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Things to Do in Napa & Sonoma

Just 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of San Francisco, California's premier wine country beckons, inviting travelers to slow down and savor the good life. Together, the Napa and Sonoma valleys offer many miles of rolling vineyards, biking (and tasting) trails, and an extravagance of eateries—from gourmet pop-ups at local wineries to multi-course, Michelin-starred dining experiences. European settlers planted Napa Valley's first grapes in the 1800s, and today, its wines compete with the best in the world. The once-sleepy city of Napa has been transformed into a hub of high-end shopping, cafes, and fine restaurants. Though proud of its equally long winemaking history, Sonoma is better known as a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, which elevated farming to a craft and fresh, local food to an art form. From the leafy, central plaza of "Slow-noma" town to trendy Healdsburg, you'll sample some of the county's best food and wine on a tasting tour. Between the two neighboring valleys, there are far more wineries than even the most dedicated oenophile can take in (more than 800), and nearly as many options for exploring the countryside: Ride the historical Napa Valley Wine Train; cruise the Silverado Trail in the back of a chauffeured, air-conditioned limo, bike through Yountville or Dry Creek Valley; canoe down the Russian River; or float above it all in a hot-air balloon. If you somehow overdo it, head to the spa town of Calistoga for a well-deserved break.
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Napa Valley Wine Train
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All aboard for the best train in the West! The beautiful and romantic Napa Valley Wine Train takes the most stunning parts of the Napa and Sonoma valleys and sandwiches them together in a spectacular glide through the rolling countryside. Watch the sun set from elegantly restored vintage Pullman cars as you sweep through the wandering valleys of Napa and Sonoma wine country sipping some of the world’s best wine and nibbling exotic cheeses. Little could be more breathtaking or romantic than this train ride through some of the world’s most famous wineries and some of the most beautiful land in California.

Perfect for those that don’t have much time to spend in this little slice of heaven, the Napa Valley Wine Trail gives you a sweeping view of the Napa and Sonoma valleys while regaling you in luxury, history, and of course, superb wines.

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Oxbow Public Market
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Whether you’re in the mood to shop, eat or do some wine tasting, Oxbow Public Market has you covered. This indoor marketplace is home to two dozen merchants that feature everything from local and artisan food, to award winning wine and decorative home accessories. It’s loved by tourists and locals alike. While residents may appreciate the butcher shops, and fish market a bit more, it doesn’t matter where you call home, the coffee shop, cupcake counter and distillery will put a smile on your face.

Outdoor seating is available and put to good use on sunny days. The hardest part might be deciding what to eat. Choices include everything from Italian, to Mexican, to American comfort food and an oyster bar. Dessert is just as important. Think organic ice cream, multiple bakeries and locally made chocolate.

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Madonna Estate Winery
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Located in the world-renowned Carneros region, Madonna Estates is a unique winemaker utilizing dry-farming production and organic grapes. The vineyard is family owned and operated using a combination of traditional and modern winemaking techniques. As one of the oldest vineyards in Napa Valley, Madonna Estates is working to ensure the historic winemaking traditions of the past live on. It was one of the few original vineyards that survived the Prohibition era.

The idea behind their wines is minimal intervention and as much natural growth as possible. Mild fog, wild, and cool temperatures create a unique microclimate in this area, fed with coastal air. Madonna Estates produces ten varietals including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio. The tasting room is decorated in Italian Pompeii style to reflect the family’s heritage, and the reserve room serves their highest quality vintages.

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Andretti Winery
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Owned by former champion race car driver Mario Andretti, Andretti Winery is a showcase for the owner's love and appreciation for fine, food-friendly wines. Together with winemaker Bob Pepi, Andretti has produced outstanding wines, with a focus on wines that pair well with food.

The winery itself resembles a Tuscan-style villa, with bright yellowish orange structures, fountains, and beautiful gardens surrounding the primary tasting area. The relaxed tasting room is shrine to Andretti, with racing photos and assorted memorabilia. Pull a seat up at the L-shaped bar and taste the latest vintages. Andretti Winery produces wines from some of the best vineyards in California, including such flavorful reds as Cabernet Savignon, Syrah, Merlot, Sangiovese, and Pinot Noir. White vintages include Savignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay. The winery also produces a variety of special wines, as well.

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ZD Wines
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Created by two aerospace engineers who turned their interest to wine making, ZD Wines has a family history three generations strong in Napa Valley. The deLeuze family offers a number of ways for visitors to add ZD Wines to their Napa itinerary. Along with tasting, guests have the opportunity to learn about farming and the art of wine making. A variety of tours are offered by appointment.

The Eco Vineyard Tour and Wine Tasting offers an education about organic farming and includes a walk through the organically certified Estate Cabernet Vineyard. It also includes a wine tasting paired with a selection of artisan cheeses. If you’re more interested in what’s happening inside winery walls, the Cellar Tour includes a private tour of the cellar and barrel tastings.

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Sonoma Valley Wine Trolley
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Looking for a twist on tasting your way through wine country? How about rolling through Sonoma Valley on an authentic replica of a late 1890s San Francisco cable car? No need for a designated driver or fighting to climb in and out of a limousine. Everyone has a window seat aboard the Sonoma Valley Wine Trolley. The vintage, open-air design makes taking in all the vineyard views easy.

The tour departs daily at 10:30am from Sonoma Plaza, in front of City Hall. A friendly and knowledgeable tour guide provides background and wine country tidbits as you make your way to four premium wineries. The wineries can vary, but include recognizable names like BR Cohn, Benziger, Imagery Estate, Kunde and Paradise Ridge. A catered lunch from a local favorite, The Girl & The Fig restaurant, is also included with the tour.

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Yountville
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Located a quick and easy 15 minutes north of Napa, Yountville is a fun addition to any wine country vacation must-do list. It’s the type of place where you don’t necessarily need to have a plan. Park the car when you arrive and wander down Washington Street. There are numerous tasting rooms to choose from including Jessup Cellars and Girard Napa Valley.

If only bubbly will do, it’s just a quick ride to Domain Chandon. Tours and tastings are offered regularly. Yountville is also a tasty place to be when hunger strikes. The list of gourmet restaurants is long; Ad Hoc Restaurant, Bistro Jeanty, Bouchon Bistro, and Bouchon Bakery. Then there’s The French Laundry, known around the world for its amazing food and hard-to-get reservations. The Town of Yountville gets its name from founding father George C. Yount, the first person to plant grapes in the area.

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Viansa Sonoma Winery
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You’ll enjoy the views as much as the wine at Sonoma County’s Viansa Winery & Marketplace.

Viansa produces a variety of wines including Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. In addition to these well know wines, they also produce traditional Italian varietals. What makes a visit to Viansa particularly unique is the view that comes with its location. Of course they have grapes, but perched atop a hill, the Winery & Marketplace looks down over 113 acres of natural wetlands. When the winery assumed stewardship, the wetlands had been converted for grazing. Now restored, over 500 species of birds have been seen and as many as a thousand waterfowl have been counted in a single day. Visitors could see canvasback ducks, great blue herons, Canadian geese and a number of other birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway.

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Castello di Amorosa
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You can’t miss the faux-Tuscan towers of Castello di Amorosa, a 121,000-square-foot (11,200-square-meter) stone castle that resembles a medieval European castle. In the eight-level structure, you can tour wine dungeons, peak inside caves, visit a torture chamber, and occasionally catch jousting matches.

But the real reason you’re here, apart from the site of the impressive structure, is to taste the wines. Castello di Amorosa produces a variety of wines, including Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet, Sangiovese, Gewurztraminer, and special reserve wines. The winery offers a variety of tastings, including those that pair wine with food and wine with chocolate. You can also enrich your knowledge of wine by taking one of the classes offered.

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More Things to Do in Napa & Sonoma

Russian River

Russian River

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California's Russian River is one of the largest in the San Francisco Bay Area, starting in Mendocino County and cutting through Sonoma County on its way to the ocean.

The entire Russian River runs more than 110 miles from its source to the Pacific Ocean, and much of the area is popular as a tourist destination. Towns like Healdsburg, Cloverdale, Santa Rosa, Geyserville, Sebastopol, Jenner and Bodega Bay are all draws for outdoor recreation, fine dining and winery visits. The river itself is great for canoeing, swimming, and fishing from spring through fall. In the beautiful countryside on either side of the river you can go horseback riding, hiking, camping or golfing. The Russian River Valley is famous for its wineries, known for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – and that thriving wine culture brings with it a thriving food culture. You can take wine tasting tours in the area, and cap them off with excellent meals in nearly any town throughout the Russian River Valley.

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Jacuzzi Family Vineyards

Jacuzzi Family Vineyards

23 Tours and Activities

Jacuzzi Family Vineyards have been run by the same family for generations, ever since owner Fred Cline spent time with his grandfather in vineyards in his late childhood. Its heritage wines are highly influenced by the culture and wines of Italy, and the property itself has a beautiful courtyard and an Italian stone villa filled with elegant Italian art, fountains, and handmade furnishings. The barrel room has vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows, adding to its elegant atmosphere. The Jacuzzi family makes a variety of Italian varietals, including Pinot Grigio, Barbera, and Sangiovese. An olive oil press and balsamic vinegar tastings round out the experience.

Uniquely, the winemakers do not use any synthetic pesticides on the vineyards. Efforts for sustainable winemaking practices are essential to the process. They’re generous with tastings of both the foods and wine made here, including their specialty: a chocolate cup filled with Pinot Noir.

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Larson Family Winery

Larson Family Winery

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Folks at Larson Family Winery like to have fun, and it shows from the minute you turn down the long driveway. If you’re traveling with kids or just consider yourself a kid at heart, this winery is a must-visit when in the Carneros region of Sonoma County wine country.

Visitors are encouraged to taste and play here. Just outside the barn turned tasting room is an open space overlooking the winery’s Estate Chardonnay Vineyards where you can play bocce ball, horseshoes and an assortment of lawn games like ladder golf or corn hole. There’s also a large field perfect for a game of catch or showing off some soccer skills. Pack a picnic, as tables are available. Dogs are welcome and are a common sight, so you’ll regret it if you decide to leave your pooch at home.

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Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards

Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards

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If you like your tasting glass to sparkle, save time in your wine country itinerary for a visit to Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards. Located in the Carneros region of Sonoma County Wine County, Gloria Ferrer was the first sparkling wine house to plant roots in the area back in the early 1980s. Most of the 335-acre estate is dedicated to Pinot Noir.

Guests have a number of options depending on how much time they have to sip. Daily 40 minute tours present a winery history and an introduction to the traditional méthode champenoise sparkling wine-making process used at the winery. Food and wine pairing tours lasting 90 minutes are also offered by appointment. The winery’s Vista Terrace comes with photo-worthy wine country views. On a sunny day, it’s the place to sip and stay awhile.

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Grgich Hills Estate

Grgich Hills Estate

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Located in the heart of Napa Valley, Grgich Hills Estate is a family-oriented winery committed to natural wine growing and sustainability with a history of excellence.

Founder and winemaker Mike Grgich is nearly as famous as his wines, thanks to his 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won the historic 1976 Judgment of Paris Tasting – thus firmly putting Napa on the map as a wine-making region to contend with (and inspiring the movie Bottle Shock). The legend himself still tours the picturesque landscape daily, so it is possible to run into the kind and spritely gentleman while on a tour of this fabulous estate.

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Benziger Family Winery

Benziger Family Winery

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In an era when wineries are fast becoming the sole dominion of large corporations, Benziger Family Winery has distinguished itself by going against the grain and sticking to its familial roots.

Known for being something of a maverick in the Napa wine region, Benziger has strengthened its roots by focusing on quality wines that are organically grown using sustainable farming practices. Family-owned for more than thirty years, Benziger took to sustainable and “green” farming practices back in the 1990’s. Almost as famous for their effective farming methods as for their delicious wines, Benziger offers tours of their “Biodynamic” vineyards via tram – thus offering more, in many ways, than other more traditional wine tours. To visit Benziger Family Winery is to peek into the unique family approach to the craft of winemaking; something that has earned them the lauded title of the 2012 Winery of the Year by Wine and Spirits Magazine.

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Domaine Chandon

Domaine Chandon

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Ensconced amid manicured gardens and a tasting room dotted with sculpture, paintings, and photography, Domaine Chandon is Napa Valley's showcase for sparkling wine. But the bubbly is not all you’ll taste; Domain Chandon also produces fine still wines, including Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Tastings are a special event at Domaine Chandon. In the Tasting Lounge - with its breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside - guests linger around the bar, a cocktail table, or shaded patio table in modern, stylish setting to taste wines by flight, glass, or bottle. The winery also has the valley's only fine-dining restaurant, which serves French-inspired meals for dinner and more casual meals for lunch. In summer, Domain Chandon extends it hours, and often hosts live music and dancing.
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V. Sattui Winery

V. Sattui Winery

8 Tours and Activities
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Sebastopol

Sebastopol

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With all the charm of a small town, Sebastopol lies peacefully in Sonoma County some 50 miles north of San Francisco. It is known for its proximity to wine and apple country, with a charming downtown area and liberal culture. Check out the quirky local art on display along Florence Avenue downtown — many of the pieces are made using recycled materials — or take a tour of a local farm. Famous horticulturist Luther Burbank once maintained massive gardens on Sebastopol land.

Small restaurants and cafes all over town serve fresh local food and wine. Tasting rooms offer the best of the region’s wine and beer, and dozens of hiking, biking, and walking trails are set against rolling hills. Sebastopol is bordered on the east by the Laguna de Santa Rosa Wetlands Preserve, providing access to the natural beauty of the area.

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Alexander Valley

Alexander Valley

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The Alexander Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is located at the north end of Sonoma County wine country and home to more than 40 wineries. Best known for cabernet sauvignon, the AVA is 22 miles long and ranges from two to seven miles wide. Of its 75,000-plus acres, more than 15,000 are used to grow grapes. Alexander Valley received federal recognition as an AVA in 1984.

The AVA has a number of microclimates. Cabernet sauvignon grapes thrive throughout the valley, but growers also have success with varieties such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, zinfandel and merlot.

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Beringer

Beringer

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St. Helena

St. Helena

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Napa Valley is chock full of charming towns worth a visit during your stay in wine country and St. Helena is one of them. There are countless wine tasting spots to choose from in St. Helena, so know when you visit that you’ll be back for more. Even if you only have a couple of hours in between wine tastings, it’s worth taking a stroll down St. Helena’s Main Street. Along with boutique style shopping you’ll find an assortment of great restaurants that offer both fine and casual dining. If a cooking class is on your wine country wish list, St. Helena is also home to a campus of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).

On weekends it’s worth making the trek a few miles north of town to the Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park. Here visitors can see the tallest waterwheel west of the Mississippi in motion, milling corn and wheat into flour, cornmeal and polenta.

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Raymond Vineyards

Raymond Vineyards

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If you’re looking for a unique Napa Valley wine tasting experience, look no further than Raymond Vineyards. Offering guests more than the typical tasting room experience, Raymond Vineyards in fact has many rooms where visitors can enjoy wine. There’s the Rutherford Room, the Red Room, and the Library Room just to name a few.

The Blending Room is where guests become "Winemaker for a Day." After blending their own red wine, guests take home a bottle of their new creation, complete with their own custom label. Raymond's estate vineyards in Rutherford and St. Helena are both certified organic and Biodynamic. All of the winery's power comes from renewable solar energy.

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HopMonk Tavern

HopMonk Tavern

2 Tours and Activities
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