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HOW TO PLAN A WINE COUNTRY TOUR

A friend of mine, Wino Dave (not to be confused with WJ’s brother, another Wino Dave), told me that he was headed to Napa and Sonoma and asked if I had a recommendations for places to see, stay, eat, etc.  I told him I would forward him some information regarding all of the above since I had visited that area many times before.  Naturally, I was thinking that I had written an article about one of those visits, but to my surprise, I couldn’t find it (oops, could it be in the Stuff archives?).  (Editor's note: click here...)

Since Dave told me where he was going (Napa and Sonoma, or Sonoma and Napa), I figured I would rack my brain to remember which wineries I visited the last time out.  I asked him how many days he would be in the area.  He said “two”.  Good, I thought.  There’s one day for Sonoma and one day for Napa.  At least, that’s how I would plan my trip.  Of course, that’s the short trip.  I usually like to spend at least three days soaking up the sun-drenched terrain (terroir for snobs).  I don’t feel so guilty flying home when I think about how many wineries I visited if I know if was a 72 hour minimum trip vs. 48 hours (good luck, Dave!).

Okay, to plan this trip, I thought that I would consult the links on www.winostuff.com.  One of our first links for sourcing wineries is AllAmericanwineries.com (http://www.allamericanwineries.com).  I remembered researching this site and knew that the site maintains lists of wineries by state (the award winning WinoStuff site lists them in alphabetical order no matter where in the world they are; of course that assumes that you’re just looking up the wine site and that you already know/like the wine.  If you were served a wine that you liked in a restaurant or at someone’s house, how would you know what area it was from (unless you’re a wine geek))?  Anyhow, after hitting the WinoStuff link to AllAmerican, I hit the California link.  It turns out that AllAmerican’s operator doesn’t compile his own list of California wineries, but uses a web site run by a Californian which does the same thing.  So I linked to the California Wine Mall (http://www.cawinemall.com/).  Here I could click on the region (Napa, Sonoma) and review the alphabetical listing of wineries.  The Sonoma region was first and I clicked on Chateau St. Jean (www.chateaustjean.com), its next door neighbor (almost literally) Landmark Vineyards (www.landmarkwine.com), Davis Bynum Wineries (www.davisbynum.com), Ferrari-Carano (www.ferrari-carano.com), Jordan Estate Winery (www.jordanwinery.com), LaCrema (www.lacrema.com), Ledson (www.ledson.com), Martin Ray (www.martinray-winery.com), Murphy-Goode Estate Winery (www.murphygoodewinery.com), Ravenswood (“we will make no wimpy wines”) (www.ravenswood-wine.com), Simi (www.simiwinery.com), Sonoma-Loeb (www.sonoma-loeb.com),  and Valley of the Moon (www.valleyofthemoonwinery.com ).

Of course, one of the reasons that I clicked on the wineries that I did, was that I had visited them and enjoyed both the wine and the tasting/tour/visit.  Another reason was that I had tasted their product here on the East Coast and wanted to find out more about the winery which you can do if you stop by for a visit.  It pays to check their wine site to make sure that they accept visitors.  I know more than a few people who have journeyed to California to visit one of their favorite winemakers to find out that the winery is not open to the public.  If you don’t have that experience, what do you do?  Call a friend whose been there since I haven’t seen a good “how to” article on how to do this.  Another point to note about the wineries that I clicked above, and Sonoma wineries in general, is that most of them are known for their Chardonnays.  Murphy-Goode, Ravenswood, and Valley of the Moon make Zinfandels (the red ones) that I enjoy and Chateau St. Jean makes great Merlot as well as their famous Cinq Cepage (don’t expect to buy any at the winery, they’re usually sold out).

One of the favorite visits to a winery that I had was a visit to Ravenswood.  Our neighbors, Winos Gary and Diana, were with us.  We had booked a tour in advance by phone and SAW Sharon had remarked on the plane that the guy she spoke with at Ravenswood was “interesting”.  She further explained that she had inquired about the length of time of the tour to which he had replied, “it depends on how much fun you are”.  Well, two hours after the four of us began our tour and seven barrel openings later, we rolled out of the winery and found the nearest restaurant in order to offset the quantity of wine in our system with food.  That restaurant, The General’s Daughter (http://www.sterba.com/sonoma/general/) , happened to be a highly rated Sonoma restaurant and served lunch as well as dinner. 

It’s important to note that if you need a place to stay, you should definitely plan in advance.  While there are a number of bed and breakfasts in the area and some wineries even offer accommodations (Davis Bynum, Cain, etc.), depending on the time of the year, you may find local accommodations fully booked.  Some wine sites offer recommendations (Davis Bynum has a list of 12 or so).  While Davis Bynum offers a single cottage (price $90 to $130 per night), accommodations like the Farmhouse Inn (www.farmhouseinn.com) have listings ranging from $210 to $230 per night), and the four star, 44 room Vintner’s Inn in Healdsburg (www.vintnersinn.com) charges from $295 to 355 just for its junior suites or $210-265 for its balcony rooms.  We had some extra time and booked a room at the Gravenstein Inn.  We found it through a search on California Bed and Breakfasts at http://www.cabbi.com/innsearch.lasso.  However, in researching this article for Dave, I found that the Gravenstein Inn is no longer linkable and may not exist under that name (what a shame, Dave and Pam, it was such a nice place in the town of Sebastopol, home of the Gravenstein apple).  If you go to Sebatopol, Korbel’s winery is an interesting place to visit, particularly with the huge sequoias in the area.  A side trip to the coast along the Russian River is particularly rewarding with sites of some of the biggest trees you’ll ever see.

Day two, regardless where you spend the night, has to be a Napa day.  The wineries on my short list are:  Beringer (www.beringer.com) – their Private Reserve Chard and Cab are great, Cain (www.cainfive.com) – makers of Cain Five and Cain Cuvee and a winery with a mountaintop view, Clos du Val (http://www.closduval.com/v1/) , Far Niente (www.farniente.com) – be sure to call for an appointment, Frog’s Leap (www.frogsleap.com) – one of the wife’s favorites and be sure to call for a tour, Hess Collection (www.hesscollection.com), Merryvale (www.merryvale.com), Niebaum-Coppola (www.niebaum-coppola.com) – it’s worth it just to see the grounds of the former Inglenook Winery and yes, there are souvenirs from Francis Ford Coppola’s movies like The Godfather, Opus One (www.opusonewinery.com) which may have the most beautiful building and processing plant that I’ve ever seen and which requires and appointment for the single tour at 10:30 each day, Robert Mondavi Winery (www.robertmondaviwinery.com) which is across the street from Opus, Silver Oak (www.silveroak.com) – no need to go there, you need an appointment from someone in the know, but you can order a video from their website, Sterling (www.sterlingvineyards.com) – which is worth the trip for the tram ride to the top, and Whitehall Lane (www.whitehalllane.com/) which may have some of the nicest people in Napa working there.

A point to note about Napa is that it’s geographically narrow and long running along the mountain range.  Traffic can be a real pain, so plan your visits accordingly by going in a single direction rather than traveling back and forth.  There’s no way you’ll see all of the above wineries in a single day, so pick the few that you really like, map them out and book the tours if an appointment is required (which it seems more and more Napa wineries require).

Wino Dave happens to be a formidable cook, so I recommend a visit to two places, The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa and the American Center for Wine Food and the Arts, Robert Mondavi’s latest contribution to gourmet life.  Also, for dining, the French Laundry is number one, but there’s no way short of a miracle to get in with a week’s notice.  Also, check out Domaine Chandon and you might be interested in a trip on the Napa Wine Train, which features a gourmet dinner on its evening return trip.

Well, that’s about it for now.  I hope Dave enjoys his West Coast trip and as always, I can be emailed at winowally@winostuff.com.

Wino Wally
Baltimore, MD
July 31, 2004


 

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