I've always wanted to go to the famous regions of Napa and Sonoma. Being an avid wine enthusiast, these two areas had yet to be crossed off of my list of wine destinations to visit. You can imagine both my surprise and glee when my husband surprised me with a trip to San Francisco, which of course, included visiting wine country! I have to be honest with you: I felt both excited but somewhat guilty. Guilty because our trip was during Christmas so we wouldn't see our families this year for the holidays. But as we made our way to the airport to catch the 7am flight, the thought of Christmas was the furthest from my mind! I had other things on the brain like what wineries to visit. Being in California during late December proved to be an excellent opportunity to wear my fall fashions - again. Something that I certainly couldn't do here in Toronto. Hello snazzy leather boots! Exploring the wine regions of the world is a great opportunity to see beautiful landscapes and to also taste their "terroir". It gives you another perspective of the both the land and the people. Even though Napa and Sonoma fall into the "New World" category when it comes to wine, these regions have been producing wines for a long time and are filled with rich history we normally associate with the "Old World" wine regions. What really impressed and overwhelmed me was the sheer number of wineries located in both Sonoma and Napa. Looking at the map, it was covered in dots, with each dot being of course, a winery. Map or no map, this is a place that I wouldn't mind getting lost in!
This region tends to get overshadowed by it's bigger brother Napa, even with a 130 year old history in making wine. It's for the beauty of the surroundings and the quality of the wines that this region shouldn't be overlooked. What really surprised me about both Sonoma and Napa is how many different micro-climates exist, each suitable for different varieties of grapes. It's wonderful! When it came to winery visits and tastings, Sonoma was a bit cheaper. Some of the wineries even gave us complimentary tasting cards for others in the area. At each stop, we were encouraged to visit the other local wineries as each one had their own specialty. One thing I noticed was how nice the locals were! They were always willing to talk to you about the wine, the region, the history...or the weather if you wanted. Sitting in my hotel room in San Francisco, I was worried about how many wineries I would be able to visit. I later realized that distance between the actual wineries wasn't the problem. It was time! If you're heading out to this area, definitely give yourself enough time and don't rush through or you'll miss it all together.
The regions (or appellations) of Sonoma and the types of grapes that are the specialty:
- Russion River Valley: Cooler climate grapes such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
- Dry Creek Valley: Big, bold Zinfandel
- Alexander Valley: The mighty Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel
Many of the smaller boutique wineries in Sonoma require that you call ahead and make an appointment. My visit to the area was also during the holiday season so I wasn't sure what wineries would be available. Luckily for me, the larger estates were open and ready for tasting festivities.
Wineries visited in Sonoma:
- Larger producer. I enjoyed a tasting of their "Reserve" wines.
- Small boutique winery withe the tasting room and gift shop located in a historic turn-of-the-century hop barn.
- Lovely Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel wines.
- Francis Ford Coppola
- Some nice wines here. You can also see the various Academy Awards on display.
- Clos du Bois
I could write long details for each winery visited, but I'll highlight the key points of one:
Clos Du Bois
- Across the road from Francis Ford Coppola winery
- Tried some wines available for sale in the tasting room only. The wines were all good! I especially enjoyed the 2007 Fume Blanc from the Russian River Valley and the 2006 Old Vine Carignane from the Alexander Valley
- The tasting guide, George, was such a fun guy to have done the tasting with. He provided us with a terrific experience and gave us a lot of recommendations as to where to visit and see in both Sonoma and Napa. I explained to him my theory of heaven being a large tasting room. :)
- George finished off our tasting with two complimentary Clos du Bois wine glasses so we could enjoy some wine in our hotel room. I'm happy to report that these glasses survived the trip back home and are now a wonderful souvenir!
- Purchased a bottle of the 2006 Old Vine Carignane (81% Carignane and 19% Zinfandel)
When planning a trip to this area, definitely pick up the Wine Road map. It has all the wineries listed plus lots of information about the region. You can obtain a paper copy at most wine shops in San Francisco or at the wineries. When in Sonoma County, head to Healdsberg. It's a cute town with plenty of tasting bars and a coffee shop called "The Flying Goat" that's just super. After a tough day of wine tasting (ok, it wasn't that tough), having that great cup of coffee sealed the deal.
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After Christmas and much needed boxing day bargain shopping, my husband and I decided to take a couple of days to explore the Napa region. Like Sonoma, Napa is truly a beautiful place to explore. Vineyards are surrounded by rolling hills, historical estates, cute towns...it's a perfect getaway from the drudgery of daily life (ok, I'm being dramatic). Even if you're not really into wine, it's easy just to appreciate this picturesque region. Napa is not cheap so be prepared to open your wallet. Each winery offers tasting flights that range approximately between $15-$25 and the purchase of wines will cost anywhere between approximately $30-$200. I tried to look for wines that I wouldn't be able to buy here in Toronto and I have to say, I was pretty successful!
I had only a small taste of what the region had to offer so I definitely will be making a trip back. It's a good excuse don't you think? Driving around the region, it was surreal to see the famous names such as Opus, Rubicon, Duckhorn, Miner, Stags Leap and Mondavi. The wineries that I have a chance to visit in Napa were:
- Peju Province
- Opus One
- Rubicon Estate
- Known for it's famous Rubicon wine
- Owned by the director Francis Ford Coppola
- I Purchased the 2006 Captain's Reserve Zinfandel (aye aye Captain!)
- Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay is what really shines here
- Private art collection for viewing on the premises
- Ranch-style winery
- Highlight wine was the 2007 Double Red Wine which is a Bordeaux blend
- Mumm Napa
- Sparkling wines; sister of the Mumm house in Champagne
- The French saw the potential of Napa as a premium wine making region
- Sparkling wines
- Sister to the Moet & Chandon house in Champagne
When in Napa, be sure to drive along the Silverado Trail. It's a windy road that takes you deep into wine country. On each side of the road you'll see wineries nestled between the rolling hills. I can only imagine what the area looks like just before harvest. Even in late December, it was beautiful. I even saw a tall palm tree in the middle of a vineyard. How funny! Next time I go to the area, I'd love to rent a bike and pedal my way through. I'm not sure how that would work with all the wine tastings I'd like to do! I'm sure it'll be a wibbly, wobbly ride.
Be sure to stop in the town of Yountville. It's small but charming. There are plenty of tasting rooms for you to sample wines from the wineries that you may not have had a chance to get to. This is also the town where the famous French Laundry and Bouchon restaurants are located. If you don't have time to sit down for a full meal, then check out the Bouchon Bakery which is located beside the restaurant Bouchon. They have fabulous baked goods that will make you salivate.
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Here are my personal three winery highlights from this trip to Napa:
Peju Province Winery
I was introduced to this winery at the “Night Life” iYellow event back in November 2009 (is it really 2010 already?!). I liked what I tasted that night so when I arrived in Napa, this winery was one of the ones on my list.
Here are the highlights:
- Located in Rutherford, Peju is just down the street from the famous Rubicon Estate winery on St. Helena Highway (Highway 29).
- Beautiful estate with a large structure resembling a French Provincial tower with these tall and bizarre looking trees lining the road up to the entrance.
- A tasting flight is $10 per person but complimentary with purchase of any bottle of wine.
- The tasting guide was a lot of fun. He's known as the “Napa Rapa” (or, Napa Rapper) because of his wine-related rhymes and songs. I really enjoyed the Zinfandel rap! Learning is fun when put to rhyme. :)
- The highlight of the tasting was the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon H.B Vineyard (this one wasn't supposed to be on the tasting menu, but given to the group in my honour for being the “Lady of Perpetual Consumption”. At $225 a bottle, was I ever happy to be that lady!
- I ended up purchasing the Provence (blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Colombard - wow) and the 2008 Chardonnay.
- Driving by, you would think that the building was a secret research facility or a government bunker. However, seeing that it was the Napa Valley, it most certainly was...a winery! The building, as imposing as it was, had a certain elegance in it's minimal design.
- This winery is different from the rest in that they produce only one wine - their signature "Opus One" which is a Bordeaux style wine.
- They do have a secondary wine which is called Overture. The Overture wine is just the wine that didn't pass to be included in the Opus label. I'm sure it's still pretty darn good.
- For $30 USD you can have a tour of the facility (book this a few days in advance) and includes a glass of the famed Opus Wine. The current vintage is 2006.
- This is a gravity flow winery and is a collaboration between the late Robert Mondavi of Napa and the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild of France.
- The terrace on top of the winery overlooks the valley. It's a great place to enjoy that Opus One wine.
- The tour was one of the best tours I've ever taken. Our guide was really engaging as she described the history of the winery and the production process. It helped that she personally knew the Mondavi and Rothschild because she had a lot of first-hand antidotes and descriptions about the pair.
- Having lusted over the Opus One bottle, I decided to purchase the much less expensive wine called "Overture" which retails for approximately $60 USD.
- Driving along the Silverado Trail, this winery captured my attention from the road because of the architecture.
- The building is supposed to evoke the image of Persepolis, the capital of ancient Persia.
- With beautiful columns and fountains, you're greeted inside the winery to a very chic and elegant tasting room. The store showcases not only the wines but all sorts of luxury goods for sale.
- A tasting flight cost $25 and contained some fantastic wines. I loved every variety I tried. Of course this was not because I had been "tasting" all day. The wines were delicious!
- I ended up purchasing the 2008 Signature Viognier which might have been one of the best Viognier's I've had in a long time. The Merlot was also outstanding. It was hard to decide what to buy. Seeing how I could only take so many bottles back home with me, I had to be selective. Too bad this producer isn't in the LCBO. You can, however, obtain these wines from the importer B&W Wines here in Toronto.
- I really wish that I hadn't arrived to this winery so late so I could have done a tour of the facilities. The only reason I ended up here was because I arrived at Paraduxx winery too late so it was closed. When one door closes, the other stays open ready to serve!
Now that the holidays are over and it's back to work, I'm longing to go back these two world-famous wine regions. It was such a great experience. Now when I'm in my local California section of the LCBO, I can say "I've been there!". Having only read about these places in textbooks or getting a small glimpse of them at wine shows, I have a new appreciation of how unique and beautiful this area of California is. On my next trip, I'd love to visit the wineries of Quivera, Simi, Wilson, Mazzocco, Fritz, Silver Oak and Bennett. I'd also like to explore the area known as Carneros, which is situated between Sonoma and Napa. So little time and so much wine. What is a gal supposed to do?!