Cradling California’s most famous wine country, these two world-famous wine regions, both about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, boast rolling hills planted with some of the most coveted grapes in the world. Napa Valley reigns as the land of grand estates, expansive tasting rooms, quaint towns, and elegant lodgings, many lining the celebrated Silverado Trail. Sonoma County tends to have a more intimate feel, especially as you head further north towards the Russian River. Whether they’re in a castle or renovated barn, the hundreds of wineries in Napa and Sonoma Valleys earn their gold medals and international accolades.
When to visit? Each season has its charms: spring brings brilliant green new grape leaves and lush hillsides, and fields of yellow mustard add brilliant contrast. Summer warms up, both with events and crowds, so start your day early to avoid both. Fall brings the crush, and vineyards bustle with workers in the vineyards and the wineries. Winter brings a cool hush—insiders know this is a time to snag reservations at the region’s Michelin-starred, in-demand restaurants, shop for holiday gifts in gussied-up towns, and relax in peace at luxurious spas.
Here’s the best of the best, a country road trimmed with shady oaks and world-class wines, with so many wineries you could travel it for a week straight and still not visit them all. The first permanent road linking the town of Napa to Calistoga, roughly 30 miles/48 kilometres south, the Silverado Trail is the country-road counterpart to busier Highway 29, which roughly parallels the route. Drive—or better yet rent a bike and pedal—along this tranquil, scenic route, snugged up against the valley’s eastern hills.
"Here’s the best of the best, a country road trimmed with shady oaks and world-class wines."
The biggest challenge is figuring out where to stop first. Prestigious wineries with Silverado Trail addresses include Joseph Phelps, ZD Wines, and Miner Family Winery, just three of the dozens of wonderful places to sample Napa Valley’s famous Cabernet Sauvignon and other big-bodied reds. Sparkling wine fans will want to stop at Mumm Napa, where you can sip bubbly on an elegant patio, in a tasting salon, or reserve a seat on the intimate Oak Terrace. Other turns take you to how-can-they-be-so-perfect wine-country inns and resorts, such as Auberge du Soleil and Solage Calistoga. To see one of the prettiest places in the whole region, take the long, leafy drive onto the manicured grounds of Meadowood Napa Valley for an al fresco lunch at The Grill, or, if you’re feeling extra splurge-y, dinner at the three-Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood, known for impeccable service and farm-to-table offerings served with—of course—exquisite wines.
These valleys flanking the Russian River are great for spicy Zinfandels but also produce a wide range of other varietals.
Sonoma Valley is just one of 17 distinct growing regions, or AVAs, in Sonoma County. The 14,000-acre/5,666-hectare AVA, also known as the Valley of the Moon, is often referred to as the birthplace of California’s commercial wine industry, and old-vine Zinfandels, with rich hints of cherry and blackberry, are particularly noteworthy here. Visit the home of early wine pioneers at Buena Vista Winery, founded in 1857 as California’s first premium winery. For beautiful views, climb up to villa-like Chateau St. Jean, where you can tour formal gardens, buy charcuterie and have an on-site picnic, and of course sample wines.
On the west side of the Russian River is the appealing and intimate Dry Creek Valley, with pretty views that hint of Italy’s Tuscany and Piedmont regions. Not surprisingly, early Italian wine-grape growers felt at home here and planted Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, and Carignane grapes to produce hearty red wines. This is a sunny region that’s perfect for those big reds, yet hot summer days cool down nicely when the fog rolls in from the Pacific. For a perfect way to spend the day, relax on the lawn at ultra-friendly Bella Vineyards—it also has fantastic wine caves. Quivira has beautiful organic gardens; ask about the winery’s biodynamic agriculture techniques.
Nicknamed “Napa Valley’s Main Street,” this popular wine-country town has a bumper crop of shops, art galleries, and cute cafes. Join an olive oil tasting at Olivier and satisfy your sweet tooth at Woodhouse Chocolate. Merryvale Vineyards (the first winery in the valley to be built after the repeal of Prohibition) holds daily tasting seminars in its historic cask room—it’s a great way to educate your palette before you head out to area wineries. That said, there are plenty of in-town tasting rooms—nice if you don’t want to drive. A local Passport St. Helena gives you access to eight stroll-to wineries, where you’ll get exclusive tastes of top vintages paired with small bites.
"You’ll get exclusive tastes of top vintages paired with small bites."
Though St. Helena is undeniably appealing, try to pull yourself away long enough to check out Hall Vineyard, where top-notch wines and edgy art go hand in hand. The property is dotted with sculptures and installations and wow-worthy views from the second-floor “glass house” tasting room.
Back in town, relax with a Harvest Signature Mud Wrap & Massage treatment in the garden at Health Spa Napa Valley, then dress up for dinner cooked by budding chefs at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in the magnificent Greystone estate.
Foodies will find a little slice of heaven in Yountville. With more Michelin stars per capita than any other place in North America, this little village could keep you happily munching for days—if you didn’t care about calories. But who cares—this is what vacations are all about: beautiful settings and incredible food.
The man who really put Yountville on the culinary map is the incomparable Chef Thomas Keller. He may have a worldwide empire of restaurants now, but his The French Laundry, which he took over in 1994, was a breakthrough, a true destination restaurant in Napa wine country. It’s still outstanding, earning a coveted three Michelin stars, and requiring reservations several months in advance. (Try for lunch and you may have a better chance.) Today, you can practically call the town “Keller-ville”: he has also opened his more relaxed but also excellent Bouchon, as well as the forget-the-calorie-counter Bouchon Bakery. Other amazing restaurants include Redd, Etoile, Bistro Jeanty, and Bottego, where celebrity chef Michael Chiarello focuses on ultra fresh and Italian.
Also visit in-town tasting rooms; try Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley, sample wines from more than 20 vintner partners on the back patio of the historic stone building, and you’ll feel like you’ve slipped away to Provence. Wines are great, but if you want to switch things up, sip a poolside cocktail at the Dive Bar at Bardessono, an ultra-swanky (and LEED-platinum certified) boutique luxury resort. (Parties are held the last Thursday of the month, June to August).
It's true: Healdsburg is as amazing as everyone says it is. First, there’s that perfect town square, surrounded by tasting rooms filled with beautiful people, boutiques tempting at every turn, and swanky restaurants glowing at dusk. And then there’s Les Mars Hôtel, which feels more like Louis XIV's Loire Valley than Sonoma County. What may have once been a sleepy country town at the north end of the Sonoma Valley is now one of the classiest destinations in California wine country.
"Tasting rooms filled with beautiful people, boutiques tempting at every turn, and swanky restaurants glowing at dusk."
One of the best places to anchor your explorations of surrounding Sonoma AVAs, Healdsburg has plenty to offer in its own right. Locally grown produce gets the spotlight here, and the twice-weekly (June through October) farmers market is a model of fresh, local, and sustainably grown fruits and vegetables. Stop in at Healdsburg Shed, an expertly curated haven of kitchenware, cookbooks, and garden tools. Be sure to try a seasonal house-made shrub (a vinegar-based drink) and wood-oven pizza, and see if there’s a class or workshop you’d like to attend (topics include gardening, cooking, sustainable living). Pick up artisanal cheeses and a fresh crusty loaf at tempting Oakville Grocery and have an impromptu nosh in the square. Finish the day with a decadent meal of pork-belly biscuits, Hamachi crudo, and squid-ink pasta at Chalkboard.
Though there was a time when this town was often passed over in the rush to get deep into Napa Valley wine country, that’s not the way to go now. Savvy travellers know that this bustling town on the banks of the Napa River has undergone a major renaissance, with a major influx of celebrity-chef restaurants, appealing parks and river walks, and upscale lodgings. And tasting rooms—lots and lots of tasting rooms. Nearly 30 such locations, with settings ranging from coolly sophisticated to kickback relaxed, are all within walking distance in the downtown core. Streets are also dotted with a tempting array of shops, cafes, and chocolatiers, and leafy neighbourhood streets are the place to find some of the classiest, lace-and-crystal B&Bs in the state.
Highlights around town include Oxbow Market, a lively food hall where you can slurp fresh oysters, sample housemade charcuterie, peruse chocolate truffles with names like “Tart Cherry Cabernet,” and find endless other ways to stuff yourself silly. Along the riverfront, step into the minimalist beauty of Morimoto Napa, enjoy ultra-fresh seafood at Celadon, or cross the river to sample Chef Ken Frank’s elegant offerings at La Toque. For overnight stays, consider big city chic options Andaz Napa, or one-of-a-kind B&B options such as ultra-elegant Churchill Manor or friendly Cedar Gables Inn.
For a truly unique (car-free) way to explore the region, settle into a cushy appointed vintage rail car to sightsee, dine, and sample wines aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train, departing from downtown Napa year-round.
Located at the northern tip of Napa Valley at the base of Mount Saint Helena, Calistoga is the less travelled, laidback sister to the bustling downtown Napa. In 1976, Chateau Montelena put Napa Valley wines on the map when their 1973 Chardonnay beat out the best French wines at this legendary Paris tasting. Calistoga is also the valley’s spa and hot springs capital, and visitors have flocked here seeking rejuvenation in mineral-rich volcanic waters since the 1800s. Spas and resorts range from casual (and clothing optional) to upscale, and most offer hot soaks, saunas, and massages. But one can’t visit without experiencing the quintessential Calistoga experience: the mud bath. Make an appointment for “The Works” at Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort, where you’ll be treated to a traditional mud bath with facial mask, aromatic mineral whirlpool bath, steam room, blanket wrap, and massage.
Calistoga is also a key spot to enjoy another Napa Valley signature experience: a hot air balloon ride. Floating above the morning mist, looking out across the still valley as the sun peeks over the surrounding hills—can you imagine where you’d rather be? Cap it all off with a traditional glass of bubbly when you come back the Earth.
With surroundings as blissful as the Napa Valley and Sonoma County wine country, it was only a matter of time before blissful lodgings followed suit. In the 1980s, St. Helena’s Auberge du Soleil started seriously pampering visitors, offering tucked-away rooms with wood-burning fireplaces and French doors leading to private verandas, and a peaceful pool with romantic valley views. At country-club-like Meadowood, on Napa’s Silverado Trail, guest can swing a golf club, thwack a tennis ball, play croquet, or relax in an exclusive spa, then primp for dinner at three-Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood. (The multi-course Chef’s Tasting Menu is a dazzler.)
Sonoma Mission Inn—now a Fairmont property—focused on healing waters and lush surroundings, and visitors still enjoy the silky mineral pools in lap-of-luxury surroundings. In Yountville, relax on the swanky rooftop pool at ultra-modern Bardessono, built from salvaged stone and reclaimed wood. At Calistoga Ranch, 50 freestanding guest lodges are nestled among oak trees and babbling brooks, and fire pits warm outdoor living rooms.
If you think all this indulgence is for couples, think again. Solage Calistoga may be as high-end, but it’s also got nice family-friendly touches, liked a children’s pool and free bikes.
Whether by foot, car, or train, experts will do the talking while they show you the ins and outs of the valleys. Van and bus tours can be booked through hotels or tourism offices; also ask about guided bike tours. On a 90-minute walking tour of Downtown Napa, learn about the region’s history—the Gold Rush, Prohibition, and the boom years during World War II. Roll through the region in vintage rail cars, decked out with velvet curtains and finery, on the Napa Valley Wine Train, offering a variety of tours—including a multi-course meal and wine. In Sonoma County, hitch a ride on a replica of a late 1890s San Francisco cable car to enjoy tastings at four wineries, plus a catered lunch by local favourite, the Girl & the Fig. For do-it-yourself touring, consider getting a single or multi-day pass to enjoy wine tastings in a given area; having one of these passports, like the one for the Wine Trail region (Dry Creek, Russian River, and Alexander Valley) might also net your discounts on wine purchases, private guided tours, and behind-the-scenes walks with winemakers.
Every year during late summer and early fall, workers tend the fields from dawn until dusk, clipping grapes and preparing them for the juicing process. Many wineries have ceremonies (mostly small and private) to honour the land and pay tribute to all of the hard work tending the bounty of grapes. During this time, tasting rooms may be short-staffed—an all-hands-on-deck policy is required to get grapes crushed and their juice into tanks as quickly as possible. Some wineries celebrate by hosting pre- or post-crush parties with wine tasting, food, and live music. Sparkling wine purveyor Schramsberg holds a weekend-long fall harvest camp, where guests join in to harvest grapes. Grgich Hills Estate and Schweiger Vineyards have old-fashioned grape stomping events (roll up your pants and jump in). And V. Sattui hosts annual harvest balls and crush parties.