A First-Timer’s Guide to Napa and Sonoma

A few weeks ago, my husband and I celebrated our 10-year anniversary with a three-day trip to Napa and Sonoma. It was our first time in California wine country, from New York. (We also were in the Golden State to attend our friend’s wedding in San Diego later that week—more about that adventure here.)

Before we left, I read everything I could find about Napa and Sonoma: various experts’ and visitors’ rankings of the best wineries in each valley; which valley, Napa or Sonoma, was more “you”; where to eat. I also asked friends who had been to offer up their recommendations, which they kindly did.

In this case, though, the best education was experience. Not until I set foot in Napa and Sonoma did I have a true feel for the place(s). Disclaimer: I’m not a travel expert, just someone who was recently there and would like to pass along what I learned, in the hopes it will help others.

Here’s what I figured out, then, along with some specific recommendations regarding wineries and restaurants. I hope this information helps you plan your upcoming trip.

And when you get there, enjoy.

Napa or Sonoma, or Both?

The Napa and Sonoma valleys are next to each other, separated by a mountain range (I believe it’s called the Mayacamas). It takes about 20 minutes or so to drive between Napa and Sonoma on State Highway 121—they’re super close.

A major difference is that Sonoma is more spread out, geographically, than Napa. It has roughly the same number of wineries, but on twice the land—an outdoorsman’s paradise, you might say. Napa, meanwhile, features a (breathtaking) landscape of one winery after another: vineyard after vineyard for miles.

When I was researching Napa and Sonoma, I read some reviewers’ perspectives that Napa and Sonoma differ in terms of vibe as well as geography. For example, Napa is more luxury SUV, reviewers wrote, while Sonoma is more Subaru. Napa is to Ralph Lauren what Sonoma is to T-shirts and jeans—those kinds of comparisons. I didn’t find these comparisons to be true, though.

In my experience, both Napa and Sonoma are friendly, welcoming places. Stanton and I loved them both (and we’re Subaru-type folks, in case you were wondering 😉 ).

If you’re making the trip to California wine country, then I recommend stopping by both valleys for a taste (literally) of both Napa and Sonoma, if you can.

Upon arriving in this picturesque part of the country, our first stop was Napa’s Domaine Carneros, known for their sparkling wines and gracious table service. Two thumbs up:

Domaine Carneros Winery

Where to Go in Napa?

There are two main roads in Napa: State Highway 29, and the Silverado Trail. I much preferred driving along the Silverado Trail than Highway 29.

If you like scenic routes, the Silverado Trail is absolutely beautiful, and much less commercial than Highway 29. The Silverado Trail is also home to some wonderful “hidden gem” wineries. (Stanton and I loved Paraduxx, our favorite winery in Napa, and Frog’s Leap.)

A view of Frog’s Leap, from the charming back porch:

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Highway 29, however, features big-name brands like Robert Mondavi and Cakebread, which you may not want to miss. We did stop by V. Sattui for a picnic lunch, and can highly recommend V. Sattui (Napa’s most visited winery, according to reports) for fresh, delicious food options and an easygoing ambiance. Next time we’ll have to try their wine too (we were in between tastings!).

Post-lunch, I napped in a chair in V. Sattui’s courtyard, and the staff didn’t (seem to) mind:

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A note about wine, and wine tastings. Which wineries you choose to visit may (should?) depend upon what kind of wine you prefer to drink. If a winery is known for Chardonnay, and you live and die by bold reds, then you may not enjoy a winery that specializes in white wines, despite that spot’s numerous five-star TripAdvisor reviews.

On the other hand, let yourself be open to discovery, and pleasant surprise. Personally, I love red wine—Cabernet and red blends are my favorites—yet I tried a Zinfandel at Frog’s Leap, and was amazed by how much I enjoyed it.

…let yourself be open to discovery, and pleasant surprise.

Remember not to drink on an empty stomach, friends. For breakfast in Napa, I strongly encourage you to stop by The Model Bakery, recommended to me by my in-the-know friend Haeley of Design Improvised. Stanton and I went to their Oxbow Public Market location two mornings in a row. The breakfast sandwiches are fabulous, and I can’t say enough about the Chocolate Rad cookie. Trust me on this: Whatever you order, get a Chocolate Rad cookie to go with it. 🙂

Oprah (as in Winfrey) loves The Model Bakery’s English muffins so much that she has them flown in to her. The breakfast sandwiches feature these English muffins:

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Where to Go in Sonoma?

When you’re in Sonoma, be sure to check out Sonoma Plaza, the central gathering space. It includes a variety of art galleries, shops and restaurants, as well as historic sites such as Mission San Francisco Solano.

We visited Mission Solano during a morning walk through the Plaza. The nature here is beautiful:

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Of all the wineries we visited in both Napa and Sonoma, we had the most fun at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma. It bills itself as the oldest premium winery in California, and is an Historic Landmark very close to the Plaza. The staff members dress up in 19th-century costumes (the winery’s founder was a European count), and their customer service is excellent (our tour guide, Tim, gave us amazingly generous pours!).

You are bound to have fun wine tasting inside one of Buena Vista’s caves:

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We also enjoyed our Biodynamic Vineyard Tram Tour at Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, about 10 miles from the Plaza. An enlightening tour, with amazing views of Sonoma Mountain opposite the vineyards.

If you’re eating in Sonoma, then I highly recommend the Sunflower Caffe and the girl & the fig as excellent lunch and/or dinner options.

In between wine tastings, I devoured the Smoked Duck sandwich at the Sunflower Caffe. Stanton and I split the Griddled Johnny Cake in the middle of the table; it is to die for:

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I hope what I’ve shared here helps you make the most of your visit to Napa and Sonoma. Cheers!

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