While some of you may choose to go on a guided wine tour, our wine country experience has been entirely self-guided, and the suggestions on this list are some of our favorite places in both Sonoma and Napa valleys. Most of the wineries are open 10-4, and we reccomend not trying to do more than 4 wineries in a day; it's actually a lot of wine! Starting around 10:30-11:00, and stopping halfway for lunch, seems to make for a good day, with a nap around 4:00 and dinner around 7 or 8.
For those new to wine-tasting, you'll probably want to start with the Classic Napa list, but for those for who have been before, we'd suggest some of the smaller vineyards you may not have heard of. The list below is not even close to a complete list, but you're sure to have a good time at any of these places!
The Classic Napa
You'll want to start at the foremost vineyard in all of California wine country, the Robert Mondavi winery, and try the signature wine tasting where they will show you the two-story fermentation casks and teach you how to taste wine with some small appetizers at a farmhouse table. This vineyard is beautiful, and gives you a nice sense of the history and layout of the two valleys.
Robert Mondavi is about halfway up the valley, and from here you can go anywhere. If you keep heading north, you'll pass Beaulieu Vineyards, one of the larger and better known wineries, and after going through St. Helena, you'll end up at the Beringer estate. While this isn't the best wine in the valley, it's an amazing property with a good tasting and a lot of history, and integral to the character of Napa. They have some of the original wine-making equipment, and some top-shelf wine which will taste nothing like the Beringer you're used to drinking at home.
If you decide to skip Beringer, your next stop should absolutely be Silver Oak. They're a 'controversial' winery; they use american instead of new french oak, but in my opinion have some of the best Cabernet in the valley. The tasting is super fun and they are very generous with extra pours; you also get to take home a glass with every tasting.
At this point, you should probably stop for lunch, and there are a ton of great options. The oakville grocery has great sandwiches, and is a good place to stop if you just want to chill, and don't want a sit-down kind of place. If you're ok with sitting down, head to Yountville. This is where the famous French Laundry is, but our favorite by far is R+D kitchen, which is an awesome American Fusion restaruant with burgers, sushi, pasta, and more, as well as a great bar and wine list. Noah ended up here at the end of his first Napa trip, and uninentionally tried all of the appetizers. They're all great!
After lunch, you could head to Chandon (across the street from R+D kitchen) or go back north. Along the way you'll see places you've heard of (Cakebread, Opus One, Sutter Home), as well as some you haven't; Elizabeth Spencer has great white wines, Turnbull has some more bold cabs. This is also usually a good time to try something on impulse, so pick a place you think looks neat and give it a try!
If you're planning on heading into downtown Napa for dinner, you don't want to go too far north at this point, so you could pick another winery you see here or head into Napa and do some tasting. We really liked back-room wines in downtown Napa, they have a great tasting of local wines you can buy for reasonable prices, and it's a good place to find non-cabs that you can take home. For dinner, try Bounty Hunter (BBQ) or Carpe Diem wine bar. Or if you want something more casual, The Pear (southern comfort food) has really good chicken and waffles.
If you're planning to head back to Healdsburg and want to have dinner further north, then you could head to Beringer (if you haven't already), Sterling (great chardonnay), or Charles Krug. There's also the Castello Di Amorosa, which is a castle that has their own wine and we have heard is fun to walk around. There are plenty of places to stop for dinner in St. Helena or Calistoga on the way back, but our favorite is a little BBQ shack called Busters in Calistoga. If you want some fine dining and someone to reccomend a unique bottle of wine for dinner, the Harvest Inn is a great place to stop, and the Chef (Charlie Palmer) is one of the best in the valley.
The Road Less Traveled: Silverado Trail
Napa valley has two main roads, the St. Helena highway (which has all of the wineries from the Classic Napa tour), and the Silverado trail, which parallels the St. Helena and has smaller wineries that have smaller and more unique productions. This is better done based on what sort of wine you want to try; when we go, we usually pick 2 wineries for before lunch, grab lunch in Yountville (see above for reccomendations), and then head to 1 or 2 more after lunch before heading back home.
If you're coming from Healdsburg, you'll want to start at the top of the trail. Quintessa and Frog's Leap are two of the better known wineries up there, but a good first stop might be Mumm for some champagne the start the day. Mumm is more low-key than Chandon, which gets heavier foot traffic, and has very pretty grounds. It's also, in Noah's opinion, the better champagne tasting.
If you want to try some unique wines, you should stay in this area. Miner winery has really great Bourdeaux and Highlands varietals, and specialize in Cab blends as well as wild-yeast fermented whites. The wild-yeast Chardonnay is to die for, and the Viognier is unique. They also usually have a rose (recently a sparkling Sangiovese Rose) to start with, and have a great tasting. We usually like to go here last, as the sun shines down on the deck and you can unwind and take in some great views, but it would also be a cool place to start the day.
If you're a Cab person, then you'll want to head right to Oakville. Some of the best cabs to be found are at Silverado, which also has amazing panoramic views of the valley, and at Pine Ridge right behind it. Stag's Leap is also worth a trip. Oakville cabs are considered the best in the valley, and the real estate here is packed with people growing Cabernet and Cabernet only; you'll see some names from elsewhere in the valley with plots here so that they can claim to make an Oakville Cab. Any of the places you see in Oakville are probably worth a stop, but we think that Silverado is absolutely a must-see.
At the end of the trail you'll find some of the more interesting wineries; these are newer, or smaller wineries, and they all tend to have a unique pitch. If you're into that sort of thing, this is where you'll find Hagafen, the only Kosher winery in the valley. It beats the pants off Manischewitz. Again, if you're looking for another place to stop, just go somewhere that looks interesting. Chimney Rock is one of the better known wineries here.
When you get to the bottom of the trail, you could head into Downtown Napa, head back up the trail (see the Classic Napa for dinner suggestions), or head across and up Sonoma valley (see below for Sonoma reccomendations).
Southern Sonoma Valley
Northern Sonoma Valley