With a plethora of stellar vineyards, California’s wine country just might be the happiest place on Earth. The most popular destinations for those who want to sample the nectar of the land are Napa and Sonoma, which have their own distinct wine scene. Knowing the difference between the two before your chartered flight to wine country will help you make the most out of your wine tour.
The destination of choice for wine lovers, Napa Valley is a designated American Viticultural Area (AVA) with 16 sub-AVAs and more than 400 wineries producing over 1,000 brands of wine. One of the best ways to start your day is with a hot-air balloon ride to give you a nice perspective of the land. Depending on the location, wine tasting costs range between $15 and $50. Call the wineries of interest in advance to learn if you need to make a tasting appointment.
- Best area wines: Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon
- Flagship wineries: Cakebread Cellars, Merryvale Vineyards, Grgich Hills Estate, Clos du Val, Duckhorn Vineyards, Screaming Eagle, Rombauer Vineyards, Sattui Winery, Beringer, Chateau Montelena Winery, Robert Mondavi Winery
Play winemaker for a day and make your own Cabernet Sauvignon blend at Conn Creek’s Barrel Blending Experience. During the two-hour seminar, you’ll enjoy a guided barrel tasting, learn blending techniques, taste the winery’s latest releases, and get to take home a bottle of the custom blend you made.
One of the most popular newer wineries to visit is Kenzo Estate, an expansive property owned by Nintendo’s founder, Kenzo Tsujimoto. Bond Estates near Yountville is great for its grand cru-style wine blends. If you find yourself at Gargiulo Vineyards and Jeff, the owner, is there, he might sit with you and play the guitar.
With 16 AVAs, Sonoma County near the Pacific coastline is dotted with more than 425 wineries. The area is more laid-back, expansive (twice the square miles) and spread out than Napa. It also grows more grapes in a greater variety of conditions. Because the wineries are not as close together, they don’t feel as crowded. In essence, Sonoma is what Napa was like three decades ago. Wine tasting costs average between $15 and $25. As with Napa wineries, it’s a good idea to call the Sonoma wineries of interest in advance to learn if you need to make an appointment.
- Best wines: Zinfandel, sparkling wine, red blends, Pinot Noir and un-oaked Chardonnay
- Flagship wineries: Francis Ford Coppola Winery, R. Cohn Winery, Jordan Winery, Korbel Champagne Cellars, Kendall-Jackson Vineyard Estates, Ridge Vineyards, Paul Hobbs Winery, Ravenswood Winery, Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyard, Seghesio Family Vineyard, St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, Gundlach-Bundschu Winery, Cline Cellars
For a unique experience, head to the Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves in Healdsburg. With almost 7,000 square feet of caves carved out of the hillside beneath the estate’s Lily Hill vineyard, the property boasts a private tasting bar, performance room, tasting room, dining room and more, providing the perfect blend of elegance and beauty. The limited-production, vineyard-designated wines are made from grape vines planted more than a century ago.
Ram’s Gate Winery & Estate Vineyard in Sonoma fuses modernity with classic elegance to create a setting that’s relaxed and refined. The winery offers the Palate Play Wine & Food Pairing experience for up to six guests. The experience begins with an in-depth tour of the winery before comparing four single-vineyard wines with culinary pairings during a guided tasting in a private room.