TIPSY TOURIST: Napa and Sonoma. So many choices

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Tumbled stone coasters from some (not all) of the places we have stopped in Sonoma and Napa.

VJB in Sonoma has a welcoming tasting room and a patio for enjoying it.

VJB in Sonoma has a welcoming tasting room and a patio for enjoying their wines.

How do you decide where to stop on the Silverado Trail or Route 29 in the Napa Valley or in Sonoma along Route 12 or 101?

So many wineries!

Such beautiful places to stop and savor a sip of cabernet or chardonnay or…

How do you choose where to go? Really, I’m asking. How do you choose?

We recently spent a week in California and had two days in Napa and then two days in Sonoma to visit wineries, wander around vineyards and eat and drink to our hearts’ content.

The wine regions above San Francisco suffer from a glut of wonderfulness. Mile after mile, we were confronted with too many choices. Do we stop at famous wineries? Places whose wines we already know? Maybe boutique wineries whose vintages we know nothing about? Do we pick a place just because it’s pretty?

The answer to all these questions is YES!

A bottle from the vintage that won the Judgment of Paris — beating out French wines in a blind tasting — in 1976.

A bottle from Stag’s Leap’s vintage that won the Judgment of Paris — beating out French wines in a blind tasting — in 1976.

We went to Stag’s Leap (Napa) because its cabernet won the Judgment of Paris in 1976.

We went to Francis Ford Coppola Winery (Sonoma) because we’re big movie buffs. (Tipsy Tourist will address this one in an upcoming post.)

Merryvale's tasting room is surrounded by wine barrels fragrant with wine.

Merryvale‘s tasting room is surrounded by wine barrels fragrant with wine.

We went back to three wineries we loved on our first visit nearly a decade ago: Alpha and Omega, Ty Caton and VJB Vineyard and Cellars. All three Sonoma wineries were pretty new then; all are thriving now.

We’d never heard of Priest Ranch (Napa) or Orpheus (Sonoma) but something made us stop.

 Ledson's headquarters was built as a home. But visitors kept stopping by, thinking it was a tasting room. Now it is.

Ledson’s headquarters was built as a home. But visitors kept stopping by, thinking it was a tasting room. Now it is.

And we ended up at Ledson (Sonoma) because, well, its tasting room is set in a big multi-gabled mansion looming over acres and acres of grapes.

There were others, too. Even if you pace yourself you can visit a lot of wineries in a few days in California’s wine country.

We loved them all. Some more than others. But the experiences made each stop something special.

We started in Napa, in Yountville.

Priest Ranch has a tasting room in the town of Yountville.

Priest Ranch has a tasting room in the town of Yountville.

Priest Ranch’s sommelier not only poured wine, he answered questions about oak barrels, how cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc are related, and, well, you know. He was delighted to talk about anything to do with wine.

Stag’s Leap is famous. It’s also one we knew — but wanted to know more about. We tasted some pretty pricey cabernet. And we saw mementoes from the Judgment of Paris. All while looking out a tasting room window with a view of mountains and vineyards. It was the classic wine tasting experience.

Raymond has a run-of-the-mill tasting room and it's lovely. But the Crystal Experience is something else.

Raymond has a run-of-the-mill tasting room and it’s lovely. But the Crystal Cellar is another experience altogether.

Our favorite was one of the last in Napa we visited. I bought a bottle of Raymond cabernet a few weeks ago on a whim. When I discovered we could visit the winery, I immediately put it on the itinerary. There are tasting rooms and there is the Crystal Cellar, one of two at Raymond. Shiny silver tanks rise to the ceiling. Baccarat crystal chandeliers glitter above. Mannequins that reminded me of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” hang from the railings and even a trapeze.  The aroma of new wine filled the room: it is winemaking season, after all. Over the top? Of course! But not enough to outshine the wines. Before we left, we wandered through the organic garden. We didn’t want to leave.

Sonoma’s wineries are a little more spread out along rural Route 12 and Highway 101.

Ty Caton is small but good. It's one of three wineries within walking distance of each other in Kenwood. The others are VJB and Orpheus.

Ty Caton is small but good. It’s one of three wineries within walking distance of each other in Kenwood. The others are VJB and Orpheus.

Two Kenwood-area wineries were on our list because we fell in love with them last time we visited. Ty Caton was still in the same tasting room serving up the same luscious wines. VJB had moved to a larger Italian-themed tasting room, in keeping with its heritage. Still wonderful. We had to buy a bottle of their extraordinary prosecco (imported from a small Italian producer; not Sonoman but still memorable) and lounge on the sunny patio out back.

The surprise was nearby Orpheus, a newcomer on the scene. Still small, the owner pours the wines and talks about things like sustainability along with oak barrels and other wine stuff. It was one of my favorites. There is something extraordinary about talking with someone who is showing off the stuff that is central to their lives. And the wine? Its from Sonoma. It’s bold, full of fruit and tannin, a bottle you want to open again and again.

We kept passing Ledson on the way to other places and finally we had to stop to see it. The tasting room is set in a mansion with plenty of windows, gables and a porte cochere. It’s something to see. Add in a market and plenty of trees to sit under and you know you’ll have a wonderful afternoon.

Later summer and fall are excellent times to visit wine country, any wine country. We were lucky enough to see heavy clusters of black grapes waiting to be clipped from the vines, to see workers strolling through vineyards, to smell that sharp scent of wine in the making. And then to taste the results of past harvests.

So, tell me: how do you choose which wineries to visit?

ⓒ Photos and text Mary K. Tilghman

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One response to “TIPSY TOURIST: Napa and Sonoma. So many choices

  1. Pingback: TIPSY TOURIST: Wine and film at Coppola | A Day Away Travel·

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