Monday, January 28, 2008

A Whirlwind Napa/Sonoma Adventure

Just back from a week on the road to the Napa/Sonoma area on business and mixing in a little pleasure along the way. Made all the appointments, packed up the Jeep, loaded the cooler, got the maps out and hit the road for the 10 hour journey through California.

I thought I'd share some of my visits along the way and maybe give some insights to some lesser known places. Now, this is probably my 12th trip to the region, and I always seem to find some gems that I've missed in the past. This trip was no exception.

Here's a summary of where I went and what I found:

January is not the ideal time to visit - the vines are all pruned, the weather was cold and wet, the towns were sleepy and many things were closed. The upside is that you have less people to contend with and most of the wineries are glad to see you in their tasting rooms. Also, the rates are a lot lower and you can find really good deals all around.

The Silverado Trail is one of my favorite places on earth - arguably, this little trail just east of the main Napa road produces some of the best wines in the world. With the best parts of Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Stags Leap districts, the "Who's Who" of wines is at every turn. If you have not done this trail, it is a must next time you are there. Just note that most of the wineries require appointments these days, but there are also plenty that still don't. Call ahead.

Surprised to see so many new properties & tasting rooms - names like Alpha & Omega, Black Stallion, Darioush, Round Pond, and Frank Family were refreshingly progressive in their visions and bring a nice air of newness to the region. Although quite self-absorbed with their style, money and success, Darioush does make some outstanding reds.

Stay in Sonoma, not Napa - we enjoyed basing in Sonoma way better than Napa. The Plaza has a ton of nice shops and restaurants and the people are very welcoming. It is a short drive to the Napa area and there are a ton of places to see north and west of Sonoma as well. Overall a much more central location to more of everything.

Be organized and prioritize - with well over 400 wineries, the task of what to do/see is daunting. I believe the best thing to do is figure out which region(s) you want to see and map it out ahead of time. If you are in to reds, do the Silverado Trail. Whites, get to Russian River Valley. Overall entertainment factor, mid-Hwy 29 north of Napa proper. Leave plenty of room to be flexible as you will come across places to stop all the time. Call and make several appointments at the wineries you have to see and make various stops around that.

Places you have to see/do - tough to put a summary together as there are so many good spots and it is very individual as well. But if I had to list a few, here goes:

Sterling Vineyards - fun tram to ride, great tours and decent wines

A Champagne tour - there are several to choose from...Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Carneros, name a few, but it is must-do. Very fascinating how it all works.

Jordan Winery Estate Tour - by appointment only and they only take 12 people. It is a great story/tour and the estate is grand.

Copia - in downtown Napa, this culinary, wine and art center is pretty cool. You don't need a lot of time there, but worth a peek.

Hess Collection Estate - located on the west slope of Napa in Mt. Veeder, this is one of my favorite wineries and art museums. Plus their wines are very good and reasonably priced.

Other favorite wineries/tastings - ZD Wines, Quintessa, Jospeh Phelps, Chateau St. Jean, Ferrari-Carano, Jacuzzi, Artesa, Silverado.

Viansa Italian Market - right as you come in the valley from S.F. just outside of Sonoma, one of the first places you'll see is this winery/market. Stop either on the way or the way out, but they have great foods, dips, sauces and their wines are quite nice as well.

Rutherford Grill at lunchtime - right in the heart of the main Hwy 29 drag this is a great casual dining spot to see and be seen. Make reservations or get there before noon or no seats to be had. I like sitting at the bar and people watching.

Well, that's the scoop from your on the ground reporter. I am sure to have left a lot out, but everyone has their favorite spots. Still lots to see and do...just an excuse to get back up there again soon.

Who knows, maybe I'll end up being planted there for can only hope.

Until the next sip...swirl ya' later.

Chief Wino