A random fun fact about me: I love wine.
A few years ago, Mr. AJ and I took a bus day tour to wine country while we were on a trip to San Francisco and swore we’d go back some day for the real deal. This year, we finally made it. We did four days in the Sonoma area, four days in the Napa area with two dear friends and it was honestly one of the most relaxing trips I have ever been on! Here’s a run-down on what we did, our favorite wineries, and general tips for when you’re planning a trip to wine country.
To Drink: Wineries
Del Dotto Vineyards is my #1 must-go, must-do winery. A sommelier guides you through their dimly-lit wine cave and uses a “wine thief” to draw wine directly from the barrels. Be smarter than me and don’t wear white jeans (although we made it out without incident). There’s classical music echoing throughout the cave and groups are limited to 8, so it’s a very intimate experience. And where else can you drink wine before it’s even bottled? The tour ends with a snack of delicious pizzas and charcuterie, and some of the best olive oil I have ever tasted. ($60/person)
While Sterling Vineyards is decidedly more commercial than some of the stops we made, the views are absolutely incredible. We did the Silver tour, which included an additional tasting on a terrace closed off from the general public. You take an air tram up to the top of a hill, which overlooks the vineyards. The self-guided tour reminds me a little of the Guinness Storehouse tour in Dublin, if you’ve done that. You walk through the building to different tasting stations, which ends up on a rooftop terrace with awesome views. I recommend buying another glass of your favorite and a cheese platter and spending a little time just soaking up the gorgeous weather. Bonus: You get to keep your glass, which is Riedel (that was fun to try and get home). ($55)
Iron Horse Vineyards kind of falls in between a tasting room and a winery for me. It sits high on a hill, which makes for some amazing photos. They’ve got a bar outside that you stand at for tastings - they’re known for their bubbles in particular. If the weather is gorgeous, it’s definitely worth the drive. ($25)
To Drink: Tasting Rooms
A perfect wine country day is a vineyard in the morning, followed by an afternoon of tasting rooms. We rented a car, so we’d drive out to the wineries in the morning and then return to things in walking distance for the afternoon. Plus, they’re typically only $5 or $10 for 4-5 wines, so it’s a little more economical.
Hawley Winery in Healdsburg is a dark, cozy little tasting room just off the main square. We were the only ones in there, so the guy ended up letting us try one of everything. We got lucky - a woman came in fresh from a private tasting at the vineyards with a bottle of one of their reserve wines, so we got to try that too. I loved every wine so much, I ended up joining their wine club. (FREE with wine club!)
Our group is a huge fan of Ferrari Carrano’s Fume Blanc, so we made plans to stop into their tasting room when we were in Healdsburg. It’s just a bar inside of a boutique, but we ended up staying there nearly two hours! We discovered that the fewer people in a tasting room, the more stuff they let you try. We ended up shipping $400 worth of bottles home for the group. ($10)
Archetype was just a short walk from our St. Helena BnB, so we chose that for our one “fancy” dinner out. It’s filled with cozy couches placed around large tables, with a patio area that has a fireplace. The food was absolutely delicious, too. I’d recommend making a reservation on Open Table.
When we were in St. Helena, we decided to make a patio reservation for Bravas, a cool little tapas bar. They make sangria with the oranges from their own trees, and the paella is to die for. There are heaters all over the patio - which is dog-friendly.
Since we were traveling with friends, we decided to split up for date night one night and go our separate ways. We drove down to Napa proper to check out Bounty Hunter, which my husband had seen on a YouTube video. They serve entire chickens on a beer can! It’s got a cool dive-bar kind of feel - there’s even a table where you can sit on a saddle instead of a stool.
We rented a car (convertible, highly recommend), so we decided to take it out to the coast one day. We stopped at Lucas Wharf for lunch, which is known for its seafood - they literally serve fish that they catch right outside of their door. I recommend grabbing a table by the windows, where you can see the seals swimming and playing in the water. We enjoyed watching them so much, the table was nearly silent most of the meal.
After lunch, we headed out to Goat Rock Beach to see the seal pups. There are plenty of picturesque spots along the drive to stop and get some amazing photos! We loved climbing down close to the water and seeing starfish all over the rocks - Erin took home some seaweed for a mask as well.
If you’re into nightlife, Ana’s Cantina in St. Helena was one of our favorite nights! It’s definitely a lot more locals than tourists, and karaoke night ended up being a blast. We shut down the dive bar - and Jeff made a lot of new friends with his sick dance skills.
Mud baths in Calistoga are a MUST. The Golden Haven spa was running a special, so we got a full 1.5 hour treatment for only $74 a piece! That includes the hot spring pool and spas outside, so arrive 30-45 minutes early to take advantage of that. You spend about 15-20 minutes in the mud, which is the weirdest sensation. It’s almost like you’re weightless. It’s also extremely hot, so I had a leg and an arm out at one point because I was sweating so much. After you shower off (and trust, that’s an event of its own), you spend another 15 minutes or so in a private hot spring tub. I drank almost an entire carafe of the cucumber water they gave us, I was so hot. When that’s done, you grab your robes and head to a dark, cold room to get wrapped in weighted blankets. I fell asleep. That’s about 30 minutes, and I would willingly have paid $50 for another hour in there.
Other little tips and tricks
We spent 4 days in Guerneville, 4 days in St. Helena, staying in AirBnbs in both. We bought groceries at Safeway for breakfasts and picnic lunches, which was really fun to start our day with eggs and bacon and coffee. Our first day in Healdsburg we took an elaborate charcuterie to the Oakville Grocery and bought a bottle of wine there to enjoy on their patio next to the fire. One day we took a picnic out to the park and shared a bottle we had bought at one of the wineries. Doing breakfasts and lunches like that saved us a little money, so we could splurge on dinners and bottles.
I do recommend renting a car. We got one from Turo in San Fransisco and drove it all the way out to Guerneville. Since our Bnb there was tucked away in the woods, it was almost impossible to get an Uber.
Some wineries require reservations, so check ahead of time before you drive out there. We definitely did them for Del Dotto, but found that typically Sonoma area was less picky about it than Napa was. We also found some of our favorite places by asking our bartenders what THEIR favorite wineries and restaurants were! If the locals like it, I’m definitely on board.
I’m already dreaming of planning another wine country trip for next year. What are some of your favorite recommendations?