Planning a trip to California Wine Country can be daunting – with roughly 400 wineries in Napa alone, selecting tasting locations and tours is an overwhelming task for most visitors who are not steeped in the latest wine reviews. And Wine Country is more than just reds and whites. There are plenty of interesting activities in and around the valleys that fall outside of your average wine-centric itinerary. On your next visit to California’s most famous wine counties, take the guesswork out of your trip with this handy “best-of” guide.
For more visuals and a map of this itinerary, please visit its Pinterest Travel Board.
Day 1: Just Off the Beaten Path
Ease into your Napa experience by exploring some of the region’s out-of-the-way wineries near the tiny town of Rutherford, situated just south of St. Helena on the St. Helena Highway. Start at Frog’s Leap Vineyard a welcoming, unpretentious, and low-key spot. While their organic wines are not the most celebrated in the Valley, the tasting experience that the vineyard provides has been rated by visitors as among the most enjoyable in the area. If you’re interested in learning about the wine-making process while in Napa, Frog Leap’s sustainability focused winery tour is one of the most interesting and educational in the area.
Heading back towards town along Rutherford Road, you’ll come across Round Pond Estate, which is known for having one of the most beautiful tasting rooms in the Valley. Sit on the second-floor Terrace Lounge where you can enjoy panoramic views and a delicious lunch; this winery offers hearty food pairings and is the perfect place to visit mid-day.
Take the slight detour up the side road to Honig Vineyard & Winery. This is a can’t-miss stop in Rutherford, as their wines are among the highest rated in the world. In 2012, Wine Spectator included Honig’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon in their international Top 100 list.
Getting tired of grapes? Mix up your tasting itinerary, and try another esteemed local liquid at the St. Helena Olive Oil Company, located in downtown Rutherford. The store’s tasting menu pairs food with interesting olive oil flavors like rosemary or jalapeno; whether or not you’ve ever compared notes on EVOO, this place provides a truly unique experience.
If you have time and energy left, you may want to head up St. Helena Highway to Grgich Hill Estate. This well-loved, classic vineyard welcomes walk-ins until 4:30 p.m. Or, head south to the equally close Inglenook, home to Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon Estate Winery. The main draw of this spot is its grand, ivy-colored chateau. The last tasting of the day is at 4:00 and is a relatively expensive $60 per person.
Back in town, there are some nice dinner options. The Rutherford Grill gets the highest marks from travelers, but the authentic Mexican fare at La Luna Market & Taqueria is also well-received and is sold at a fraction of the price of most food options in Napa.
Day 2: The Other Wine County
Travel to California’s other wine-centric county today. Sonoma has a low-key vibe, but its wineries are just as prestigious as those in neighboring Napa. Start just outside of town at Scribe, which offers one of the area’s best tasting stops. The experience is intimate, relaxed, and takes place outside, with the stunning vineyards as your backdrop.
Next, travel to the center of town, where you can stock up on supplies at Sonoma’s Best, a rustic country store selling goods like cheese, olives, and hummus – everything you’ll need for a gourmet picnic. From here, head up the road to Bartholomew Park Winery and sample their lauded Cab Sauv. Bartholomew Memorial Park is a secluded gem that is adjacent to the winery and has picnic benches where you can enjoy your lunch. The winery also has walking paths on the property where you can temper your buzz with a leisurely stroll before your next tasting.
Make your next stop Ravenswood Winery, a Zinfandel specialist and one of the best vineyards in the valley. Round out your day back in town with dinner at The Girl & the Fig, a local institution where France meets California to create a darling, rustic bistro with incredible food. Call ahead to make reservations for the especially atmospheric patio.
Day 3: Tasting Alternatives
Napa is more than just reds and whites – there are plenty of interesting activities that fall outside of your average tasting itinerary! Consider sprinkling these alternative experiences into your trip through the Valley.
Di Rosa is the former estate of Rene di Rosa, an eccentric art collector who was especially interested in the work of the region’s emerging artists. Found in the Carneros Hills, the property has been turned into a series of galleries that make use of both the mansion and the surrounding landscape. The two-hour tour will take you through the house’s permanent collection, as well as its intriguing sculpture meadow. Keep an eye out for peacocks!
Wannabe chefs will love a visit to the Culinary Institute of America campus at Greystone, where hour-long demonstrations are given on Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. Reservations are required. This is also, of course, a great place to eat lunch.
Clif Family Winery adds a little action and adventure to your typical vineyard tour by offering bike rentals. The staff at Velo Vino, which is just down the road from your hotel, can help you plan your ride through wine country by providing a map of their favorite scenic bike routes.
Day 4: Essence of Ireland
For a change of scenery, head to the Point Reyes National Seashore where you can take in rugged and windswept coastline that embodies the essence of Ireland. Before entering the park, fill up on some incredibly fresh Hog Island Oysters, straight from their source. Located on Tomales Bay, the company farm takes picnic reservations so that you shuck and slurp the day’s catch, often caught just hours before your arrival.
On your way to the shore, you also might want to stop off in the town of Point Reyes Station to visit the famous Cowgirl Creamery. This artisanal cheese shop sells their own organic, hand-made products, and visiting the “factory” means you can watch the cheese makers at work!
Once inside the park, you’ll find yourselves surrounded by amazingly beautiful landscapes and diverse wildlife. Perhaps the most splendid site is Drakes Beach, which features dramatic white, sandstone cliffs framing a peaceful shoreline. Its oceanfront café, which serves surprisingly delicious food, also makes this place an appealing choice. The drive to the beach is about 45 minutes from the park Visitor’s Center; a visit here makes for a full day.
Day 5: The Grand Finale
By now, you’ve seen Wine Country from every angle, except the most magnificent one. View the vineyards from above on a hot air balloon ride over the Valley. Napa Valley Aloft is a family-owned operation based in Yountville that has been giving tours through the skies above Napa for over 30 years. Tours last between 40 minutes and one hour and are given at sunrise. The company offers an optional meal add-on, but if you would rather breakfast on your own, grab some pastries at the popular Bouchon Bakery.
Consider having a limo chauffer you between tastings on this final day in Napa. You’ll be visiting the Valley’s most revered wineries, and they’re scattered around the area. Start close to town at Domain Chandon, a vineyard that focuses on sparkling wine and welcomes walk-ins starting at 10:00 a.m.
Continue on to Shafer Vineyards, which has been called one of the world’s greatest wineries and is located just outside of downtown Yountville. Shafer won top international marks in 2012 for its 2008 “Relentless” wine, a layered blend of Syrah and Petit Sirah that breaks the typical Napa Cab Sauv mold. Visitors can also purchase their coveted Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine otherwise reserved only for mailing-list members.
Head north to Schramsberg Vineyards, a sparkling spot with a top-notch cave tour. This vineyard is also close to the Castello di Amoroso, a winery housed in a Tuscan-inspired castle. Though touristy, no spot evokes the spirit of Italy like this estate. If you would rather avoid the crowds, choose Pride Mountain Vineyards instead. Nestled in the mountains and way off the beaten path, the rugged scenery at this winery is unparalleled. While it takes a while to get to, its secluded feel is well worth the effort.
Consider rounding out your trip with a tasting close to home at Quintessa. The fee here is steep, but they have exceptional wines and stunning scenery. The winery is also close to Auberge du Soleil, a Michelin-starred spot with a long-standing reputation in the Valley. Choose between the Restaurant or the Bistro & Bar, which offers lighter fare at a more reasonable price, served on the wrap-around deck. A sunset meal on the terrace would make for an incredible grand finale to your trip.
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