Hear about travel to California’s premier wine region of Napa and Sonoma as the Amateur Traveler talks again to freelance journalist Jill Robinson about this area with more than just wine… but a lot of that
With over 600 wineries in and around the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, this area of California still only produces a fraction of California’s wine, but it is a fraction that competes favorably with wines produced all over the world. Despite all this wine we also talk about Family-centered activities including a wild animal park, outdoor activities that involve more than just drinking wine outside, breweries and distilleries. Find movie props at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery or a castle at di Amorosa Winery. Find bike among the vine tours, hike among the vine programs, or the wine train.
Jill has written about the Napa and Sonoma region for a number of major publications and shares with us her love for the area. She shares some of her favorite small wineries where you can avoid the long lines at the wine tasting bar. She also takes us to the CIA (but the delicious one not the spy one).
We talk about museums including the di Rosa Art Museum, a museum dedicated to Charles Shultz from the Peanuts comic strip, and a small museum with models of every one of California’s missions. If you want to see the last and northernmost of the missions, you will also find that in the area in the center of Sonoma. Sonoma is also where the American version of California started with the Bear Flag Revolt.
Surrounded by hills these valleys are a great place for a picnic. A bottle of wine is not hard to find but neither is some good cheese if you check out one of the creameries on the Sonoma Cheese Trail. It is very easy to find an award-winning meal at a Michelin star restaurant as there are 10 in the area, but Jill also points us to a number of cheaper restaurants and markets where you can find a good meal.
Napa and Sonoma get a lot of visitors because it is beautiful in all seasons, delicious at all times and has… you may have gathered… a lot of wine.
di Rosa Art Museum
Robert Louis Stevenson State Park
Napa Valley Aloft
Jack London State Historic Park
Sonoma State Historic Park
California Republic / Bear Flag Revolt
Napa Valley Paddle
Point Reyes National Seashore
Sonoma Cheese Trail
Vella Cheese Company
Marin French Cheese
The French Laundry (restaurant)
The French Laundry (reviews)
La Toque (restaurant)
La Toque (reviews)
Auberge du Soleil restaurant
Auberge du Soleil (reviews)
Heritage Eats (restaurant)
Heritage Eats (reviews)
The Pear Southern Bistro (restaurant)
The Pear Southern Bistro (reviews)
Velo Pizzeria (reviews)
Oxbow Public Market Napa
Oakville Grocery (St Helena)
The Barlow (grocery) (Sonoma)
SHED (cafe and grocery) (Healdsburg)
Redd Wood (restaurant) (Yountville)
Redd Wood (reviews)
Wine country maps
San Joaquin Valley Wineries
Central Coast of California Road Trip – Pinnacles, Parks, Pinot, and Paddling
The Appellations of California Wine
Hanzell Vineyards (Sonoma)
Volker Eisele Family Estate (Saint Helena)
Eleven Eleven Wines (Napa)
Crocker & Starr Winery (Saint Helena)
Wine Enthusiast Magazine
750 Wines | Wines By Appointment (Saint Helena)
Charbay Distillery & Winery (Napa)
Bear Republic Brewing Company (Healdsburg)
Napa Smith Brewery (Napa)
Russian River Brewing Co.
Woodfour Brewing Company (Sevastopol)
Stumptown Brewery (Guerneville)
Sonoma Canopy Tours
Napa & Sonoma Tours
Napa Valley Wine Train
Downtown Napa Wine Tasting Card
Charles M. Schulz Museum (Santa Rosa)
Wine Country Bikes
Napa Valley Bike Tours
Jordan Winery Vineyard Hikes
Hiking Program at Kunde Family Winery
Hike at Home Ranch – Seghesio Family Vineyards
Castello di Amorosa Winery (castle)
Francis Ford Coppola Winery (Geyserville)
Bardessono Hotel, Spa (Yountville)
Bardessono Hotel (reviews)
Las Alcobas, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Napa Valley (Saint Helena)
CIA California – The Culinary Institute of America
Inn at Sonoma
Inn at Sonoma (reviews)
Hotel Yountville (reviews)
Andaz Napa (reviews)
Bottega Gran Fondo
Cline Cellars (Sonoma)
California Mission Museum (at Cline Cellars)
Benziger Family Winery (Glen Ellen)
Things to do in Bodega Bay and on the Sonoma Coast
Chris: Amateur Traveler, Episode 527. Today, the Amateur Traveler talks about beer and wild animals, zip lines, museums, but mostly about wine as we go to Napa and Sonoma in California’s premier wine country.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler, I’m your host Chris Christensen. Before we get into this show about Napa and Sonoma, I should remind you that we do show notes for all of these that you can find on the website, and actually in the lyrics of the episode as well. And I say that because in this particular episode, there are 79 different links to things that we talk about, and so you might wanna check that out. But now let’s talk about Napa and Sonoma.
I’d like to welcome back to the show freelanced travel writer, Jill Robinson. You can find her at dangerjillrobinson.com, which makes me giggle every time I say it. Jill, welcome back to the show.
Jill: Thanks for having me.
Chris: And Jill has been on the show, I think, just one other time, talking about New Orleans — a great show we did on that recently — and has come back to talk to us about the wine region…well, I say the wine region in California. California has a lot of wine regions, but the perennial favorite, Napa and Sonoma.
Jill: That’s true. Yes, California has many wine regions, some of which are getting more popular, but certainly none as popular as Napa and Sonoma together.
Chris: Right. And a number of things that are worth looking at, but we’re gonna go back to where a lot of people are gonna be going anyway, and we recommend they go there. I mean there are great places up in Napa and Sonoma. And we were gonna call this Napa, but really there’s two different places up there. So why don’t you give us a lay of the land, first of all?
Jill: Yeah. So Napa and Sonoma are together the country’s premier viniculture region. And they’ve earned their reputation among the world’s best. They are really within…of course, it depends on where in each valley you are, but they are about 20 to 30 minutes from each other. And so oftentimes when people talk about going to Napa, they’re kind of talking about going to Napa and Sonoma, unless they’re being very focused on their valley, that they want to drink their wine, I guess.
Chris: Well, and everybody has a favorite winery, favorite valley, and we’ll be talking about some of the differences between the two. Where should we start? What kind of itinerary do you recommend for someone who wants to sample California wines in a great spot?
Jill: So I think if I had a week, which is pretty rich, luckily both Napa and Sonoma are within a reasonable distance from San Francisco to make a decent day trip, but you’d really be missing out a lot if limit your time like that. So best option is maybe to take a long weekend or even a week to spend your time getting to know the areas. Let’s say you have a week. I’d probably spend about half the time in Napa Valley and the other half in Sonoma Valley, if I have that time. It’s kind of hardcore to spend an entire day out wine tasting, so I mean…
Chris: Unless you’ve got a chauffeur, too, for one thing.
Jill: Absolutely. But even so, I mean once you’ve had about three of them, you need a nap at least. But I’d say a good way to balance the different offerings of each region is to spend a morning outdoors or at museums and afternoons at vineyards. In Napa, what I pick in the morning would be go to di Rosa, which is an outdoor and indoor art museum that features really amazing contemporary art. Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, where that author of “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” spent his honeymoon in, I think it was 1880. Maybe hot air ballooning in the morning with companies. There are a few, one of which is Napa Valley Aloft. And you can also stand-up paddle board on the Napa River.
Chris: Well, let’s break that down in a little more detail here. You started us in a place I don’t know.
Jill: di Rosa?
Chris: di Rosa.
Jill: So di Rosa is on kind of a campus. So there is a lake, there are vineyards around, there are a couple of buildings. And they’ve got a mix of outdoor sculptures, fixed media installations indoors. You can do workshops where you can make your own 3D artworks, but it’s really pretty interesting to spend your time walking around there. Now, I don’t think that they are open just for you to wander around. I think that you can go to one part of the museum, and then if you want to go farther into the campus you need to take a tour. But once you’re on the campus it takes quite a while if you really wanna discover all of it.
Chris: Okay. And then putting this on the map, we’re in between the two valleys?
Jill: Yeah, you’re closer to Napa actually with di Rosa. So I would say di Rosa is more of a Napa experience, but you’re still within, say, half an hour driving to Sonoma.
Chris: Okay. Then you went from there to Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. And as I recall, that’s actually where he had his house, too. You can go to the ruins of his house, although there’s not much left.
Jill: Exactly. He had a cabin there, and there is pretty much nothing left of that. But there is a monument or a note about where it is so you actually can see where it was. But I don’t even know if there’s much left at all.
Chris: I remember reading a biography about him, and I wanted to say it was where Wolf House was, which was a more substantial house, but again, nothing you can see now.
Jill: You’re thinking of Jack London.
Chris: Oh, I’m thinking of Jack London? Sorry, yes. There’s also a park up there.
Jill: Yes. So Jack London State Historic Park is a little closer to Sonoma. So for example, if I did the same kind of exercise in Sonoma as I just explained for Napa, there are other things that I would do that are a little closer and more focused in Sonoma like Jack London State Historic Park or The Mission. I think it’s called The Mission San Francisco Solano De Sonoma.
Chris: Okay, the northernmost of the Spanish missions.
Jill: The final and northernmost. That’s right, yeah. And then also the Sonoma Plaza, which is in the middle of Sonoma. And it also has pieces of State Historic Park because that’s the location where the Bear Flag revolt was.
Chris: Right, where the very first California flag was raised as they declared independence against Mexico, as they declared independence from Mexico, sorry.
Jill: From Mexico.
Chris: So we did that, and then you took us hot air ballooning. Now, I’ve done hot air ballooning up there once and we went from the Santa Rosa Airport, but I think you were taking us from someplace else?
Jill: There are a few outfitters, and of course they start in different places. And sometimes they start in different places depending on the conditions. But the one outfitter I’m the most familiar with is called Napa Valley Aloft, and their offices are in Yountville.
Chris: Yeah, okay. Okay. And Yountville is further north in one of the two valleys. Which one is that in?
Jill: Yountville is north of the town of Napa in the Napa Valley.
Chris: Okay. Yeah, we should say that Sonoma is at the southern end of the Sonoma Valley and Napa at the southern end of the Napa Valley. And then there’s a number of smaller towns, and obviously wineries and such going up the valleys to the north from there.
Jill: That’s right. And it’s very easy to be confused by, if someone were to say, “Okay, I’m going to Rutherford,” you’re like unless you know that Rutherford is in Napa Valley, you’d have to ask.
Chris: Right. Well, and the Sonoma Valley actually ends in…kind of loops around and comes over to Santa Rosa where there are some other things to do as well. And that’s where the airport is where I have done the hot air ballooning.
Chris: And actually if for a less expensive place to stay there are some options in Santa Rosa, for instance. Although there are some very interesting and more colorful or more interesting options, I think, in the two valleys but Santa Rosa can be a decent base.
Jill: That’s true. I think Santa Rosa is often overlooked as a piece of wine region. And I think there are some things you can do in Santa Rosa, it’s a great city, and as long as you’re not doing major driving and drinking, it’s a perfectly good base for investigating Sonoma Valley especially and then Napa Valley.
Chris: Right, especially Northern Sonoma Valley.
Chris: Excellent. And then you took us stand-up paddle boarding. And I’ll have to admit, I’ve never seen the point in stand-up paddle boarding.
Jill: Why, because you’re standing?
Chris: Well, it just doesn’t look cool. I’m sorry, surfing looks cool to me. It doesn’t mean I’ve ever done either one, but windsurfing looks cool, stand-up paddle boarding just looks silly. But never done it, I’ll be completely honest. Where are you going stand-up paddle boarding though?
Jill: So you can stand-up paddle board in the Napa River. And there are put-ins and outfitters in the town of Napa so that’s a really good spot. Of course you have to do it at the right time of year so that you’re not doing it in a rainy season, and no one would wanna do that, anyway. But in summertime it’s really good to get a little refreshment. It gets hot in those valleys in the summer, and stand-up paddle boarding is a great extra thing to do.
Chris: Because I know sometimes we have combined our wine experience with some of the coastal experience, going over even as far as Point Reyes National Seashore, which is a wonderful park there. And there’s also Tomales Bay where you can do things like kayaking, so I didn’t know if you’re going that far afield. But you can easily combine some of those things with doing something interesting and outside of that.
Jill: That’s true. You can definitely do some day trips outside of Napa and Sonoma if you’re focused in those areas. I think for me at least, the way I prefer to travel is I really try to focus when I’m in a place and not go all over only because it’s extra time in the car that I would rather not spend.
Chris: Fair enough. Fair enough. Excellent. What else would we do then in our trip up to Napa and Sonoma?
Jill: Okay, so say you’ve spent your mornings doing outdoor stuff, whether it’s really active or just kind of semi-active. You’re gonna need lunch because you’re gonna want to make sure that you eat after you’ve exercised and also before you drink wine. I eat through a great restaurant because it’s often sometimes easier to get into those top notch restaurants in Napa and Sonoma for lunch than for dinner because people tend to focus on dinner in the fancy restaurants; or honestly even a simple picnic or cheese tasting in Sonoma. Sonoma is quite well known for cheese, and there are a few creameries and stuff in the area that you can stop by and taste. And if you buy a little cheese and you buy a little something and get some free taste, that’s lunch, honestly.
Chris: Did you have a creamery you were recommending?
Jill: The one that I really love, and it’s in downtown Sonoma, is called The Vella Cheese Company. You can kind of see them making the cheese in the back. It’s honestly not a place that you would do a tour because it’s quite small, but it’s really well known for its dried Monterey Jack cheese.
Jill: But it also has a variety of cheeses. And they’re pretty generous with the tasting portions. And they also have a few extra things that you can put together, a little picnic, and go sit outside and have the rest of your cheese and whatever else bread, etc., that you would want to have for lunch.
Chris: Okay. We had gone more to the Marin French Cheese Company.
Jill: People go there, too.
Chris: Which is a little more out of town.
Jill: Right, it is. Feel like it’s closer to Petaluma.
Chris: Yeah, exactly.
Chris: You’re in the right place.
Jill: On a side note with regard to cheese, there is Sonoma Cheese Trail. If you search online for that, they actually have a map with listings for where you can get cheese in Sonoma, where there are actually creameries, and places that you can tour and taste, and which ones are open to the public versus not open at all to the public versus where you’d have to call in advance or something. So there are a handful that you can just walk into but there are some that you’d probably wanna call.
Chris: It’s great that they have that because we’re talking about an area that’s almost perfect for a picnic because lots of hillsides, lots of parks that you can hike at, obviously easy to get a bottle of wine and throw in some cheese and grab some bread, now you got a picnic.
Jill: Absolutely. And I think honestly that’s one of the best ways to mix things up in those areas, is to…if the weather is wonderful, you have so many opportunities to get picnic foods and drinks, and sit outside, and just kind of slow things down, where at night you can go out to restaurants. So you don’t have to go out for every single meal.
Chris: You mentioned fancy restaurants so let’s start with some of the high-end restaurants that you might recommend. And then I wanna do some of the more low-end-on-my-budget restaurants, if you’ve got some recommendations there as well.
Jill: Okay. Napa is especially super shiny in this respect even though Sonoma has got great restaurants, too, but Napa is just kind of hogging the whole attention with Michelin-starred restaurants. Certainly, you would need to reserve way in advance for some of them, especially the French Laundry, La Toque. There is a restaurant at Auberge. There are a handful of them. I think, if I’m correct, between the restaurants that are Michelin-starred in Napa around the Napa Valley specifically, I think there are 11 Michelin stars total. And that’s very impressive.
But I would say that’s wonderful, but you’re gonna be going way too crazy eating only at the high-end restaurants, even if you have the budget for it. So I’d say to balance those culinary experiences by adding some under-the-radar spots. Some of my favorite are Heritage Eats, which is known as Napa’s new fast fine dining.
Jill: It’s kind of fast food, meaning you go up and you order off the menu, and then have your tray, and then you take it back to your table, and then they call you and tell you when your dish is ready. But it’s great food, it’s healthy food, and it’s not your typical fast food. There’s also something called The Pear Southern Bistro. So it’s got po’ boys and Southern food. And there’s a pizzeria called Velo, V-E-L-O, Pizzeria. And there’s a place in Sonoma called Barndiva. Yeah, Barndiva is pretty interesting, too. So it’s got shops and things like that, too.
Then also we talked about picnic. Sonoma cheese companies, farmers’ markets, those are kind of traditional places that you would think of stocking your picnic. But there are also places…in Napa there is Oxbow Market, which is an inside market with a bunch of different stalls, people selling anything from wine to tacos to picnic provisions. You can either eat in there or you can take out. There is the Oakville Grocery, similar kind of situation. The Barlow. You know, there’s another one in Healdsburg, it’s called Shed. That’s a pretty rich opportunity for places that you can stock your picnics or your outdoor snacking.
Chris: So it’s like a permanent farmer’s market with a lot of different food booths and indoors, is that what I’ve got?
Chris: Oh, excellent. I did not know that one.
Jill: Yeah. And then one of my favorite places now, it’s certainly not super budget, but it’s also not very rich either, is in Yountville, and it’s called Redd Wood. And Redd is spelled with two Ds because it’s Richard Reddignton’s second restaurant after his first restaurant called Redd, R-E-D-D, after his name as well. But it’s a more casual restaurant. It’s Italian food, especially wood fire pizzas that are always incredible. And so I kind of find myself leaning back in that direction all the time when I’m in Yountville.
Chris: Okay. Excellent. So we’ve got lunch, and now we’re gonna go out in the afternoon. What are you gonna do in the afternoon?
Jill: You’re gonna go to wineries. But not just wineries. So Napa and Sonoma are especially known for wine, which is fantastic. However, there are also some breweries in the area and distilleries. Now, certainly not as many of those as there are wineries.
Chris: And when you say as many as there are wineries, how many wineries are we talking about just in the two valleys?
Jill: I would say there are probably close to, if not more than, 600.
Chris: Oh my goodness, okay.
Jill: Yeah. Here’s the interesting thing though, and this is just kind of a little tip to put it in perspective because everyone talks about Napa. And it’s definitely considered the superstar of California, but Napa Valley is nowhere close to the state’s largest wine producing region.
Jill: Napa Valley only produces 4% of California’s wine. Thinking more quality not quantity is something that people don’t really realize that, you know, Napa is huge but it’s not huge in quantity.
Chris: Interesting. I did not know that statistic. I would guess as a county we get more wines now out of Monterey County.
Jill: You do. You get…the most is out of, I think, San Joaquin.
Chris: Oh, interesting. Okay, which is the central valley, less picturesque than the Napa Valley.
Jill: Less picturesque. However, if you ever talk about Lodi and Zinfandel, let me tell you, if you want to go to Lodi and those regions for some really incredible Zinfandel, you shouldn’t turn up your nose, because they turn out some good wines.
Chris: Interesting, interesting. And it is amazing how many different wine regions there are, and we’ve talked about…no, I guess I wrote about that on the Amateur Traveler recently when I did a tour of the Monterey and San Luis Obispo wine regions on a road trip there. And when I grew up in Monterey County, I think there was one winery, and now there’s 100.
Jill: Right. And it’s especially interesting to take a class. I took like, I think it was a nine-week course in California AVA specialty regions. Well, California has like 3,400 wineries, and so I had to learn the differences between the Napa Valley AVA, which lies within the larger north coast AVA, which is different than…
Chris: And when you talk about AVAs you’re talking about the different regions that produce specifically different types of wine because of the terroir, because of the climate and the land that combines for one region is good for Zinfandel and another one is good for the more burgundy wines or something like that.
Jill: Right. So AVA, the easy way to remember it is American Viticultural Area. And Napa Valley was the first approved AVA in California in 1981. It does refer to the geographic location, and so each geographic location will have significant differences or maybe not so significant, depending on climate, on altitude, on the terroir, all of it all together. And so essentially that then shows what they’re good in producing from warm weather wines to cooler wines to whites to reds to all over there.
Chris: We’re not gonna talk about all 600 wineries on this episode. Do you have a few…
Jill: You don’t have time, no?
Chris: I don’t. We’re not gonna try and be as long as the episode we just did on the Viking ocean cruise. Do you have a few that you would recommend either for seeing or for tasting?
Jill: My personal favorites are small, under-the-radar spots because I tend to avoid crowds and not have to wait in line at the bar for my tasting. I like a little places like Hanzell, it’s spelled Hanzell, Volker Eisele. Volker Eisele is out of the Napa Valley. Eleven Eleven, Crocker and Starr. These are all very small producers but really interesting. One of the reasons I like small producers is sometimes the person you’re talking to during your tasting is the wine maker.
Jill: That rarely, rarely happens at the big kind of touristy winery. Yeah, and while those are nice, they’re set up for crowds, and also set up with exhibitions and things like that where you can learn more about winemaking. That’s, I think, sometimes where Napa gets the reputation of being a little too Disney-fied, it’s just because you have these humongous wineries.
Chris: Some people will be listening to this years from now. I mean in fact we’ve already done an episode on the wine region before. It’s just been enough years that I thought it was worth revisiting because things change constantly up there. If they’re listening to this in 5 or 10 years, how are they gonna find that out-of-the-way place that we’re not talking about because it doesn’t exist yet?
Jill: Some of the ways to find these are…because I’m pretty well connected in the wine industry but not as well as some of my colleagues who write exclusively about wine.
Jill: I really look at publications that I respect in talking about what’s under the radar. I mean I’ll look at Wine Enthusiasts, which is certainly in the industry, but it definitely speaks to folks who like wine who aren’t wine experts. And so it’s not like you have to be super schooled in wine and being able to do blind tests to be able to care about that magazine and what they talk about. Their website is way more casual leaning than the magazine. Maybe you don’t wanna pick up the paper but you wanna just do a search. They do a lot of these types of round-ups as well as some more regional magazines.
Chris: Okay. So you don’t do what I do, which is go into a liquor store and look for the pretty labels?
Jill: Yeah, you know, that’s really fun but you could pick up some crappy wine that way.
Chris: Oh, well.
Jill: I do sometimes go into wine stores depending on where I am and talking to the people who do the buying and say, “Hey, I kind of like this type of wine. What would you recommend?” When I was really first learning about wine and I found out what it was that made the old traditional California chardonnay such a big oak butter bomb that I didn’t like, I found out that that’s malolactic fermentation. So then I would go to the wine stores and say, “Okay, I don’t like this taste. Find me a chardonnay that doesn’t have that,” because it is indeed possible to do so. It helped me quite a bit.
So as I learned little bits, I just learned more to trust those folks. And certainly if they turn you on to something that you like more and more, then they might squirrel away a few extra bottles for you.
Chris: And do you happen to know a place like that in the Napa or Sonoma area?
Jill: One of the places I really like is called 750 Wines, so it’s seven, five, zero, obviously. And it’s in St. Helena. And it’s a shop where some of the best labels are available and not always labels that you’ve heard of, which is awesome. One of the greatest experiences to do there, and this costs some money but if you’re going to Napa for a great wine experience, it might be very well worth it, is to arrange a private tasting designed to your varietal specifications.
So say you like really big red wines, and so you tell them, they’ll ask you a bunch of questions. The two owners will then assemble a tasting list ranging from established names to under-the-radar rising stars, and it’ll allow you to really be able to learn more, maybe start assembling your own collection of some lesser known wines that maybe over the years will become more popular.
Chris: Interesting. And when you say this will cost you something, so the amount of money that a wine tasting will cost in Napa and Sonoma has gone up since we first started going there when I moved back to California in the ’80s. So now I am seeing more like $20 a person for a wine tasting up in that area.
Jill: Yeah, I’ve seen places do it for less as well. But one thing to remember is sometimes tasting fees are waived when you buy.
Chris: Sometimes but not always, yeah.
Jill: That’s true. There’s almost no rule. It’s hard to say that it is always this way in Napa Valley because it’s kind of a crapshoot.
Chris: Right. Yeah. Okay, where to next?
Jill: So you’ve spent your afternoon on your wine week. See, you can tell where my priorities are. So in your week itinerary in Napa and Sonoma then you spent the afternoon drinking wine and maybe take a nap before dinner. But then dinner, that’s optimal for tasting the best in each region. So I already mentioned some of the great restaurants from high to low. It’s good to move around, and just try a few different ones.
Chris: Okay. You also mentioned breweries and distilleries, but we didn’t name any.
Jill: So one of the places for distillery in the region, and this is closer to Napa, is called Charbay, C-H-A-R-B-A-Y. And they do everything from flavored vodkas to other spirits. And they started quite some time ago, I wanna say in the ’90s, but they’ve really made a name for themselves, and they’re worth checking out. For beer, there is Bear Republic Brewing Company in Healdsburg.
Jill: And then in Napa Valley there is Napa Smith Brewery. It’s also known for its Grateful Dog barley wine.
Jill: Yeah, I know. And then as you get a little farther out in the counties, you’ve got Russian River Brewing.
Chris: Okay. You say farther into the counties, we’ve left the valley and gone, in this case, to the other side of Santa Rosa from Sonoma Valley?
Jill: Exactly. Russian River Brewing, plus there is Santa Rosa Tap Room, and that’s in Sonoma County. So it’s farther out of the valley. Let’s see, Sebastopol, which is a little farther out. There is Woodfour, W-O-O-D-F-O-U-R, Brewing Company. Then in Guerneville, there is Stumptown Brewery.
Chris: Okay, excellent.
Jill: And those aren’t all of them certainly, but those are some of the most notable and easier to get to.
Chris: Well, and just one thing since we named some places that we didn’t put on the map there, Guerneville is in which you mentioned was the Russian River Valley, which is another wine region in this area, also a float region. A lot of float trips happen there. Sonoma County goes all the way to the coast.
Chris: And there are other things to do, for instance, some of those outdoor activities like we mentioned Point Reyes National Seashore. There’s also a zip lining course in that portion of Sonoma over by the coast. There’s Bodega Bay, made famous in the movie “The Birds” so that is something else that can be added to that. But again, we’ve done a little more driving while we went over there.
Jill: Right, right.
Jill: You mentioned driving. Can I talk about driving in the area?
Jill: Cool. So we all know that drinking and driving is not only dangerous, but it’s illegal. So when you’re talking about going to wineries, breweries, distilleries, it’s hard to do everything you want by foot.
Jill: You can focus in some areas where you can walk from tasting room to tasting room, but if you’re gonna start to get particular about where you want to visit, you need to look into some options. So there are a variety of tours that are offered using nearly everything from bicycles to buses. There are private drivers that can take you wherever you’d like. Of course that costs more, but remember, you’re not driving drunk. And then there is the Napa Valley wine train which runs through Napa Valley and stops only at certain wineries. So again, there is a benefit to that, which is you’re not driving and you’re having an experience. The detraction is that maybe it’s not stopping at all the wineries you want, but at least it’s an option.
And then there is one cool thing in the town of Napa. So there are a bunch of tasting rooms that are within easy walking distance of one another, which you can’t find in most places. In Yountville, there are tasting rooms, you know, a few within walking distance but it’s hard to duplicate that in the other small towns. But in Napa, you can get a $30 Taste Napa Downtown card which gets you a tour at seven of those tasting rooms in downtown Napa. Officially, each winery is supposed to charge you 10 cents to do the tasting but most of them won’t even bother to ask.
Chris: Ten cents?
Jill: I know. I don’t know how they came up with that, but you know, hey it’s 10 cents. Another thing about driving, and this is specific to Napa Valley, if you are driving, the traffic often bottlenecks on Highway 29, which is Napa’s central thoroughfare. There is another road you can take, and of course locals will get pissed at me for mentioning this, but I’m not the first to do so. You can use the Silverado Trail, which is a 35-mile road along the valley’s eastern edge.
Jill: One of the cool things about the Silverado Trail is you’re often running into great, small batch wineries whose labels you’re not likely to find at your local grocery store. So in a way, it’s a little kind of discover road.
Chris: Well, and the traffic going into the valley on a weekend, there is a lot of us who do a weekend away in Napa or Sonoma so Highway 12 also or Highway 101 coming up from San Francisco on a Friday night or a Sunday, late Sunday evening will get quite busy. So if you’re there for a week those would be times to avoid going in that direction.
Jill: Exactly. I live in a tourist area in California, and so it’s very easy to learn when you want to drive somewhere and when you don’t want to drive somewhere. But sometimes it’s not as easy for people who are visitors to figure out the bad times.
Chris: A couple of questions. So we mentioned museums and then you named one. Were there other museums you wanted to add to that list?
Jill: Yeah, there’s also Charles Schulz Museum.
Chris: Oh, sure.
Jill: Which is in Santa Rosa, which we’ve talked about. So that’s…if you’re not familiar with Charles Schulz, that’s the cartoonist for “Peanuts, Charlie Brown and Snoopy.” It’s pretty interesting. It’s got a lot of history as well as a lot of past cartoons and displays about the Peanuts family. In Sonoma, I had mentioned that it’s part of State Park which features a lot of things that are specific to California history there. In the Sonoma State Historic Park is part of the Plaza, which is that central area I had mention of the town. It also has the Sonoma Barracks, and it’s got General Vallejo’s home.
Chris: Okay, General Vallejo who helped lead the beer revolt. And then any other outdoor activities we wanna mention?
Jill: Tons of other places; there are great places for hiking. There are great places for biking.
Chris: Favorite hike?
Jill: Favorite hike, really, I like Jack London.
Jill: But I think what I really like also, and I haven’t mentioned, is biking in the area. So for me, I’m local so…well, relatively, so I’m riding my own bike on the back roads and enjoying the edges of vineyards and hillsides. But if you’re not local to the area, if you’re not gonna bring your bike there, it’s easy to connect with bike touring companies like Wine Country Bikes and Napa Valley Bike Tours. They will often work out as part of the tours, not just biking around but by going through vineyards and along the edges of vineyards so that you can learn a little bit more about the area.
One interesting thing about hiking in the area that I don’t think people know is that there are some programs with some wineries where you can hike. And so there are, you know, obviously spots that I’ve mentioned around Napa and Sonoma for hiking, guidebooks cover those, and hiking websites cover those. But wineries are increasingly offering more active ways to enjoy the ground so instead of just hanging out and drinking, you can actually be active and drink wine, which is nice.
Most of these that I’m gonna mention are in Sonoma but that’s not specific to Sonoma. Jordan Vineyard and Winery has a few scheduled vineyard hikes per year that start with a continental breakfast on one part of their ranch, and then it’s like a three-mile hike that passes through a lot of different parts of their ranch, and olive orchards and vineyards. And so you learn a lot about what they’re doing there while you’re getting some activity. There is a hiking program at Kunde Family Winery, it’s spelled K-U-N-D-E. Similar kind of thing, but they’re really, really focused on sustainable wine growing practices so you get to go through ecosystems and native habitats, and learn how those different wines contribute to their process of wine growing.
And then Seghesio Family Vineyards, their wines are pretty old. They’ve got some 120-year-old vines that you get to walk through at the home ranch estate, and then you can view more varietals and learn more about what they do as you go. So it’s nice to get that mix of outdoor time and wine time, and those wineries do a really good job of making that available to visitors.
Chris: Excellent. Most surprising winery, not necessarily the wines but the winery. I mean we’ve got ones here that have European style castles. We’ve got more traditional wine cellars that are caves in the mountains. What surprised you when you went there?
Jill: There is a winery in Napa, not Napa proper but Napa Valley. It’s called Vineyard 29. It mixes the kind of old world winemaking ideas with ultra-modern technology. So people can go there by appointment. They have optical sorting of individual grapes. So it’s a technical system…I’m not kidding, it’s weird. So you see this. It does this optical sorting to a specifically designed freight elevator that allows juice to be transferred by gravity flow. And then you can also go into their caves to get a food and wine paired tasting in their wine library, which is amazing. But it’s nice because they’re truly interested in the old world wine-making, but they’re doing it with super modern technology, and they’re not losing quality by doing it.
Chris: Interesting. Best place to go if you really just don’t care anything about wine, beer or alcohol at all.
Jill: Okay, so here’s one thing about Napa that is a little surprising to folks who don’t know the area. Wine country doesn’t tend to scream kid friendly, but there are family friendly winery experiences that allow adults to enjoy tasting wine without feeling that they’re bringing kids to a bar and everyone’s giving them the side eye. So one of the best ways that this is done that I like in Napa Valley is the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville.
Jill: So you can taste. You don’t have to taste. They’ve got two pools. They have bocce ball courts, and they have a restaurant with seating out by the pool. And if you’re a big Coppola fan, indoors there’s memorabilia from his films like Don Corleone’s desk from “The Godfather” and the original automobile from “Tucker.”
Jill: So you don’t have to drink. You can enjoy it if you have kids. If you don’t have kids, it doesn’t matter. If you like pools or bocce ball or movies, you can enjoy that other stuff.
Chris: Well, while we’re talking family friendly, I’m gonna throw in something I have not been to, but I want to get to and that’s Safari West. There’s actually a wild animal park with the African animals and such just north of that region.
Jill: There is. And I have to say in all honestly I’ve never been there, but I do know people who’ve been there, and they say it’s really neat.
Chris: Yeah, I’m in the same camp. Favorite place…so we talked about this as if it was one big place, and then we talked about driving around. Do you have a favorite little community? So we talked about Napa and Sonoma, but there’s also Yountville and Helena and…
Jill: For me, I think Yountville is just very easy. So it’s not just me personally. It’s if you want to kind of dip your toe in, and stay somewhere nice, have a variety of hotel properties in Yountville within walking distance. Most of them are a little bit more on the four-star and up-side. But you can stay there. You can walk down the street to…there are a couple of bars. There are a handful of restaurants. There are a bunch of wine tasting rooms. You can walk past the French Laundry and their gardens. So there’s a lot to just pay attention to, and not have to get in the car and feel like you’re part of a little community there.
Chris: Okay. Excellent. Favorite place to stay.
Jill: Well, if I’m not spending my own money, I wanna stay at Bardessono in Yountville. It’s pretty. The rooms are really nice. The service is fantastic. They have a great rooftop pool. They have a great restaurant and bar. And they don’t have tons of room so you don’t have huge crowds there. There is something that’s kind of notable coming up this fall, Las Alcobas Napa Valley is set to open in November in St. Helena. Yes, it’s luxury. It’s the first new luxury hotel in Napa Valley in five years though, so that’s kind of notable.
Las Alcobas is a name you may recognize with Mexico City and the other hotel is there. But the cool thing about this one that’s opening in St. Helena is it’s gonna be within walking distance of the CIA, which is not the government organization but the Culinary Institute of America. And then a lot of restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques in downtown St. Helena. So that’s gonna make it a lot nicer to be in St. Helena and do the same things I’m talking about doing in Yountville.
Chris: Well, and you mentioned the CIA, and I have not been there, to either one, either the spy one or the cooking one. But we’re talking about a place where they train chefs, and you can also go in and eat there.
Jill: That’s right. And I have not been there to eat. I have been there to taste pretty much all the wines that Cakebread Cellars makes because I was there for Cakebread’s American Harvest Weekend, and one of the media people there. And so part of their experience was going to the CIA and uncorking a billion bottles and having us taste them all.
Chris: Well, and I like the labels. So if you are paying for it…
Jill: If I’m paying for it I’m thinking more Inn at Sonoma or Hotel Yountville. Or if you wanna do the stuff that I’m talking about in downtown Napa, just walking around, and Napa is a cute little town too, there’s Andaz Napa, that’s just right in the middle of town. And you can walk over across the river, over to Oxbow market. You can walk to some of the tasting rooms. You can go shopping if that’s your deal. So there are a lot of things you can do there, too.
Chris: Favorite time of year or favorite day in the area?
Jill: Not summer.
Chris: Because of the crowds more than the weather?
Jill: Crowds first. Yeah, I can deal with the weather. The weather doesn’t bother me since I grew up in Salinas.
Chris: It’s warm.
Jill: It’s warm, though, and so it can kind of take it out of you if you do visit during the summer and you’re not visiting on the weekend. It’s fewer crowds than on the weekend in summer. I like fall. Unfortunately, everyone also likes fall because that’s harvest time.
Chris: Right, exactly.
Jill: It’s a very nice time of year, but honestly, winters…
Chris: And a very pretty valley in the fall, too.
Jill: It’s absolutely beautiful. Winter is great, too. You’re not gonna get the rich colors of leaves and you’re not gonna see leaves on the vines, but there’s something gorgeous to be said about seeing those bare vines and soon how they start to leaf out. And not a lot of crowds. Sometimes you get some really great individual attention. It’s cooler in the winter, but certainly it doesn’t snow, so that’s a good thing.
Chris: No, the weather is not bad anytime there. We’re talking about an area that even the summer it’s always gonna cool off in the evening. Even if you come in the summertime you might wanna bring a light coat for the evening time.
Jill: Definitely. But I also like spring. I mean, see, I’m liking almost all times. Summer I just avoid for the crowds. But spring is really good, too. You’re gonna see…bud break is a really important time in the winemaking business to really kind of start determining how they start going through their process, and to be able to see people start to scurry to attention at that point is pretty interesting. And as well, you just don’t get the summer crowds and you get some really nice weather that isn’t quite so extreme.
Chris: Favorite day or festival?
Jill: So I recently did a big bike ride in Napa in April, and it’s the Bottega Gran Fondo, it’s named after a restaurant there. And gran fondos are pretty long bike rides. Yes, they’re competitive because people are wearing numbers and whenever you put numbers on people they get a little bit into trying to finish in front of others. But it’s got different segments. Like this year it was 25 miles, 50 miles, 65 miles, and then I think like 75 or 80 miles. I did the 65 so I’m not that hardcore, but I did okay.
But what gran fondos do is every so many miles they have food stops, food and drink stops. No, we don’t drink wine until towards the end so that’s not quite what you do in the gran fondo in Napa. But the good thing about the Bottega Gran Fondo is their motto is, “We ride to eat.” And because you have a lot of restaurateurs and chefs behind those food stops, the food is much better than PB and J sandwiches. You get really incredible food every time you’re stopping. You get good ways to hydrate, and then later on at the 60-mile stop and on you get wine.
But then afterwards, you get…when you’re all done and you’re off the bike and you’re totally exhausted, you get incredible food, wine and local beer. And it’s just a really fun way to see the Napa Valley. Even if you’re not a hardcore cyclist you can do the 25-mile fairly easily. You can do it in your own time, and then you can end up at the fair at the end.
Chris: Excellent. Before we get to my last four questions, anything else we should tell people that they need to know before they go to Napa and Sonoma?
Jill: No, I think…I mean I could talk more about a couple of family-friendly wineries aside from Francis Ford Coppola, but other than that, I think…
Chris: Well, sure. Let’s throw those in.
Jill: Okay. So a few more family-friendly wineries, besides the Francis Coppola Winery, are Cline Cellars, which is in Sonoma. So the cool thing here is that there are 21 scale models of the California Missions that were built to be shown at the 1939 World’s Fair at Treasure Island. There’s something more than wine tasting there, and if you’re a super geek and you’re into California Missions, you can check them out, too. They also have birds and an aviary to watch, and they’ve got a pool that has some carps. So it’s a great way to get the kids to have some fun attention, too.
Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen has an open air tram that takes visitors for a tour through the wine yard and the wine caves. A lot of people think that that’s just the most amazing tour in the valley. And then they also have environmental exhibits. They have an insectary where you can learn about beneficial bugs. There’s a pond that always happens to have some frogs sitting on the lily pads so that’s really fun for kids as well.
Chris: Excellent. One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in California’s Napa and Sonoma.”
Jill: You know what’s funny, it’s always so surprising to me that people coming to popular wine regions feel like they have to know a lot about wine. Your average person really likes some wine every once in a while. Do they know the difference between a zinfandel and a cabernet? No. They might know that it tends to produce a darker wine than maybe a pinot. But when you start getting into those little nuances, not a lot of people know about that. And honestly you don’t have to.
And so one of the things that I think is kind of chuckle-y, only in Napa, only in California, is that you do get people going up to the tasting bar and saying like, “Well, I think I want to…” and they’re trying to act as if they know everything.
Chris: Trying to impress the person they’re with, more than anything else.
Jill: Yeah. And it’s so clear that they don’t know and no one else cares. I mean who really cares? And the cool thing is that you can talk to the people pouring your wine, and you can ask the most inane of questions. And they’re also very nice and helpful, and you will come away learning something, whether you retain it or not is up to you. But it is funny that people do posture quite a bit.
Chris: Well, and I’ve already admitted that 600 wineries, I’m probably gonna pick something by how pretty the label is because sometimes you’re gonna find something that way, and other times you’re gonna have a bad experience but it doesn’t really matter that much. I’m not a sophisticated wine drinker, and I don’t claim to be. Only once have I smelled what I was supposed to smell when someone says it has, you know, this one smells of vanilla or whatever.
Jill: Oh, okay.
Chris: At one winery. No, I’ve got a bad sense of smell anyway, but I still enjoy the process.
Jill: You know, and this is what I tell…I happen to know a lot about tequila as well, as a side comment. And so this happens a lot to me when people ask me what the best tequila is. And the same thing goes for anything with wine or beer. When people say what’s the best wine or they wanna get your opinion, honestly the best is what you like. I hated the California Butter Bomb chardonnays. Some people love that, and actually they’re kind of coming back into some popularity. That’s great. There are a few different kinds of that, and there are some dry ones, and there are ones that aren’t over oaked and more nuanced. And ultimately there’s no bad, it’s just what do you like? If you like that, then that’s great. Who cares?
Chris: Yeah. The only thing I find that helps with developing any sort of vocabulary is being able to get more of what you like. So for instance, to be able to say, “Well, how would I describe this one that I like or don’t like so I can get more of it in the future?” And so when they say, “Well, we call that buttery,” it’s useful to know that’s what this is called and I like it or I don’t. We went up to California when we first got here up to Napa. I think the first time up there we tried all the award-winning chardonnays and didn’t like a single one.
Jill: Yeah, I know.
Chris: You know, it’s like, “Okay, we don’t like chardonnays or we don’t like what they’re doing today with chardonnays,” which is often the case. Because the taste will change. Ten years later, our tastes will change but also a chardonnay in Napa may change.
Jill: Right. And also if you happen to be the kind of person who at home you’re gonna toss an ice cube into your glass of chardonnay, no one is gonna laugh at you at home, so who cares? If that’s what you do and you like it, then that’s what you do and you like it.
Chris: Here’s a great quote about wine, Ben Franklin, “Wine is sure proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
Jill: I do love that.
Chris: Prettiest spot in Napa or Sonoma? Where are you standing? What are you looking at?
Jill: This is gonna sound like a copout, but I don’t care because I grew up in a wine family. And so to me, it is absolutely…the prettiest spot is in the middle of a vineyard, in the middle of the valley. If you’re in the valley, everywhere you look, almost, is up the hillside. So if you’re in the valley and you’re looking north and south, okay, maybe you’re looking more at vineyards at your level, but if you start to look towards the hills you’re just seeing the hills carpeted. And these lines, these symmetrical lines, whether they’re running up and down or diagonally depending on how the train is, and you’re just seeing those lines, and you’re among them, and you’re looking down a row, and you’re seeing the leaves, or maybe in winter you’re just seeing just the vines themselves. To me, that’s just such a beautiful view.
When I watched the movie “Bottle Shock” in the beginning when the credits are running and they’re playing the music, and there’s just like this flyover of vineyards it makes me a little weepy because it’s my childhood. It’s something that I really love.
Chris: I would put that in early fall when the leaves are just starting to turn, and I would be absolutely with you.
Jill: Yeah, okay. Hey, can I talk more about “Bottle Shock” for a second?
Jill: So there a film called “Bottle Shock,” and this is just kind of a little side note about Napa. It takes place around 1976. So one thing that’s pretty notable about Napa in ’76 is that there was a competition held between wines of France and wines of Napa, where a guy named Steven Spurrier came over to Napa just saying, “People are saying that the wines here are really good, but you know, I think that the French wines will just totally beat them out.”
Well, what happened when he was traveling around Napa is that he realized that Napa wines were pretty amazing. And so he got a bunch, brought them back to France, and they had what’s called the judgment of Paris in 1976, where Napa Valley wines soundly beat the pants off of French wines. And so that’s the topic of this film, “Bottle Shock.” It turns out that 30 years later they held an anniversary competition, and again, Napa beat the pants off of France.
Chris: Yeah, they make some pretty decent wine up there.
Jill: They do, and it’s nice to have it. Well, at least for you and me, it’s nice to have it locally.
Chris: Finish the sentence, “You really know you’re in Napa when…” what?
Jill: Wine is part of everything. You’ve got bath treatments. You’ve got massage therapies. You’ve got wine in cooking. You’ve got wine at your little picnic table. Actually, there’s like this gas stations store in Yountville where you can get wine. It’s amazing. It’s part of every, everything there.
Chris: If you have been there you know exactly what Jill is talking about. Excellent. And if you had to summarize the region in three words, what three words would you pick? At least one of which will probably be wine.
Jill: So one is gonna be wine, sorry. Wine, food, and landscape.
Chris: Excellent. Jill, where can people read more about your travels? It’s not necessarily on your blog, although we mentioned dangerjillrobinson.com. Where have you written about Napa recently?
Jill: Yeah, that is most certainly not on my blog. I write for other people more than I write for me. I’ve written about Napa for the San Francisco Chronicle travel section, actually. Yes, that is. That’s correct. For Buick Magazine, I also write quite a bit not on Napa for Afar National Geographic Traveler and a handful of airline magazines like American Way.
Chris: Excellent. Well, thanks so much for coming back on the Amateur Traveler and sharing with us your obvious love for Napa, Sonoma, and for wine.
Jill: Thank you.
Chris: In news of the community, I was just putting together a schedule of the shows coming in the next couple of months. We’ve got shows on Patagonia and Gambia, the Finger Lakes wine region, Tibet and Sydney, Australia at least, coming up. Remember you can always pitch me a show by sending an email to email@example.com. Look first to see if it’s something we’ve covered or covered recently, and make your case for why it’s worth flying to and spending a week there.
With that, we’re gonna end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. I have to go down to Salinas, California today and celebrate my father’s 90th birthday. If you have any questions, send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com or better yet leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveler.com. You can follow me on Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram as Chris2X. And as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.