Experience Northern California's Wine Country to the fullest on your next visit.
If you visit the Wine Country, it goes without saying that you’ll probably drop by a winery for a Pinot Noir, Cabernet, or sparkling-wine tasting—maybe even play winemaker for a day or learn a little about how to pair food and wine. In this list of great experiences, we’ve got suggestions for all of these, but don’t stop there: hop on a bike, ride in a balloon, hike in the redwoods, ogle the art, and by all means splurge on a fancy meal or a luxurious spa treatment. (If you need to cleanse your palate, there are always breweries and distilleries that offer tastings.)
If you partake of even a few of these adventures, you’re sure to have a memorable time and be among the high percentage of Wine Country visitors who declare themselves very likely to return. When you do, you can experience the ones you missed the first time around.
Take to the Skies
It’s worth getting up before sunrise to take to the skies for a hot-air balloon ride over the vineyards. Depending on where you soar, you’ll get a sense of how compact the Napa Valley is and conversely how vast Sonoma County is. If you’re traveling with your significant other, the experience is beyond romantic (the pilots report that many a proposal takes place aloft), and the excitement continues on the ground at the post-flight champagne breakfast.
INSIDER TIPTaking a balloon ride isn’t the only way to see the Wine Country from the air. Joseph Jewell Wines gives new meaning to the term “wine flight” with a Pinot Noir tasting package for two that includes a helicopter ride over the winery’s Sonoma County vineyards.
Splurge on a Meal
Some of the nation’s most celebrated chefs operate Wine Country restaurants, often using ingredients so fresh they’re grown steps from the kitchen. At restaurants like the Napa Valley’s The French Laundry and The Restaurant at Meadowood and Sonoma County’s SingleThread Farms Restaurant, the level of sophistication is so high that it’s worth the splurge to experience meals prepared with finesse and served with equivalent grace.
INSIDER TIPYou can’t go wrong at any of these restaurants, but for a peek behind the scenes reserve the chef‘s table experience at The Restaurant at Meadowood, where up to four guests can sit in the kitchen and watch the team prepare their multi-course meal.
Devote a Day to Cabernet
With the average price of a Napa Cab nearing $100 a bottle, it begs the question could the wines possibly be worth it? To find out for yourself, devote a day to exploring what makes Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon so unique, focusing on tastings at Cab powerhouses like Joseph Phelps, Nickel & Nickel, St. Supéry, Hall St. Helena, and Silver Oak, along with smaller producers like Acumen, Cathy Corison, and Venge.
INSIDER TIPOver the years, Andy Beckstoffer, considered by many to be Napa Valley’s premier grape grower, assembled a portfolio of historic vineyards—the famous To Kalon, plus Missouri Hopper, Dr. Crane, Las Piedras, Georges III, and Bourn—collectively known as Beckstoffer’s Heritage Vineyards. Many wineries make Cabernet Sauvignon from one or more of these vineyards, but at B Cellars and Stewart Cellars you can taste wines from all six, with vineyard tours available through the latter.
Taste on a Hilltop
That Cab, Chard, or Pinot tastes all the better sipped on a hilltop with valley vistas you’d have to book a balloon ride to beat. In the Napa Valley, head to Barnett, Pride, or Smith-Madrone for views from Spring Mountain, Cade for the scene from Howell Mountain, and PlumpJack and Long Meadow Ranch‘s Mayacamas Estate for mid-valley panoramas. An aerial tram transports guests to Sterling Vineyards‘ lofty Calistoga tasting room. Over in Sonoma County, book Kunde‘s Mountain Top Tour for Sonoma Valley (in season), Jordan‘s Estate Tasting and Tour for Alexander Valley, and Trattore Farms for dazzling Dry Creek.
INSIDER TIPBarnett and Jordan share top honors for the classiest presentations. Sipping in solitude just outside the cave at the former is simply elegant, and it doesn’t hurt that a Mercedes van whisks Jordan’s guests to its streamlined glass-walled vista point structure.
Party at BottleRock
BottleRock Napa Valley, the Wine Country’s hottest music fest and coolest outdoor party takes place each Memorial Day Weekend, with headliners like Bruno Mars, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Florence and the Machine, and a mix of several dozen indie bands and longtime rock, rap, and other acts. It’s like Coachella without the desert heat and hassles and way better food and wine. Many wineries host hospitality booths or tents surrounding the main stages—fun places to hang out (and with good sightlines) while enjoying the show.
INSIDER TIPTickets go on sale in January and quickly sell out, though sometimes you can score some later on through Lyte.com fan-to-fan exchange. Lodgings fill up months ahead, too.
Play Winemaker for a Day
It’s said that great wines are made in the vineyard—that grape growing is the most important element—but key decisions are made in the wine cellar. Guests at several wineries get to “play winemaker for a day” at entertaining and educational sessions that explore the art of blending quality wines. The format varies by winery, but in general, participants learn some of the basic principles a winemaker considers when crafting a wine, then set about blending several barrel-aged samples to create their own wines. At some wineries, you’re taken through the entire process, bottling, corking, and labeling your masterpiece.
INSIDER TIPAt Joseph Phelps, the task is to re-create the current vintage of the winery’s flagship Insignia Bordeaux red blend, which retails for nearly $300 a bottle. The more casual sessions at Raymond and DeLoach revolve around creating, respectively, a Bordeaux red blend and Zinfandel.
Paddle a River
Except in early spring when the Russian River turns frisky from rainy-season runoff, both it and the Napa River are relatively mild waterways. Several companies offer guided or self-guided kayaking trips on both rivers, with canoes part of the mix on the Russian River. Pack a picnic, and you’re ready to go!
INSIDER TIPThe Russian River flows west to the Pacific. Aided by the current, you probably won’t find rowing too taxing, but do take advantage of the van pick-up service most outfitters offer. Returning east against the current is a major workout.
Tour a Macro Brewery
A decades-old saying goes that to make fine wine it takes a lot of beer—many winemakers’ preferred beverage after a long day in the cellar. With established purveyors like Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma and the Russian River Brewing Company, whose state-of-the-art facility opened in 2018 in Windsor (between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg), you can learn how beer is made and toss back a few, too.
INSIDER TIPBoth companies have spacious outdoor beer gardens. They’re lively hangouts in good weather.
Explore the Redwoods
Work off the wine and rich food on a hike through the towering trees of Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve in Guerneville. The park’s namesake Colonel Armstrong Tree is thought to be more than 1,400 years old. It’s not the park’s tallest specimen, though. That honor belongs to the 310-foot-tall Parson Jones Tree.
INSIDER TIPThe round-trip loop from the parking lot past the two trees is less than a mile on mostly flat ground. Along the way you’ll also see the burl-riddled Icicle Tree. For more of a challenge, continue north past the Icicle Tree into the adjoining Austin Creek State Recreation Area up to the often algae-covered Bullfrog Pond.
Pair Wine and Food
The whole point of wine is to pair it with food declared the late chef Julia Child, and many wineries offer tastings that include small gourmet bites. The goal at many sessions isn’t to teach hard and fast rules about what foods go best with what wines, but rather to illustrate how wine can elevate cuisine and vice versa.
INSIDER TIPTop choices in the Napa Valley are VGS Chateau Potelle, whose food is prepared by La Toque restaurant, lauded for its own food-wine pairings, and B Cellars, where the open-hearth kitchen is the tasting room’s focal point. Over in Sonoma County, St. Francis Winery has won national acclaim for its pairings, and a respected Wine Country caterer prepares Patz & Hall’s edible delights.
Visit a Family Winery
Old-timers wax nostalgic about the Wine Country of yore when it wasn’t uncommon for the owner-winemaker to be at the tasting room pouring wine and chatting up patrons. It’s rarer these days—but not impossible—to re-create that experience at small family wineries like Tres Sabores and Tom Eddy in the Napa Valley and Acorn and Loxton in Sonoma County, all of whose proprietors live on-site.
INSIDER TIPAt Tom Eddy Winery and Loxton Cellars you can schedule, subject to their availability, a tour and tasting conducted by the eloquent, knowledgeable proprietors themselves. Acorn’s Bill and Betsy Nachbaur enjoy explaining their philosophy of making only field blends (from grapes of different varietals grown, fermented, and aged together), and Tres Sabores’ Julie Johnson shares details about dry-farming and organic principles with equal enthusiasm.
The olive oil trees at some wineries are merely ornamental, but at many the trees bear fruit that’s milled into extra virgin olive oil or used in soaps or other products. At McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma, Trattore Farms in Geyserville, and Round Pond in Rutherford, you can tour the on-site olive mills and double lubricate at combined olive-oil and wine tastings.
INSIDER TIPUnlike wine, which can improve as it matures, olive oil declines with age; don’t purchase more than you’re likely to use in a year or two.
Plot a Pinot Pilgrimage
Pinot Noir lovers could tour Sonoma County for days and not hit all the top spots. To get a feel for the climate and terrain that produce great Pinot Noir, plot a pilgrimage that takes a few of the prime growing areas. Saintsbury and The Donum Estate sit amid Los Carneros, Keller Estate is a textbook Petaluma Gap winery, and Arista and Merry Edwards are two Russian River Valley stalwarts.
INSIDER TIPWanna cheat? Several important producers have tasting rooms near Sonoma Plaza where you can deep dive into Pinot Noir from numerous Sonoma County appellations all on foot. Start the day just south of the plaza at Sojourn, Pangloss, and Westwood; have lunch at Sunflower Caffé or Hare & Hatter just off the plaza or picnic on Frenchie Provisions in the park; then proceed north to Three Sticks and Walt Wines. From Sojourn to Walt, you won’t even walk a mile.
Bicycle Through the Vineyards
The Wine Country’s many valleys make for leisurely bike rides past gently rolling vineyards and sometimes even through them. Several companies offer day-long guided (occasionally self-guided) tours, with a van back-up should you tire of the experience.
INSIDER TIPSome bike-rental companies will pick up wine you purchase along the way (or the wineries will arrange to get it to you). Keep in mind that the heat and wine tasting can impair your cycling ability. Stay hydrated, and go easy on the wine consumption.
Slip Back in Time
Modern California winemaking got its start in the town of Sonoma. At three wineries here and three more in the Napa Valley you can explore the Wine Country’s fascinating history. Count Agoston Haraszthy got things rolling in 1857 when he founded Buena Vista, whose interactive wine-tools museum and other displays bring his story to life. The Sonoma saga continues at nearby Gundlach Bundschu and Scribe wineries.
In 1861, Charles Krug borrowed a cider press from Haraszthy and started making wine in St. Helena. An 1874 building at his namesake winery now holds a stylish hospitality center with exhibits. In 1876, brothers Frederick and Jacob Beringer established the St. Helena facility that bears their name; Gustave Niebaum began Inglenook a few years after that.
INSIDER TIPHistory buffs will enjoy the tours at Buena Vista, Gundlach Bundschu, Beringer, and Inglenook, which cumulatively provide a well-rounded perspective on the industry’s early development.
Hone Your Cooking Skills
Instructors and guests chefs beguile students and visitors during one-hour cooking demonstrations at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone (St. Helena) and CIA at Copia (Napa) campuses. You can also take hands-on cooking and baking classes at the Copia location. The subjects for adults range from the art of making sourdough bread to the intricacies of spicing. On Family Fundays (always on Sundays), kids learn how to make cakes and cupcakes and mac and cheese.
INSIDER TIPSeveral classes that include wine tastings, sometimes with food, provide a liquid education. The History of the Napa Valley in 8 Glasses provides an excellent overview of the region’s evolution. At Bubbles for Every Occasion you’ll learn the basics of sparkling wine, and why, due to an international trade agreement, most California producers can’t call their product champagne.
Sip Sparkling Wine
Sparkling wine is the primary focus at only a few Napa and Sonoma wineries. Esteemed French Champagne houses established Domaine Chandon, Mumm Napa, and Domaine Carneros. It’s hard not to wax fabulous sipping bubbly on the outdoor terraces of any of these, particularly the one at Domaine Carneros’s French-style chateau. Well-respected Schramsberg began making sparklers in 1965 on a long-abandoned estate.
Over in Sonoma, family members of Spanish cava producers Freixenet oversee Gloria Ferrer, whose terrace perches above Carneros District vines. Sebastopol’s Iron Horse entices with vineyard’s-edge tastings in a delightfully rustic open-air setup that’s more sea shanty than chateau. Farther west in Guerneville, Korbel celebrates the immigrant brothers from Czechoslovakia who founded the company in 1882.
INSIDER TIPSchramsberg and Korbel have the best tours, the former for the spin through 19th-century caves, the latter for its description of production processes. Schramsberg’s tour is costly, but Korbel’s is free.
Ride the Rails
The romance of the rails and Wine Country views add up to a crowd-pleasing excursion on the Napa Valley Wine Train, which follows a track route that dates from 1864. Full-day trips include lunch and visits to three or four wineries. There are also rides to fewer wineries and some to none at all (just enjoy lunch or dinner and the view).
INSIDER TIPExcept in summer when the sun’s out longer, the train ride is best taken during the day, when you can take full advantage of the miles of vineyard views. Some of the best photo ops are off the back of the train north of Yountville.
Hike Through Literary History
Authors Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London spent time in the Wine Country, and each has a state park named after him. North of Calistoga at Stevenson’s park you can hike to the top of Mt. St. Helena and view the entire valley north-south. A stone monument along the trail commemorates the then-impoverished author’s honeymoon in an abandoned miner’s bunkhouse with new wife Fanny. Stevenson chronicled their sojourn in his book The Silverado Squatters.
London lived his last decade on a hillside ranch above Glen Ellen. At the Jack London State Historic Park, a museum contains exhibits about his life and writings, and a short path leads to the ruins of a house he built that burned down before he could occupy it.
INSIDER TIPIn summer you can walk miles of trails and peruse the museum at London’s namesake park by day, then stick around for a nighttime Broadway Under the Stars performance on an outdoor stage.
Glamp in Style
The Wine Country, especially Napa, is short on traditional campgrounds, but in Sonoma County, where there are more choices, you can glamp in style at AutoCamp Russian River. A mid-century-modern aesthetic prevails at this haven amid a redwood grove a mile west of downtown Guerneville. The superbly modified Airstream trailers have all the mod conveniences: down beds, hotel-style linens, audio systems with MP3 inputs, and flat-screen TVs with cable. The open-air clubhouse, which serves as the lobby, sells sodas, beer, wine, and trail mix and similar provisions, and there are several good restaurants and a gourmet market a short drive away.
INSIDER TIPFrom late spring to mid-fall, ten luxury tents are set up in the courtyard just beyond the clubhouse. The quietest trailers are the premium ones farthest from the clubhouse.
Hit the Beach
If “California beach” connotes wide swaths of sand and bikinis and boardwalks, you’re in the wrong place—that’s the state’s southern half. Particularly along the stretches of Highway 1 north and south of where Highway 116 (aka River Road) dead-ends heading west, windswept beaches and craggy cliffs are far more the norm.
INSIDER TIPThe breathtaking drive north from Goat Rock Beach, where harbor seals often hold court, to Fort Ross Historic State Park, the southernmost outpost of early-19th-century Russian fur traders, is well worth the at-times precipitous curves.
Luxuriate at a Spa
The descriptions of treatments sometimes read like parodies, and to old-timers who remember $20 mud baths the prices at the most expensive facilities can seem a joke, but for pure unadulterated luxuriating the Wine Country’s luxury spas rank among the world’s finest. The best facilities are affiliated with hotels, most of which welcome spa patrons not spending the night. The emphasis these days is on wellness as much as working out the kinks. Expect the latest in treatments and products.
Shop Till You Stop
Among the Wine Country’s charms is that it’s not overrun with cutesy gift boutiques and, at least in the small towns, chain enterprises, but if your idea of a vacation includes poking through shops, you won’t lack for options. The Napa Valley may take the prize for most luxurious spas and the fanciest wineries, but Sonoma County’s Healdsburg earns top shopping honors of its spots selling one-of-a-kind artworks, clothing, and household items.
INSIDER TIPYountville and St. Helena in the Napa Valley and the town of Sonoma also have stellar shopping.
Let the Spirits Move You
State laws passed a few years ago made it easier for distilleries to open tasting rooms where you can sample spirits and learn about the production process and how it differs from wine and beer making. For tours, the Napa Valley Distillery, in Napa, and Hanson Organic Vodka of Sonoma are the two best options, but also seek out smaller producers like Alley 6 Craft Distillery in Healdsburg and Spirit Works in The Barlow complex in Sebastopol.
INSIDER TIPThe limit for tastings per person is 1.5 ounces, so think of a distillery visit as more of a brand introduction than a trip to the bar.
Bask in Small-Town Charm
San Franciscans needing a break from city life often head to Glen Ellen, population less than 1,000, to bask in its small-town charm. Glen Ellen’s tree-lined downtown, just a few blocks long, contains a few restaurants (Glen Ellen Star is the star) and tasting rooms and not much else. Pastoral pleasures abound, though, at nearby Quarryhill Botanical Garden, a repository of rare Asian plants, and Jack London State Historic Park, where the famous author grew grapes and wrote books. On the fun tram ride through the adjacent Benziger Family Winery, guides explain the practices of this early adopter of organic and biodynamic farming principles.
INSIDER TIPTo hit Glen Ellen’s highlights, book the Green Tour of Quarryhill, Jack London park, and Benziger. Reservations for the tour (make them two weeks ahead), which includes a box lunch, are handled through the park’s website. You can also easily book separate visits yourself.
Ogle the Art
Contemporary museum-quality art enhances a visit to several wineries, most notably Hall St. Helena, the Hess Collection in Napa, and The Donum Estate in Sonoma. At Provenance, the art is on the winery in the form of an exterior mural by the internationally acclaimed artist Heather Day. Wineries aren’t the only places you can ogle the art, either. On weekdays Napa resident Gordon Huether, whose large-scale installations can be seen worldwide, opens his studio to visitors. The collection at the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art west of downtown Napa includes indoor galleries and outdoor sculptures.
INSIDER TIPThe two collections not to miss are at di Rosa and Donum, the latter known for Pinot Noir. The tasting fee at Donum, which requires an appointment, is hefty. If it’s beyond your budget or (heaven forbid!) you’re not into Pinot, substitute the Hess Collection’s two-floor gallery, for which there’s no fee.
Pack a Gourmet Picnic
The Wine Country’s foodie chops extend to outdoor dining—a picnic at a winery that allows outside food, perhaps, or a repast in a state park or downtown plaza. If money’s no object, get thee to Yountville’s Atelier Fine Foods, where under a ceiling inspired by the late-Rococo painter Fragonard you can select smoked fish, rare cheeses, and other tender vittles. (If you’re in need of wine, the atelier is attached to the JCB Tasting Salon.)
Picnics are the raison d’être of Frenchie Provisions, just south of Sonoma Plaza. The owners pride themselves on their astute collection of cheese, charcuterie, and prepared sandwiches, salads, and other foods. The shopkeepers will even sell you the picnic blanket or Frisbee you’re lacking.
INSIDER TIPThe consumption of alcoholic beverages is permitted in Sonoma Plaza.