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Sep 21, 2012 08:50 AM

Napa/Sonoma Itinerary Help

Hello all,

My significant other and I are visiting Napa and Sonoma for the first time next month (Arriving in SFO mid-day Oct. 6, leaving mid-day Oct. 12 (Sat-Fri, 5 full days). We are complete wine neophytes, aside from simply 'liking wine.' We are completely open to anything and everything, but place equal weight on enjoying the scenery, relaxing, enjoying fun food and new things, as much as trying wines and visiting vineyards.

We are staying in St. Helena and have a rental car. We are thinking of splitting our time between Sonoma and Napa, and potentially going to the ocean or something else fun. We have no real time table or places we absolutely must do. We are looking for the trip to be relaxing, but want to make sure we see the high notes (and give ourselves reasons to come back). We are also looking to keep overall costs down, but 0-20pp for tastings are fine. We are planning on purchasing a few bottles of wine, and plan on cooking at home (rental) for part/most of the week.

Additionally, I am planning on proposing while we are there. At first I was thinking of doing it at a winery, but I think it might be better to do it somewhere we wouldn't associate the moment with a product as much as a locale. I was thinking of doing it at sunset on the Overlook Trail (Sonoma), bringing a picnic and a bottle of bubbly to commemorate. However, I am still open to doing it at a winery with a fantastic view that we could get away from the crowd and be able to do it one on one. Some options I am considering are Sterling (going off somewhere with a view), Kuleto, Gundlach-Bundschu, Chateau St. Jean, Paradise Ridge (maybe the sunset picnic on Wednesday, or seeing if I can do it solo on a different day), Castello di Amorosa or Spring Mountain. Regardless, if you all would be willing to offer both a location and a follow up place to eat or go, I would appreciate any suggestions.

All of that said, from reading the board and doing some excessive googling, I have put together a list of wineries to see and places to eat. I would love any help grouping the wineries and helping chart my vacation. Figuring out timing and driving time/distance is goofy in the valleys.


Domaine Carneros
Domaine Chandon
Chateau St. Jean
Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves
Paradise Ridge
Castello di Amorosa
Bartholomew Park
St. Francis
Spring Mountain (SM, Erna Shein, Barnett)
Rutherford Hill

Boon Fly Café
Girl and the Fig
La Salette
Rutherford Grill
Picnic supplies from D&D
Bistro Jeanty
Bistro don Giovanni
Ad Hoc
Grace's Table
Etoile at Domain Chandon
The Original Taylors
Barn Diva
The Girl and the Fig

Let me know if there is anything else I can provide to help with decisions.

Thanks In Advance.

PS: What about a mud bath? Anywhere reasonable but nice?

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  1. I'd propose at the Pacific Ocean. Find a beautiful beach or cove.

    Or glean ideas about proposing in Napa Valley from Youtube. Go to Youtube's website, and search for napa and proposals (or proposing) and a few videos come up, one at Kuleto Winery. (There's a great precipice view out there that might be nice.) Chateau Montelena in Calistoga has this beautiful lagoon with little islands and pagodas. They are very romantic and perhaps you could reserve one. Call the Hospitality Director at Chateau Montelena.

    The South Terrace at Sterling has an amazing view (not very fond of the wines, though), but Sterling is not private or personal enough for proposing, IMO.

    As far as winery visits go, that's a disparate list you have, and there are some wineries that you've mentioned that I would never send you to. I think a good place to start to look for quality recommendations would be to search the SF Bay Area board by region (use Google rather than Chowhound for this). For example: St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville and Calistoga (these are all in Napa Valley).

    When searching in Sonoma County, bear in the mind the county is huge, the size of Rhode Island. If you're searching in the city of Sonoma, make that clear. It's quite far from the city of Sonoma to the Healdsburg, for example.

    1. Maria Lorraine's suggestions are spot on. With that, here are my comments on your list:

      Sterling - meh; good for the tram ride and view, otherwise very corporate.
      Rubicon - Nice for the history and some good wines, but can be awfully busy because of the owner's name
      Arrowood - I adore their late harvest wines and bring a lot of people here.
      Domaine Carneros - stunning setting and a great place to end the day with a plate of cheese and bubby.
      Ferrari-Carno - adored their wines a decade ago but haven't been the facility in ages.
      Flowers - Never heard of 'em
      Domaine Chandon - I love this place. Great art, great wine, and their specialty tastings with little bites are an inspiration
      Kuleto - another meh
      Gundlach-Bundschu - I adore this place as well. Great wine, people and location
      Chateau St. Jean - A very worthy stop
      Viansa - Avoid. Big tourist trap
      Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves - Shramsberg's caves are better (the best in the valley). GF's would be lower on my list of sparkling producers to visit.
      Paradise Ridge - Haven't been there for years either. A long drive, probably best to avoid for distance.
      Passalacqua - Love this place
      Castello di Amorosa - avoid/avoid/avoid. Considered a joke in the valley.
      Bartholomew Park - Ask about their basement/morgue. Great history and a lovely hiking trail.
      St. Francis - Go for their boutique wines which are out of this world. I love this place
      Spring Mountain (SM, Erna Shein, Barnett) - Smith Madrone is my favorite on the mountain
      Rutherford Hill - Doesn't rock my boat at all
      Hendry - I like them, not very memorable to me for some reason though.

      Boon Fly Café - Great breakfast. If you are a Bloody Mary Fan, a must. Plus their doughnuts!
      Solbar - Love it.
      Redd - Don't miss.
      Girl and the Fig - Gotten mediocre reviews lately, I'm sad to say.
      La Salette - My favorite restaurant in Sonoma.
      Brix - Best for its bar menu happy hour (everything is half price).
      Rutherford Grill - A chain restaurant loved by tourists only. Most locals avoid (for a reason) except for their prime rib French Dip.
      Picnic supplies from D&D - More plentiful and cheaper supplies can be had at Oxbow Market.
      Bistro Jeanty - Love, love, love...
      zuzu - My favorite in downtown Napa
      JoLe - My favorite in Calistoga. Great choice and (for me) worth driving up-valley for!
      Bistro don Giovanni
      Ad Hoc
      Grace's Table
      Etoile at Domain Chandon
      The Original Taylors
      Barn Diva
      The Girl and the Fig

      1. Thank you both for the insight. I think the Pacific Ocean idea is great. Perhaps make it trip for the afternoon, pack a dinner and propose at sunset. Could be perfect. Will I get much of a hassle staying on the beach slightly past sunset? I looked at some of the beaches, as I would like to find a place that is somewhat secluded. Have either of you ever been to Pinnacle Gulf or Shorttail Gulch? Both are in Bodega Bay.

        I will do some cutting and try to group up the wineries/dining and repost a more refined itinerary.


        6 Replies
        1. re: omnomnom415

          The beach is often foggy / overcast, cool / cold, and windy.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            Is this something that is easy to play by ear? The weather I mean. It is about 1.5 hours from where we are staying, so potentially something that I could decide on in the morning.

            Is the Sonoma Overlook trail stunning (or worthy of a proposal)? The little bench at the top of the trail seems cute.

            1. re: omnomnom415

              >>(weather) easy to play by ear?>>

              The unhelpful answer is, not always. There can be wind and fog on the coast yet 15 min down the road everything is fine. Best to pay attention to the weather reports. When it says "the fog will clear up/pull back as the day goes on...." that means you have a roughly 3-hr window of sunny weather in the early afternoon.

              Again I will be the minority here on Amoroso, but that's because I don't drink any longer but am an amateur architectural buff. The double-vaulted brick ceilings in the basement are amazing - masonry work that is increasingly rare even in Italy. When I remarked on the double-vaulting to our guide, he agreed and said that when Sattui went looking for workers who could do it, there were only 8 craftsmen left in the world who had the right skills any longer.

              1. re: omnomnom415

                If it is sunny on the coast, it's likely to be a few hours in the afternoon, and by sunset the fog might roll in.

                1. re: omnomnom415

                  Unfortunately, "playing it by ear" is a total crap shoot.

                  I live in Napa and my boyfriend lives about a 1,000 yards from the beach near Half Moon Bay. I can leave a 93-degree Napa and by the time I get to his house at the beach, it can be in the low 60s and completely fogged in.

                  There are even spots where you can be less than a mile inland but by the time you get to the coast, it can be socked in with fog and freezing. There have been times where we set out to take a walk on the beach because of how warm and gorgeous it was and in 15 minutes, it can change and be decidedly chilly and foggy.

                  If you want to assure yourself of a gorgeous and warm location, I would do as Maria Lorraine recommended and hunt around YouTube for winery-based locations. There are a ton of gorgeous locations that don't have to be product-specific; hiking trails and picnic areas which could work.

                  But if you rely on the coast for a perfect setting, you could end up just bundling up and trying to figure out how to get warm or where to buy hot chocolate.

                  1. re: CarrieWas218

                    Right now, I am planning on at least going to the ocean (probably Bodega Head). I don't need it to be hot, sweatshirts and jeans are perfect. The fog is the only thing I would be worried about.

                    That said, I am keeping vineyard and hike options open. As I mentioned early, does anyone have an opinion on the Sonoma Overlook trail?


            2. The original comment has been removed
              1. I am positive you'll have a wonderful time, BUT . . .

                Your post is so overly broad as to make it a bit difficult to come up with specific suggestions. You write that, "We are complete wine neophytes, aside from simply 'liking wine'." That's great, but it does -- at least for me -- make it difficult to make any specific suggestions vis-a-vis what wineries to visit, and what wineries to avoid.

                Thus, for *specific* suggestions, it would be helpful it you could provide a bit more information re: the types of wines you and your partner enjoy. For example, do you love Zinfandel? Do you hate Sauvignon Blancs? Love Chardonnay? Not big fans of Pinot Noir? This sort of general info will make it easier to recommend which wineries you'd find of interest, and which ones you might wish to avoid.

                ALSO, how much do you generally spend on bottles of wine? No real point in visiting a place where the least expensive bottle is $100 when the most you spend on wines is, say, $30 . . . but there's also no point in recommending a $15 producer is you never spend less than $40 -- know what I mean?

                That said . . .

                NAPA WINERIES:

                STERLING -- great views and beautiful scenery, but the last great wine they made was in the 1980s.
                RUBICON -- keep in mind that Rubicon is produced by Francis Ford Coppola at Inglenook, so you'd be going there . . . and it's very crowded. That said, it's full of both wine and movie memorabilia, but don't necessarily expect to actually taste Rubicon . . .
                (Domaine) CHANDON -- opened in 1973, it was the first of the French-owned California sparkling wine producers, with an excellent tour, wines available only at the winery, and a very nice menu of small bites and a view.
                DOMAINE CARNEROS -- another French-owned sparkling wineries, this owned by Taittinger; very nice wines, and stunning afternoon views, but with less history than Chandon.
                KULETO ESTATE -- this is an example of my wanting to know WHAT TYPE of wines you like, as visits are by appointment only, and the cost for a tour and tasting is $40/person. If you don't like Cabernet, this is a waste.
                CASTELLO DI AMOROSA -- oh, good lord, why? Please don't . . .
                RUTHERFORD HILL -- ummm . . . not the greatest winery in the valley.
                HENDRY -- very good, a bit under-the-radar, but solid wines.

                SONOMA WINERIES:

                ARROWWOOD -- very fine wines, especially their late harvest wines.
                FERRARI-CARANO -- lovely winery, but the wines are sort of "yesterday's news."
                FLOWERS - truly great Pinot Noirs and fine Chardonnays, but it's waaaayyyyyyyy out in Cazadero, and visits are by appointment only, IIRC.
                GUNDLACH-BUNDSCHU -- Hmmm . . . not sure I'd go, but the vineyard tour is quite good (Benziger is better, IMHO); I always liked their Gewürztraminer.
                CHATEAU ST. JEAN -- a shell of its former glory
                VIANSA -- a great place to buy salami; the Sattui of Sonoma.
                GLORIA FERRER -- I'd stick with Chandon or Domaine Carneros.
                PARADISE RIDGE -- some people love their wines; I'm not a fan.
                PASSALACQUA -- well worth the visit
                BARTHOLOMEW PARK -- go for the stories.
                ST. FRANCIS -- if you like oak . . .
                SMITH-MADRONE -- well worth visiting, IMHO
                BARNETT -- well, I wouldn't go, but that's me; some people love their wines and don't mind paying $40 each to taste.

                I'd listen to Maria Lorraine . . .

                Also, if you're going to the ocean (GREAT idea, in my opinion), you might want to visit Hog Island Oyster Co.