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Feb 21, 2012 04:52 AM

What is the best vineyard tour in sonoma & napa counties?

You can't tour them all!!!!! What, In your opinion, was the best, most memorable vineyard tour you went on in sonoma And why? Was it the spectacular view or the funny guide or the cool caves? In the north end of the county near Healdsburg and the south end near Carneros/Glen Ellen? Any of note in Napa? Of course an assumed must be that the wine was at least decent.

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  1. Based on recs from this board, we made appointments on Spring Mountain (in Napa - West of St. Helena). It has amazing views and provides different experiences. For example, Pride takes you on a nice tour of their wine caves, the have nice grounds, picnic tables, horses etc. Smith Madrone is chatting for an hour while wandering the vines (or staying in the tasting shack) with one of the owners.

    You need appointments for any winery up on Spring Mountain.

    Sonoma, I don't believe, has many wineries that can provide a cool cave/vine tour. Many wineries are smaller and just not really set up for it. But you do get very informative staff who are experts in winemaking/wineries. I've heard Bella Vineyards up in Dry Creek has a good tour (has good wines too!).

    11 Replies
    1. re: goldangl95

      Oh, I see. So most of the good cave tours are in Napa, which I hear is more touristy. So in Sonoma County people simply go from vineyard to vineyard sampling. That's cool. Here are the vineyards I have come up with so far. Do you know if I've made decent choices? Do you know which vineyard might have a good tour or attraction worth seeing? Are there any in my list that I should skip, in your opinion, oh wise one?:

      Day 1, Sonoma:
      Gloria Ferrer
      Gundlach Bundschu
      Girl + Fig for dinner

      Day 2, Healdsburg:
      Michel Schlumberger
      Gary Farrel
      Ferrari- Carano
      Cyrus for dinner

      Day 3- Napa
      Cake Bread
      Frog's Leap
      Round Pond

      1. re: JustaFungi

        Based on your other posts below, Lynmar in Russian River Valley, Sonoma may be a nice stop. Great Pinots and Chardonnays. Pricey - but they do a patio seating tasting and have various picnic and food options. Very pretty, and I like Lynmar a lot. You should call ahead to reserve.

        Domaine Carneros, right on the Napa/Sonoma border also have cheese plate etc. tastings. Have not done them.

        You may want to stop by Ridge (at the bottom of Dry Creek). A winery that has maintained an excellent reputation as its grown, great variety of wines of great quality. Decently priced too. Not sure if they have anything beyond a basic tasting.

        I haven't been to most of the wineries on your list, but the ones I have been to:
        Ferrari-Carano is very pretty, wines are decent (wouldn't splurge on the Reserve tasting)

        Frog's Leap has a cute patio area. Wines are more French in style - not fruit forward, meant to go with food.

        1. re: JustaFungi


          If transportation and time aren't issues, I second goldangl95's recommendation for the Spring Mountain District.

          The standout there is Pride Mountain Vineyards. They make some of the best wines in the valley, have a beautiful property with breathtaking views, and have friendly, professional staff. I highly recommend the tour & tasting at the first time slot of the day. If you let them know ahead of time, you can also bring a picnic lunch and eat it on the property.

          Other great Spring Mountain wineries are Spring Mountain Vineyard, Sherwin Family, Paloma, Keenan, Terra Valentine, Cain. Here is a Web site on the Spring Mountain District:

          If you don't have time to go up to Spring Mountain, some of the wineries in Yountville are doing some special things -- Gemstone, Kapcsandy, Keever.

          Of the Napa wineries you mentioned, I'd personally strike Cakebread and Artesa. Frog's Leap has a fun tour. Round Pond's tasting is a tad expensive, but I believe they do pair it with food.

          You said your group tends to prefer Pinot and Zin. I'd focus on those two varietals in Sonoma and Healdsburg rather than in Napa.

          1. re: neuf_du_pape

            Here's the thing. JustaFungi are people in your group really into wine and care about wine quality? Or do they just want a good experience? None of the places you picked will have wine that will be so bad as to detract from the experience. As a result, if people don't really care about wine quality - I would stop and just enjoy your list.

            Now if people do care:

            For Napa, I will say while I would not pick necessarily pick those wineries, all the wineries on your Napa list are respectable choices in terms of wine quality. Artesa a little less than the rest but certainly will be fine (and is supposed to be beautiful).

            For Sonoma, you have a lot of the flashier bigger names, and some strange choices. I am not very wise about Sonoma wine, but of your list only Gary Farrell and Unti have been recommended to me previously.

            If I were to sub or change in the schedule it would def. be on the Sonoma side. I gave some suggestions earlier for up by Healdsburg (Dry Creek/Russian River).

            By Sonoma the town:
            Deerfield Ranch Winery - in Caves! Wine is very good, but a little overpriced for a winery still making its name.
            Chateau St. Jean and Ledson - are a little circus like, but have cool estates, and the wine is good.
            Audelssa in Glen Elen (no appt) or Sojourn Cellars in Sonoma town center (with Appt). Simple Tasting rooms. - Very sophisticated wines. Haven't stopped in the tasting room in Audlessa, but really liked the tasting experience at Sojourn Cellars. Warning - the Sojourn Cellars wines need significant aging - so if that's not your cup of tea would skip. Audelssa is supposed to be a bit more accessible palate wise.

            1. re: neuf_du_pape

              To Goldangl and Neuf,

              Isn't the experience why you go to Sonoma/Napa in the first place? The rustic settings, the quaint towns, the views, the characters? There are 8 of us in our group; some really know their wine and other really don't but when it comes down to it, don't we all go out there at partially for the experience?

              One of the girls in our group requested Cakebread and Frogs Leap, so we're probably going regardless (even though I'd skip Napa entirely if it's that touristy). Artesa is on the list simply because the grounds look spectacular. Then again, if there's a ton of buses there and too touristy, I'd probably strike it.

              Maybe I could leave Frog's Leap and Cakebread for that morning and then come back into Carneros or Sonoma for the afternoon?

              As far as the Sonoma picks are concerned, I picked those basaed on reviews I've gleaned from the Chowhound boards. Hence the strange picks. It's the first time for 6 of us so I'm trying to piece together a good first experience. I'll be looking into the vineyards you mentioned (i.e. Deerfield Ranch, Chateau St John, Pride) and replacing some of the vineyards on my list. As far as Yountsville and Spring Mountain, I have to do some research tonight and see how far away they are from our rental house in Carneros.

              Which of the Sonoma picks were strange? Which should I strike from the list?

              Thank you for your insight!!! Very much appreciated.

              1. re: JustaFungi

                Wine is very subjective. Plus some people don't want to spend $40 on a tasting, plus $75-$125 on a bottle to be "educated" on wine in a small building by some grape vines. Others love this type of experience. Napa has plenty of non-touristy wineries but they tend to be expensive and off the beaten path.

                These are big name, flashy wineries known for mediocre wine:
                Gloria Ferrer
                Gundlach Bundschu

                This does not mean there won't be some hits for the group. As I said previously, the wine isn't bad, and you may find wine you like.

                You may want to switch one or more of them out for these that have been mentioned in the thread:
                Deerfield Ranch Winery
                Domaine Carneros
                Chateau St. Jean
                Audelssa in Glen Elen (no appt) or Sojourn Cellars in Sonoma town center (with Appt).

                This is an obscure pick (never heard of it/ not particularly well reviewed for its wine/just got sold):
                Michel Schlumberger

                Would replace with:
                Papietro Perry or

                As I said previously, I think your Napa picks are perfectly fine. Ferrari Carano has a good balance between decent wines and pretty atmosphere.

                1. re: JustaFungi

                  Quaint towns and characters? Don't set yourself up for disappointment. Napa and Sonoma are more similar than different, and while very beautiful in many parts, they're not that exotic.

                  If you're staying in Carneros and going to Domaine Carneros, don't miss the diRosa preserve across the street. Reservations recommended.

                  There's a lot to do in Sonoma and Napa counties besides tasting wine; working in a few activities will make your wine tasting more enjoyable. After 3 or 4 stops, most people I know have had enough visits to wineries, especially assuming you're drinking with meals.

                  1. re: Windy

                    The OP already had a schedule of 4 wineries per day, but I will second the 3 to 4 wineries the limit per day for non-wine folk. You only have from 11- 4ish anyway.

                    Also Justafungi. I hope this thread didn't make you loose enthusiasm. On a good California day, Napa and Sonoma can be breathtaking, people are friendly, while I guess not exotic, I do find the towns quaint.

                    If you mix it up between big wineries and smaller ones, there will be something for everyone and it will be a great trip.

                    1. re: goldangl95

                      Thanks but in my experience, 3-4 wineries total is plenty for non-drinkers. I didn't mean per day. There are plenty of other activities for them to enjoy.

                      1. re: Windy

                        Windy has a good point about the difference in interest in wine-tasting that each person of a group may have. I have seen firsthand and in other groups. Others don't always share the zeal for wine-tasting that serious wine-tasters do. In fact, they may resent the number of tastings and not having activity alternatives. Be sure you consider the individuals of your group and what will be interesting for those who aren't so much into wine. There are lots of other things to do in wine country, and it's not a bad idea for the two serious winetasters in your group to hit it hard and heavy, and to let the other 6 join you or do something else (hiking, biking, shopping, museums, spas, etc.).

            2. Of note in Napa county I would suggest Schramsberg (sparkling wine). Really a wonderful experience. I also like the Vine Cliff tour.

              1 Reply
              1. Benziger's lovely. Exceptional setting (almost next door to Jack London State Historic Park) and beautiful grounds. 45-minute tram tour.


                29 Replies
                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  "Effective June 1, Jack London State Historic Park will be closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The park is scheduled to be permanently closed by July 1, 2012."

                  1. re: wolfe

                    Mr. Wolfe,

                    You seem to be from that area, what do you think of my first stab at an itinerary? Which vineyards do you think we should take the tour of, and which vineyard is a good place to have a picnic? Which vineyard sell a good charcuterie/cheese platter? From what I hear, my group is partial to Zins a Pinot Noirs and we're staying in a house in Carneros.

                    Also, I think we're considering doing the zipline tour at Armstrong Redwood forest one morning.

                    Any info would be most appreciated. Thanks again.

                      1. re: wolfe

                        So are you saying you don't drink wine or you are a blood drinking creature of the night. Hopefully the former. Thanks for the heads up regarding Jack Londons though. And Bouchon Bakery is also still closed due to a fire I heard. Is that right?

                        1. re: JustaFungi

                          One other question... how literally do you mean a "vineyard" tour? Most of the wineries don't have actual vineyard tours (although Benziger does, at specific times). In fact, if you want an actual tour of the winery, you need to check and see what types of tours are offered, at what times, and at what cost. Otherwise, tastings are available at most wineries without appointment (although there are exceptions).

                          1. re: waldrons

                            Depends. In Sonoma, yes you could say most wineries are available without appointment.

                            In Napa, the majority of wineries are by appointment. And if you were to limit it to smaller production wineries, they are almost exclusively by appointment.

                            1. re: goldangl95

                              I just want to say a few words about group dynamics and a group your size. This comes from having worked in or been around wineries more than 20 years.

                              A group of 8 always needs an appointment. The winery staff will resent you if your group shows up without one. Believe me, wineries hate loud groups that take over tasting rooms and divert attention from serious customers. Or groups who don't pay attention, talk while the winery staff is trying to say something about the wine or winery, or who laugh or shriek loudly. (Bachelorette parties are the worst, BTW.)

                              Your group, with only two serious wine drinkers, doesn't fit the profile boutique/cult/limited-production wineries host. These wineries, like Gemstone, Kapcsandy and Keever, usually limit visits to serious wine-drinkers, collectors, and those who are able to purchase bottles from $75 to $250 each.

                              Just so you know, boutique/cult/high-end wineries almost always host small groups --
                              2 to 4 people, not 8. A large group usually means you're there to drink and not buy. The boutique, high-end wineries need to substantiate the time, labor and expensive wine that might be wasted hosting a group your size. That's why a tasting fee is often charged -- to dissaude freeloaders. The fee at Kapscandy, for example, is $75 per person.

                              Usually any party larger than 4 is difficult to accommodate in a tasting room. That's the reason for an appointment. The winery may have to allocate a dedicated staff member to your visit, and for the winery that means labor dollars. Wineries know most large groups are there just to drink and run.

                              Perhaps you are loaded with bucks to drop lots of money on $$$ wines -- in that case, please ignore what I've said.

                              My advice would be to concentrate on some medium-sized wineries that would happily accommodate your group with a reservation.

                              For example, Mondavi, though it's a large winery and a familiar name -- offers an outstanding tour that's very entertaining on how to make wine, the winery process, etc. And there's a difference between a winery tour and a vineyard tour. The winery tour goes into the cellar and fermentation area, into the caves, and a vineyard tour is outside, among the vines. I think you mean winery tour. Mondavi would be a great place to visit first.

                              I'd say Unti and Mazzocco in Sonoma County's Dry Creek would be great (and they're close to one another). Domaine Carneros (especially because of your lodging in Carneros), Mondavi, Frog's Leap, Round Pond and Schramsberg are all good choices in Napa for your group.

                              I personally don't care for the wines at Cakebread (overripe and out of balance, high alcohol), Benziger, Ferrari-Carano (though the gardens are beautiful), Schug, Gloria Ferrer or Michel-Schlumberger. I've tasted recently and through the years and don't care for them, especially when there are many wineries who make far better wine.

                              As mentioned above, Gemstone, Kapscandy and Keever seem a bit high-end for your group, but possibly the two serious drinkers in your group should go. Gemstone's wines may already be sold out (just tasted their wines two days ago at a trade event) and generally they sell out to restaurants and customers on their waiting list. Keever probably has limited quantities.

                              Finally, goldangI95 makes a good point about wineries who make wines that require a lot of aging. They aren't going to taste good to a novice drinker because there will be so much oak that needs to be tamed. Beware. You need to sample wines that are ready to drink now unless you know how to extrapolate an oaked wine into a resolved, aged wine.

                              I know you're very excited about your trip. I just wanted to give you some direction so your group was welcomed when you visited and that the winery was happy to have hosted you.

                              1. re: maria lorraine

                                I do not have the same experience as Maria Lorraine, so I may be off. In Sonoma, I've gone with a group of 6 and never had any issue. We generally don't go wine tasting between May and September, so this may be why.

                                For Sonoma, while 8 is definitely the upper limit, and if you want smooth customer service it's better to make an appointment, plenty of wineries in Sonoma will take 8 - in the off season (November - April). During busy season, be prepared for frowns. A non-complete list of wineries I made once for Sonoma who will take a group of 8 (according to their website):
                                Wilson Winery
                                Gary Farrell

                                It is generally polite to call ahead, if you are not making an appt, to make sure they can accommodate your group.

                                Napa is a different story - I would never spontaneously show up with a group of 8 (unless you want to limit yourself to the largest of the commercial wineries).

                                I have certainly been to the "better" wineries in Sonoma, and certainly a set of good wineries in Napa, and I haven't found them to loose interest despite being somewhat early in our wine education and not big spenders. Typically we only buy half a case per winery (for 4- 6 people), and no one has blinked. We may end up paying the tasting fees but that is fine by us.

                                1. re: maria lorraine

                                  See my reply from this morning.

                                  I knew you had good insight when I asked you to comment on my board. I want you to know you've helped me understand the ettiquette of the region and i appreciate that. We wAnt to have fun but be respectful at the same time. Thank you for your insider perspective. Mike

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      Some of the chowdies have reported that Benziger's was touristy and overrun. Is that true?

                      1. re: JustaFungi

                        Any winery that hires staff to conduct regular tours is touristy. Non-touristy wineries are pretty boring unless you're seriously into tasting wine.

                        Benziger gets a lot of tourists but justifiably so and it's big enough to handle a crowd. It's family-owned, the vineyards are biodynamic / organic / sustainable, and it's not a tourist trap.

                        1. re: JustaFungi

                          The bigger wineries that can do regular big tours are touristy almost by definition. They are providing more than just wine, they are providing sights to be seen. They are easily accessible, which is what you want when you are visiting etc.

                          For locals who love wine, we don't need the sights/activities part, we tend to avoid such wineries unless bringing guests. That doesn't mean that the wine isn't good and the staff isn't knowledgeable. I just save those wineries for when I have visitors.

                          This isn't Disneyland. Napa is hard to get to and expensive and solidly an adult activity. Touristy just means busy and built to cater to visitors and non-wine folks. It's in contrast to tasting the wine in a tasting shed and talking about toasting levels of American oak and complaining about cork quality for an hour. It really is not as touristy as you may imagine and it's actually the experience most people who are visiting Napa want.

                          If what your group wants is to taste at a bar in a room, and talk about barrels and the science behind biodynamic farming for an hour, than sure skip the big wineries. But I think from your initial post you want more than that.

                          1. re: goldangl95

                            I would not go to Benziger just to taste wine (though their wines are well above average), but it's among the best for a picnic and as picturesque as they come.

                            A non-tourist's visit to the wine country is line 'em up, spit 'em out, and on to the next winery so you can taste as many as possible.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              I completely disagree. Benziger is not only one of the coolest properties you'll find, but their reserve tasting room serves exceptional wines. All Benziger wines are excellent, but if you want a very memorable tasting, it's well worth the extra cost for the reserve tasting. Not to mention you won't be bumping elbows with as many people that make their way through the property. Benziger is an excellent stop for people of all wine backgrounds. Beautiful property, great tours, biodynamic winemaking practices, wildlife (we saw deer on our last trip), wine caves, inexpensive to expensive taste (everything from $10 to $75+). We come back to Northern California often and it's one winery that we try to get back to on each visit. One look at the aerial view of their property should not only add them to your list, but move them toward the top.

                              1. re: imurph22

                                Taste varies. To me, Benziger's reds are overripe, overly alcoholic, and have too much oak. If you like that style, they're well-made wines from excellent fruit.

                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  See my reply below to Maria Lorraines from this morning. I don't know about Benziger. The win has never done much for me at home and while I appreciate the concept of the tour, in reality it may take too much time (we only have three full days in the area.)

                                2. re: imurph22

                                  I'm with Robert on this, and it saddens me to say I also disagree with your assessment.

                                  Benziger is a conundrum. The winery has many things going for it, but their wines are hugely disappointing. I so want to like their wines, but it's like all the talk about biodynamic practices and other farming methods touted on the tour do not translate into the wine's flavor. It's the oddest thing.

                                  1. re: maria lorraine

                                    Thank you all for such great feedback. I believe I have two of the three days of my trip pieced together.

                                    Day 1, Thursday:

                                    Smith Madrone, 10am

                                    Pride, 11am

                                    Keenan, 12pm

                                    Lunch at The Farmstead or Gott's Roadside (depending on time)

                                    Frog's Leap, 2:30pm

                                    Dinner at Mustard's Grill

                                    Day 3, Saturday. I'm looking at the Russian River Valley. Things are more informal in this region and no one required reservations. I was considering:

                                    Sonoma Canopy Tours in Occidental

                                    Lunch at Willow Wood

                                    Red Car

                                    Dutton Goldfield

                                    Hook & Ladder, Siduri (time permitting)

                                    Paradise Ridge

                                    Day 2, Friday

                                    This is where things get shaky. Note: We're staying in Carneros. The wineries I was considering include:

                                    Chateau St. Jean



                                    Gund Bund

                                    Dinner at Girl + Fig

                                    Any further comments are most appreciated. I have no place to eat lunch (or breakfast) on Day 3. My people are not much into the Sparkley stuff, more Zin, Pinots and Cab, depending on who you're asking.

                                    1. re: JustaFungi

                                      There is a really great breakfast spot in downtown Sonoma on 1st Street called Harvest Moon Cafe. They have a great back patio if the weather is cooperating.

                                      A great wine country in and out lunch is Oakville Grocery in Healdsburg - located right on the corner of the square - they make sandwiches on the spot but also have a lot of great pre-made lunch stuff ready to grab and eat.

                                      Sausal is a great small family run winery just outside Healdsburg that specializes in Zinfandel with some of the oldest vines in the area.

                                      Westwood winery is a fun tasting room in downtown Sonoma that specialize in Pinot Noir. Laid back, informative staff, delicious wines.

                                      1. re: JustaFungi

                                        If you're staying in Carneros, there is this recent very helpful thread:

                                        Carneros Wineries and Restaurant Suggestions?

                                        1. re: maria lorraine

                                          Thank you Maria,I have actually seen the itinerary that you modified for that poster and copied and pasted it into my itinerary. I'll be starting my reserach on the itinerary for that day probably on Friday afternoon when things get a little quieter around here.

                                3. re: goldangl95

                                  Thank you or your and maria lorraines reply. That is a ton to digest so I'll probably reply in detail tonight. I never considered the size of our group nor the vineyards economies as a factor in our trip. Although I always planned to call all the wineries ahead of time to see how they handle a group of our size. We may be 8 New Yorkers, but I think we're well behaved New Yorkers, comparatively.

                                  And there's a lot of nuance between the large wineries, the mid size and the boutique that I never considered. I simply wanted to find some good wine and a good tasting experience (ie, not in an industrial park or someone's garage). We are all planning to buy bottles everywhere we enjoy it, although I doubt the majority of us are planning on buying $75-250 bottles of wine. We're probably in the 5-10%, not the 1%!!

                                  I'm surprised that you don't like Gloria Ferrier, Ferrari carano and michel schlumberger, I've heard good thing about them on this board...I guess it all depends on who the poster is. But I'm narrowing things down and will probably have to buy some of bottle from the wineries that I'm on the fence about and see what I think.

                                  Thanks again, Mike

                                  1. re: JustaFungi

                                    If you're thinking of buying bottles, keep in mind that wineries rarely offer discounts so as not to compete with retailers who carry their wines, so you might find the same stuff for less elsewhere. On the other hand, some wines are sold only at the winery.

                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      Regarding the purchase of wine.....We are spending 4 days in wine country at the end of this month. As a courtesy (and of course appreciation), we would like to purchase some wine during our winery visits. How do most people transport their bottles home? We are flying back to the east coast. One or two bottles can be easily carried on the plane but six to ten might be more difficult or impossible. Not to mention the added expense. If we compile an assortment of wines and collect them in our car is there a way to ship them home before we head back to San Francisco?

                                      1. re: gdiego

                                        Does the state that you live in allow direct shipping? Most wineries will be able to ship your purchases if possible. You could also purchase a styrofoam shipping insert (at many retail locations that sell wine) and make up your own shipment at a UPS or FedEx location.

                                        You cannot carry-on wine (or other liquids), so any bottles that you bring back would have to go into a checked bag. Packaging like this:


                                        will make that a little more secure for packing into your suitcases. The wine skins are also available at wine retailers and I have seen them at tasting room gift shops too.

                                        You can also consume some of your purchases while you are on vacation. Check with the restaurants you are planning on visiting, some of them offer reduced, or even free, corkage for local wines.

                                        1. re: pamf

                                          Wineries will ship, depends on state. Almost all wineries can ship to NY, for Connecticut, less likely. All wine rooms are fully aware of this issue - so just ask. Here is a useful website:

                                          About the shipping it yourself via UPS or FedEX, most carriers do not want the liability of shipping alcohol and so their policies expressly forbid personal shipments of alcohol. You can anyway - winos are notorious for claiming they're bottles of olive oil....

                                          1. re: goldangl95

                                            There are all sorts of shipping stores around wine country that can ship your purchases, if you don't want the winery to do so. Just ask around. It's a common question.

                                          2. re: pamf

                                            You as an individual can't legally pack up a box of wine and ship it via the post office, FedEx, or UPS. If you tell them what's in it they won't take it and if you don't you're at least theoretically subject to a fine.

                                            As maria lorraine says, there are shipping services:



                                            San Francisco:

                                4. I like Matanzas Creek.

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

                                  1. My favorite vineyard tour is Benziger in Sonoma Valley. You actually ride out into the's quite interesting.

                                    1 Reply