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Apr 4, 2010 05:46 AM

Please help me chose which Sonoma and Napa wineries to visit

Chowhounds - I have received much helpful guidance for our upcoming trip to Sonoma and Napa in May. Thanks!

I thought I would start a new thread asking for advice specific for winery recommendations. I have done searches, but there is a lot to chose from, and I notice that the results that come up are usually quite old. So I am asking for more help.

A few points to bear in mind: I have never been to Sonoma or Napa; I am a wine tasting rookie; I would like to learn; I am most interested in fun and personal experiences. I don't feel the ned to visit a million wineries, but would rather spend more time at the ones we do go to. I have a few places in mind, but nothing is carved in stone. I am not focused on any specific type of wine.

We will be driving to Sonoma County on a Monday. We are planning to stop at the Fremont Diner for lunch and will then make our way to Kenwood, where we are staying that night. My thinking is that we may stop at one winery along the way, before getting to a longer tasting/tour experience closer to in Kenwood. For a longer experience I am considering Deerfield, Chateau St. Jean, Kunde, or Benzinger. There are also some comments about Kenwood and Landmark.

The next day, the plan is to drive the Trinity Road shortcut with Yountville being the ultimate destination. The loose plan now is to stop at Lookout Ridge, and take the slight detour to Makayamas. I don't know much about either of these. Based on Chowhound posts, I have also sent a request for an afternoon tasting at Shafer. It seems to me that, at most, we would be stopping at one more drop in type tasting, but that may be pushing it as we have 5:45 dinner reservations.

The last day in wine country will be spent entirely in Napa. We have friends who have recommended Crocker Starr and Keever (if we can get in?). I've seen lots of love/discussion about Pride. Our concierge has suggested a few also: Swanson; Hall Rutherford; Elyse; Viader; and Cliff Lede. The only one of those that I have read any meaningful discussion on is Cliff Lede, and the feedback looks mixed. I have not looked at many options yet for that day.

As mentioned above, the options mentioned are preliminary, so if I am missing something, or am headed down the wrong path, please chime in.

Thanks again.

Fremont Diner
2660 Fremont Dr, Sonoma, CA

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  1. Sterling stands out in my mind. You take a tram from the parking lot to the winery. There are several stations situated throughout the winery for tasting so your not all bunched up and have room to breath as well as enjoy.
    Make sure that Greystone is on your list of restaurants to try. Its CIA(Culinary Institute of America) restaurant. The food is beyond fabulous.

    Greystone Restaurant
    2555 Main St St, Helena, CA

    1. As you know, there are hundreds of wineries in Napa and Sonoma; everyone has favorites, but their criteria might not be your criteria, so it helps to figure out what those criteria are.

      You say you're a wine-tasting rookie. Are you a wine-drinking rookie as well? Because if you are, some of the more high-end boutique wineries might not be the best choices.

      If you're never visited a winery before, I suggest one full tour -- both Chateau St. Jean and Benziger offer tours that will really prepare you for your other visits.

      Then you really do need to think about what kinds/styles of wines you like. Otherwise you could end up spending time and money visiting a place whose wines don't really appeal to you.

      You have a lot of driving on this trip (I'm not sure you realize how much, but we've warned you, so I'll assume you know what you're doing). Stick to wineries along your route on day two. Also, your 5:45 reservation is French Laundry, right? If so, don't try to squeeze in another tasting. Spend some time in Yountville relaxing and getting ready to appreciate your experience. You don't want to roll in there burned-out from too much wine tasting. My feeling is that for someone who isn't hard core, on a three-day visit, two full tastings a day and maybe a drop in is plenty. Personally, I'd go with Mayacamas, which is much more old-school California.

      For your third day, I'd suggest something different. Maybe an olive oil tasting ( and/or a sparkling wine tasting.

      Finally, I'm astonished that your search didn't turn up any recent discussions.

      The French Laundry
      6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599

      1. That Trinity / Oakville Grade "shortcut" is deceiving. I wouldn't take it (again) in my own car, but would maybe consider it in a rental car. Just saying. I would consider going around the South end by taking the Carneros Highway between Napa and Sonoma. This would take you right by the Fremont Diner (as an alternative, breakfast at Boonfly is highly regarded), and it could make your drive time more efficient.

        Shafer is the pinnacle of Napa Valley in some ways, but I believe their reds begin at $65 or so (and a mere $200 for their flagship Cab). If you're a self-described "rookie," you may not be down with this madness. I would recommend a tour at Chappellet instead. I would also second Benziger in Sonoma, as well as Pride on Spring Mountain. There are many other great ones, but it's practically endless, and logistically it can be difficult to string them all together. It sounds like you're not stressing on quantity, though, so that's the right frame of mind.

        Everyone has their favorites, so you'll hear it all.

        Fremont Diner
        2660 Fremont Dr, Sonoma, CA

        1 Reply
        1. re: ThirstyReader

          Domaine Chandon is also nice stop in Yountville. I agree that the Trinity/Oakville Grade is not really a "shortcut". Tour de France cyclists train on this road. It is full of hairpin curves and sloped hairpin curves - so be prepared to drive about 10 miles per hour on several sections. That being said, I have traveled over it several times, so you might enjoy it as part of the sightseeing.

          Chateau St. Jean and Benzinger are both good Kenwood choices. St. Jean is especially nice if you want a place with pleasant picnic spots. Near Benzinger you can also visit Jack London State Park if you have any interest in the author - there is a small museum.

        2. I'm back. I have to admit that I could not investigate this issue too much as I found it exhausting and confusing. I decided that the best strategy for me is to pick a few wineries and enjoy them. Although I am a winery rookie, I decided to go with some high end choices. I figure this would be a good chance for me to try something I would not normally buy.

          Monday: drive from SF to Napa County. Will eat en rout, and end up at Pride for a 3:00 PM tasting. We may stop somewhere along the way for a drop in tasting (possibly Plumpjack or somewhere in the Carneros district), but that will only be time permitting. After Pride we will go to Solage (Calistoga) where we are staying and eat at Solbar, 7:45 resy.

          Tuesday: We are going to have breakfast on the resort and then relax for most of the morning. We will head out around 11:00 for a tasting at 11:30 at Schramsberg. I kept the 2:00 PM tasting at Shafer, which we will make our way to after Schramsberg. I don't plan to really do any tastings along the way. We are eating at TFL that night at 5:45, but I thinks 2 tastings very spaced out should be fine. I gather it's only a 5 mile drive to The Bardessono from Shafer, so we'll have time to check in, change, and get ready before supper.

          Wednesday: 10:30 tasting at Crocker and Starr. Lunch at 12:00 at Auberge du Soleil. Relax at the Bardessono and Yountville for the rest of the day. Might check out Hope and Grace.

          What do you think?

          6526 Yount Street, Yountville, CA 94599

          Soleil Restaurant
          625 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94301

          9 Replies
          1. re: Halifax

            Sounds pretty great. Difficult to improve upon. Be sure to check out the view from Pride.

            1. re: maria lorraine

              Thanks for the endorsement. The view was one of the main reasons I chose to make the effort to drive up to Pride. I figured that we needed to try one mountain winery. It sounds like they are also very friendly and have interesting wines to taste.

            2. re: Halifax

              Looks like you moved from Kenwood. The Sonoma wineries are pretty great but if you are now staying in Calistoga your plan sounds fine.

              Next time in Kenwood area try the Mayo Family food and wine pairing. My rookie friends really enjoyed that experience.

              1. re: myst

                Yes we have. It was a very tough call to abandon the Kenwood and Sonoma. However, it just seemed like we we going to stretch things too much logistically. I also felt that the one afternoon in Sonoma was not going to do it justice. I really like what I have read about Sonoma Co, especially the northern and western areas. They were not going to be doable, without killing myself driving which would take the fun out seeing those areas. Bottom line, I need to go back and do Sonoma Co on its own, and do it right.

                When I do, I'll be sure to look into your Mayo Family suggestion.

                1. re: ThirstyReader

                  Thanks ThirstyReader. That gives me peace of mind. Gotta admit that your prior recommendation and your blog leaves a little doubt in my mind about leaving Chappallet off my list. But I don't want to over extend myself....

                  1. re: Halifax

                    Chappellet will be there, and it's best to pick and choose. Many people often attempt way too much in Napa, especially the first time out. They end up feeling either sheepish or shameless as they fall behind schedule and begin showing up late to their appointments (or worse, not showing up at all).


                2. re: Halifax

                  I've forgotten if you have already mentioned on your other post Halifax . . . are you driving from SF to Napa via the Golden Gate Bridge and through the Carneros region? If so, I would suggest stopping at Gloria Ferrer wine cellars - a sparkling wine place - on your way into Napa. They have fantastic views of the Carneros district from their patio which will set the tone for the wine country for you. They don't really do tastings, but you can buy glasses of various champagnes and 3 oz pours of various wines which they serve you on their beautiful patio. I would stick with the champagne:-)

                  1. re: vday

                    This is also a good suggestion (Artesa is nearby as well.....). Best not to overextend, so I think focus is better. Wine tasting should be leisurely and I always map out a small area for my friends with a good "cluster" of place to try.

                    Another cool option in wine country (not food/drink related) that you can try on a visit to Healdsburg sometime is Safari West. Not too many people know there are giraffes and zebras living in Santa Rosa.

                    Savannah Cafe at Safari West
                    3115 Porter Creek Rd, Santa Rosa, CA