I tend to over plan when researching a trip, but with hundreds of wineries and tasting rooms to chose from in Sonoma and Napa Valley, I couldn’t fathom sorting through them all. The best piece of advice I have when navigating this wine county for the first time is to wing it.
Anthony and I traveled through Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite after Death Valley (all to be featured in a new “US National Parks Postcards” section) and California’s premier wine region met us with the warm, sunny weather we craved the past week. We arrived in Napa Valley first. A friend recommended Jamieson Ranch which made a great first impression. The traditional layout of the property and the red brick building with wrap around terrace reminded me of the winery the dad in Parent Trap owned. Both the wine and service were fantastic. They set the bar high as I expected Napa Valley to feel much more pretentious.
We stopped by Castello di Amorosa on the way to our accommodation in Healdsburg. Unfortunately, this was the type of ostentatious establishment we wanted to avoid. While we found the castle (yes, someone actually built a real European-style castle in the middle of Napa Valley) and the grounds stunning, we found it an overwhelming experience for wine tasting. It felt as if we entered an amusement park of wine. Our experience regrettably did not improve in the tasting room either as we found the service to feel rushed. If you’re driving past, it’s worthwhile to enjoy the property itself, but you can find better wine elsewhere.
We chose to primarily visit Sonoma Valley because of its relaxed vibe and more affordable tastings by comparison. Expect to pay $15-20 for a sample of five wines in Sonoma and around $20-30 in Napa. Considering Anthony and I are accustomed to free or an occasional $5 tasting fee in Australia that is waived upon purchase, the prices here stung. Luckily two for one tasting cards are plentiful if you know where to ask.
Anyone looking for a fine selection of chardonnay can look no further than Kendall Jackson. Our favorite visit in Sonoma welcomed us with perfectly manicured gardens and friendly, down to earth service. When we asked our host for recommendations, she eagerly shared tasting coupons with us and suggested we ask for this person here or drink that wine there. The communal atmosphere of the valley surprised me because it seemed all the local businesses decided to work together instead of against each other.
Word of mouth recommendations flow freely, and we thank whoever sent us to the Banshee tasting room in Healdsburg. They spoiled us with fantastic pinot noir and knowledgeable service. I personally choose wineries based on the view, but you could visit Sonoma and Napa without even setting foot on a vineyard. Wine makers who do not have a cellar door exhibit their product in tasting rooms centrally located in town. Because of the sprawling and often secluded layout of the valley, taxis are not readily available, so we enjoyed the option to walk into town to sample more wine.
The both of us looked forward to a couple of days relaxing and drinking wine after a week and a half discovering four national parks. On our next visit, we could have a completely different experience if we exclusively plan our trip around local recommendations and discounted offers. In my opinion, this is the way to see Sonoma at its best.
Next up: San Francisco