My Northern California Wine Country Guide

Visiting California wine country in Napa and Sonoma valleys. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

California Wine Country Travel Guide

This content was originally shared with my email subscribers last fall. With many of you beginning to plan your travel for the year, I thought it might be helpful to share here as well. I’ve updated and added a few notes for this post.

Last fall we spent a week in Northern California Wine Country, in both the Sonoma and Napa Valleys. While this is not a comprehensive guide to the region by any means, I wanted to share some of our favorite accommodations, restaurants, wineries and activities, as well as a few tips for enjoying your visit.

🏡 LODGING 🏡

We began our visit at the very charming (and friendly) Farmhouse Inn outside of Forestville, in the scenic Russian River area. It’s a smaller, “rustic luxe” boutique inn with both cottage suites and comfy, luxurious rooms. There are free daily wine tastings from local wineries, free s’mores by the firepits (with handmade marshmallows!) and a wonderful spa (which we didn’t have time to enjoy). They also are home to a Michelin-starred farm-to-table restaurant. (See more below.) We felt very pampered here!

👉Tip: If you’re looking for someplace centrally-located in the Sonoma Valley, I’d suggest checking around the town of Healdsburg. There are hotels and inns in a range of price points, and it’s an easy base to get around the rest of the valley. Lots of charming restaurants and shops too! 

In Napa, we stayed at the Hotel Yountville Resort & Spa. It’s modern and updated, but still has that wine country charm. We booked a breakfast-included package, and the breakfasts were excellent. There’s a pool and spa (which again, we didn’t leave enough time to enjoy…something we’ll need to remedy on our next visit). Yountville is a great location for exploring Napa Valley, and has lots of shops and restaurants within walking distance. (Or borrow the house bicycles at Hotel Yountville to explore.)

If you’re looking for a more out-of-the-way spot to unwind and recharge, I’d recommend Solage, Auberge Resorts Collection in Calistoga. We stayed there last year and found it relaxing and restful, low-key yet still luxurious. 

👉Tip: many hotels have partnerships with local wineries which you can use for discounted tours and tastings. Be sure to ask!

For more budget-friendly hotels, check out:

(While we have not stayed at these hotels, they are well-reviewed.)

🍴DINING 🍴

The food is as much of a draw for us as the wine, and it did not disappoint!

After an eight-hour drive from Los Angeles to Forestville, we were very glad that we’d booked our first night’s dinner at the Farmhouse Inn Restaurant, just a few steps away from our room. This Michelin-starred restaurant features locally sourced and seasonal ingredients, and was absolutely stellar! Everything, from presentation to flavors to the recommended wine pairing was a delight for the senses. It was a splurge, but worth it!

Also on the Sonoma side, we loved two restaurants in downtown Healdsburg. At Valette, the pumpkin soup was out of this world, and the wine recommendation from a local vineyard (a Gary Farrell Pinot Noir) was another delightful discovery. 

Brass Rabbit is for lovers…pasta lovers that is! (But there are also several non-pasta goodies on the menu.) It’s a small, casual place with an open kitchen and relaxed atmosphere. Great wine list, but they also have a full bar, and their special Negroni was quite good!

On our drive over to Yountville in Napa Valley, we “happened” 😉 to be passing by Gott’s Roadside just before the lunchtime rush, and had to stop for one of their excellent burgers. (They also have vegan options.) They’re famous for their burgers and shakes, but also have some good-looking salads and other items. 

Our first evening in Yountville, we selected, Bouchon for our French Bistro fix. Thomas Keller, who runs both this restaurant and legendary French Laundry happened to be dining at the next table! (We also recommend Bistro Jeanty just down the street, though we didn’t have enough evenings to do both on this visit.)

👉Tip: make reservations, and in advance! Most restaurants will fill up, especially during peak seasons. 

Charter Oak just up the road in Saint Helena was another favorite spot we decided to revisit. It surpassed even what we remembered! They also focus on seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. Dishes are simple, flavorful, and served family style. (Hint: you’ll find your utensils and napkins in a drawer underneath the table.)

Our last evening, we enjoyed dinner at Mustards Grill. (This was also a re-visit, though our only prior experience had been lunch some 20 years ago.) Another exceptional meal and we even had enough of our main courses left over to enjoy at home the next evening. 

👉Tip: dress codes in California wine country are casual to “elegant casual.” Sonoma tends to be more relaxed, Napa more luxe. But you’ll see a little bit of everything in both locales, so don’t sweat it.

🍷 WINERIES 🍷

Where to begin? We tasted SO many outstanding wines, and only a tiny fraction of what the region has to offer, but here are the highlights. Many of the wineries we liked best are leaning into a more European style of winemaking: less prominent oak, less “buttery,” lower alcohol, and more attention to “terroir” (the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced).

Sonoma County

Trattore Farms. Lovely wines (my favorite was the Viognier) and some artisanal olive oils, also available for tasting. The owner also loves and restores vintage tractors which are on display (hence the name).

Bella Vineyards & Caves. We really had fun here, and came home with a few of their wines. Tasting is in the caves, and a variety of tastings available depending upon your preferences (some require reservations in advance). Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy at the tables outside!

👉Tip: there’s a fee for most winery tastings, but many will waive the fee with a purchase over a certain threshold, or for wine club members.

MacRostie Winery. With beautiful views from their hillside tasting room and patios, you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to sip and enjoy. They strike a good balance between providing information about the wines while giving you space to relax, taste and compare. Reservations recommended for seated tastings.

Dry Creek Vineyard. Winery President Kim Stare Wallace invited us to stop by for a tour and tasting, and I’m so glad we did. We were just *blown away* by how good their wines are. Usually at tastings, there will be 2 or maybe 3 wines that stand out, but every single one she poured was outstanding! (And they are very reasonably priced.) This is a family-owned and run winery, and was the first one established in the Dry Creek Valley since Prohibition. They are committed to sustainable growing and production. We’ve already decided to sign up for their wine club!

Gracianna Wines. Named for the Amador family’s maternal grandmother, this small Russian River winery is open for tastings from April 1 – November 30. We came home with a couple bottles of their Mercedes Riverblock Estate Pinot Noir.

👉Tip: unless you’re a serious oenophile, two or three tastings per day is a maximum manageable amount. Don’t feel you have to finish every pour, either! There’s usually a bucket provided to pour out any “extra.” 

In Napa…

Neyers Vineyards. This small family-run winery is well off the beaten path, but is worth going out of the way for. They grow some of their own grapes, and purchase some from other growers. We came home with some of their Pinot Noir, and Mourvedre, a unique varietal. Because it’s such a small operation, tastings are by appointment only, and they are unable to accommodate large groups. 

Robert Biale Vineyards. In the heart of Napa Valley, and known for their Zinfandels, this winery has a colorful history. (Ask about The Black Chicken.) Tastings are by appointment only, but it’s worth planning to include this one in your wine-tasting itinerary.

👉Tip: some wineries will allow two people to split a standard tasting. Never hurts to ask.

Caldwell Vineyard. This is another small family winery with a fascinating and (very) colorful backstory. We’d booked a “Tasting Experience” which includes some food pairings. It was one of the most interesting and informative tastings during our entire visit. I learned a LOT during this session, and had fun too. You’ll need to book ahead, and be comfortable with some four-letter words 😉 .

Robert Sinskey Vineyards. We’ve been wine club members since our last visit, and in addition to loving their wines, appreciate their holistic approach to agriculture, winemaking and cuisine. Walk-ins are welcome for regular tastings, recommend booking in advance for their wine-food pairings. (And the food is 💯)

👉Tip: drink plenty of water! Most wineries will happily provide, but I always carry some with me just in case.

Cakebread Cellars. Outstanding wines, including Chardonnays, Pinots, Merlots, Syrahs and Cabernets. We’ve been wine club members for some time. They’ve just completed a large visitor center with several tasting rooms. They offer a wide variety of tasting experiences (by appointment). We enjoyed a wine and food pairing session that was also very informative. Highly recommended! 

Grgich Hills Estate. Though we didn’t visit the winery on this trip, Grgich has been a favorite of ours for years. Excellent whites and reds, and you can drop in to their friendly tasting room without an appointment.

👉Tip: hire a guide! That way you don’t have to worry about driving, and a guide will often have relationships with wineries, and know the “off the beaten path” ones worth visiting. Our favorite wine country guide is Barbara Jura, (barbarajura5545@gmail.com) who will not only help select wineries to suit your tastes and preferences, but will prepare a gourmet picnic lunch if you like!

🌲 OTHER ACTIVITIES 🌲

If you’re in the Sonoma Valley, I highly recommend a visit to Armstrong Redwoods State National Reserve. It’s absolutely magnificent, and there are easy, accessible hikes of varying lengths on well-marked trails. 

The towns of Petaluma and Healdsburg in Sonoma, and Saint Helena and Yountville in Napa all have concentrated, walkable downtown areas with charming shops and restaurants. Chocolate lovers should not miss Woodhouse Chocolate in Saint Helena! Montecristi Panama Hats in Yountville carry authentic Panama hats in both straw and wool, as well as beautiful woven handcrafts from South America.

And if you’re looking for some wonderful non-alcoholic souvenirs, check out Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturing Company in St. Helena. They offer tastings of their locally produced olive oils and vinegars, as well as gourmet Italian specialties. Worth a stop!

Have you visited Northern California Wine Country? What were your favorite places to visit?

Stay in touch.

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6 Comments

  1. Jane
    January 9, 2020 / 8:37 am

    This is SO helpful! Thanks, Susan

  2. Jan Whichard
    January 9, 2020 / 8:45 am

    Missing a meal at Don Giovanni on the road from Napa to Yountville would be utter sadness. Include a special Cosmopolitan. Also, along Silverado Trail is Vine Cliff Winery. Lovely wines and gorgeous setting.

  3. Dawn
    January 9, 2020 / 3:51 pm

    For the most exquisite view while tasting delicious wines, try Cuvaison Estate Wines in Napa Valley.
    The staff is excellent…so friendly, and their tasting room so comfortable. One of my favorites because of the view.

  4. Elle
    January 9, 2020 / 4:22 pm

    EXCELLENT post! Thank you for putting this together. It is well organized and so informative. I’m looking forward to more of these!

  5. Jacqueline
    January 9, 2020 / 4:34 pm

    We live 45 mins from Napa and go up there frequently. I can second Jan W.’s suggestion for Don Giovanni, and will also throw in Brix Restaurant & Garden for a relaxed and delicious meal. It is one of our favorites. Also, check out Duckhorn Vineyards for their Cabernet, great wine and a delightful deck/garden area for outdoor tasting in warm weather.

  6. Kay
    January 10, 2020 / 11:04 am

    My daughter went to college in wine country, but we never managed to do a wine tasting when we visited. Looks like we missed out.

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