice and toasted without worrying about driving and 2. These services will also set up an agenda of wineries to visit based on your wine preferences [see #2].
- Do a mix of formal big-company tours and small family-owned wineries. We’ve used the same company twice now, Wine Country Car and Driver, and let me tell you, my girl Lori was integral to the success of our last two trips. I am not joking when I say I will not travel to wine country without using her. The first time we met her, we had this bucket list of places we wanted to visit, which she completely accommodated. But then she asked about our tastes and suggested a few small wineries we’d never heard of. As it turned out, her recommendations were our favorites [so much so that we joined two wine clubs!]. For this trip, we let Lori plan the entire itinerary, and we were blown away by her choices.
- Skip the juggernauts of wine that you see in the grocery stores. Yeah, Sterling has a gondola. Yeah, Chateau Montelena was in a movie. But that’s about it. If these are bucket-list places for you, by all means go. If you go in knowing that the highlight is the views of the place itself, you’re all good. But if you’re going in expecting to gain a lot of knowledge or taste the most original and unique wines in the land, you’re not going to get that. Our philosophy is this: if we can get the wine at our local Costco, why would we fly across the country to taste it? It’s far better to check out the local wineries that you can’t find in the stores and stow a few in your checked luggage, ship some home, or join the wine club.
- Some tours are super cool and totally worth the more hefty price of admission. Schramsberg is the oldest sparkling wine house in Napa Valley, and has an incredibly educational cave tour. Jordan Winery in Alexander Valley is a castle and has a wonderful tour with wine and small bites pairings. Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves in Healdsburg has a great Unleash the Beast tour that takes you through their caves and wine aging process.
Some of Our Fave Wineries to Visit:
- Alpha Omega Winery– This is a major cab house in St. Helena and our favorite wine club we joined. This is where we were first introduced to the magical Petit Verdot, which we didn’t know was a thing.
- Round Pond Estate– This was a unique experience and totally worth the price. It was the first wine and small bite pairing we ever did, and it gave us a huge appreciation for learning how to pair food and wine. Plus, they make their own olive oil.
- Madrigal Family Winery-This was the beginning of our small winery obsession. The folks in this Calistoga winery let us frolic in the vineyards after our tasting, following us around with a bottle of Cab Franc and explaining to us the science of grape growing. Both we and Adam and Laura promptly signed up for their wine club.
- St. Helena Winery-This gorgeous house that looks like something out of a movie sits in the middle of a secluded vineyard and boasts some exceptional Cabs.
- MacRostie Estate House– A great patio and, shockingly for these Cab drinkers, a heavenly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. [This is also where I learned the the most marked-up bottles of wine in restaurants are the second cheapest. That’s the last time I order the second-cheapest wine!]
- Christopher Creek Winery– This spot in the Russian River Valley is our new home. The winemaker, Mike, is a mad scientist and produces the most interesting, robust Pinot Noir I’ve ever had. This was one of the most down to earth experiences we’ve found; owner Liam immediately makes you feel as though you’ve joined the family, going so far as to meet us out for happy hour later. Wine club status for sure.
- Passalacqua Winery– I left a small piece of my heart at this winery in Healdsberg. Hands down the most intimate tasting we had in the most gorgeous, secluded location, I could have spent the whole day here. Winemaker Jessica is a soft-spoken, badass scientist who hand-selects the specific rows of grapes to use in what ended up being some of my favorite wines of the trip.
- A. Rafanelli Winery– This little family-owned rustic nugget in Dry Creek Valley has some stunning views, where you’re welcome to buy a bottle of wine and walk around the vineyards or chill at the picnic tables. It also comes with the history of another badass female who came over here because she wasn’t allowed in the cellars in Italy, and now her granddaughter is the winemaker. [This is also where I learned that the secret is to take a bottle of wine with you to the Napa/Sonoma restaurants, where they will just charge you a small corkage fee.]
So there you have it. Meet me sometime for a glass of wine, and I’ll happily fill you in on all the other wine education I’ve received out here. Cheers!