With roughly 1,000 wineries, a bounty of Michelin-starred restaurants and new luxury hotels popping up around every corner, Napa and Sonoma businesses are constantly being pushed to up the ante and diversify in order to stand out from the stiff competition. The local wine bars are no exception.
A wave of new venues have entered the scene with obscure wines, fixed themes, and trendy designs made for the Instagram age. They join the ranks of the tried and true classics, who have no need for pageantry and thrive on their reputable wine lists alone.
As for food, it’s a given, though it ranges from caviar and late-night nibbles to farm-fresh veggies and gourmet burgers that go above and beyond the customary condiments.
This is all good news for California wine country visitors, for as cliche as it may sound, there is literally a wine bar for everyone. Interested in expanding your palate? Order a glass of Hungarian Kadarka at downtown Napa’s Compline. Prefer au-natural? Visit Valley Bar & Kitchen on the Sonoma Plaza. Strictly sparkling? Check out Be Bubbly in Napa or Sigh in Sonoma. You get the idea.
Carrying more than 400 bottles from all over the globe in its wine shop and offering 20-plus pours in 2 or 5 oz., Bounty Hunter is proof that smoky barbecue can pair with so much more than Zinfandel. Housed in an 1880s brick building downtown, Napa’s favourite barbecue joint feels like a modern-day saloon (it also has a collection of more than 40 whiskeys) and has been grilling up ribs, brisket, pulled pork and its speciality beer-can chicken for over 25 years. Unpretentious to its core, Bounty Hunter approaches wine with a refreshing lightness. Their bottle pricing starts as low as $25 and each dish on the menu is listed with a suggested wine pairing.
- Address: 975 First St, Napa
- Opening hours: Sunday-Saturday 11am-9pm
Be Bubbly – Napa
As its name suggests, Be Bubbly is a sparkling wine-focused lounge that opened in downtown Napa in 2020. Be Bubbly has a substantial Champagne list and all of the California classics, but you can also get really adventurous with a sparkling Grignolino from Napa, a Lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna or a Brut from Armenia made from old vine Voskehat and Khatouni. Acting both as a wine bar and bottle shop, you can purchase by the glass, bottle, half-bottle or magnum, opt for a sparkling cocktail, and add on small plates ranging from caviar to grilled cheesy toast bites. Check Be Bubbly’s event calendar for live music, wine dinners, food pop-ups and more.
- Address: 1407 Second St., Napa
- Opening hours: Sunday 12pm-6pm, Monday 4pm-10pm, Thursday 4pm-10pm, Friday 3pm-11pm, Saturday 12pm-11pm
Compline – Napa
Equal parts wine bar, restaurant and wine shop, Compline (pronounced kom-plin) opened in 2017, just in time for downtown Napa to undergo a major revitalisation. Master Sommelier Matt Stamp and his partner Ryan Stetins handpicked an extensive selection of Napa and Sonoma wines from boutique and often lesser-known producers, but locals actually flock to their simple and intimate indoor/outdoor space in search of wines they can’t find without boarding a plane. The 31-page list spans from Virginia to the Pacific Northwest, nine countries in Europe, and the southern hemisphere, but while wine is obviously the focus, food doesn’t take a back seat. The burger and duck-fat fries are legendary.
- Address: 1300 First St #312, Napa
- Wine Bar and Merchant opening hours: Thursday-Monday. Lunch 11.30am-4pm, dinner 5-9pm
Bay Grape – Napa
Technically a wine shop, Bay Grape allows patrons to enjoy any purchased bottles on their patio for a $10 corkage fee (which will still work out to be less than the typical by-the-glass restaurant price), and on Sundays corkage is waived on any bottle of “true” Champagne. Steering away from Napa’s big-named, commercial brands, Bay Grape focuses on the undiscovered and carries wines from all over the world (even Serbia), with a strong natural wine selection. Moreover, the shop acts as a rotating tasting room for small, local producers that don’t have their own spot; each month you can sample wines from a featured winery. And on Mondays, you can test your skills in a blind tasting flight.
- Address: 2999 Solano Ave., Napa
- Dinner: Wednesday-Thursday and Sunday 12pm-8pm, Friday and Saturday 12pm-10pm
Carpe Diem – Napa
A downtown Napa staple for over a decade, Carpe Diem received national exposure after the 2014 Napa earthquake, when images of the destroyed wine bar – its awning torn and splayed across spilled bricks on the street – were broadcast across all of the major media outlets. But Carpe Diem took its name to heart and miraculously reopened 10 months later. A classic, dimly lit wine bar with a small outdoor parklet, Carpe Diem sits just off downtown Napa’s buzzing Main Street, but isn’t flashy or pretentious and the wine list has bottles for every budget (get a magnum of Flowers, Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2014 for just $90). The ostrich burger topped with cherry coriander compote and brie is the speciality (order it ‘Carpe Diem style’ to add on a poached egg and pancetta), but there’s also cheese and charcuterie and small plates, like sweet chili calamari and a duck confit mac-n-cheese, if you’d rather just nibble.
- Address: 1001 2nd St, Napa
- Opening hours: Tuesday-Saturday 5pm-9.30pm, Sunday 3pm-9pm
Cadet Wine & Beer Bar – Napa
Tucked back into a downtown Napa alleyway, Cadet isn’t the kind of place you’ll stumble upon, and yet it’s almost always busy. Female power-duo Colleen Fleming and Aubrey Bailey run this joint like it’s a nightly house party, popping rare bottles of Champagne (find over 50 selections on their list), letting patrons pick out vinyl for the record player and serving up a seriously good adult grilled cheese. Every Wednesday, different boutique producers take over the bar for featured tastings and, Thursday-Sunday, all wines by the glass are half off during Power Hour (5-6pm). The parties Cadet throws every few months are total debauchery – picture magnums, costumes, DJs, circus performers and the occasional keg stand, as the bar’s red glow radiates well past curfew.
- Address: 930 Franklin St, Napa
- Opening hours: Sunday 2pm-10pm, Wednesday-Thursday 5pm-12am, Friday 5pm-1am, Saturday 2pm-1am
Goose & Gander – St Helena
This St Helena locale has long been known for its craft cocktails, dating back to its bygone days as the venerable Martini House. The multi-page cocktails and spirits menu comes in a thick, bible-like book, but the wine list is even more epic, compiling more than 100 Napa Valley reds alone and some of the most coveted bottles from cult producers ($7,500 for a Screaming Eagle 2007, anyone?). What’s more, each month, the restaurant highlights a local consulting winemaker and their many projects. Instead of entering through the front of the 1923 craftsman-style bungalow, walk around to the basement bar – a cavernous speakeasy where the locals hang out. The famous Martini House Mushroom Soup was so cherished that Goose & Gander still serves it today, nearly a decade after opening. Follow it up with The G&G Burger with duck- fat fries. You won’t regret forking out the extra $6 to add the bone marrow on top.
- Address: 1245 Spring St, St Helena
- Opening hours: Monday-Sunday, 4.30pm-11pm
Willi’s Wine Bar – Santa Rosa
A beloved Sonoma institution for 15 years, Willi’s Wine Bar burned to the ground in the 2017 wildfires but, after much pleading from its loyal followers, it triumphantly rose from the ashes, reopening in a new location in 2019. From the outside, the sleek and contemporary space located in a Santa Rosa shopping centre might not look quite as homey as the original roadhouse, but Willi’s laid-back, friendly spirit that is Sonoma County’s signature lives on within – as does a handful of its most popular small plates, like the Moroccan lamb chops, curried crab tacos, and Tunisian roasted carrots. A mix of hyper-local and international, the wine list boasts more than 40 selections available by the glass, 2 oz. pours, half-bottle, or bottle, 10 wine flights and a private stash of premium, hard-to-find bottles.
- Address: 1415 Town and Country Drive, Santa Rosa
- Opening hours: Monday-Sunday 11.30am-9pm
Region – Sebastopol
This high-tech, forward-thinking tasting room opened in 2020 in Sebastopol’s The Barlow, an industrial, pedestrian-only marketplace that’s a one-stop destination for shopping, dining and, well, boozing. At Region, wine is dispensed from self-serve Wine Stations at the tap of a button. With 50 local producers on offer, you can sip your way around Sonoma County and 14 of its 18 AVAs. Most of Region’s wine partners don’t have their own tasting rooms, so the bar also features a different winery each week as a pop-up, offering the chance to meet the winemakers and try new releases, library vintages, food pairings, etc. Sit inside or out and order food from one of The Barlow’s eateries.
- Address: 1245 Spring St, St Helena
- Opening hours: Monday-Thursday 1pm-8pm, Friday-Saturday 12pm-10pm, Sunday 12pm-8pm
Sigh – Sonoma
‘Come quickly, I am tasting the stars.’ These words, famously attributed to Dom Pérignon, are the centrepiece in a wall of bubbly-themed quotes stamped on mirrors at Sonoma County’s original Champagne bar. Located just off the historic Sonoma Plaza, proprietor Jayme Powers (a former wine educator for Napa’s Schramsberg Vineyards) opened Sigh after recognising the need for a dedicated sparkling authority in California wine country. Dripping in gold and silver, the glamorous space fits the theme with luxe lounge areas, an oval-shaped marble bar and mid-century modern chandeliers that mimic the pop of a Champagne cork. A hen-party hotspot on weekends, Sigh serves mostly Champagne and Californian sparklings by the glass and in flights that you can pair with cheese and other light bites – and if you tell the staff it’s your birthday, they just might break out the Champagne Gun.
- Address: 120 West Napa St, Sonoma
- Opening hours: Sunday-Monday 12pm-8pm, Thursday 12pm-8pm, Friday and Saturday 12pm-10pm
Valley Bar + Bottle – Sonoma
Since opening in 2020 on the historic Sonoma Plaza, Valley Bar + Bottle has quickly become a neighborhood watering hole for locals. A venture from four friends and wine industry vets, the inside feels like the kind of cozy, hole-in-the-wall wine bar you’d stumble into off a Paris alleyway — the building is an old adobe built in 1826. But all the action is on Valley’s back patio. Valley is the only natural-focused wine bar in all of Sonoma and Napa Valley, though they’ll tell you that it’s more about producers implementing organic, biodynamic, regenerative and indingenous agricultural practices. Given this, you’ll find a few local producers on their list, but it is dominated by European bottlings. Open for dinner and weekend brunch, Valley is best known for its small, shareable plates, like the XO eggs, pink shrimp roll, mortadella and coppa.
- Address: 487 1st West, Sonoma
- Opening hours: Dinner Thursday-Monday 5pm-9pm, Brunch Saturday-Sunday 11am-3pm
Regiis Ova – Yountville
Chef Thomas Keller’s latest Napa Valley project — located on the same couple of blocks as The French Laundry, Bouchon Bistro, Bouchon Bakery, Ad Hoc + Addendum and La Calenda, his other five Yountville eateries — is a celebration of two of life’s greatest indulgences: Champagne and caviar. At the Regiis Ova Caviar & Champagne Lounge, you can pair Krug, Dom, or Ruinart (the most expensive bottles top out at $2,700) with a flight of five caviars or other small caviar-topped plates, like deviled eggs and tempura-fried chicken tenders. Just like when Ad Hoc first opened, the lounge was launched as a pop-up, so time will tell if it’ll become a permanent fixture.
- Address: 6480 Washington St., Yountville
- Opening hours: Thursday-Saturday 5pm-11pm, Sunday 3pm-8pm
First published 25 September 2019. Updated 26 August 2021