Travel, Etc. --> Northern CA Wine Country
An Incomplete Guide to Northern California Wine country
Our readers share their California Experiences
As I mentioned in our December 20th newsletter, our customers and readers frequently ask for wine country touring advice. Because first-hand experience is generally better than any guide book, I solicited travel experiences from both our readers and members of the California-based Bakersfield Wine Society. Based on those responses, we have begun to compile a file of suggestions. I plan to post this guide on our web site, continue to update it and publish it once a year as part of the newsletter. Thanks to everyone who responded and keep those suggestions coming.
Our first suggestions come from Richard Brockmeyer of the Napa Chapter of the Bakersfield Wine Society. Surprise, surprise: Napa City is finally happening. There are many great dining sites up-Valley, but we Napa Citians don't have to drive up there to dine well. You may not have vineyards out the window, but the food is excellent - and often lower than "wine country" prices.
Sakitinas - a Japanese grill/bistro. In a converted bowling alley, across from Montgomery Wards. Highly recommended. Upscale adjoining cocktail lounge, with entertainment some nights.
Celadon or Cole's Chop House - both downtown, across a creek from each other. Both are top-flight houses by Greg Cole. The Chop House is specializing in dry-aged beef and martinis. SF prices, but the quality is there. (707) 254-9690
Tuscany - 1 block from Celadon/Cole's, at the heart of downtown Napa. A vibrant place that will have you thinking you are in SF's North Beach. (707) 258-1000
Sushi Mambo - Downtown. No doubt the finest Mexican sushi chef on this side of the Pacific. (707) 257-6604
For no-frills, real Mexican food - All have excellent beer selections and outdoor seating (that enjoy views of the passing traffic). BYO wine, and tip well so they look the other way. Taco Acapulco; Villa Corona; Tacos Playita Note: this is not your mother's Taco Bell.
Hope the suggestions help. I will guide for dinner. - "Brock" If you want to buy Richard dinner, his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
From one of our readers, Beth M.
In Napa, two places we enjoyed eating greatly were the Culinary Institute of America and the restaurant at Chandon. The CIA has a beautiful building next to Beringer Winery (lovely grounds as well), and is a casual, affordable way to have a great meal. We had a gourmet meal watching the preparation done in stations in a beautiful dining room. Chandon was also a wonderful meal and great grounds. We ate there with wine for $110. We only regret we did not take the tour at the winery to learn more about sparkling wine production. We will catch that next time! The Oakville Grocery in Napa is a wonderful deli with cheeses/meats galore. It is a great place to grab a sack lunch to take to any of a number of wineries which have picnic areas!
From Mike Stepanovich, president of the Bakersfield Wine Society (Trust me... this man knows how to eat - W.G.)
Restaurants: Ahh, now we're talking. I have never dined there, but of course The French Laundry in Yountville is renowned as one of the finest restaurants in America. One of my very favorites is Mustard's Grill just north of Yountville, great food, very imaginative. Also just north of Yountville is Brix, another favorite, Pacific Rim Influence, great sashimi, I love it. Pinot Blanc in St. Helena is superb, great food, great atmosphere. The Napa Valley Grill in Yountville is quite good. Bouchon in Yountville is a GREAT French restaurant. Wonderful food, superbly prepared. Can't wait to get back there. At the top of my list right now.
People who love Healdsburg
From reader Beth M.
My husband and I went to California last March for a week's stay. We stayed at a wonderful bed and breakfast in Healdsburg - The Haydon Street Inn. This is located in the Russian River Valley and is about 30 min. from Napa, and 30 min. from the coast and redwoods, which is also a must see. They were incredibly hospitable, very economical ($115/night with a hot breakfast, evening wine/snacks), beautifully decorated, and very knowledgeable about the area. Healdsburg is a great small town with lots of bistros with which to end your days. The Haydon Street Inn was found on the Internet at http://www.winecountry.com, and has a virtual tour so you can see what you're getting before you decide! We would stay there again.
From Tony Correia of the Bakersfield Wine Society...
f you want to buy your own winery, check out Tony's California Wine Business Real Estate newsletter at www.calwineland.com I prefer hanging out in Sonoma County, myself. There is less traffic, except on 101 and folks tend to be friendlier, and less full of themselves. The Swiss Hotel, on the Square in Sonoma, casual, locals, great food and atmosphere. Healdsburg is the center of the wine universe in my opinion. Great LITTLE joint called Ravenous, and then Bistro Ralph's, and Catelli's, ahhhhhhh AND absolutely the best garden shop in the world, The Gardener, on Dry Creek Road, just west of town...
Wineries to Visit
And again from Becky Z. of the Bakersfield Wine Society...
Our personal favorite winery is V. Sattui located in St. Helena. They do not distribute their wines so they're only available at the winery. They don't open tours up to the public but make it pretty easy to join their cellar club. They have a fantastic cellar and do tastings down there if you're a member. Buying a case of wine instantly qualifies you. Their wines are consistently fantastic and they even sell wine futures. They make one of the best Madieras I've ever had. They're also famous for the beautiful picnic grounds and onsite deli.
As far as tours go, Rutherford has a great tour and it's right next to Auberge du Soleil and also has picnic grounds. Nice caves and tasting afterward. Schramsburg Vineyard has one of the best champagne tours. Reservations are required but definitely worth it. They also have nice caves and a wonderful private tasting.
Reader Michael M. likes the Sterling Cabernet perhaps a little too well...
O.K., so it seems a bit trumped up to enter it from a ski gondola - but the Sterling Winery is a great place to visit. High above the area vineyards, they have moderately priced samplers (the reserve red sampler is a little pricey - but better than sex) which you can sip and swirl while out on the patio overlooking the grounds that give us that Napa Valley nectar. If you forgot your cheese & bread they can help you there as well. My wife and I had a very romantic late afternoon on that patio as we closed out a day of great fun and wine education.
Reader Cassie H. says call ahead for reservations
When we last visited Napa, our favorite stop was at Carmenet. You have to make reservations, but it is well worth it. It is well off the main road behind some massive iron gates. We took some sandwiches and sat on the terrace overlooking the vineyards (complete with workers!) enjoying our lunch. When the nice lady in the tasting room discovered we were having lunch, she provided some complimentary cabernet. The tasting included a trip through the cellars and a barrel tasting. Aaaahhh...
Reader Beth M. has also learned the "call ahead" lesson
As for the wineries, my best advice to people is do their homework before going. We went with a couple who had visited before. They made several calls months before we left so we could visit wineries that were either appointment only or very small and required advanced calls. Scheduling these ahead of time allows you to plot out your days so you are most efficient and don't back track and waste valuable tasting time. You can always do other wineries in the surrounding area in between your scheduled tastings! As for tours, we found the most educational to be at Benziger (Glen Ellen, Sonoma Co.). They spend a lot of time talking about the process of making wine, root grafting due to parasites, upkeep and restrictions regarding the land use in CA, etc. They talk some about the winery, but this gives you a foundation for the rest of your visits. After visiting your favorite wineries, we also found it very interesting to see small wineries. Tudal, Joseph Swan, Pezzi King and A.Rafanelli are a few that stand out to me. It really puts it in perspective compared to the Cakebread and Opus of the world. This is definitely something to experience (and you must call ahead)! Be warned, not all small wineries will leave a good taste in your mouth!
The Wine Guy's Favorite Wineries
Clos Pegase - I think our all time favorite winery for a touring and tasting has to be Clos Pegase. There is a old adage in Napa Valley that goes "If you want to make a small fortune in the wine business - start with a large one." Clos Pegase owners Jan and Mitsuko Shrem certainly fit the bill. The dramatic winery, designed by Princeton architect Michael Graves, as a "temple to wine," houses the Shrem's extensive art collection. Over 20,000 square feet of aging caves were dug into the chalk hill behind the winery where rows of French oak barrels are separated by alcoves containing priceless Greek and Roman sculpture. Even the grounds have become a sculpture garden filled with contemporary bronzes and marble antiquities. We recommend taking the grand tour that includes the caves. It is given daily at 11 am or 2 pm at no charge. Something about the Napa Valley and the wine business encourages people to indulge their passions. I just appreciate it when people like the Shrems are so willing to share the products of those passions with us. Great architecture, great art and great wine... seeing this the first time made me realize that making fine wine is not a business where the normal rules apply. Considering the investment, I am reasonably sure that Clos Pegase could become the most successful winery in Napa and still never break even. And I'm sure Mr. Schrem doesn't care! I wonder if the IRS lets him depreciate the art? Visit their web site at Clos Pegase.
Ravenswood - On the other end of the spectrum, the Ravenswood winery, just outside the city of Sonoma, knows how to have fun. Their motto "No Wimpy Wine" is emblazoned above the tasting room door. These are the guys who wrote the book on red Zinfandel, pioneering the huge, fruit forward Zinfandels that are so popular today. The only way to describe this place is "Fun" - stop at the tasting room and try their wine and buy one of their great tee shirts or caps. In the summertime, their chef, Tony Najiola, cooks up gourmet BBQ every Saturday and Sunday afternoon from 11:30 to 4:00. Come for the tour and stay for the cook out. They do one tour a day at 10:30 am by reservation only (call 888-669-4679 or 707-939-1960). Visit their web site at http://www.ravenswood-wine.com
For a complete listing of the street addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and web site links for wineries in Napa and Sonoma Valleys try these web sites:
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