Wine grapes grow best in beautiful places with great weather—iconic destinations such as the South of France and Italy’s Tuscan countryside. California’s adjacent Napa and Sonoma counties, home to some of the most famous vineyards in the New World, are less than an hour from San Francisco and are exceptional tourist destinations, featuring fantastic restaurants, spas, world-class golf and wineries of every shape and style.
Start your trip with a tasting. In the charming town of St. Helena, you’ll find a huge castle-style building that’s home to the nation’s leading school for professional chefs, the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Campus. Visitor attractions include an enormous culinary bookstore, retail shop, two restaurants, and the nation’s only oleoteca, a high-tech olive oil tasting bar. Here the finest extra-virgin oils are protected from light and oxygen and dispensed on tap, like draught beer. Tasting options include slates of oil with cheese, charcuterie and wine, a gourmet experience you cannot find anywhere else.
Get to know wine country. In Sonoma’s largest city, Santa Rosa, spend a portion of your day at Railroad Square, a walking-friendly neighborhood surrounding an 1870s-era train, with nearly 20 restaurants and cafés. From here, take Route 12 into Napa, passing through the picturesque towns of Kenwood, Glen Ellen and Sonoma itself, whose main square features many tasting rooms, providing the rare opportunity to enjoy the wine country experience on foot. It’s not far to the town of Napa and its Oxbow Public Market, a food hall full of local artisan food stalls, sit-down eateries and gourmet shopping.
Enjoy the area’s natural attractions. Napa Valley is home to the famous Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, where you can splurge on a spa treatment or buy a day pass and soak in one of several mineral pools that range from 80 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Nearby is the Old Faithful Geyser of California, a small geyser that erupts about every 30 minutes, not to be confused with its more famous namesake in Yellowstone. Also nearby is the Petrified Forest, where a self-guided nature trail takes you past giant redwood trees turned to stone 3.5 million years ago.
Where to Stay
Hilton Sonoma Wine Country is located just off U.S. Route 101, about 65 miles from San Francisco and Oakland airports. The hotel, set on 13 lush acres, overlooks the beautiful Russian River Valley and is surrounded by more than 300 wineries and vineyards.
*Photo of a Napa Valley vineyard by F. Carlucci.