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If any of you are vacationing in the northern California wine country this summer, you’re probably just as much interested in where to dine as where the multitude of tasting rooms are located. I’ve had the pleasure of spending a great deal of time, particularly in Napa, over the past two decades and I’m always excited to taste through a cornucopia of wines and to sample some of the best food in the world.
I’m not going to recommend a list of wineries and tasting rooms for your visit since there are literally hundreds available in Napa and Sonoma alone, plus you may have some favorites you’d like to explore. No, today, you’re wandering wino will provided some dining and lodging recommendations if you’re planning a trip to the wine country in the not-too-distant future. But first, let’s define what comprises the ever-growing landscape of California wine.
“California wine country” mistakenly gives the impression that there is one region in that vast state where grapes are grown and wine is produced. Actually, there are several major wine-producing regions in California, and more than 100 specific American Viticultural Appellations (AVA’s) within these larger geographic areas. In addition to Napa, the other major wine regions include Sonoma, Mendocino, Amador andLake Counties – all north of San Francisco- and Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara – south of San Francisco. The largest growing area is the San Joaquin Valley (or Central Valley) just south of Sacramento.
Now that you’re familiar with the geography, you’re ready for your excursion to begin. As you make your way north from San Francisco, you’ll see a sign along the way for the town of Sonoma, and I suggest you stop there for a walk around this historic and quaint little village. Sonoma has excellent restaurants, a French bakery and a cheese factory in addition to the Buena Vista and Sebastiani wineries that are within the town limits.
Sonoma County has five distinct wine-producing regions: Sonoma Valley, Valley of the Moon, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley and the Alexander Valley. Some of the best sparkling wine and Pinot Noir are produced in the Russian River Valley while great Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc are made in the Dry Creek Valley. The Alexander Valley is known for its superb Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay while the other areas produce everything from the above-mentioned wines to Gewurztraminer and Semillon.
There are also very good restaurants and lodging facilities in Sonoma. Try the historic Sonoma Hotel in the town of Sonoma (800-996-7014) or the elegant and expensive Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa (800-257-7544 – photo at right). For lunch wander just north of town to Café Citti (707- 833-2690), featuring inexpensive but wonderful Italian Trattoria-style food. For dinner, I recommend The Girl and The Fig (707.938.3634) or Ristorante Piatti (707-996-2351).
Napa, in the summer, is kind of like Myrtle Beach in the summer, so be prepared for crowds, especially on weekends. There are only two (two-lane) north-south highways running the length of the valley and they get very congested. Once in Napa, try not to schedule more than one winery tour. The tours are very informative, but they take at least one hour and once you’ve done it, you won’t learn a whole lot more by repeating the process. Anyway, most wineries have tasting rooms – some of which charge a nominal fee – so you can sip their wares and purchase their products on the premises.
One helpful hint: if you’re planning a full day of tasting room visits, you might consider sipping, but not swallowing the wine, early in the day and saving the actual wine consumption for later. Spitting the wine into cups or spittoons provided in the tasting room is actually viewed as appropriate behavior. (However, it’s not a good idea to demonstrate your expectoration skills with an impromptu spitting accuracy exhibition – even though we West Virginians are genetically superior at this activity). Also, it is prudent to have a designated driver, or to hire a car service to take you from winery to winery.
In addition to hundreds of wineries, Napa has some of the best restaurants you’ll find anywhere. Here are my favorites: The French Laundry (707-944-2380- Yountville ) – which is one of the most heralded restaurants in the US, but very difficult to get a reservation; Bistro Jeaunty (707-944-0103 – Yountville, photo at right) – French country style establishment; Mustards Grill (707-944-2424- Yountville) – features quintessential California cuisine and an extensive wine list; Tra Vigne (707-963-4444 – St. Helena) – a lovely northern Italian place with al fresco dining; Wappo Bar and Grill ((707) 942-4712 – Calistoga) – wonderfully inventive menu with hard to find wines at reasonable prices; Auberge Du Soleil (707-963-1211- Rutherford) – a great place to have a glass of sparkling wine with wonderful views of the Napa Valley.
If you are a bit more adventuresome, you might consider trying the mud baths in Calistoga, or take a hot air balloon ride over the valley. There are also a great number of lodging facilities, most of which are small B&B’s or i nns. Two of my favorites are the Vintage Inn (707-944-1112) which is an elegant B&B and the Napa Valley Lodge (888-455-2468) which is a neat, small hotel located right next to a vineyard.
For those of you who need a respite from sipping and supping, a two-hour trip just north of Napa and Sonoma will get you to Mendocino County. Here you’ll wind your way along the rugged Pacific Coast Highway and be rewarded with some of the most spectacular views anywhere. Mendocino County is a great place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the wine country. There are wonderful little B&B’s which sit perched on bluffs above the Pacific Ocean where you can relax while gazing at the crashing waves battering the rocky coast. Visiting the Mendocino Coast is a terrific way to end your visit to California’s premier wine country. Have a good trip!