There’s more to see and visit in both Napa and Sonoma than you could possibly tackle on one trip and both wine regions are eager to welcome wine tourists back eight months after the terrifying fires. And, don’t be scared to try the 2017 vintage once those wines have been released — Napa and Sonoma winemakers are quick to point out that nearly all grapes had been harvested before the fires.
Every trip to Napa and Sonoma means new discoveries of wineries you didn’t know existed and having new experiences at places you already love and adore. Here, a combination of old and new favorites makes for a magical visit to wine country.
Downtown Napa has never been hotter, and the Archer Hotel, with its cool new rooftop bar, is the chicest place to stay. Get a drink at Compline next door before a Japanese izakaya dinner at Miminashi. The robatayaki menu features many adventurous cuts of meat including multiple cuts of heart and cartilage along with skewers of tender chicken oysters. Save room for inventively flavored soft-serve ice cream topped with chocolate-covered waffles and sesame honeycomb candy.
Yountville is still as quaint as ever, and The French Laundry completed its $10 million renovation in March. Now, you can peer into the much-expanded kitchen from the courtyard and marvel at the work that goes into creating every dish.
Two of Napa’s newest wineries are available to visit by appointment only, focused only on making small-batch red blends that speak to Napa’s diverse terroir. Promontory is the Harlan family’s newest project, named for the rocky Oakville outcropping the winery sits on. You can see the vineyards of Harlan Estate across the way and winemaker Cory Empting tames the wild metamorphic soils here with a little more time in barrel and cask than at Bond and Harlan.
A stone’s throw from Meadowood in St. Helena, Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate is a hidden gem, only in its second vintage. The winemaking team consists of Philippe Melka and Michel Rolland, two of the top wine consultants in the world. This is the first time the two have worked together on a single project since Melka worked with Rolland, whom he considers a mentor, when he was first getting started in his career. Each of these fledgling wineries holds the promise of becoming Napa’s next cult favorite red.
Conn Creek offers one of the most educational and interactive tasting experiences in Napa Valley, allowing guests to create their own Cabernet Sauvignon blend in the tasting room with barrel samples from nearly all of the valley’s sub-appellations. Train your palate to recognize the supple minerality from Stags Leap wine compared to the complex cassis flavors from Rutherford and rich, jammy flavors of Chiles Valley. Then fine-tune your Bordeaux blend, adding weight with malbec, softness with merlot, or tannins from petit verdot. Elizabeth DeLouise-Gant took over as head winemaker just last year, and I’m looking forward to tasting her first wines later this year.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars has a new Cellarius Kitchen Tasting that combines a winery tour with a seated four-course lunch prepared by Chef Travis Westrope. Although Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is arguably one of the best-known wineries in Napa Valley, their claim to fame being the winery that won the Cabernet Sauvignon competition in the 1976 Judgment of Paris, this is the first time they’ve offered food to match the level of their wines. Pine Ridge Vineyards is another nearby winery that does an especially good job pairing cabernet with a variety of dishes for a more composed and memorable tasting experience.
Healdsburg is the touristic epicenter of Sonoma, and SingleThread is the hottest restaurant in town. Katina and Kyle Connaughton are taking farm-to-table to new heights, and garnered two Michelin stars less than a year after opening. Stay at SingleThread’s intimate five-room inn above the restaurant if you can. Breakfast in bed is an extravaganza and everything, from tofu and natto to yogurt and jam, is made in-house. Staying at SingleThread also means you can try their new Japanese hotpot donabe in-room dining, in many ways a more exclusive experience than dinner in the dining room downstairs.
The high-tech Teforia tea machine and complimentary minibar stocked with Pliny the Elder beer and kombucha ensure you’ll drink well beyond the great local wine and Katina refreshes the bouquets in every room each day with flowers from her garden. If the five rooms at SingleThread are booked, fellow Relais & Chateaux Hotel Les Mars is another luxurious option just a couple blocks away. In contrast to SingleThread’s modern, Japanese-influenced décor, Hotel Les Mars is more traditional French frou-frou.
Dining at SingleThread every night is tempting, especially since the menu changes daily, but it would also quickly bankrupt you. Luckily, Healdsburg has quite a few wonderful restaurants including Valette, where the day boat scallops en croûte and local Sonoma County lamb are always good choices. They even use local bean-to-bar chocolate by Volo in a Snickers bar-inspired dessert. SHED Cafe is another local favorite and the attached market is a great place to shop for local and artisan pantry and houseware gifts.
Just 10 minutes from downtown Healdsburg, Jordan Winery has a loyal following for their cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Instead of a traditional tasting here, start your day with a vigorous four-mile hike over the hills and valleys of Jordan Estate, through woods, meadows, olive orchards, and sustainably farmed vineyards. You’ll be rewarded with a picnic of olive oil, wine, charcuterie, and refreshments from the chef’s culinary garden and apiary.
In downtown Sonoma, look for Abbot’s Passage tasting room and mercantile store in an old red barn just off the main square. Katie Bundschu grew up at California’s oldest family-owned winery, Gundlach Bundschu Winery, and recently started her own label focusing on Rhone varietal wines. Instead of fermenting grape varietals separately and then blending them, Bundschu is co-fermenting field blends in a more experimental fashion that hearkens back to how farmers made wine in Europe for centuries. The retail and tasting room combination is small, cozy, and remarkably relaxed, hosting monthly events like oyster shucking classes and perfume workshops.
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Amber Gibson spends 340 nights a year in hotels searching for the latest and greatest in the travel industry. Her writing and photographs have appeared in print, online, and on the radio for outlets including Four Seasons Magazine, NPR, Saveur, Departures, Rhapsody, Hemispheres, American Way, Private Air, Wine Folly, Plate, Chicago Magazine, Tasting Table, and Serious Eats. She graduated as valedictorian from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and received a fellowship to attend the 2017 Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood Napa Valley. Champagne, dark chocolate, and gelato are her biggest weaknesses. She also admires and supports CAASE in Chicago. Follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.