Napa and Sonoma are outstanding destinations for both wine newcomers and serious wine buffs. Tasting rooms range from modest to swanky, offering everything from a casual conversation over a few sips of wine to in-depth tours of winemaking facilities and vineyards. And there’s a tremendous variety of wines to taste. The one constant is a deep, shared pleasure in the experience of wine tasting. Here are three great ways to get the most out of a driving trip in California Wine Country.
First-Timer’s Napa Tour
Follow this route to ease yourself in to the world of Napa:
Oxbow Public Market, Napa. Get underway by browsing the shops selling wines, spices, locally grown produce, and other fine foods, for a taste of what the Wine Country has to offer.
Rubicon Estate, Rutherford. The tour here is a particularly fun way to learn about the history of Napa winemaking—and you can see the old, atmospheric, ivy-covered château.
Frog’s Leap, Rutherford. Friendly, unpretentious, and knowledgeable staff makes this place great for wine newbies. (Make sure you get that advance reservation lined up.)
Poke around St. Helena’s shops, then drive to Yountville for lunch, stopping for art and vino along the way:
di Rosa Preserve, Napa. Call ahead to book a one- or two-hour tour of the acres of gardens and galleries, which are chock-full of thousands of works of art.
Domaine Carneros, Napa. Toast your trip with a glass of outstanding bubbly.
Wine Buff’s Tour
Get ready for a full day of tastings with this itinerary:
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Yountville. Famed for its cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux blends.
Beaulieu Vineyard, Rutherford. Pony up the extra fee to visit the reserve tasting room to try their flagship cabernet sauvignon.
Caymus Vineyards, Rutherford. The low-key tasting room is a great place to learn more about Rutherford and Napa cabernet artistry. Reserve in advance.
Today, sample some truly special vintages:
Robert Mondavi, Oakville. Spring for the reserve room tasting so you can sip the top-of-the-line wines, especially the stellar cabernet. Head across Highway 29 to the Oakville Grocery to pick up a picnic lunch.
Far Niente, Oakville. You have to reserve in advance and the fee for the tasting and tour is steep, but the payoff is an especially intimate winery experience. You’ll taste excellent cabernet and chardonnay, then end your trip on a sweet note with a dessert wine.
Scenic roads come with tasty sips along this Sonoma path:
Iron Horse Vineyards, Russian River Valley. Soak up a view of vine-covered hills and Mount St. Helena while sipping a sparkling wine or pinot noir at this beautifully rustic spot.
Hartford Family Winery, Russian River Valley: A terrific source for pinot noir and chardonnay, the stars of this valley.
Wind your way to these wineries and wind down near Santa Rosa:
Westside Road, Russian River Valley. This picturesque route, which follows the river, is crowded with worthwhile wineries like Gary Farrell and Rochioli—but it’s not crowded with visitors. Pinot fans will find a lot to love. Picnic at Rochioli: it has the best views.
Matanzas Creek Winery, near Santa Rosa. End on an especially relaxed note with a walk through their lavender fields (best in June).
Photo credit: iStock