Welcome to my guide to planning a successful first trip to Napa or Sonoma. The tips within will help you answer the common questions before you travel to wine country. If you prefer to listen, check out the audio version of this article in the podcast player below.

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An Ode to California: Napa and Sonoma

Season 2 has been about reflecting. In Episode 1, I approached my interview with Cal Fussman with new eyes and ears…stumbling upon a moment that I had nearly forgotten.

So while I’ve dug through old interviews, swipe files and half written blog posts, I found the essay I submitted for the USA Laithwaite’s Wine Prize. Beyond a cool title, winning this prize would mean a travel stipend to anywhere in the wine world.

But this paragraph in particular, knocked me over on re-read:

“In my quest for wine knowledge, I realized there were few resources pointing people to potential wine careers.

The obvious was such. Even outsiders like me could understand the roles of Sommeliers, winemakers, and authors in the wine world.

But for careers paths with titles like consultant, buyer, podcaster, and even inventor, what did those trajectories look like?

Ultimately, this notion which I encountered during my studying served as inspiration for my next project.”

From my essay for the USA Laithwaite’s Wine Prize

It’s such a great memory to think about when you fell in love with wine and when you had your aha moment. It’s why I love asking people about their transformative wine experience.

And I remember being stuck, and the answer was to talk to people I admired.

“After the success in sharing this knowledge with others, I’ve decided to interview experts and dissect wine excellence full-time. All the while, I plan to continue to document my journey in pursuit of my own path to wine expertise.”

Man, I was so naive. But truth be told, I allowed life to get in the way of the opportunity that was staring me in the face.

Getting Unstuck in Sonoma

When I finished the summit, I was exhausted. I didn’t have a future plan, and I failed to capture that initial momentum. Starting again would prove more difficult than I imagined.

Every attempt met a roadblock. Rather than go over, around or through. I took shelter in its shadow and turned around on the path I had been forging.

So why tell you this story…today.

When given the choice to go anywhere in the wine world…what would you pick?

The possibilities are endless. And as you might have guessed, after winning the prize, I was spinning my wheels on my own Road to Wine Expert.

I’d get a reminder about the bursary, and I wouldn’t budge. I would look for airfare to France and ultimately bummed that I would max out my bursary.

Lost, I wrote to Brian McClintic. I respect Brian for so many reasons. But it’s his gut and precision that I admire most.

Believe it or not, I won a wine award for WSET Level 2 exam. As a result, I have a scholarship to travel anywhere in the wine world. You pushed me to go to Beaujolais during our last chat, but I’ve got this crazy inkling to stay domestic.

I’m thinking Sonoma. But am I out of my freaking mind?

Your insight and guidance would be much appreciated.

My email to Brian McClintic

He responded with:

Hey Brian,

Follow your heart but you have to weigh the accessibility of Sonoma vs the opportunity to travel abroad. It’s a no brainer for me to head to France or Spain but If you’re drawn to Sonoma I’m not going to get in the way of that energy…

Brian McClintic’s response to my email.

The note from Brian was the push that I needed.

Sonoma got me unstuck.

It reignited my fire on my wine journey.

Ultimately, opening the opportunity to new career options and meeting even more incredible people.

Getting Unstuck in Napa

And then, I realized something, it was not unlike how Napa got me unstuck.

A weekend getaway with my then-girlfriend-now-wife, would actually be the true catalyst for my wine journey.

In reviewing my cover letter to Vin Chicago, aka my Hail Mary attempt to join the wine world, I found the following:

Having returned from a recent trip to Napa in February, I believe I have been bitten by the wine bug. I’m at a place in my career where I’d like to take a departure from my current corporate path, and explore a job that embodies many of my passions. I love wine, I love helping people, and I love telling stories. That may be my favorite part of wine, every bottle is a story.

A passage from my cover letter to Vin Chicago

It’s amazing that I ran from these truths and got so lost on my wine journey. That’s why I want to turn my focus on two places that brought me so much joy: Napa and Sonoma.

How I Created This Guide

While I didn’t have a particular agenda to start with, I realized as I sifted through the dregs of this idea that a few questions kept returning.

People always asked me for tips for going to Napa and Sonoma.

And no doubt, your first trip to wine country is exciting but it’s not without lots of decisions. And while, I’ll never be able to say that either Napa or Sonoma is better. I’ll make a case for each, present you with some travel tips, talk about my favorite wineries and throw in a couple dollops of wine education along the way.

When I went for my Sonoma sojourn thanks to winning the USA Laithwaite’s Prize, I learned a lot about wine, myself and discovered a whole new way to travel.

So, let’s dive into this episode by answering some of the most popular questions about Napa and Sonoma as asked by my friends, family and listeners of this podcast.

One note:

I’d like to start with a small, but important point. It’s one that I found myself belaboring while writing/recording this guide that became distracting from the ultimate goal.

If you’re going to use any travel tips contained within please be careful. Wear a mask, follow local guidelines, check in ahead of your visit. Be aware some places may be closed, have special protocols and parking might be a challenge.

What’s the best way to travel to Napa or Sonoma?

A view of a plane off of our wing as we landed in San Francisco International Airport

Any journey to Napa or Sonoma starts with getting there.

And if you’re not within driving distance, you’re likely hopping on a plane to visit.

For most of us, we will be flying into either of two major airports:

San Francisco (SFO) or Sacramento (SMF)

Now, you can fly into Oakland and San Jose as well. However, flight times have never really worked out for me. And coming from Chicago, Kansas City and Saint Louis, I’ve always found better rates at the other two airports.

So, how do you choose between the airports?

You might jump on Google Maps and realize that SFO and Sacramento are equidistant in mileage from downtown Napa, about 60 highway miles. SFO is directionally south and also south of San Francisco proper.

Sacramento is to the northeast, and it’s about 30 miles further from downtown Sonoma compared to SFO.

With the basic geography taken care of, let’s talk about the pros and cons of each airport.

Pros and Cons of flying into Sacramento

I’ll start with Sacramento.

Sacramento International Airport is smaller than SFO which means it’s often less busy and has shorter security lines. You’ll be able to find your rental car fast as you’re on a shuttle bus versus the AirTrain.

And here’s the big one folks: you don’t have to contend with the typical Bay Area Traffic Nightmare.

If you’re going to Napa or even Sonoma for a quick weekend getaway, I would be hard pressed to not pick Sacramento.

Now, I know things are different in the days COVID. But based on my experience, Sacramento is a relatively straight forward experience, that makes quick trips a breeze.

Flying Into San Francisco

So, why would I even make an argument for SFO?

Well, first of all, I love San Francisco. If it weren’t insanely expensive, I would probably live there. And despite its astronomical rents, it’s a great place to visit.

The food is great, the walkability is great, and there’s plenty to do outside of the typical tourist traps.

On top of that, if you’ve never been to California and you’re in now particular hurry…driving up the 1 to the 101 is special. Seeing the Golden Gate bridge, stopping at the Muir Woods or countless other hiking spots add significant moments on top of what will already be a great trip.

My wife and I typically take the first flight out on a Thursday or Friday from Chicago to make the most of our long weekend. If we land in San Francisco, there’s always a bit of the time travel effect as you don’t lose as much time going West.

So after the long flight from Chicago, we love stretching our legs and getting fresh air (obviously, when climate change and wildfires are making the outside inhospitable).

Great Stops En Route to Napa or Sonoma

If you do fly into San Francisco, the Muir Woods is definitely worth a stop en route to Napa or Sonoma

For coastal hiking, Mori Point and Mussel Rock Park are within a 20 minute drive from the airport. You can also troll through Golden Gate Park or Lands End Lookout. If you’re going to Muir Woods, I recommend you stop at Coyote Coffee on the way into town. The coffee is great, there’s typically not a huge line and there’s some fun local snacks and baked goods (which are necessary travel items).

Now, a huge con about traveling through SFO is getting out. Traffic in the reverse direction can be a challenge. It will ultimately impact your last day of travel, and it will make it difficult to get in one final tasting before catching your flight home.

Typically, we stay an extra night near the airport, drop off the rental car and then rideshare/shuttle the following morning. Again, the travel back from California to the Midwest can be a bit brutal, so that first flight out gives you the day to adjust back to reality.

So in summary, if you’re just here for the wine and looking to get in and out, Sacramento is the move. If you want to explore San Francisco and putter around the coast, I highly recommend SFO.

When should you go to Napa or Sonoma?

So, I personally love visiting in the off-season. We like to go in February, it offers a nice break from the bleak, terrible Chicago winters. There’s a chance that the weather might be outstanding. Like our first visit, when we were not only able to rent a convertible but USE IT. In true Midwestern spirit, we were cruising down the 1 with the top down. It was amazing.

Also, if you like to hike or spend time outdoors March through May is a great time to go and typically a bit cooler than the busy summer travel months. If you do go in February, you’ll want to avoid Premier Napa Valley. It draws in a ton of industry people so hotels are pricey and scarce.

These low seasons are also great because you’re there when many other people are not. So, you’re not fighting against tour buses and power tasters. People are happy to have you there (as they are almost always) and they are able to spend a bit more time and attention on you.

Summers are great, but as we’ve seen they can get really hot. While the valley is alive the smells and sounds of harvest, it’s also full of traffic. So consider that obstacle when planning trips August through October.

I visited Sonoma for the first time in July, and it was magical. I couldn’t have got more perfect weather, so there’s really not a wrong time to go. Just be aware that each season presents individual challenges.

Which is better: Napa or Sonoma?

I wish I could say Sonoma or Napa and move on. Because this question is fraught with tripwires, rabbit holes and minotaurs and whatever the hell else you find in the labyrinth of the answers to this question.

They are completely different. There’s no point in trying to compare.

So let’s start with a little wine education, and go from there.

A Brief Lesson in Geography

Sonoma County and Napa Valley are two distinct wine regions within the North Coast AVA of California.

If you’re a huge wine nerd like me, that may not come as a surprise.

But, if you’re new to wine…

You might not even know how different these places are despite their proximity.

So at the south of each region, you’ll find Carneros AVA where they share a landscape and climate that’s perfect for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay production. You’ll find a lot of sparkling wine producers here and many Champagne house’s have their US labels based in this area.

Also, quick fact on Carneros that I learned while writing this piece. The default image from Windows XP, entitled “Bliss,” which featured gently sloping near-neon green hills and bright, blue sky was photographed here. The photographer is named Charles O’Rear.

The more you know….

A bit more on the geography at a high level, from the south Napa and Sonoma are separated by the Mayacamas Mountains.

Napa Valley is for Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay Lovers

Napa Valley is Cabernet country. If you listened to my episode with George Taber, then you know that Napa was put on the world’s wine stage against the best red wines of Bordeaux (typically Cabernet or Merlot) and best white wines of Burgundy (Chardonnay).

So if you like Cabernet or Chardonnay, you will have an amazing time in Napa. There’s no shortage of places to visit.

But I’m a bit of an outlier, and I tend to zig when most people zag, so my favorite Napa wineries aren’t known for making wines typical of Napa Valley.

But more on that in a moment.

Sonoma is great for those looking for a variety of grape varieties

Now, if you’re into Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel, odd Italian Variety, plus Cabernet and Chardonnay, you’ll feel right at home in Sonoma. Sonoma covers a larger area (it’s twice as big as Napa), and the towns and wineries are a bit more spread out rather than organized on two main roads.

But extending all the way to the coast to the aforementioned Mayacamas mountains, it has a wider variability and diversity to its climate. So different grapes thrive in all these different environments.

So, in Sonoma you can explore—and expect to drive—and find pretty much everything. As for Napa, you can hunker down, stay on the Valley floor, hop from town and drink Cabernet and Chardonnay until the cows come home. And that might be just what you’re looking for, especially for a quick weekend.

I’m one who likes to seek out certain producers and plan my trip around a special visit, especially when the winery is in an amazing location.

There’s no better place to taste wine than at the place where it’s grown and made. Period.

Which brings us to the next question…

Where should you stay when you visit Napa or Sonoma?

Logistics is hard, and if you’re just getting your brain around which airport to fly in and out of, and that Napa and Sonoma are very different places, you probably have a lot of questions about where to stay.

So, rather than say, “Stay here,” I believe there are again two schools of thought:

  1. Central based hotel or Airbnb
  2. Nomad approach

Central Based Hotel or Airbnb

For our first trip to Napa, we lucked into an AMAZING Airbnb. Nothing quite like waking up in a vineyard, and John was an incredible host. Since we last visited, they’ve even updated the shower on their coach house, so I can’t recommend this place enough.

It’s a perfect spot for couples. It is located about halfway between Yountville and Napa.

I’ve also stayed in Napa (link to the Airbnb), which is equally great to come back to at the end of the day and then head out for dinner and night cap.

I would suggest you pick your home base based on your nighttime behavior. If you find yourself wanting to get dinner and a drink, you’ll probably want to stay close to a small downtown area. If you want to kick back and have a quiet night in, then where you stay is far less important.

The Nomad Approach

So, let’s talk about the Nomad approach.

When I took my trip to Sonoma, I only had a few specific winery visits planned. The rest of my trip was up to fate and how I was feeling. And the no agenda, agenda is a lot of fun. It allows you to linger and get suggestions from your tasting hosts and people you meet along the way.

I didn’t book a single hotel, but opted instead for using HotelTonight. Honestly, I got some amazing deals on some incredible hotels in July.

For example, I was able to stay at Duchamp in Healdsburg, which is this crazy, insane baller-esque 6 suite resort with a pool for about 33% of the high season rate. Now, it was a bit higher than what I would typically spend for a hotel nightly stay.

But swimming in that pool and walking to and from dinner, made it all worth it. Especially for one night. Plus, when you factor in the other deals I got, my total turned out lower than had I booked one hotel in advance.

So if you’re flexible and willing to pack up on a daily basis, it’s a great way to travel. And you might just get yourself a deal, and a brief taste of the good life.

What wineries should you visit in Napa or Sonoma?

Alright, it’s time for the fun part where I get to share my favorites places to visit.

Wineries to Visit in Napa

Robert Biale Vineyards

biale.com

The first is Robert Biale Vineyards.

The Team at Biale have always extended the most amazing courtesies to me and my family. I’m a Black Chicken Society member, and I will be for life.

Earlier, I mentioned how I like to zig when most people zag. Well, Biale follows that methodology and has done so since inception. Known for their amazing range of Zinfandels, Biale makes fabulous wine. And in their hands, they take Zinfandel to another level.

I have to give a big shout out to my friend Vino Mike, who is the co-host for That Wine Pod, for turning me on to Biale.

My big Biale moment came at my first Thanksgiving while being in the wine industry. I had a Zinfandel flight that featured the 2014 Black Chicken, 2011 Storybook Mountain Mayacamas Range Zinfandel and the 2013 Bedrock Monte Rosso (and more on that last wine in just a moment).

I visited Biale for the first time in 2017, and the rest is history.

The experience is great as you sit outside and overlook the vineyards. And I’ll say it again and again, the wines are special.

Matthiasson

matthiasson.com

My second recommendation for a winery visit in Napa is Matthiasson.

Now, I’ve yet to visit their brand new tasting experience. But Jill and Steve are unmatched when it comes to hosting.

Even in these strange times, their warmth and care was extended in their virtual tastings where Steven took us on a vineyard tour.

Like Biale, they’ve also zigged when most have zagged.

Matthiasson does make Cabernet and Chardonnay, but they are not typical Napa. These wines are what you might call Old School. These are food friendly and great drinking wines. I really enjoy their freshness and acidity.

I love that Matthiasson create wines with multiple varieties including Merlot, Pinot Noir, Refosco, Ribolla Gialla and others. They have a co-fermented Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo that recently knocked my socks off.

Go visit, you won’t be disappointed.

Wineries to visit in Sonoma

Bedrock Wine Co.

bedrockwineco.com

For Sonoma, my list is a bit longer because I think I wanted to speak to the variety I mentioned earlier. Also, I’m a total sucker for Zinfandel, so sorry. I think it’s great and you’ll get another two on this list.

So let’s start there:

Earlier I mentioned the 2013 Bedrock Monte Ross Zinfandel. People prior to tasting this wine I kind of thought zinfandel was well…fine. But this opened my eyeballs and taste buds. As Cal Fussman likes to use music to describe wine, well then this wine on that particular night was Queen’s Somebody to Love.

Bedrock has landed its tasting experience in the Joseph Hooker House in Sonoma proper and inside you’ll find a people first approach to wine. On the walls, you’ll see the oversized portraits of the growers of vineyards where Bedrock sources its fruit. And you’ll find some of the kindest people to host you. Emily and Kristin treated me with the utmost care.

Offerings you might find at Bedrock:

  • Under the Wire Sparkling
  • Ode to Lulu Rose
  • A wide range of Zinfandels and Zinfandel based field blends
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Riesling
  • Syrah

Check Mate.

Ridge Vineyards

ridgewine.com

I waltzed into Ridge’s Lytton Springs location on cloud nine. Sure, maybe it was an earlier tasting where I drank Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Trousseau and Syrah that was making me feel better. But Ridge is iconic.

And I don’t know if I could have lucked into meeting a better guide. Bob sauntered out the back and in a docile baritone said, “Welcome to Ridge.”

**Bob along with my flight of Monte Bello**

It was magic.

A quick tip on Ridge. They have two locations, so if you’re going to visit make sure you make an appointment at Lytton Springs. Monte Bello while AMAZING and a must for any wine lover is way south closer to San Jose. I know a few people who have made this mistake.

Okay, so what makes Ridge so special?

Paul Draper, Ridge Vineyards Chairman of the Board, discusses the history of the winemaking technique at Ridge.

Ridge probably deserves its own article.

But some of my favorite things about Ridge besides all their wonderful wines are transparency on their labels—they tell you exactly what’s in the bottle. They are committed to making fine wines in the simplest way—watch the video above—and they believe in organic farming and sustainability.

Ridge is the largest farmer of organically certified grapes in Sonoma County and the Santa Cruz mountains.

Ryme Cellars

rymecellars.com

Sonoma is so big and diverse that I have to tell you about a winery and team that exemplify that aspect.

Ryme is a collaboration between a dynamic duo of Ryan and Megan Glaab…hence the name. This husband and wife team makes a vast array of beautiful wines including Italian varieties as well as Pinot and Chardonnay.

I absolutely adore their Cab Franc and their Aglianico Rose is always great, but this year it was beyond expectations.

My family honestly gets so excited anytime I bring Ryme to a gathering. It’s always “Ooo…Ryme…I loved that last time.” Once it’s popped, it rarely lasts long.

Upon my visit, I got to spend some time with Megan. She is sincere, thoughtful and approachable, akin to the wines she makes. I met so many nice people on my trip to Sonoma, but single handedly, she might be the NICEST human.

Again, you have a team focused on sourcing fruit from organic and sustainable vineyards. And as they so perfectly say on their website, “The wines are always encouraged, never controlled.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to anyone planning a trip to Napa or Sonoma?

If you’re ready to start planning your first trip, let me leave you with one piece of advice. It’s simple and foolproof:

Let your palate be your guide.

If you like a particular wine, seek out that producer and try their other wines. If you like 2 or 3, odds are that you’ll like almost all of the wines they make.

And that winery should be the cornerstone of your trip to Napa or Sonoma.

Then while enjoying a tasting at that winery, ask your host, “What winery would you say is similar to this one?”

Another great question to ask is, “What wines do you like to drink?”

Those two questions can take you on an amazing adventure especially on your first trip to wine country.

Additional Napa and Sonoma Wine Resources:

If you’re looking for further reading on Napa and Sonoma, consider the following resources:

Published by Brian McCann

Brian McCann started his wine journey out of luck, faith and confidence, and often times the complete opposite of all those things. Ultimately, he left his 9-to-5 and found himself in wine. His heartbreak grape is Syrah.

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