While Napa Valley, home to some of the most famous names in California, has long enjoyed a reputation for stellar wine experiences, Sonoma Valley is finally getting a share of the spotlight it deserves.
With both regions located less than two hours’ drive north of San Francisco (97km), wine lovers are spoilt for choice when it comes to picturesque vineyard views, five-star dining options and unforgettable wine activities.
Generally, Napa Valley is seen as offering more of a luxurious getaway, with some spectacular, well-established wineries as well as high-end hotels (120) and restaurants (150), while Sonoma Valley is more laid back and rustic, with smaller, family-run estates and casual tastings led by younger winemakers.
There are two main roads that cut through the Napa Valley floor, running north to south. The less-travelled Silverado Trail is on the east side and Highway 29 is on the west side. Highway 29 is the most frequented road connecting the city of Napa and Calistoga (through Yountville and St Helena) and where the most renowned wineries are located. On either side of the highway you’ll see an array of wine-tasting venues, shops, restaurants, delicatessens and seemingly never-ending vineyards. You’ll also be flanked by rolling hills at the base of the Vaca Range, which forms the valley’s eastern boundary, shielding vines from the heat of the Central Valley. The Mayacamas Range on the valley’s western side, separates it from the cooler, marine influences experienced in neighbouring Sonoma Valley.
Napa has 16 appellations, known as American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) spread through the mountains, valley floor and outlying areas, all with a vinous voice of their own as the vineyard elevation and terroir changes.
Sonoma Valley is larger and more spread out than Napa Valley, and almost double the size. This can make visiting several wineries in a day a little harder but, with 18 AVAs from diverse terroirs, it’s a fascinating place for wine tourism. Whether you take the highway, or scenic back roads, the drive from San Francisco should be about an hour and a half.
A fantastic base to explore the region is the charming town of Healdsburg, situated in Russian River AVA in the heart of Sonoma Wine Country.
Tasting rooms are dotted off the main square, and it’s a short drive to the Dry Creek, Alexander Valley, Russian River and Chalk Hill AVAs.
A brief history of change
Winery visits have changed dramatically over the past two decades. Experiences have become more sophisticated in almost every major wine region around the world, with tours, tutored tastings and wine and food pairings offered almost as standard.
For a long time California was lauded as one of the standard bearers in how to host wine lovers. Cellar doors, wine clubs and tasting rooms overlooking stunning vineyards have become an enjoyable way of life and an effective way of selling wine.
Yet, following the global pandemic, both Napa and Sonoma have reopened with an increased vigour to cater for tourists. Napa Valley is more polished than ever, and Sonoma’s once casual wineries have also matured into their own distinct boutique style.
As the range of activities has grown so have prices – many more than double those quoted in a Decanter article in 2016. But that hasn’t quelled wine lovers, with the region attracting more than 3.85 million visitors in 2018 with a cumulative spend of over $2 billion. Given the interest in these wine regions, booking an appointment for a winery visit is now the rule rather than the exception, and all should be done well in advance.
Where once it was simple tastings and cellar door purchases, wineries are now creating what are broadly referred to as ‘wine experiences’, ranging from helicopter rides over vineyards, fine dining with personal chefs and wine and spa days.
This change was largely driven by the pandemic. With international travel restricted, California and interstate locals began looking at places closer to home to spend their money. And wine may not have been the primary reason for visiting these world-renowned regions – many were simply looking to experience the lifestyle these areas offered.
Napa and Sonoma Valley wineries, keen to nurture this new-found enthusiasm added ‘wine experiences’ to their booking rosters. Making their offerings more premium also helped to deter hen and stag parties and all-day winery crawls and further raise the profile of their regions.
The second big change was the widespread use of online booking systems. This was necessitated by hygiene and health reasons amid the Covid-19 pandemic and helped ensure staff levels, control the flow of visitors. Despite this more formal arrangement, many wineries were fully booked out months in advance, especially in peak season.
Similarly, there was a boom in wine clubs, where winelovers could join and order wine online from their favourite wineries and be kept abreast of news and offers, even if they were unable to visit the estate in person.
Make a short list of wineries you really want to visit, budget for each experience and book in advance.
Each winery’s website should have a page linking through to a booking system. Tock was one of the more popular and useful reservation websites for seeing all your appointments in one place.
Many wineries are only open Thursday through Sunday, mainly to cater for local and interstate visitors who come up to the valley for the weekend.
Top Napa and Sonoma wineries to visit:
We’ve broken down the following visits and experiences into themes, selecting some of our favourites, with a strong bias on the quality of wines themselves.
For the wine tasters
Cathy Corison founded her eponymous Rutherford winery in 1988 and has remained true to her vision of producing balanced, ageworthy Cabernet Sauvignon. The tasting takes place in a barn overlooking her lauded Kronos Vineyard. The name is a hint to the Greek roots of Corison’s husband. The wines are elegant and long lived showcasing each vintage’s character, making vertical tastings some of the most thought-provoking in the Napa Valley.
Tastings starting from: $75
Address: 987 St. Helena Highway, Saint Helena, CA 94574
Paul Draper, another giant in the California wine industry, produces the acclaimed Monte Bello Cabernet from a site south of San Francisco and has also built a following for making some of the best Zinfandels in Sonoma. You can find the Ridge tasting room overlooking the Lytton Springs vineyard, just 15 minutes’ drive from Healdsburg. One of the best value tastings in the area, flights will include the Estate Chardonnay, different site specific Zins, perhaps a Mataro (Mourvèdre) and even a precious drop of Monte Bello.
Tastings starting from: $25
Address: 650 Lytton Springs Road Healdsburg, California 95448
Jack and Jamie Davies took this historic site near Calistoga and turned it into a winery that produces benchmark California sparkling wine using the traditional method. And after a few days of tasting Cabernet Sauvignon, an elegant fresh fizz can be a welcome relief. Their tour takes you into the cellars hand-carved into rock more than 100 years ago, explains the method of production, and ends with a tasting of both younger and older cuvees. You can also add the Davies Vineyard wines (Pinots and Cabernets) to your tasting experience.
Tastings starting from: $50
Address: 1400 Schramsberg Road, Calistoga, California 94515
This picturesque, historic, family-owned estate by Spring Mountain is one of the Napa Valley’s references for classic, elegant, ageworthy Cabernets. Their Sauvignon Blanc is also one of the best in the valley and cellars well.
Tastings starting from: $75
Address: 1902 Madrona Avenue, St. Helena, California 94574
For the high-enders
The project between Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton Rothschild and Robert Mondavi started in the 1970s and is now one of the most iconic names in the Napa Valley. The regal building is a luxurious place to taste a real collector’s wine. The basic Courtyard experience starts at $100, but for truly breathtaking views, opt for the Partner’s Room tasting. With a private chef on site, expect further fine dining options in future.
Tastings starting from: $100
Address: 7900 St Helena Highway, Oakville, California 94562
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
Located off the Silverado Trail, this is one of the estates that put California wine on the map, its 1973 Cabernet coming top in the acclaimed Judgment of Paris red flight in 1976. The Fay visitor centre has stunning views of the vineyards and Stag’s Leap District where you can try the winery’s three top bottlings: Fay, SLV and Cask 23. But not all tastings will feature these wines, so check the descriptions. If you have deep pockets, indulge in a full culinary experience with a seasonal four-course tasting menu.
Tastings starting from: $50
Address: 5766 Silverado Trail, Napa, California 94558
Robert Mondavi Winery
A name synonymous with California, this renowned Oakville winery has a diverse offering of art, food and wine experiences to choose from. You can sample the Estate Collection for $65 while gazing over the famed To Kalon vineyard and art sculptures. (Note: if you want to try the To Kalon range, it’s $125 and rising…)
Tastings starting from: $65
Address: 7801 Saint Helena Highway Oakville, California 94562
For the experimenters
Tank Garage Winery
The experimentation going on here in this old 1930s gas station is refreshing, offering a welcome break from Cabernet. The hip restoration of the garage, the one-off bottlings, the beautiful labels – yes, the marketing is slick, but there is the same level creativity in the wines, from pét-nats to whites made using carbonic maceration from El Dorado County and natural wines. You won’t like all of them, but you’ll love some of them – and that’s part of the fun!
Tastings starting from: $30
Address: 1020 Foothill Blvd., Calistoga, California 94515
A proper wine-tasting experience for those who really want to focus on what’s in the bottle. There are very good, leaner versions of California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay but this sustainable champion also makes fantastic reds from Schioppettino (a grape that many wouldn’t have even tried in its Italian guise) and white blends using Ribolla Gialla, a variety more commonly found on the Italian-Slovenian border.
Tastings starting from: $65
Address: 3175 Dry Creek Road, Napa, California 94558
A small, family-run farm in the heart of Sonoma’s Zinfandel country that is influenced by the wines of Tuscany and Campania. It has a real Italian vineyard charm, which really helps you understand what they are trying to achieve with their Mediterranean varieties. The tasting is held in a barn, where GSM blends and Zinfandels sit alongside juicy Sangioveses and Aglianco.
Tastings starting from: $25, but free with a purchase
Address: 4202 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, California 95448
A tasting room in the charming town of Healdsburg that focuses on varieties from Italy’s Piedmont and northwest. Whites made from Arneis and Cortese and reds from Dolcetto, Barbera and Nebbiolo – all from Mendocino County. Enjoy a plate of antipasto (cheese and hams) with your flight, and expect detailed commentary on the wines themselves.
Tastings starting from: $40
Address: 132 Plaza Street, Healdsburg, California 95448
A popular recommendation from wine industry locals, Seth Cripe’s boutique tasting room is in a small, historic house in Calistoga. Expect pure-fruited and natural wines – a refreshing change from big Cabernets. And the Pinot Noirs, Chenin Blancs and even a Malvasia are at much more accessible prices than you’ll find elsewhere in the region.
Tastings starting from: $35
Address: 916 Foothill Blvd., Calistoga, California 94515
For the view
Arguably the prettiest tasting room in Napa where you can see the family’s links to the plant nursery business in full bloom. The planting around the historic house is stunning, and the tasting is set next to water overlooking vineyards. Don’t miss the classic car collection either. Many Far Niente bottlings are only available to wine club members, so if you aren’t, this is a rare chance to try them. The Chardonnay is lean and serious, and in stark contrast to the more crowd-pleasing styles of other wineries in the stable, which include Bella Union, Dolce and Nickel & Nickel.
Tastings starting from: $90
Address: 1350 Acacia Drive, Oakville, California 94562
Another historic name that has a fabulous tasting room in downtown Napa, but a visit to the 192ha estate and winery up on Mount Veeder has a truly breathtaking vista. A new tasting room here was completed in 2021, following the destruction of the old house by fires in 2017. Enjoy a tour, then taste the Chardonnay, Merlot and flagship Cabernet, along with a selection of library wines.
Tastings starting from: $125
Address: 1155 Lokoya Road, Napa, California 94558
Montelana’s 19th-century stone castle, winery and cool cellars are among the Napa Valley’s architectural icons. Tastings start at $45 with a Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and Cabernet, but to try the Estate and Library wines you’ll need to fork out a little more. Unfortunately, you’ll be hard pressed to find a bottle of the 1973 Chardonnay that triumphed at the 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting.
Tastings starting from: $45
Address: 1429 Tubbs Lane Calistoga, California 94515