A visit to these neighboring counties - wine powerhouses Napa and Sonoma - makes for a superb multi-day excursion. Expect to get a flavor of both regions alongside country-quaint character, world-class dining and plenty of extracurriculars. Allons-y!
When to Go
The best times to visit are spring and fall, when crowds are lighter, reservations easier to come by and tasting room staff more relaxed. Summers are busier, though frequent festivals, outdoor concerts and farmers markets make up for some of the hassle that comes with crowds. Not surprisingly, winters – when it rains often from November through March – are the quietest time of year and afford the best deals in lodging and dining (who needs good weather when you’re ensconced in a Michelin three star?).
Depending on traffic, it takes between 90 minutes and two hours by car to reach Napa or Sonoma from San Francisco/SFO. Alternatively, select flights are available into Santa Rosa, which is situated right in the heart of Sonoma. For those coming from the Sacramento/San Joaquin Valley area, Napa is nearer and thus makes an appropriate first stop on your trip. No matter where you land first, it's a good idea to have a car, as destinations are spread out and paid transportation over several days in wine country can be cost-prohibitive. Rentals are available at airports and parking is plentiful in towns and at most wineries.
Traffic patterns heading into and out of wine country vary, and visitors are well advised to take them into account. Generally speaking, traffic heading north into both Sonoma and Napa from the Bay Area is lightest late morning through early afternoon; evenings bring heavy traffic heading north, especially into Sonoma, and should be avoided. Weekends offer lighter traffic, though Sunday evenings coming back into San Francisco from Napa often see backups before the Bay Bridge. Traffic is mostly light throughout Napa and Sonoma, although Napa's storied Highway 29 – the regio's "main drag," you might say – is a famously slow-moving two-laner that can be partly circumvented by taking the valley’s alternate north-south byway, Silverado Trail. Sonoma’s Highway 101, similarly, can back up through Santa Rosa at peak commute times.
Whether you’re heading from Napa to Sonoma or the reverse when traveling between destinations, plan on either taking a mountain road such as scenic Highway 128 through the Mayacamas range that borders the two counties, or circumvent the foothills on the southern end by driving through the Carneros district.
Weather Gear: Be sure to bring proper attire and gear for your visit. Rain is rare in summer, but showers are a possibility throughout spring and fall, with heavy rains common in winter. High summer brings bright sunshine and daytime temperatures that occasionally surpass the 100 degree mark, though nights remain cool throughout the season. Accordingly, sunscreen and hats are encouraged for daytime adventures, and light wraps and sweaters for summer evenings. Winter brings sometime freezing temperatures, especially at night; we find this makes for perfect snuggling weather.
Reservations: Advance lodging reservations at these world-class destinations is required year-round. Regarding food, casual dining haunts in wine country generally don’t call for reservations, although most upscale dinner spots do. If possible, plan your meals ahead and call in advance for reservations; with more than a dozen Michelin stars in Napa Valley alone, the region draws discerning diners from around the world. FYI - Some wineries also require reservations for visits, or are only open on certain days of the week. To the extent you can, plan your winery visits in advance, too, and inquire with each as to any special rules or limits on timing, guest count or purchases. The same applies if you'd like to take a tour or arrange for reserve or private tastings.
Where to Splurge
Wine country restaurants attract some of the world’s most dynamic culinary talent, and are absolutely worth experiencing. Though you may not opt to dine out at the region’s finer haunts every night, a single lovely meal will create a lasting memory. For visitors who plan to spend a good amount of time at a hotel or resort (versus spending most days out tasting or recreating), splurging for nicer lodging pays off in inclusive amenities and attentive service. And if a tête-à-tête with a winemaker is something you yearn for, expect to pay for the privilege of private time (if you’re lucky enough to score it in the first place). Chances are good this memory will be worth the splurge, too.
Where to Save
If you plan to taste throughout the day, lunches in wine country are often quick and low-key affairs. Spending less on these meals allows you to put savings towards dinner – where you're more likely to savor your meal and soak in a spot's ambiance. Picnic lunches are excellent low-cost wine country lunch options (be sure to call wineries in advance to confirm that picnic facilities are available), as are offerings from the growing number of gourmet food trucks cropping up in the area. Finally, tucking into a hotel or B&B’s complimentary breakfast will save you cash, as will seeking out free or low-cost tasting rooms for your winery visits. Though more common in Sonoma, low-cost tasting rooms can still be tracked down in Napa.
Tasting wine is a terrific way to pass a day; it’s also tiring and can lead quickly to tipsiness. To ensure you and your crew come off as the professional tasters you are, try to limit your winery visits to three or four a day, make use of spittoons (read: spit buckets) positioned on tasting bars, drink plenty of water and plan to have a healthy lunch midway through the day. Designate a sober driver or hire a car to ensure everyone's safety, and consider a nap before dinner to recuperate from the day. At tasting rooms, try tasting white wines before red in order to best experience the subtleties of lighter wines, and save sweet wines for last.
If you're traveling with a large group, be sure to call ahead so that wineries can make special arrangements for your gang. And no matter the size of your group, stay on designated paths when exploring a winery’s grounds, and generally do your best to leave things the way that you found them. It's good karma, and bodes well for your next visit.
Fare in Napa and Sonoma counties is decidedly local/fresh focused, taking inspiration from seasonally available produce and locally sourced meats and seafood wherever possible. It's often described simply as California cuisine, although it might more accurately be dubbed Cal-Ital (not surprising given the many Italian immigrants who settled the region). Expect wood-fired pizzas, pastas, fresh salads, cheese plates, oysters and a variety of meat- and seafood-driven entrees at restaurants throughout the region, though myriad variations on the theme of cuisine can be found if one looks hard enough (excellent Mexican food, for example, can be had throughout wine country).
Prices vary dramatically, from food carts at the low end to two- and three-Michelin-starred eateries at the other; fortunately, quality is consistently good at every price tier.
Many of the more charming Victorian homes in the central areas of wine country towns have been turned into Bed and Breakfasts, were period details mingle with personal service and – often – lower rates than many hotels. On the more expensive end (we know you deserve it!), full-service luxury resorts can be found tucked into the hills just beyond these cozy hamlets, replete with elaborate golf courses, croquet lawns, indoor pools and other luxe perks. Back inside city limits, emerging boutique and eco-themed hotels deliver character aplenty, while select hotel and motel chains pepper the outskirts of towns, affording still more reliable lodging options for the scores of lucky travelers who make their way to this lovely corner of wine country each year.