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Jul 13, 2012 11:21 PM

2 Days in Sonoma for Novice Wine Drinkers

Hi, I'm planning a 2 day, 1 night trip to Sonoma in two weeks, arriving Monday leaving Tuesday. We're supposed to be staying in the Santa Rosa area (finalizing tomorrow). I have read a lot of the threads asking for suggestions on vineyards, etc, and there has been so much wonderful feedback, but I still feel completely overwhelmed with the volume of information, so please bear with me. I would appreciate any suggestions based on the following factors:

- inexperienced wine drinkers. Both my girlfriend and I are novice wine drinkers. We really enjoy wine, but we can't *really* tell the difference between a $10 bottle and a $30 bottle. I prefer pinot noirs, and she enjoys reds in general. So of course, we'd love to learn more about what we're tasting and how to taste them.

- price. As mentioned above, because we're not sophisticated wine drinkers, we don't feel it makes sense to spend a lot on wine. We're more than happy to spend money for a good tasting experience, but not so much about an expensive bottle of wine.

- educational experience. As much fun as a good buzz is, we're would really love to learn more about the process of making wine, the science/educational aspect of growing the grapes, etc. We aren't familiar with visiting vineyards, so we don't know how many do tours or explain the process. We would most like to know of any suggestions for worthwhile tours or experiences like this if they're available. Also, if they are, do they cost extra, or are they included with the tasting fees?

- time. We're not in the area for very long. We would be happy with just visiting between 1-3 vineyards and then spending the rest of the time driving through the area, walking through the towns, basking in the beautiful scenery. I'm sure they're all beautiful in their own way, but would love to know if any also happen to be near worthwhile scenic stops.

From my reading of the boards, it seems like I should be in the RRV for the pinots. I've seen several recommendations for Arista and Benzinger, but wasn't sure if they offered tours that are similar to the kind we're looking for? Places like Artesa or Far Niente look right up our alley, but are unfortunately further from where we are. We would be willing to drive over to Napa if recommended, but would be more than happy to take a RRV (or nearby) equivalent. Sorry for this lengthy post, but I figured I'd be as specific as possible per CH instructions...

Thanks in advance for any recommendations!

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  1. First, when you write or talk about "Sonoma" you'll be assumed to mean the town of Sonoma. Since you mean Sonoma County (a very large county) , you'll do better to say Sonoma County to avoid confusion.

    For two days, one night, I'd skip Napa Valley. There's more than enough to keep you busy and interested without spending the time to go over there.

    Not far south of Santa Rosa on Hwy 12, in the heart of Sonoma Valley, is the very small town of Kenwood with very good tasting (especially reds) at the Family Wineries tasting room (several small wineries) and the tasting room of Muscardini and Ty Caton small wineries. Also there is Cafe Citti, a casual, well priced, Italian cafe frequented by locals as well as visitors.

    The Dry Creek Valley area is beautiful, arguably the most scenic wine area here, with many very good reds.

    Search on Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, and Alexander Valley. and you'll get lots of recommendations, both positive and negative (just as important).

    2 Replies
    1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

      Yes, I should clarify it to Sonoma County, thanks for pointing it out! And thank you for the advice, we will look into the Families winery. Do you happen to know if the tasting experience generally encompasses that learning component that we are interested in, or is that usually not part of it?

      1. re: lizindc

        Here is my suggestion. As much as I am a fan of small wineries that share a tasting room so it is more economical, I don't think that is the best approach for your first time. You should experience:
        1. Wineries located on vineyards
        2. The sort of interaction and learning experience you have asked for.

        Since you want to do only 3 wineries a day, I wouldn't on this trip visit tasting rooms that are just a tasting counter.

        I would also suggest to go to Sonoma one day, and Napa the other. These are a series of overgeneralizations - there are plenty of exceptions:

        Sonoma is less developed/less suited for a tourist experience (and I don't mean that in a derisive way). You should experience both. Sonoma's more casual industry/tasting rooms built mainly for wine lovers and locals, as well as Napa's more formal tasting experiences with tours, as well as manicured gardens/art/architecture if that is something that interests you.

        There are plenty of Napa wineries that live up to all the extravagance of Napa, and there are other wineries that are just as small and personal as you can find in Sonoma. The difference with Napa is, there is an expectation in the region for wineries to provide more than just a tasting counter and so there are more experiences suited to the tourist.

        For your next trip you can pick which one suited you more!

        I would go through the Chowhound threads. Whether you choose to do only Sonoma or Sonoma + Napa. Pick one appointment/tour for the day - and then drop by on one small winery and one larger, more established one. Some good threads:

        At the end of this thread, the person did an excellent recap of a trip to Sonoma/Napa (the Carneros region straddles both) - and visited a lot of small Pinot producers:

        This was a thread on Sonoma and Napa where Maria Lorraine listed Napa wineries that have great architecture/grounds:

        A thread on the Russian River Valley:

        This was a thread on wineries in Sonoma that are on the cheaper end (say under $30 a bottle):

        Come back with a proposed itinerary and we can help you narrow it down.

    2. The Family Wineries tasting rooms are relatively educational because they have half a dozen wineries in one spot. You can taste a lot of different wines without a lot of driving.

      I think Gundlach Bundschu is a good place for beginners as they make a wide variety of wines fairly well, plus they have cave and vineyard tours. Lots of places do a good job with one or two varieties and everything else is crap. And of course lots of places make only crap, but the discussions here will steer you away from those.

      Some discussion of vineyard tours in this topic:

      15 Replies
      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        Thanks all! Really, very helpful suggestions. After talking it over with the GF, we have a proposed itinerary based on the suggestions made here and in other threads. Originally we weren't going to spend Day 2 in Napa, but after the suggestions and the fact that it's on our way home, we figured we could add it in.

        Day 1: Sonoma

        11am - Benzinger Winery

        12:30 - lunch at Café Citti

        1:30 - Family Wineries

        2:30pm - drive up to Healdsburg then back down on Westside Dr/116 back for a view of the scenery and stop in somewhere along that route. Would love any suggestions for a tasting along there that would be around the $10-20 range, if there are any recommended ones!

        4:30 - time permitting, Paradise Ridge Winery (for the views, not the wine really)

        6pm - dinner at Rosso Pizzeria

        Later, if we're not feeling like we've indulged enough, Screamin' Mimi's in Sebastapol


        Day 2 Napa

        8:30am - Breakfast at Dierk’s Parkside Café

        11 - Domaine Carneros - GF's eyes lit up at the mention of some sparking wine tastings

        1pm - lunch at Oxbow Market and explore the area

        [optional] 3pm Happy Hour at Grace’s Table

        Back to reality.

        Any egregious omissions on my part, or any thoughts about the itinerary, given our time/budget restraints? Will report back about all that we see/taste/enjoy!

        1. re: lizindc

          I've always thought that Benziger had a good tour and very poor wines.

          1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

            Yeah, the tour's the reason to go to Benziger. All the effort they put into going organic and biodynamic, you'd think their wines would be more interesting.

          2. re: lizindc

            If you do sparkling wine, make sure to do a tour as well as tastings, and the methodology involved is different.

            1. re: lizindc

              ooo make sure to go to Screaming Mimi's! If they have the apricot swirl, make sure to try it!
              Is not wine, but Korbel does a fun little tour that explains the process and the history. Plus, tastings are free!

              Preston out in Dry Creek Valley is my favorite. The wine maker, Lou, is super laid back. They also grow their own wheat and make their own bread, and sell produce at the Healdsburg farmers market. Everyone I've talked to out there has been really friendly and not at all pretentious.

              1. re: meli229

                @Malcolm, will keep that in mind! We thought it might be a good educational start to our day, but are hoping the quality of wine we taste that day will only get better.

                @Ruth, thanks for the tip! We'll be sure to do the tour rather than just a tasting.

                @meli, thanks for the suggestions. Looks like both will be on our route, and Preston sounds like the staff will be kind on an uneducated wine taster like myself!

                1. re: lizindc

                  If you go to Preston, which I like a lot for many reasons although I don't think their wines are the best, Bella is just up the road a bit from there with very good reds; tasting in caves in the hillside.

              2. re: lizindc

                You'll be within a few miles of the world-famous Napa Valley, why spend all afternoon in the city of Napa? The city and local boosters have spent millions of dollars in the last ten years or so trying to create tourist destinations to attract the visitors who used to drive past on their way to Yountville and points north.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Robert--thanks for the heads up. We would much rather be outside of the city if that's the case. Based on earlier suggestions and some more reading of the boards and have revised Day 2 to the following:

                  10am - Schug tasting
                  11 - Gundlach Bundschu, perhaps picnic lunch
                  1pm - Domaine Carneros tasting and tour
                  3pm - Etude tasting (I'm not sure if tasting pinots after the sparkling wine tasting is a good idea, but if not we can always skip Etude and call it a day.)

                  1. re: lizindc

                    I would switch Etude (in the flex spot) with either Gundlach Bundschu or Schug.

                    1. re: goldangl95

                      Goldangl, do you mean switching the order or do you mean nixing Etude entirely? If the latter, any particular reason to skip Etude?

                      1. re: lizindc

                        I meant I'd go to Etude over the other two. Gunclach Bundschu and Schug in my head are very similar in quality etc.

                        1. re: goldangl95

                          Schug is interesting to me because they make Pinot Noir for the German market, so in a different style than other places.

                          1. re: goldangl95

                            I like Schug for their whites (I'm a red drinker) and last time there had a good time with some quirky people in the small space. It seemed like a different and more interesting vibe than most tasting rooms. Gundlach Bundschu is also interesting to me, one I take visitors to, and their picnic grounds are on a hill with paths and views of the vineyards. I'd say that lizindc has a good Day 2 plan arranged in traveling order.

                            1. re: Malcolm Ruthven

                              Thanks all for the insight! We'll keep this in mind as we make final tweaks. We are both very excited, so thanks again all for helping to plan what is sure to be a fantastic trip!

              3. Were it me, and I'm a Napa Valley local, I'd plop myself down in Healdsburg, that charming little town, and enjoy Dry Creek Valley and other Russian River wineries, and the good food there, and call it a visit.

                I think you really just have one day. You only have time for one area. Forget driving from Sonoma County to Napa. The driving distances and time to get to wineries and taste take far longer than people plan, and trying to do both counties will feel so rushed it won't be enjoyable.

                All the recs for Dry Creek Valley just west of Healdsburg, for Preston, Unti, etc. are wonderful. Healdsburg is loaded with good places to eat and picnic provisions, dripping with charm, and again, you don't have time for more than one region. I don't think Kenwood is the best choice (scenery, food, wine criteria) for a 1-day visit -- it's OK, just not the centrally located charmer that Healdsburg is. Do a search and read about Healdsburg and wineries on the board.

                2 Replies
                1. re: maria lorraine

                  I'm also a huge fan of Healsburg. I think its much nicer than southern Sonoma. Prettier, cheaper, and less crowded.

                  Two good places for beginners -- DaVero and Amista. DaVero isn't quite as scenic, but they have a good variety and they are very nice and down to earth there. They mix olive oil tastings in with the wine tasting, and talk a lot about pairing. I had a great time there. Amista is on Dry Creek Road, and the scenery is great. Very friendly and approachable people there. My only complaint about them is that they push their wine club hard there, but other than that, I really like them.

                  Up the street from Amista is Truett Hurst. They can be a little crowded, but the grounds are gorgeous and they have a nice variety of wines at reasonable prices. Those three wineries could easily be done in a day, followed by a late lunch in downtown Healdsburg. Bovolo is amazing for sandwiches and salads. I also like Healdsburg Bar & Grill for a burger and fries. If you are up for one or two more, the La Crema tasting room in downtown Healdsburg is a good one and you can try a variety of pinots there. (not on the tasting menu, but usually available to taste are a few whites - a viognier, and a couple others. All quite nice.)

                  1. re: arugulove

                    Thanks for the info, Maria and arugulove. We'll keep those recs in mind as we finalize our trip. We may end up spending more time near Healdsburg, but will try and play it by ear. Sort of hard because of the reservation process, but we will assess again as it gets closer! Healdsburg sounds beautiful!