Best wine destination in 2013: Napa Valley/Sonoma, California.
In the gentle Mayacamas Mountains, two roads (to the east, Napa’s Route 29, and, to the west, Sonoma’s Route 12) form arteries through twin fertile, geological trenches that yield the bulk of what is known as California Wine Country. Only one hour north of San Francisco, the easternmost valley, Napa, is home to the Grgich Hill Estate, Caymus Vineyards, Sterling Vineyards, and Robert Mondavi Winery. In Napa, you’ll find the relatively urban, two-square-block St. Helena near sleepy Calistoga, a Wild West holdover with sidewalks nestled under wooden shades. Calistoga is a spa town with mineral springs, a geyser, and—for the daring—mud baths. Don’t miss the picturesque, 29-mile-long Silverado Trail that runs between Napa and Calistoga. It was built in the 1850s due to flooding of the main road, and eventually used to conduct mercury-rich cinnabar from mines in Mount St. Helena to river docks in the town of Napa. The Silverado Trail’s two lanes are elevated above the valley floor to offer panoramic views of vineyards, mountains, and hidden valleys. Plus, it’s gently pitched and bike-able (if you’d like to work off some vacation calories).
Just to the west (and, for the most part, within an hour’s drive of St. Helena), Sonoma County reaches all the way to the Pacific; in fact, that’s Sonoma’s sleepy Bodega Bay in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Near the coast, you’ll find the gorgeous Flowers Vineyard & Winery and, in Sonoma’s famed Russian River Valley, the Hartford Family Winery. The other Sonoma bigwigs are Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Dehlinger Winery, Benziger Family Winery, and Kosta Browne Winery. Like Napa, Sonoma is packed with tourist-friendly amenities—spas, restaurants, shopping, and bike trails.
Stay: The Kenwood Inn and Spa is an ideal base of operations for a wine country visit. What’s unusual is that this hotel is completely geared toward adults—it offers no children’s amenities whatsoever and, daringly, no televisions in its guestrooms. Look for three tranquil, landscaped courtyards (each with its own saline pool and spa) that offer private access to plush suites and rooms outfitted with in-room fireplaces, large whirlpools, and fine imported Italian linens. As if that’s not enough, the Kenwood Inn also houses a renowned spa that specializes in “vinotherapy”—or spa services that “embrace the power of the grape” with massages and topical treatments using red wine and oils extracted from Chardonnay and Riesling seeds. Rooms start at $400 per night. (10400 Sonoma Hwy, Kenwood, CA 707-833-1293; kenwoodinn.com)
Taste: Don’t miss the huge variety of tasting and educational programs at famed Grgich Hills Estate’s rolling Napa vineyard. Programs range from casual tastings (offered under the tutelage of a wine educator) to more ambitiously pitched, intimate library tastings led by winery higher-ups. For $30, you even can shed your socks and stomp grapes. Also, the Napa Valley Wine Train (with its restored 1915 Pullman cars) stops at Grgich Hills Estate. (1829 Saint Helena Hwy, Rutherford, CA 707-253-2111; grgich.com)
Napa superstar Caymus Vineyard offers intimate tastings conducted by a wine educator. The $30 tastings take a little planning (they’re by appointment only), but, happily, the groups are kept to 10 or fewer people and they’ll even let you take the Caymus Vineyard glass away with you. (8700 Conn Creek Road, Rutherford, CA 707-963-4204; caymus.com)
Alternately, Chappellet Winery in St. Helena offers two daily (11 am and 1 pm), 90-minute tours through its beautiful Pritchard Hill vineyards. Expect to sample all the Chappellet’s current wines—plus, you’ll be able to tour its production facilities. (1581 Sage Canyon Rd, St. Helena, CA 707-963-7136; chappellet.com) If your tastes run more toward sipping than hiking, drop into the Robert Craig Tasting Salon, where $20 buys an endless parade of samples. Plus, you can do it all overlooking the pretty parkland adjoining the Napa River. The Salon’s motto is: “Come for the Cabernet, stay for the view.” (625 Imperial Way, Napa 707-252-2250; robertcraigwine.com)
Relax: Offering 535 acres of oak woodlands, evergreen forests, and riparian and chaparral ecosystems, the Bouverie Preserve (egret.org/visit_bouverie) is a perfect way to get away from it all. In spring, the Preserve offers stunning wildflower displays, and, year-round, you might spot 130 species of birds, 350 species of flowering plants, plus bobcats, grey foxes, and coyotes. Tours, conducted by volunteers, are offered every Saturday.
Eat: Of course, Chef Thomas Keller’s landmark The French Laundry (6640 Washington St, Yountville, CA 707-944-2380; frenchlaundry.com) is the mandatory Napa meal, but, here, excellent restaurants are thick on the ground. If you can’t snag a table at The French Laundry, try the more casual (and reasonably priced) Glen Ellen Star (13648 Arnold Dr, Glen Ellen, CA 707-343-1384; glenellenstar.com). It’s owned by a wine-country royal Chef Ari Weiswasser, formerly of The French Laundry, and his wife, Erinn Benziger-Weiswasser. Expect locally raised ingredients, often finished over an open fire.
Shop: Shoe collectors won’t want to miss the iconic, handmade ballet flats at Jan Niemi’s St. Helena shop, Flats. There, you’ll find her shoes in the full spectrum of colors, plus clothing, accessories, and more. (1219-B Main St, St. Helena 707-967-0480; flatsnapavalley.com)
Off the Beaten Track: If you’ve ever wanted to be lowered naked into a hot, gloopy stew of peat and volcanic ash, then hit kitschy Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort, the oldest spa in Calistoga. NB: Compared to many spas, this one is reasonably priced—but it’s not for the shy or the squeamish. (1507 Lincoln Ave, Calistoga, CA 707-942-4102; drwilkinson.com)