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Sep 16, 2012 04:53 PM

One day, Napa or Sonoma??

We are traveling to San Francisco in early October and want to take a day trip to wine country. We are wine lovers but are not experts by any means. We would like to taste some good wine that is not astronomically expensive and enjoy a day in gorgeous wine country. We are looking for your thoughts on whether we should do Napa or Sonoma and why. Please include any favorite lunch spots...
Additionally, we would love any recommendations for vineyards we should visit. We are a group of 7 adults but we will have a 13 month with us, so the vineyards will have to be somewhat laid back or family friendly. But we can also keep her occupied with grandma outside if necessary. :)
Thank you in advance fellow chowhounders!

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  1. You might enjoy this article by Sunset magazine called
    Napa vs. Sonoma Face-Off

    With a group of 7 (that's large), you will have to plan very well and make reservations for wherever you go.

    Please read the various posts on the area. You might especially enjoy Healdsburg, a northern Sonoma County town dripping with charm. Bear in mind Sonoma County is as big as the state of Rhode Island, so be specific (city of Sonoma vs. Sonoma County) when you search for information. Sonoma, like Napa, is organized by region, so you can access specific information on restaurants and wineries when you search by region (Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, Dry Creek, etc. in Sonoma; and Rutherford, Oakville, St. Helena, Yountville, Spring Mountain, etc. in Napa Valley).

    1. I would go to Sonoma. It is more laid back and the proximity of wineries to lunch spots is easier for a group your size.

      In downtown, on the Square, are a handful of great restaurants and shopping; La Salette being a consistent favorite for Portuguese food but standard wine-fair (Cal-Italian and Cal-French) is easily had at Cafe LaHaye or Girl and the Fig.

      Within a half-mile of the square are wineries like Bartholomew Park, Raveswood, Gundlach Bundschu, and Sebastiani. Both BartPark and GunBun are very family friendly with hiking trails and gorgeous views. The cute little square also hosts a handful of co-op tasting rooms. A little further out of downtown and there is Cline, Domaine Carneros, Gloria Ferrer, and Artesa (all with good juice and pretty views).

      If you head to Napa, the best lunch spots will be in downtown Napa but you will have to drive up-valley to get to the vineyards. You will spend more time driving and less time socializing, eating, and drinking - critical if you only have one day with seven people.

      1 Reply
      1. re: CarrieWas218

        I agree that the city of Sonoma, with its lovely square and variety of options, along with its proximity to SF, comparatively, is probably your best bet. Though other options exist, of course.

      2. We visit both areas several times a year, and I'd always vote Sonoma. It's so much prettier a county than Napa is. But the downside is, it IS big, and driving on 101 will take you longer at commute hours than you think. You will want to come back to SF either a bit before or somewhat after the evening commute hours. We found 101 South jammed with traffic between Santa Rosa and Petaluma at 5:30p (possibly even further towards SF; but we were getting off the freeway for dinner in Petaluma), and it wasn't much better on the oher side, 101 North, where commuters were coming out of SF and heading home.

        I would suggest you plan to have a late breakfast/early lunch in the city, then the easy drive over the GG Bridge to Sonoma Cty. I would avoid trying to go to the coast, because the East-West roads take forever; they are curvy and twisty. It's often 45min to 1 hr to reach one of the nicer beaches or more scenic bluffs - one way!

        I don't find Healdsburg as charming as the town of Sonoma, but it's nice. One of the biggest issues is that its Square isn't as public-friendly as Sonoma Square. Especially since you have a mixed group; a lot of people aren't aware that there are no public bathrooms on Healdsburg Square, as there is on Sonoma Square. The only public bathrooms in Healdsburg are at the police station, a few blocks away! But there is an excellent bakery, Downtown Bakery, which makes lovely fresh fruit galettes, as well as the unique-tasting Flying Goat coffeeshop a few doors down.

        Both cities have a lot of restaurants, of varying levels. Nothing is going to be cheap, but for a group I'd pick Willi's in Healdsburg (there's a sister restaurant of the same name in Santa Rosa, so don't get confused between them) which is all small plates, so everyone can find something they like to eat. In Sonoma I'd pick La Salette or preferably Café la Haye, but both are small. Reservations are ESSENTIAL in NorCA; do not wait until the last minute, especially with a party the size of yours.

        I'd prefer to eat dinner and then drive back to SF, thus neatly avoiding the traffic problem – but you should call 511 for its automated traffic conditions report, just in case – however, with the baby, I don't know if you want to hang out in Sonoma Cty long enough to wait until 6:30p or 7p to head back to SF.

        1 Reply
        1. re: jaiko

          Note: There's a public restroom across the street from Healdsburg Plaza. It's behind the Hotel Healdsburg/Dry Creek Kitchen and across the walkway from Bear Republic.

        2. I disagree with other posters to the extent there is an implication that Sonoma is prettier than Napa or more laid back. It depends on personal preference, but I find the Napa Valley (esp. when viewed from the mountains) really breathtaking. Also, off the main roads, I have found the same level of snobbery (or lack thereof) in both Sonoma or Napa.

          Also, Napa is much closer/compact than Sonoma (though if you stick to the area around the Sonoma town square then it doesn't really matter).

          That being said, I echo that Sonoma is probably your better option because of the budget restriction. Even with the rising prices in Sonoma, the wines are still some 50% cheaper than in Napa, and the tasting fees are cheaper or free if you buy a bottle or two.

          If you are not a wine expert, and more interested in the experience than obsessed with tasting the best of the best, I think CarrieWas218's proposed itinerary/schedule is a good one. It's set of wineries that are easily accessible and fun to hang out in (though not necessarily my favorites wine wise).

          1 Reply
          1. re: goldangl95

            <I disagree with other posters to the extent there is an implication that Sonoma is prettier than Napa or more laid back.>

            I agree. When someone says Sonoma is prettier, that tells me the person didn't get off the main highways. BTW, Sonoma County is the size of Rhode Island -- huge.

          2. Thank you all, immensely helpful!
            One last question if I may, any favorites in Sonoma for sparkling wines or rose? We visited the Cava region in Spain and fell in love with both. Thanks again!!

            13 Replies
            1. re: Katep64

              You probably won't find many Roses in the fall being sold. Domaine Carneros on the Sonoma/Napa border (and easy driving distance from the Sonoma square) does nice sparkling.

              1. re: goldangl95

                Wineries that make rosés sell them until they run out. People around here drink them year round.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  True. My comment was based on my impression that around here, non-sparkling roses are often released in the Spring and so many are sold out by October. It makes it hard to give recs for where to go for rose.

                2. re: goldangl95

                  We had a fun, good lunch on Christmas Eve at Domaine Carneros. And sitting up on the hill, the view is lovely.

                3. re: Katep64

                  Iron Horse is beautiful and they make a range of excellent sparkling wine, they have rose, and even sparkling rose.

                  Downside is they are rather remote. Not close at all to the Sonoma town center.

                  1. re: Katep64

                    J Winery in Healdsburg for sparkling Rose.

                    1. re: Katep64

                      If you liked Spanish Cava, than you should definitely head to Gloria Ferrer - it is Spanish-owned (they do a big Catalan festival every year) and they produce a Sparking Rose that is quite nice. It is also not far of a drive from downtown Sonoma and the grounds are beautiful.

                      1. re: CarrieWas218

                        Gloria Ferrer is Catalan-owned and they make good wines, but their wines are solidly in the French tradition, all Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

                        1. re: CarrieWas218

                          Gloria Ferrer's Sparkling Rose is a very good buy at their price point.

                          1. re: maria lorraine

                            LOVE recs for sparkling rose's. Thanks for the rec.

                            1. re: c oliver

                              I think the Mumm Brut Prestige Rose bubbly is the better buy with more flavor, but since our travelers will be near Gloria Ferrer if they focus their day around the city of Sonoma, it's not a bad option. GF is not what I would choose for Rose Bubbly -- it's not Billecart, Pol Roger or Laurent Perrier, to be sure -- but I have tasted/compared GF's Rose bubbly against others in a lateral tasting, and it's fine for what is is. With limited time, I might spend time closer to the Sonoma square, though.

                              1. re: maria lorraine

                                I'm glad to know about the Mumm's. Here at Tahoe, our selection is sometimes quite limited but I do see Mumm's... regularly. Will pick some up. Thanks as always.

                            2. re: maria lorraine

                              Just read that the Gloria Ferrer Brut Rose won Double Gold at the Sonoma Harvest Fair this year. The 2007 GF Brut Rose won the 2011 Sonoma Harvest Fair Sweepstakes Award for Winning Specialty Wine and also the Mike Lee Memorial Award. So GF is consistently producing some OK stuff, and may merit a visit. Still, if in Napa, Schramsberg is really the go-to winery for excellent sparkling.