One hit of wine country and your addiction will surpass Amy Winehouse's. I still recall the emotional rush the first time I glimpsed the undulating hills and illustrious wineries on Napa's Highway 29. Tingly, my fresh newbie-ness bubbled with fervor and newfound pleasure. It felt good -- alluring and bewitching, with a heroin-like efficacy. Join me on the dark side of the vine.
When to go
It's tempting to travel during the heady harvest days (late August-early October), but don't. Massive traffic and crowds quickly quell romance. Cheapest time to go: January-March. Naturally, there's a reason for the reduced rates: rain, which is great for grapes but not tourists. It falls often during winter, and the damp, barren landscape isn't exactly picturesque. During summer, however, the verdant vines soak up sunshine, and baby grape clusters begin to appear. The crowds and expenses grow, too. Hot during the day and cooler at night, it's a great place to hang if you can afford the buzz. Be sure your visit coincides with one of the many wine events between January and August.
Where to go
Synonymous with American wine, Napa Valley offers a siren-like attraction. But don't assume it's your ideal partner. Quick litmus test -- do you prefer Chicago or New York? Los Angeles or San Francisco? If New York and L.A. hold appeal, start in Napa; if Chicago and San Francisco, then Sonoma Valley. Napa offers wine glitz, money and business. Sonoma is down-to-earth with farming and tradition (with cheaper tasting room fees). If choosing seems pointless, it's easy to visit both in a week.
The town of Napa is about one hour north of Oakland Airport. Charming St. Helena sits in a convenient spot to explore Napa Valley, and if cash isn't an issue, stay at the luxuriant Inn at Southbridge on Highway 29. Be sure to grab lunch at celebrated Taylor's Refresher drive-in across the street -- a priceless (yet low-priced) experience.
Wineries to visit
Napa (in no particular order): Clos du Val, Ceja, Domaine Carneros (worth even a drive-by to gawk at the chateau), Pine Ridge, Tres Sabores, Folio Winemaker's Studio (tasting room for smaller, Mondavi family projects), Flora Springs, Folie à Deux, Merryvale, Benessere, Schramsberg, Miner and Honig.
If you're headed to Sonoma, fly into San Francisco Airport and traverse the Golden Gate Bridge. Gaze and gush -- it's a beautiful hour-and-a-half drive to southern Sonoma. If time permits, stop at Muir Woods and marvel at the ancient redwood trees, fat and gigantic enough to leave you in awe. Stay in or near Santa Rosa, since virtually all destinations are within a 20-minute drive.
Sonoma (in no particular order): Hanna, Iron Horse, Kendall Jackson Wine Center (walk the sensory garden), Ridge, Preston Vineyards (bring a picnic lunch or buy some delicious cheese and bread there), Rosenblum Cellars, Pellegrini, Family Wineries of Healdsburg or "Locals" in Geyserville (two tasting room co-ops of smaller wineries), Simi, Murphy Goode, BR Cohn (snag some olive oil, too), Ferrari Carano, Sbragia Family Vineyards and Benziger (be sure to ride the cheesy tram).
A few insights
1. Consider hiring a driver (hotel should know), since getting sauced in wine country is not only a foregone conclusion, it's encouraged; 2. Cattle car "wine tours" -- never done one, but never heard a rave, either; 3. Visiting more than five wineries in a day is pushing it; 4. If special treatment is what you seek (tours, barrel tastings, etc.), many wineries are amenable to requests -- check their websites; and 5. Keep in mind you're entering into a lifelong addiction and plan accordingly.
S.A. Prum 2006 Essence Riesling Mosel Saar Ruwer (Germany) Amazing stuff, especially for the price. A fruit-forward, succulent peach, pear and honey extravaganza that finishes tart and clean. Sw = 3. $12. 4.5 stars
Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. 1 (star) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.
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