Our trips to Northern California’s wine country have been some of my favorite vacations. There is something incredibly relaxing about driving through the countryside and leisurely exploring the countless vineyards that line the way. With that being said, planning your itinerary to Napa Valley and/or Sonoma County can definitely feel a bit daunting because there are SO many different vineyard options and routes to travel. Before making the ultimate decision to head to Napa or Sonoma, there are a few points to consider:
- Do you prefer a larger group and less intimate experience when touring/tasting or would you rather a one-on-one tasting or small group experience?
- Are you comfortable spending up to $60 on a tasting fee (often this is waived if you purchase a bottle of wine)?
- Do you prefer visiting wineries that are well-known (think Mondavi and Domaine Chandon) or are you interested in uncovering newer, smaller production vineyards?
If you prefer a more intimate experience at wineries that aren’t household names, I would recommend the Sonoma County area, whereas, if you want to experience your favorite wines and see the vineyards where their grapes are grown, Napa Valley may be best for you. Traditionally, Napa wineries do tend to charge a higher price for their tasting and during peak season, appointments are a must! We have experienced wineries in both Sonoma and Napa, and have had positive tastings across the board. You could easily spend a few weeks exploring all of the towns in wine country, so I recommend choosing one or two places you want to focus on and save the others for a second visit.
Since my list of recommended wineries could go on forever, instead of rounding up my favorites, I wanted to share a few suggestions on how to plan your wine country experience, so it’s not just about wine! Beyond visiting winery after winery, there are SO many wonderful things to do and see in Northern California wine country. Hint: most of my favorite ideas involve food.
The A-Lyst for Napa Valley and Sonoma County
We love stopping at Oakville Grocery to pick up snacks and picnic supplies in between winery visits. In addition to made-to-order sandwiches, the market offers an abundant selection of fresh cheeses, meats, olives, and sweets that are perfect to pack for a picnic. There are two locations of Oakville Grocery, one in Napa Valley and the other in Sonoma County, so you can easily work it into your itinerary. Make sure to plan ahead for your picnic location, as not every winery allows you to bring food to eat on their grounds. One spot I’d suggest is Pride Mountain, which offers a shady picnic area with great valley views. 7856 St. Helena Highway, Oakville, CA 94562; 124 Matheson Street, Healdsburg, CA 95448
I’m not usually a milkshake fan, but the creamy deliciousness of this classic from The Fremont Diner is on another level. Don’t judge a book by its cover because from the exterior, this restaurant does not look like much, but I promise you, the food is straight up amazing. I love the mac ‘n cheese, fried chicken and waffles, and house-made lemonade to name a few! The secret of The Fremont Diner is out, so expect lines, but the wait is worth it for a hearty brunch or lunch paired with a Horchata or Nutella Milkshake. Yum! 2698 Fremont Drive, Sonoma, CA 95476
We love staying in Yountville because there so much to do within walking distance of the hotels. One of my favorite spots to grab a few sweets is at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery. I recommend going at an off time because the lines can be long! My go-tos are the macarons, but I also love the sweet monkey bread and fresh croissants. 6528 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599
Another favorite in Yountville is Ad Hoc, specifically for its Fried Chicken night. If you’re not prepared to shell out a fortune to dine at Thomas Keller’s famed French Laundry, I highly recommend Keller’s Ad Hoc as a great spot for solid comfort food. Every night, the restaurant serves a prix-fixe four-course menu with additional add-ons, however, the only catch about dining at Ad Hoc is that you won’t know the night’s menu until that day. If you’re particular about what you eat (cough, me, cough), I suggest signing up for their daily menu newsletter a few weeks before your visit to get an idea of the offerings, and if you’re lucky, the night of your reservation will land on a night the kitchen is serving its phenomenal fried chicken. This chicken was DELICIOUS and has somewhat of a cult following. From what I’ve heard, Ad Hoc consistently serves it every other Monday night, and then it sporadically pops up on the menu on other days. I can’t even explain to you the anticipation and excitement I felt upon checking my email the day of our reservation to find that it was fried chicken on the menu. Pure bliss. 6476 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599
I love interesting cocktails and if you do, too, Saint Helena’s Goose and Gander is worth a pre or post-dinner visit. The bartenders are incredibly knowledgeable and friendly, and every cocktail I’ve tried has been fantastic. While this is a full-service restaurant, we love heading to its subterranean bar because it has the feel of a speakeasy. My pick is the Cucumber Collins…wait until you see its presentation! 1245 Spring Street, Saint Helena, CA 94574
I love grabbing lunch at Campo Fina, playing a game of bocce on their outdoor patio, and then walking around the town of Healdsburg, popping into the shops. Campo Fina has a great selection of fresh salads and pizzas and their outdoor patio is hard to beat on a sunny day. Their house-made basil lemonade is a favorite (we’ve tried to recreate it at home and it’s just not the same!) and playing a post-lunch game of bocce is such a fun way to spend a afternoon. 330 Healdsburg Ave, Healdsburg, CA 95448
Enjoy a Sunset Over Napa Valley
Wherever we travel, we love finding the best places to watch sunsets. The outdoor terrace at Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford provides the perfect place to grab a pre-dinner cocktail or glass of wine and watch the sun go down. The resort itself is stunning and the restaurant’s views of the valley are no different! Another great option for a scenic sunset view are the grounds of Castillo di Amorosa in Calistoga. A winery by day, Castillo di Amorosa was modeled after a 13th century Tuscan castle, and its parking lot offers a great vantage point and killer backdrop for sunset photos. Auberge du Soleil, 180 Rutherford Hill Rd, Rutherford, CA 94573; Castillo di Amorosa, 4045 St Helena Hwy, Calistoga, CA 94515
Take a Scenic Drive on Highway 1
If you’re heading from Sonoma County back to San Francisco and looking for a great scenic drive, Highway 1 is your road. This curvy drive provides you with gorgeous views of so many different landscapes – mountains, ocean, lush greenery, oyster farms and small towns – and there are countless places to stop and visit along the way. I especially love the Hog Island Oyster Company, where you can reserve picnic benches and shuck oysters outside, and the Muir Beach Overlook, which offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and on a clear day, the San Francisco skyline.
Taking a hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley is still a bucket list item for me because when I tried to go, my ride was cancelled! The weather has to be absolutely perfect for the balloons to launch – not only clear and sunny, but also no strong winds. I love that the pilots take necessary precautions, because, I am pretty sure that the only thing worse than waking up at 4am, getting dressed for a balloon ride, and then having it be cancelled, is getting stuck in the air in a balloon! I still highly recommend trying to take a hot air balloon ride. It’s pricey, but from what I hear, totally worth it! And, of course, if they cancel your ride, you won’t be charged.
Other favorite spots:
Redd Wood, the casual sister restaurant to Chef Richard Reddington’s Redd in Yountville, is an excellent spot for wood-fired oven-baked pizza. It’s fun and unassuming, and of course, delicious! 6755 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599
Boon Fly Café at The Carneros Inn is a great lunch option with fresh salads and sandwiches served in an airy, crisp space. 4048 Sonoma Hwy, Napa, CA 94559
Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch is a recent discovery of ours and we will definitely be back! The restaurant is set on the expansive Long Meadow Ranch in Saint Helena and prides itself on offering diners a farm-to-table approach to local and sustainable American cuisine. The grounds are gorgeous, offering so many cute nooks to hang out in as well as an expansive outdoor patio. Napa evenings can be chilly, so we enjoyed dinner inside the restaurant, which features an open kitchen and amazing design elements, reminiscent of a time when it was used as a nursery barn. 738 Main Street, Saint Helena, CA 94574
Woodhouse Chocolates is a celeb-favorite chocolate shop in the heart of Saint Helena. Handmade and delicious, this is a great spot to pick up “souvenirs” for friends and family back home, and of course, let yourself indulge. 1367 Main St, Saint Helena, CA 94574