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First time trip to Wine Country (Oregon, Napa/Sonoma), need opinions please!

Hi, my boyfriend and I are planning a trip for late September 2011...we will fly into Seattle, rent a car, and work our way down to San Fran. We plan on spending a day each in Willamette, Napa, and Sonoma. We plan on focusing primarily on smaller, more interesting wineries and restaurants, and are trying to steer away from any of the more touristy spots. Since this is a SF board, I will not go into the Oregon part of the trip, but any suggestions on wineries or restaurants for this area are welcome.

As of now, we are planning to try and get a reservation at The French Laundry one of the nights, and have gotten a recommendation from a family member to go to the Rutherford Grill for lunch one day. I am planning on setting a $200 wine budget for both of us at TFL, which based on other boards seemed appropriate. Since we're planning on shelling out the big bucks for TFL, I am looking for suggestions for some not so expensive lunch and dinner options, and possibly feedback on the Rutherford Grill as well.

I'm thinking we'll try to hit 4-5 wineries in each of Sonoma and Napa...is this too ambitious?The list of wineries I have so far is as follows, and I would love to know if there are particular ones to leave out or ones not to miss, additionally ones that I may have overlooked that should be added.

Burgess Cellars
Artesa Vineyards & Winery
Cartlidge &Browne Winery
Cliff Lede Vineyards
Hess Collection Winery
Honig Vineyard &Winery
Miner Family Vineyards
Reynolds Family Winery
Trefethen Family Vineyards
ZD Wines

Benziger Family Winery
Valley of the Moon Winery
Chateau St. Jean
Landmark Vineyards
Kunde Estate Winery
Viansa Winery
Nicholson Ranch Winery
Gloria Ferrer Caves &Vineyards
Cline Cellars
Gundlach-Bundschu Winery
Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery
Ravenswood Winery
Matanzas Creek Winery

Thanks for the help!!

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599

Cline Cellars
24737 Arnold Dr, Sonoma, CA

Matanzas Creek Winery
6097 Bennett Valley Rd, Santa Rosa, CA

Benziger Family Winery
1883 London Ranch Rd Glen, Ellen, CA

Ravenswood Winery
18701 Gehricke Rd, Sonoma, CA

Gundlach-Bundschu Winery
2000 Denmark St, Sonoma, CA 95476

Nicholson Ranch Winery
4160 Napa Rd, Sonoma, CA

Viansa Winery
25200 Arnold Dr, Sonoma, CA

Kunde Estate Winery
10155 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, CA

Cliff Lede Vineyards
1473 Yountville Cross Rd, Yountville, CA

Hess Collection Winery
4411 Redwood Rd, Napa, CA

Reynolds Family Winery
3266 Silverado Trl, Napa, CA

Rutherford Grill
1180 Rutherford Rd, Napa, CA 94558

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  1. Hey there,

    You mention that you want to seek out interesting/unique vineyards, yet you list Napa as one of your destinations? Don't get me wrong, there are some interesting wines coming out of Napa, but it is extremely heavily commercialized. I don't think you will get a lot of unique wines coming out of there. I'd suggest you spend more time in the Russian River/Sonoma/Dry Creek areas over Napa.

    Also, Napa is ridiculously expensive to boot because of the tourism industry.

    Oh, and add Michel-Schlumberger and Preston to your list for Sonoma. They do some really amazing stuff.

    5 Replies
    1. re: SouthToTheLeft

      Total agreement on Michel-Schlumberger for Sonoma, and I'd suggest lengthening the trip to give at least two days in Sonoma (and maybe two days in Napa too). One day in each county is so rushed, and you won't get the chance to make discoveries, but instead will just go from appointment to appointment (and won't really get the chance to do a leisurely lunch, because that will cut into winery time).

      I'd suggest no more than 3 wineries a day, otherwise they just all blend into one another, though if some of them are tiny and you're just doing a quick tasting (and they're close by) you could do more.

      1. re: SouthToTheLeft

        Perhaps South to the Left isn't awar of the many smaller, interesting wineries in Napa Valley.
        I don't agree with his characterization of Napa as being extremely commercialized. Napa Valley makes beautiful wines. The main thoroughfares of Napa are more formal than those of northern Sonoma County, but there are many spectacularly rural (and beautiful) back roads, heavy with vineyards and wineries and no commercialization. It's merely a matter of what you've seen, what you've been exposed to.

        I certainly agree that Sonoma County overall is more rural and rustic, but it is also a huge county -- with a number of wine-tasting regions (appellations). I'd concentrate on appellations that make the types of wine that appeal to you.

        Most important, for small, interesting wineries, your list contains only three or four max of those, IMO. Quite a few of the wineries you've listed are unbelievably commercial and/or make god-awful swill. To get a good list going, I'd read through the many threads on wineries and begin to get a sense of where the quality is. Certain words will help you in your search: small, artisan, boutique, family, distinct, unusual -- and so on..

        1. re: maria lorraine

          What Maria said is right on. All of it.

          1. re: maria lorraine

            What great insight!!! Would you mind looking at my initial itinerary and giving your opinion? Just tap on my user name and you'll find my posting about my upcoming trip to the area in sept 2012. Also, what do you think about girl & fig and Cyrus for dinner places?

            1. re: JustaFungi

              Hi there,

              It's obvious you haven't searched Chowhound because some wineries would never be on your list if you had. Please take advantage of the knowledge and great tips that come from searching the threads on the SF Bay Area Board. Better yet, use Google to search.

              site:chow.com napa wineries

              or sonoma or napa or healdsburg or spring mountain or or or

              Another thing: identify the types of wines you like -- chardonnay, cabernet, pinot noir,
              etc. -- and then pursue wineries who do a good job with those wines. These are usually
              designated by region. Napa is strong in Cabernet and Chardonnay. Russian River Valley,
              Pinot Noir. Dry Creek, Zinfandel. Which is not to say there aren't good Pinots in Napa, there
              are. But certain regions shine in a particular varietal.

              I cannot personally review your list without your doing more research. You can read my posts and those of others to get ideas and then sketch out an itinerary. Remember, driving
              distances are deceptive. Do not try to do more than one region per day.

        2. Oh, and why only 4-5 a day? Unless you need to worry about your BAL, each vineyard shouldn't take much more than 20-30 minutes to do a tasting and take in the scenery. Maybe longer if you do a picnic (which I highly suggest!)

          4 Replies
          1. re: SouthToTheLeft


            I've got to raise a counterpoint to your recs. For me, it's 2 wineries max per day where you can meet, tour and taste rather than do drive by visits. The atmosphere is also better at wineries that don't encourage rapid tastings.

            I love Sonoma for Chards and Pinots but would not overlook Napa at all. A tour of Rudd or Quintessa let's you get into the vineyard, the winery and earn a tasting of a $150 Bordeaux blend. A visit to Round Pond yields a fabulous view of the Rutherford ava and a chance to taste olive oils in a structured way. Have less time? Drop in at Alpha Omega for ERA and delicious Chardonnay.

            To the OP, Rutherford Grill is part of a national chain of straightforward American restaurants (Hillstone, Houstons). It's popular with local wine people as well as tourists. Think grilled steak and articokes w an excellent wine list at reasonable prices. Fun, casual rather than gourmet.

            Have fun.

            Rutherford Grill
            1180 Rutherford Rd, Napa, CA 94558

            1. re: cortez

              I never try to hit more than 3 or 4 wineries on a tasting day.

              And it is a good idea to also look at the Alexander Valley as an option. I think you can find variety in any of the regions, but Healdsburg is more lightly visited and still quite scenic.

              Artesa and Hess are really close to Gloria Ferrer and Viansa (not my fav) despite your distinction of Sonoma/Napa, so make sure you geographically cluster your visit in a way that makes sense.

              For example on one trip I've visited Gundlach-Bundschu Winery, Artesa, Gloria Ferrer and because I was heading to Kenwood anyway, Chateau St. Jean. Exceeded my usual limit as we also stopped and did a food/wine pairing at Mayo Family (Kenwood) - considered that "lunch" but boy were we buzzing.

              Likewise Chateau St. Jean, Kunde, Benzinger are clustered near each other...

              My recommendation is to map out up to 5 a day realizing that you may need to drop one. Pick a mixture including some of the scenic and architecturally interesting places (photos are part of the fun).

              As a sidenote, some places like millat and sequoia grove are quick, so you could cram in a few more "easy" stops as long as you have a designated driver...

              Gundlach-Bundschu Winery
              2000 Denmark St, Sonoma, CA 95476

              1. re: myst

                The short answer here is people have their own styles for tasting. I like more per day, fewer wines per place, unless I click with the place and want to hang out. I can do 4-5, but my trick is to walk in and ask how many of what they're tasting. If they say more than 3, I say I'm going going to taste 3 and I really like X, Y, Z in my wines - or I say I really liked some particular year and style they did - what would they recommend? Showing up having done your homework is always impressive, and gets you a better tasting and more info (without increasing BAL). If you show up and simply are part of the herd, taste all of whatever they pour, you'll probably be at around 3 per day, BAL and time-wise.

                I have also cut out after 2 glasses, some places. Even having paid for the tasting. Generally, though, I go to a tasting assuming I'm going to buy a bottle. Any place that's good enough to taste at, it makes sense to buy a bottle (covers the tasting cost) and you might get something that's harder to find at home.

                1. re: bbulkow

                  Yes, as a local I tend to just pop in and try something because I'm wanting a bottle or two (and I really am partial to reds). But with first time visitors I find that they usually want to tour the grounds and take a lot of photos which eats up time.

                  Although born and raised in wine country and having winemakers in the family I have surprisingly few friends that really appreciate wine. Soda drinkers. LOL

          2. Where in Sonoma County are you planning to stay? Judging by your wine tasting choices, it looks like you are planning to cover a good deal of territory. Some of your choices are not what I would consider smaller and less touristy (Viansa is a huge place, Chateau St. Jean is pretty major, and Benziger Family is a pretty big operation, although I like all three in different ways). We can help you to find high end and cheap eats, but it's a big area so some narrowing down geographically would help.

            1. This is second hand, but I have heard from friends living in the area that Valley of the Moon is not worth visiting at all due to mediocre/lousy wine. Go to Deerfield instead. I also like Landmark and GundBund.

              1. I am surprised no one has caught the fact that your trip is not until September. Honestly, for food recommendations, check back as there is such a huge turnover in what opens and closes that some place which might get recommended now might be gone in a few months while there might be things opening up by summer which could be the new hot spot.

                And, like others, I think Rutherford Grill is just okay. Being part of a chain, there are certainly more interesting places one can dine in wine country.

                Rutherford Grill
                1180 Rutherford Rd, Napa, CA 94558

                4 Replies
                1. re: CarrieWas218

                  Rutherford Grill is one of the few restaurants I know of in wine country that has no corkage though (Flatiron Grill and Fig Cafe are others), and the food, while part of a chain, is still very good, and is an excellent place to bring your newly purchased Cab Sauv to enjoy with a good steak.

                  Rutherford Grill
                  1180 Rutherford Rd, Napa, CA 94558

                  1. re: vulber

                    We stayed at the Allison Inn & Spa in Newburg (Oregon) this summer and loved it! Don't miss their restaurant, Jory there. If you're into Pinot Noir, Archery Summit, Domaine Drouhin and Domaine Serene are not to miss. In Sonoma, girl and the fig, Cafe La Haye, El Dorado Kitchen and Swiss Hotel are all very good. :)

                    Cafe La Haye
                    140 E Napa St, Sonoma, CA 95476

                    Swiss Hotel & Restaurant
                    18 W Spain St, Sonoma, CA 95476

                    1. re: syrahgirl

                      Hi Folks-

                      We are going to ask that all discussion of venues in Oregon take place in a new thread on the Pacific Northwest or Portland boards.


                    2. re: vulber

                      A large number of Napa restaurants now have no corkage fees Sunday through Thursday. Some never charge corkage. The list keeps growing -- a function of the economy and encouragement to folks to dine out.

                  2. Visiting Napa, I find the North end of the valley (St. Helena, Calistoga) to be more interesting. If you are looking for less touristy, I recommend Zahtila Vineyards and Vincent Arroyo. I would also head up Spring Mountain to Pride and Robert Keenan. These wineries are not close to Rutherford Grill and I am not sure about your priorities (wineries vs. dining). I always prefer to picnic for lunch and there are many options for picnic provisions around.

                    On the South end of the Valley, Hendry Vineyard , Elyse Winery and Laird Family Estate are a must. Or if you want to stick to the "less traveled" Silverado Trail, Lava Vine Winery, Joseph Phelps Vineyards (appt) and August Briggs Winery are recommended.

                    For Sonoma: I would stick to the Healdsburg area (Sonoma County - North). Smaller wineries include: Limerick Lane Cellars, Rochioli, Talty, Truett-Hurst, Stuhlmuller and more.

                    More hidden gems and best kept secrets....www.oenoventures.com

                    Joseph Phelps Vineyards
                    200 Taplin Rd, Saint Helena, CA

                    Zahtila Vineyards
                    2250 Lake County Hwy, Calistoga, CA

                    Rutherford Grill
                    1180 Rutherford Rd, Napa, CA 94558

                    Elyse Winery
                    2100 Hoffman Ln, Napa, CA

                    Lava Vine
                    965 Silverado Trl, Calistoga, CA

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: OenoV

                      I didn't notice if you've mentioned varietal preferences. Post that and you may get more specific suggestions. And I still like Terra in Saint Helena as a strong contender for wonderful dining

                    2. You should post on the Portland, Pacific Northwest and California boards too, because your trip is going to cover a lot of ground. There are many other wine regions along your route that offer smaller, interesting and less touristy wineries.

                      1. Just winding up several days in Napa. Had an amazing dinner at Redd in Yountville. Ordered the Chef's tasting/pairing menu. There were two of us. Each rec'd 5 different courses with wine pairing for 125.00 pp.
                        We loved the variety and adventure....sharing encouraged. All exquisitely, prepared and presented.
                        Would do this again.....oh well, back to Maine and James Beard rich Portland!


                        1. Definately hit Gundlach-Bundschu and Ravenswood. Buena Vista is close to Gundlack-Bundschu. I personally, would not even go to Napa. Its so touristy, crowded and expensive now for tasting. Instead I would hit Healdsburg.

                          Don't forget the Oregon wineries.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Atochabsh

                            Napa has more traffic but has wonderful wineries and restaurants. Yes it is a tourist area...........it certainly not gong to survive with just locals.
                            Sonoma is a tourist area also.......not as crowded yet. Expense is getting up there.. Marias post above sums it up
                            Your Sonoma list does nothing for me......look at Ridge and Merry Edwards. Id do both and enjoy yourself.

                            1. re: celeryroot

                              I agree with Maria and celeryroot . . .
                              I also agree that Rutherford Grill is fine for a lunch stop - good food and fun atmosphere, though I always try to arrive prior to the crowd for lunch or dinner. Check out opening time and plan accordingly.