When you think of California wine country, you’re probably envisioning Napa Valley and Sonoma County. The rolling hills covered in grapevines and wildflowers, fertile countryside, tinkling glasses filled with Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon—it’s almost cliché. We’ve seen it in movies and eaten dishes that originated here, and an entire lifestyle brand has been based on the smells, tastes and aesthetic. Napa is sometimes known as the stauncher sibling to the more laid-back Sonoma County, although that’s changing with a wave of new wineries, hotels, and restaurants.
While wildfires and floods have left a trail of destruction on the area over the last year, both Sonoma and Napa are getting back on their feet, just in time for the summer travel season. The festival circuit kicks into gear now through fall with music and film festivals, charity wine auctions, hot air balloons, and food fairs straight into harvest season, so it’s a particularly gorgeous time to visit. It’s an easy drive from San Francisco or Oakland airports, or fly directly into Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport in Sonoma County (new direct flights from LAX happen daily).
The towns that connect Napa Valley—Napa proper along with Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga—are all filled with gorgeous resorts, charming bed and breakfasts, rustic inns, restaurants big and small and wineries at every turn. Classics include some of the biggest names out there: The French Laundry, Opus One, Auberge du Soleil, Caymus, Stag’s Leap, Meadowood, and Mondavi. But there are some new kids (literally) on the block making waves and trying to attract a new generation of sippers.
Ashes & Diamonds’ light-filled, mid-century-modern vibe—a stunning zigzag roof with pops of bright turquoise and yellow, low-slung furniture and hip soundtrack—feels more Palm Springs than Napa. The wines are bright, acidic, fruit-forward and lower in alcohol (the Blanc №2, a sauvignon blanc and sémillon blend, is zesty), and food ranges from à la carte snacks to a multi-course menu tasting. The dark and industrial-chic Prisoner Wine Company matches its brooding red blends. The new facility features a tasting lounge and outdoor garden, plus The Makery, a private wine-tasting gallery featuring local artists and craftspeople. One of Napa’s most historic properties, Clos du Val, has updated its look, now with sitting areas that are more akin to living-room sitting with friends than stuffy tastings. The super unique Tank Garage Winery is set inside a former service station complete with vintage gas tanks out front and roll-up windows for open-air sipping. Tip: Tastings range from $50-$200 per person, and most wineries require an appointment or reservation; check the website and plan accordingly.
Choosing where to stay in the valley depends on what you’re looking for: small and intimate inns, luxury resorts or simple and sensible hotels. The very new Vista Collina features well-appointed rooms, a heated outdoor pool and nine tasting rooms on the property. At its sibling Meritage Resort and Spa across the street, you’ll find restaurants and a spa and bowling alley—it’s almost as if they didn’t want you to leave. Vista Collina suites have full kitchens and cool Hestan Cue cooking technology, making them great for families or groups. Hip new hotels like the Archer and Andaz are part of a resurgence happening in downtown Napa. Both are near the First Street Napa complex with its fab boutiques, restaurants, and wine bars.
When it comes to dining, La Calenda in Yountville has been the talk of the town. From the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group (and a stone’s throw from the iconic Bouchon and The French Laundry), the Oaxacan-leaning menu features moles, tacos on handmade tortillas, soulful stews, mescal cocktails and pitchers of margaritas. It’s super casual, and the queso fundido should not be missed. Downtown, Compline restaurant, bar, and marketplace goes beyond Napa and Sonoma with its global wine list, offering a number of eclectic wines on tap. Of course, if you ever just want a burger and a shake, Gott’s Roadside is an absolute must.
Sonoma County is rich in history and legend, picturesque small towns and landscapes and scenic vineyards. It’s more spread out and varied than Napa—the county stretches from the coastal towns of Bodega Bay and Jenner to Healdsburg, Glen Ellen, Sebastopol, and Sonoma proper more inland—making it a bit more time consuming to navigate. But it’s also why Sonoma is less populated, even during the busiest season. Always more laid-back, there’s a contemporary revival coming to the region.
A new generation of winemakers at places like Scribe Winery in Sonoma, Kivelstadt Cellars in Glen Ellen and Red Car Wine in Sebastopol is attracting young sipsters. Unique varietals and modern techniques, wines on tap and tasting rooms that range from relaxed to downright quirky make these all favorites (very Instagrammable, too). When in Healdsburg, don’t miss Lioco Wine Company’s super-drinkable low-alcohol wines accompanied by a killer vinyl collection.
In Healdsburg, the recently opened Harmon Guest House joins sister properties H2 (cool, eco-friendly with a fantastic succulent-lined roof) and posh Hotel Healdsburg (traditional wine country aesthetic, relaxing pool and spa). The new 39-room hotel is full of reclaimed redwood, natural materials, locally created art, and lush courtyards. After a massive redesign that includes earth tones, natural accents and a rustic-chic look, the Hyatt Regency in Santa Rosa has added more rooms plus six suites for even more room to spread out. Single Thread Farms features five suites, an intimate dining room and a farm that supplies most of the produce, herbs, flowers, honey, eggs and olive oil to the kitchen.
For something a little different, Dominique Crenn, one of San Francisco’s (and the country’s) most talented chefs, hosts summer afternoon picnics at her Bleu Belle Farm, which supplies her restaurants Atelier Crenn, Petit Crenn and Bar Crenn. The day includes wines, appetizers, and lunch, plus yard games and more. Reservations are required well in advance. Should the need for fried chicken, mile-high biscuits and homemade pies strike, Boxcar Fried Chicken & Biscuits awaits in Sonoma. The very cool Barlow complex, which opened in 2013, suffered severe flood damage earlier this year. Thankfully, some of the tenants have reopened and are ready to rock through the summer season, including Fern Bar, Pax Wines, and Spirit Works Distillery.