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EssentialsFirst and foremost, tour a winery; there are more than 400 of them in Wine Country, from small operations to expansive estates that have been in business for more than a century. Whether you opt to visit a specialized boutique operation or one of the prestigious name wineries that produce classic vintages, you'll get an inside look at the production process, from vine to wine.
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Stay at a B&B; both the Napa and Sonoma valleys offer numerous choices. Cordial hosts will gladly offer tips regarding must-visit wineries and sightseeing recommendations. Bountiful breakfasts, afternoon tea and cookies, and wine tastings are frequently part of the package.
Take a serene drive through Wine Country's bucolic countryside. Dry Creek Valley in the vicinity of Healdsburg features lush vineyards, while the Alexander Valley from Cloverdale north to the Mendocino County coast is a beautiful rural drive past rolling, oak-covered hills and more vineyards. Narrow, serpentine SR 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, offers spectacular views of craggy cliffs towering above the ocean north to Mendocino and beyond.
Courtesy of Napa Valley Wine Train / NA
Savor delicious California cuisine that takes full advantage of locally grown and sourced organic products. You can also count on Wine Country restaurateurs pairing outstanding wines with their innovative culinary creations. Yountville in particular boasts restaurants that appear on many a serious foodie's wish list.
Play in the mud. Calistoga is famous for spas that offer mud bath treatments; wallowing in the steaming black concoction pampers skin and reputedly does wonders for sore muscles.
Greg Weekes / AAA
Visit the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena , a training ground for student chefs eager to embark on a culinary arts career. Take a wine appreciation class, observe a cooking demonstration, check out the Vintners Hall of Fame or sample succulent creations at one of the institute's on-site restaurants. For more information, phone (707) 967-1100.
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AttractionsIn an area with dozens of attractions, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”
By Greg Weekes
Wine Country's gently rolling hills and peaceful living inspire creative minds, and three attractions honor those who made their mark in literature and the arts. The Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in St. Helena pays homage to the Scottish author. Stevenson spent his honeymoon at a cabin near Mount St. Helena's Silverado Mine in 1880 and recounted the experience in “The Silverado Squatters.” Fans of “Treasure Island” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” can peruse mementos commemorating the writer and his classics.
The House of Happy Walls at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen serves as a museum with photographs depicting the author's adventures. From there, paths lead to his grave site, marked by a lava rock on a small knoll, and to the Wolf House, a dreamlike haven that burnt to the ground shortly before London was due to move in. A half-mile trail circles through the heart of the 1,400-acre spread that the author fondly called his “Beauty Ranch.”
Santa Rosa's Charles M. Schulz Museum is a tribute to the creator of the beloved “Peanuts” comic strip. Have fun hunting for an illustration of your favorite character as you stroll among the lighthearted displays—Peanuts stalwarts Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy and Peppermint Patty all make appearances. It's also an opportunity to learn about the cartoonist's life and philosophy.
Connect with nature at the Real Goods Solar Living Center , which promotes sustainable living and renewable energy at its 12-acre demonstration site in Hopland. Saunter about the complex on your own or opt for a guided tour and learn about such topics as solar and wind power, organic gardening and environmentally friendly construction materials.
Of course the wineries are what really bring droves of visitors to Wine Country. Enjoy fine wine and gourmet cuisine while journeying through the Napa Valley aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train , an AAA GEM attraction. Relax in a beautifully restored vintage train car on this 3-hour round trip between Napa and St. Helena. In addition to the standard sightseeing excursion, you can also book tour options that allow you to disembark the train for visits to notable wineries like St. Helena’s V. Sattui or the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville.
The Napa and Sonoma valleys are famed for the pastoral countryside that provides a backdrop for all those thriving vineyards, but take time to explore Wine Country's wilder side—namely the grandly scenic wilderness, coastal mountain ranges and Pacific shoreline in Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
The loop trail that encircles AAA GEM attraction Bodega Head , the rocky headland that forms the entrance into Bodega Harbor, is a hike well worth taking. In spots the trail runs right along the edge of the elevated headland, permitting spectacularly unobstructed views of sheer cliff walls that descend practically vertically to the water far below (approach at your own risk and be sure to watch your step). Bodega Head is within Sonoma Coast State Park , a delightfully scenic stretch of coastline pocked with coves and offshore rock formations.
Kruse Rhododendron State Natural Reserve , on the coast north of Jenner, is a protected area that comprises 317 acres of second-growth redwoods, Douglas fir and a profusion of rhododendrons. While this serene forested habitat is wonderful to hike at any time of year, the most rewarding time to visit is in May, when the rhodies burst into bloom with showy flowers ranging from white to pink to red. Hike the reserve's short loop trail to really appreciate their beauty.
Take a walk through the Pygmy Forest , near Little River , and you'll discover that you're taller than most of the trees. These dwarfs are the result of poor soil conditions, but after more than a century they continue to survive. In addition to observing these stunted trees, you can hike the towering redwood groves and fern-filled canyons of neighboring Van Damme State Park.
Just north of Mendocino, Russian Gulch State Park has forests of redwoods, Douglas firs and California laurel trees and crisscrossing trails along craggy headlands that offer scenic ocean views. Check out the Devil's Punchbowl, a 60-foot-deep sinkhole formed by waves that over time carved a subterranean tunnel. Then hike the Fern Canyon Trail, a peaceful woodland walk that is especially lush in the spring after winter season rains.
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens , a AAA GEM in Fort Bragg , is notable for its location at the Pacific Ocean's edge. Meander through lovely gardens, view coastal bluffs speckled with wildflowers in the spring or catch a glimpse of crashing winter waves from the vantage point of the Cliff House. Definitely bring your camera.
Drive through the Chandelier Tree , near Leggett, and the resulting snapshot will be the talk of your photo album. The base of this 315-foot-tall redwood's carved-out trunk is wide enough to accommodate a car with plenty of room to spare.
Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve , an AAA GEM north of Guerneville, is not as well known as Muir Woods National Monument, but it's equally majestic, offering a magical opportunity to commune with nature in the moist, shaded, essentially silent environment created by a redwood forest. Notable specimens along the Redwood Discovery Trail are marked; the Colonel Armstrong tree, the grove's tallest, exceeds 300 feet in height.
The redwoods at Calistoga's The Petrified Forest never fail to impress, even though they're dead; lava and ash from a violent volcanic explosion millions of years ago created these stonelike wonders. Take the guided walking tour of the forest's upper meadow to observe a 100-foot-high ash fall and a scenic lookout point with a view of 4,341-foot Mount St. Helena.
At Luther Burbank Home & Gardens in downtown Santa Rosa , you can amble throughout an acre of the renowned horticulturist's contributions, which include the Shasta daisy. Stroll through rose, ornamental grass and herb gardens, then check out the museum devoted to Burbank's life and work and the late 19th-century greenhouse that contains a replica of his office.
If roses are your passion, head south to Garden Valley Ranch in Petaluma . Pick up a brochure at the office and take a self-guiding tour through the grounds. This is Northern California's only official test garden, and you'll see many unique numbered specimens. The sheer variety and peaceful setting will entice rosarians and casual visitors alike.
Take a break from tasting and learn more about Wine Country's pre-Cabernet Sauvignon past. The Healdsburg Museum presents northern Sonoma County history through documents, artifacts and some 8,000 photographs. Standout items include 19th-century weapons and Pomo Indian crafts. The Napa Valley Museum in Yountville promotes the valley's cultural and environmental heritage and also has changing art exhibitions. Santa Rosa's Museums of Sonoma County mixes history, art and culture with exhibits that range from Sonoma County artifacts to the work of environmental artists like Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
Roam the great outdoors courtesy of an open-air vehicle at Safari West in Santa Rosa, where it's quite possible that a giraffe might nuzzle you. The adventurous trek through this vast preserve, a AAA GEM, offers panoramic views that are the next best thing to being on Africa's Serengeti, and you'll also experience up-close encounters with ostriches, zebras, gazelles and other animals.
See all the AAA recommended
RestaurantsOur favorites include some of this destination's best restaurants—from fine dining to simple fare.
By Greg Weekes
Cole's Chop House , located in a historic, 1886 hand-hewn stone building in downtown Napa, touts itself as a “classic American steakhouse.” The wine list focuses on the Napa Valley's own Cabernet Sauvignon vintages to complement entrées. Beefy highlights include 21-day dry-aged Prime and certified Angus Beef steaks. Meat lovers will also appreciate the New Zealand lamb chops. If you're not in the mood for beef, order the filet of Atlantic salmon. Sides like grilled asparagus and sautéed mushroom caps are served family style. The mahogany bar is a popular gathering place to sample custom cocktails.
A branch of the popular restaurant in San Francisco's Ferry Building, Hog Island Oyster Bar Napa , tucked inside Napa's Oxbow Public Market, features locally sourced Tomales Bay shellfish. The oysters are filled with briny-fresh flavor whether you get them grilled, fried in cornmeal for a po'boy sandwich or plump and fresh on the half shell. Try seafood stew with grilled levain toast, a warmly comforting dish.
The French Laundry got its name from the old stone building's former function: 19th-century pioneers brought their clothes here for washing. Today this two-story house in the picture-postcard hamlet of Yountville is nationally known for the spectacular and creative cuisine whipped up by chef Thomas Keller. Dinner here is a culinary journey; the nine-course chef's tasting menu lasts 3 hours or more as guests relax and savor each finely choreographed offering. Delicacies like black truffles and hand-churned Vermont butter are flown in from around the country, but much of the produce comes from the restaurant's own gardens. Reservations are absolutely essential.
Ad Hoc , Keller's other Yountville restaurant, isn't as dearly expensive, although it's not cheap either. A four-course dinner with the option of wine pairings features one entrée that changes daily, served family style. While this doesn't allow for flexibility in ordering, never fear; the food is consistently excellent, simple and homey but perfectly executed. Many Ad Hoc fans wait until buttermilk fried chicken is on the menu; it's that good (the day's selections are posted on the restaurant's website). Reservations are strongly advised.
The line is usually out the door at Mustards Grill , another longtime Yountville favorite. Surrounded by vineyards and gardens, the patio is a popular spot to sit and savor a glass of wine before dinner (the tantalizing smells emanating from the wood-burning grill and oak smoker will make you hungry). For an appetizer try the sweet corn tamales or onion rings with tomato-apple ketchup. The eclectic menu features such specialties as seafood tostadas, mustard-marinated quail, French-style rabbit in red wine and grilled ahi with basil aioli and pickled ginger.
Italian food aficionados should reserve a table at Yountville's Bottega Napa Valley , a handsome contemporary space accented by brick, steel, wood and leather, plus wood-burning fireplaces in the outdoor terrazzo. Food Network celebrity chef Michael Chiarello oversees the kitchen and often makes an appearance in the dining room. Warm, crusty bread accompanied by a dip of olive oil, herbs and spices is a nice welcoming touch. Pasta dishes include such favorites as pappardelle with a Bolognese of veal, pork and porcini mushrooms, and truffle fries are delish. For dessert, chocolate soufflé adorned with candied hazelnuts and crème anglaise should finish you off nicely. Wine prices are among the most reasonable in the Napa Valley.
Two St. Helena hangouts are perfect places to relax after a day of touring wineries, especially if you're with a group of like-minded friends. Goose & Gander has a clubby steakhouse feel, but if the day's warm grab a table on the pretty outdoor patio. Grilled flatiron steak with caramelized Brussels sprouts and trumpet mushrooms is a hearty entrée; for something lighter go with arugula and Asian pear salad or the country pâté with garlic crostini. The wine list is reliably good, but Goose & Gander also concocts a mean Manhattan.
Market specializes in upscale comfort food like Dungeness crab cakes, mussels and frites and mac 'n cheese. The menu also takes advantage of seasonal California produce fresh from local organic farms. Save room for dessert; even homespun butterscotch pudding (served in a waffle cone) is elevated to divine heights.
Long-standing Sonoma Valley staple John Ash & Co. , at the Vintners Inn in Santa Rosa, serves award-winning Wine Country cuisine. The emphasis is on seasonal, organic products from Sonoma County farms and the restaurant's own gardens, whether it's a starter of roasted heirloom beets or entrées like Pinot-braised lamb shank with toy box tomatoes and baby carrots A carefully selected wine list enhances these regional flavors. Ask for a table on the enclosed plantation-style porch for a view of the vineyards. This is an excellent choice for a special occasion.
Original artwork adorns the walls of Sonoma's tiny Cafe La Haye . The menu focuses on creative Californian and New American cuisine, with an emphasis on organic Wine Country produce. The risotto offering changes daily, and fettuccine with sweet Italian sausage, kale and roasted shallots is delicious. This artsy café is big with hip locals, so make reservations and expect to wait.
Hana Japanese Restaurant , a small, unassuming place in Rohnert Park, is hiding something—unbelievable Japanese cuisine. Local chefs often come here on their days off to eat and watch the preparation. The sushi bar has a tempting array of fresh nigiri, makimono and sashimi. The traditional menu includes grilled seafood and steak, maki rolls, and soba and udon noodles, accompanied by a selection of sake.
Since 1983, award-winning La Vera Pizza has been pleasing Santa Rosa customers with its made-to-order pie combinations. Toppings range from traditional Italian sausage and anchovies to shrimp and artichokes, but it's the homemade sauces (margherita and pesto) and whole-milk mozzarella that seal the deal—simply delicious! The pastas and calzones are good, too.
Glen Ellen is a small Sonoma Valley town full of trendy eateries, and one of the most popular is Glen Ellen Star . The wood-fired oven in the restaurant's tiny open kitchen turns out a parade of flavorful dishes like Brussels sprouts with a brown sugar-bacon marmalade and cauliflower with roasted almonds, plus a variety of pizzas. Brick chicken with creamy polenta and hen of the woods mushrooms is a tasty main course. Caveats: This is a very small restaurant, and tables are spaced close together. The music is also on the loud side, so it isn't the place to come for a romantic, intimate dinner.
Wine Country isn't all about haute cuisine. At Willie Bird's Restaurant in Santa Rosa, “Willie Bird” free-range turkeys—raised in Sonoma County and then smoked over natural hardwoods—are featured in many of this roadside diner's menu offerings. The turkey dinner, served open-faced with stuffing, mashed potatoes, giblet gravy and cranberry sauce, is pure comfort on a plate, and Italian turkey sausage sauce is ladled over the spaghetti. Belly up to a breakfast of turkey-fried steak with country gravy, eggs, home fries and toast, and you'll be up for a full day of winery touring.
See all the AAA Diamond Rated restaurants for this destination.
EventsIn addition to its many cultural and historic landmarks, this destination hosts a number of outstanding festivals and events that may coincide with your visit.
Take a windswept walk along the bluffs of Mendocino Headlands State Park for a chance to spot gray whales majestically breaking the ocean's surface during the Mendocino Whale Festival in early March. Then browse charming shops and sip samples of premium wines supplied by local vintners during the festival's wine-tasting event. Other activities include a chowder tasting, wooden boat show and games for kids. Take advantage of the complimentary trolley service to Mendocino village.
In April, the Bodega Bay Fisherman's Festival at Westside Regional Park kicks off the salmon fishing season. Observe the blessing of the fleet as a parade of decorated boats sails out of the harbor and lines up outside the jetty. Barbecued oysters, roast lamb and other enticing eats pair nicely with tastings of Sonoma County wines. There's also live music and activities for kids like face painting and kite-flying lessons.
Petaluma's reputation as the “World's Egg Basket” is upheld at the Butter & Egg Days Parade & Festival in late April. Marching bands, a block-long food table and an antique fair add to namesake escapades like an egg-decorating contest and—you guessed it—an egg toss.
Chili and beer take center stage at the Great Petaluma Chili Cook-off, Salsa and Beer Tasting , held in early May on the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds. Some 30 teams compete as they present their signature recipes. Accompany your veggie or meat chili with a sample from one of the many participating breweries. And you can feast on all this tasty grub while listening to live music. Leave Fido at home; dogs are not permitted.
Want to watch Broadway stars and Hollywood celebrities as they take the stage and belt out musical numbers beneath a starry California sky? Then head to Broadway Under the Stars at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. In addition to a little night music at the Transcendence Theatre, you can nosh on culinary delicacies provided by local vendors and sample pours from a number of Sonoma Valley wineries. This popular concert series takes place from mid-June to early September.
Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg is the site of the World's Largest Salmon BBQ in early July. Held in conjunction with 4th of July festivities, this old-fashioned summer gathering supports the preservation and restoration of wild Pacific salmon resources. The aroma of grilling salmon wafts through the separate dining area, with classic accompaniments like corn on the cob. Enjoy Sonoma County wines as you're entertained by a lineup of blues bands. If you're just coming to hang out, arrive early in order to stake out a good spot on the sand.
Home and garden art is the emphasis at the Art & Garden Festival in downtown Petaluma. Shop for locally made crafts and furniture and browse stands offering food, fine wines and Sonoma County's agricultural products. You'll also hear some cool jazz and blues. The event takes place in early July.
For 2 weeks in mid-July, experience enchanting sounds against a gorgeous NorCal coastal backdrop at the Mendocino Music Festival . The lineup of artists is eclectic—big band, orchestral, blues, folk, chamber music ensembles, bluegrass and contemporary pop are all on the schedule. Venues include Tent Concert Hall and Preston Hall.
The musical motif shifts again the first weekend after Labor Day at Guerneville's Russian River Jazz and Blues Festival . Johnson's Beach is the setting, where jazz licks greet awakening attendees in the morning and the swinging rhythms keep flowing right on into the evening. Bring sunscreen, a blanket and a light jacket to help ward off those chilly early fall river breezes.
Several Wine Country events are devoted to the region's bountiful harvest season, grape and otherwise. The Kendall-Jackson Harvest Celebration takes place in late September at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens in Fulton. The focus is on the estate’s farm-fresh produce (and wine, of course). Seminars about food and wine pairing and cheese making are on the menu along with live music and outdoor painting sessions.
The blessing of the grapes occurs at the Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival , held in Sonoma in late September. Join local vintners in offering thanks for a plentiful harvest while sampling their products and noshing on yummy food like barbecued oysters. Local artists sell their wares, and there's also a grape-stomping contest and lots of activities for kids. Fitness buffs can participate in 12K or 5K runs along routes that pass lush vineyards and beautifully scenic countryside.
The Kelseyville Pear Festival , held on the last Saturday in September, pays homage to the sweet fruit with a pear-packing demonstration and a pear pavilion. Indulge in a pear shake or pear-filled pastry while appraising the handiwork on display at the festival's quilt show, checking out the antique tractor exhibit or watching equestrian maneuvers at the Horse Faire. Live entertainment is provided by fiddlers, acoustic guitarists and the Kelseyville High School Jazz Band.
Late September or early October brings the Sonoma County Harvest Fair to Santa Rosa. The 3-day event features a wine-tasting pavilion, wine seminars, chef demonstrations and separate grape stomp competitions for adults and kids.
See all the AAA recommended events for this destination.
Nancy Jones / AAA. Photo submitted by Nancy Jones
Through the GrapevineBy Suzanne Lemon
Winery hopping can be fun, but unless you have unlimited time, you'll want to whittle down your list. Not all wineries have the same style or mood, and employing a diversified sightseeing approach will provide you with a well-rounded perspective of what the region offers.
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Inspector 49 / AAA
Inspector 49 / AAA
Courtesy of Napa Valley Wine Train / NA
These are but a few of the extraordinary sightseeing opportunities afforded by area wineries. You'll have a good time making your own discoveries and sharing them with friends and family.
Places in Vicinity