Sip cocktails that tickle the brain—or bask in the dive atmosphere—at these great Wine Country bars.
After a day of wine tasting, sometimes the only thing to cleanse the palate and recalibrate it for dinner is a craft brew or a good stiff drink. Okay, a soda with a kick of spice might suffice, but you’re on vacation so live it up.
In the past decade, a new generation of bars focusing on inventive artisanal cocktails emphasizing local produce and herbs has reshaped the Wine Country drinking scene. There’s no one template for a successful establishment, but a few characteristics have emerged: singular decor, upbeat ambiance, blend of locals and tourists, and, most important, libations whose flavors tickle the brain as much as the taste buds. Below, in alphabetical order, are our ten favorite bars in Napa and Sonoma that achieve all that and more—or, in the case of two dives, make up for any shortfall with oodles of atmosphere.
Duke’s Spirited Cocktails
Happy hour is active all over Healdsburg as winery employees unwind and visitors transition from wine-tasting to dining mode. Among the liveliest downtown spots is Duke’s Spirited Cocktails, whose elaborate but not precious “farm-to-bar” cocktails cleanse weary palates. A place whose bartenders also excel at a classic Manhattan or a dry martini, this is the jolly kind of joint where gals touring together can sip well-conceived sweet and savory fare while their guys do high-quality shots…or vice versa.
Insider Tip: The pace at Duke’s dips slightly as patrons head off to dinner, but the action picks up again quickly, in part because Duke’s Common next door, serves delectable bites like lamb sliders, beef tartare, ricotta doughnuts, and chopped salad with pickled beets. If you’ve had a big lunch, these might get you through the night.
A downtown hole-in-the-wall with south-of-the-border flair, El Barrio specializes in craft cocktails made from tequila and mescal. The bar bites, conceived by owner Crista Luedtke—Guerneville’s entrepreneur extraordinaire also responsible for the town’s boon eat + drink and boon hotel + spa—include an appetizer of Oaxacan cheese, pasilla peppers, and chorizo (ask for warm tortilla chips or soft tortillas) that pairs well with a smoky mescal. The house pickle plate is perfect for lighter tequila offerings.
INSIDER TIP If not sure what to order, La Casa, the house margarita, is a safe bet, but adventurous types should consider the challenge of El Viejo, made with tequila and mescal plus agave and angostura and grapefruit bitters. The cocktail list also includes a few whiskey, vodka, and gin specialty cocktails.
Ernie’s Tin Bar
Roadside Ernie’s is almost as famous locally for its no-cellphone policy—text, call, or snap a photo, and you owe everyone a round—as for its 20 well-chosen brews on tap and convivial rural vibe. The watering hole, basically a long narrow bar with a few tables inside and an outdoor patio, shares a corrugated-tin building with a garage whose car-repair activity takes place within feet of several barstools. This being the Wine Country, that dude with the Stetson is as apt to be a millionaire winery owner as a ranch hand.
INSIDER TIPA real kick, especially on weekends, when it’s crowded all day, Ernie’s has a few TVs usually tuned to sports, old movies, or both. As for that phone policy, even staffers have been spotted furtively tapping out texts. Pics posted on social media suggest lax enforcement, but be discreet.
Geyserville Gun Club Bar & Lounge
Simultaneously historic, retro, and au courant, the Geyserville Gun Club Bar & Lounge occupies a ground-floor sliver of its town’s circa-1900 Odd Fellows Hall. Exposed brick walls, taxidermy, and a restored jukebox lend the place, which opened in 2016, the feel of a longtime gathering place. Locally made spirits go into many of the craft cocktails, which, like the crudos and bar bites, reveal the contemporary sensibility of the chef, also responsible for Diavola Pizzeria two doors south.
INSIDER TIPThe cocktails change seasonally, but if you like gin, try a signature Gun Club Gibson (Plymouth Gin, dry vermouth, orange bitters, and pickling spices). The Moscow Mule with raw ginger is another good choice. The bar presents live music some nights.
Goose & Gander
WHERE: St. Helena
A 1920s Craftsman bungalow a block off St. Helena’s Main Street houses Goose & Gander restaurant and its cool basement bar. A haven of imaginative mixology and an excellent spot to people-watch for a round or three, the bar splits the difference between neighborhood watering hole and hip hangout. The low ceiling and subdued lighting add speakeasy appeal that G&G comes by honestly: the bungalow’s original owner, opera singer Walter Martini, is said to have used the cellar for bootlegging during Prohibition.
INSIDER TIPLook for seasonal artisanal cocktails that make the most of local farms and gardens. The Coastal Pimm’s Cup (Pimm’s No. 1, St. George Terroir Gin, lemon, bitters, ginger beer, and bay laurel) and Walter’s Manhattan (Templeton Rye, Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon, Carpano Antica, and bitters) are favorites with regulars.
Napa Palisades Saloon
“Be here, drink beer,” is the motto of Napa Palisades Saloon, a casual, regular ole place that’s a fine downtown spot to throw back a few brews or bourbons and take in the game. Nothing fancy here, just 30-plus craft beers (some house-made) on tap, a full bar, a whiskey bar, and eight large-screen TVs. Careful sourcing of ingredients elevates the food—usual bar suspects like burgers and chicken wings but also Reuben croquettes (corned beef, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut) and even a beet salad—higher than you might expect.
INSIDER TIPThe croquettes and chorizo fries go well with the house brews, Gold Rush Red being a sensible option for lovers of traditional American beers, the Loco or Little Loco for some citrusy notes.
The Rooftop, on the fourth story of the boutique Harmon Guest House, opened in late 2018 to rave reviews for its sleek eco-friendly style and views of downtown Healdsburg and beyond to the area’s landmark, 991-foot Fitch Mountain. The specialty cocktail menu, with sparkling, citrus, bitter, and brown categories, changes regularly, the goals being both to suit the season and complement the seafood-leaning food menu. Flavorful fish entrées like a recent yellowtail tuna crudo—whose ingredients included dashi ponzu, crispy quinoa, and pickled fennel—along with burgers and filet mignon are reasons why some patrons come for cocktails and end up staying for dinner.
INSIDER TIPWhen the weather’s favorable, retractable glass doors open up the bar to the elements, with a fire pit and heaters at the ready on chilly nights (even in summer) when the fog rolls in.
Quotes from Dom Perignon, Coco Chanel, and Winston Churchill extolling the virtues of champagne are painted on mirrors at Sigh, a wine bar devoted to sparkling wine. Just off Sonoma Plaza, the festive storefront space exudes mid-century style and has as its centerpiece a large oval bar with brass-plated taps that dispense bubblies from as near as Sonoma’s Gloria Ferrer, 6 miles away, and as far away as France, Argentina, and Australia.
INSIDER TIPThere’s almost always a celebration—a birthday, an anniversary, whatever—going on at what might be Sonoma’s happiest place, so prepare to get caught up in the joyous, occasionally raucous, spirit. You can order your sparkler by the glass, flight, or bottle. If your pourer is one of several practitioners of sabrage, she or he may open your wine using a saber. Très dramatique!
Sky & Vine
Among the Wine Country’s best cocktail perches, Sky & Vine, the sixth-floor rooftop bar at Archer Hotel Napa, seduces with sweeping valley views, snappy libations, and snacks or larger bites from chef Charlie Palmer and crew. Nosh on house-made beef jerky or grilled shishito peppers with your drink, or order a burger, crispy-chicken sandwich, or braised octopus to go with chef-driven cocktails that in summer might include a savory delight made with olive oil–infused Hendrick’s Gin, Blinking Owl Aquavit, lemon oleo, heirloom tomato, basil, and thyme. If zero proof’s your thing, try the beet kombucha—delicious, and so good for you.
INSIDER TIPSky & Vine stays open late. During “reverse happy hour” (9 pm–closing), it’s almost a bargain, with a few specialty cocktails, beer, wine, and the signature lobster corn dogs (available all day) at significantly reduced prices.
A good scrubbing down a few years back erased decades of divey patina, but low-key Susie’s Bar remains fun, affordable, and endearingly downscale. A brick-lined, tall-ceilinged space with a ground floor and a mezzanine, it has a pool table, big-screen TVs, some arcade games, and an iTunes jukebox. There’s beer on tap, decent wines, and a full bar tended by folks who know their stuff.
INSIDER TIPSusie’s is hardly a destination bar, but if you’re staying in Calistoga and don’t care about ambiance—or prefer one that’s down-home—this is the place for you. With good pours and reasonable prices for top-shelf spirits, you’ll get the biggest bang for your liquor dollar.