A visit to wine country doesn't have to be pretentious or prohibitively pricey. This week, editor Caroline Sieg joins host David Lytle for a conversation about California's Napa and Sonoma wine regions. Caroline provides tips for first-timers (start with Sonoma and then visit glitzy Napa) and overall advice on how to make this trip yours by asking questions and being ready to learn, taking in the local flavor of the regions beyond the wine, or catching a hot-air balloon ride. You'll also hear about what you can expect during each season, how to get there, ideas for accommodations and more! Raise your glass and join us for this toast to California's wine country, just in time for our new edition of Frommer's Portable California Wine Country.
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Top Tips from This Podcast
See transcript below for links to more information.
- Major Wine Country Regions: Napa and Sonoma
- Top Restaurant: French Laundry
- Visiting wineries: Ask a lot of questions
- Alternative Activities: Kayaking and Hot-air balloon ride
- When to Go: June through August; September and October
- Shopping: Boutique shops in Healdsburg and Sonoma
- When to Get Fantastic Wine Deals: January through early March
- Accommodation: Search on Craigslist for properties
- Commuting: Rent a town car or limo
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Announcer: Welcome to the frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit us at www.frommers.com.
David Lytle: Hi. Today we're going to be talking about wine country in California, and we'll be discussing this with Caroline Sieg, who is the editor of our portable wine country guide, and she's developing a new edition for our new series "The Day by Day," and it's going to be on the wine country as well. Is that right, Caroline?
Caroline Sieg: That's right. Hi, David.
David: Hi. How are you doing?
Caroline: I'm doing well. How are you?
David: Good. Long time no see. Although, we're not actually seeing each other here; we're recording remotely. I'm in San Francisco, Caroline's in New York, just so people know where we're placed at the moment. So, since I'm in San Francisco, I can say that I'm a little bit familiar with wine country. We go up occasionally on the weekends and such. You know it's just a day trip for me, and we just sneak and go to a restaurant and hit a winery, and it's hit or miss for us. We'll just do whatever looks the easiest.
But for people who've never gone to wine country in California -- first of all, what does that even mean? What is wine country in California?
Caroline: Wine country is just that. It's basically a beautiful area just north of the San Francisco bay area. It's full of bucolic landscapes and filled to the T with wineries. It's just a fantastic area to go explore. Not only wineries, but also just to take a break from city life or even just regular life and just relax in a country setting.
David: In wine country, there are two major regions in California -- there's Napa and Sonoma. In your research when you were editing this guidebook and visiting the region, what were the major differences? Why would people pick one over the other?
Caroline: Well, Napa which was the first area to really become big in California in terms of wine is really the commercial center of the area. Napa is full of very large wineries; it's a little more glitzy. It has a significant percentage of high quality, top-rated fantastic restaurants, such as the French Laundry. It's really the kind of area you go to if you want to go something like Rubicon, which was formerly known as Francis Ford Coppolla's Vineyard.
Sonoma on the other hand, while it certainly has become extremely familiar to most people who drink California wine in the last few years, Sonoma's really much quieter. It's full of a lot more family owned wineries, the pace is a little bit slower. It's less glitzy, and there simply aren't as many wineries as in Napa. There's going to be a little more of the very pretty landscapes and nice little country drives throughout farmland and things like that.
David: That sounds nice. So, would you think for a first timer it's better to go to Napa or go to Sonoma, or does it really not make a difference?
Caroline: I think for a first time Napa and Sonoma visitor, they should probably visit both, but they should choose Sonoma for their first day. I say Sonoma because, again, you're going to have these small, family owned wineries and they're just going to be more accessible. It's going to make someone who doesn't have that much experience with wine feel more comfortable. But I certainly think then they should spend the next day tooling around Napa.
David: So, you would say these are all accessible by car as well.
David: You would say it's very easy to get around, which actually does bring up a question. You're drinking, yet you're in an area where you're going to have to drive around from place to place. What can people do about that? How can you go from winery to winery without drinking and driving?
Caroline: Well, I highly recommend if you're there with a group of people to rent a town car or a limo. Obviously a limo if you're six people or more. It's just a great way to get around.
David: That sounds fairly expensive.
Caroline: For a town car, you're going to spend around $100 a day, and by a day, I mean about four to six hours depending on your route.
David: In a group of people, that's actually very affordable.
Caroline: Exactly. And not only that, you're putting your itinerary in the hands of someone local. You can either ask them for recommendations or you can say, "Hey, I'd really like visit these three wineries and then perhaps two others that you might recommend," and they'll drive you around. They know where they're going. You can spend as much time at each winery as you'd like, and you're going to have fun being chauffeured around the wine country.
David: Sure, absolutely. Feel a little swanky for the day.
Caroline: Which is what the wine country is all about is really pampering yourself.
David: What if people are interested in wine, but they feel like they're novices. I know that it can be intimidating. I'm often intimidated when I'm trying to pick a wine off of a fairly large wine menu or wine list. So people that are going up here that are curious about wines, maybe they only know that there's red and white, but they don't know much beyond that.
How do they approach this? Where do they get some information while they're there so that they're not feeling cowed in going around and knowing that they're getting good information?
Caroline: Well, what I recommend is to definitely choose a small winery first. What you'll do is you find a winery that you like the sound of and when you walk in, try to find a winery that doesn't look too busy, and start asking questions. Most people who are going to pour your taste are going to be passionate about wine, interested in wine, and they're going to be more than happy to explain all the little details that surround wine tasting.
For example why you swirl, and why you swirl it in the glass and then smell the wine, and how you taste it, and what the different grapes mean. That's really the best way to learn. To not feel afraid to ask is really one of the biggest things to remember because wine is all about learning. You're constantly learning. If anyone claims to say they know everything about wine, that's simply not true. It's a continual learning process, and you learn by tasting. It's fun and enjoyable. And it doesn't need to be pretentious.
David: It doesn't need to be pretentious. I think you're right on that. You brought up a good point earlier in your comment where you said pick someplace that doesn't look busy. I know from my few experiences that it's a good idea to get a very early start.
David: If you go earlier in the day, the crowds are less. The staff at any of the wineries, they're going to be fresh.
Caroline: And you shouldn't feel bad about going wine tasting at 10 AM. That's what you do in the wine country.
David: Right, exactly. I think it's important for people to know that if you're wine tasting, you actually don't have to swallow it. You can do the taste, and you can spit it out in the bucket.
Caroline: Not only that, you don't even have to, if your tastes are fairly large, which sometimes they're going to be quite generous. You taste a little bit of it, and then you pour the rest out if you don't feel comfortable spitting. Again, you should do whatever feels comfortable to you, while still making sure that you're obviously not drinking too much and getting back in your car.
David: Right. You can. If you're drinking too much, you get to the point that they all start tasting the same as well.
David: And that defeats the purpose.
David: But say you have a friend who is really into wine. She's really into wine, and you're just along for the ride, but you're not really interested in spending your whole day drinking. What can they do? What is there in this part of the state to do, other than drinking wine?
Caroline: Right. Well, if you like outdoor activities, I highly recommend not only picking up our book, but exploring some of the great hiking opportunities in the area. By hikes, I don't mean something that's going to break your back or that's eight hours long. You can literally just go for a two-three hour hike or maybe even an hour long hike all throughout the area. It's pleasant; it's enjoyable. You get outside, and you really enjoy the atmosphere and just the mellow quality of the area.
Another thing you can do -- again, if you're into outdoor activities -- is go kayaking. You can also go for a hot-air balloon ride, which is something that's very popular in the area. With something like a hot-air balloon ride, you need a back-up plan because it's often canceled because of the weather.
Now, that leads into the next thing I was going to recommend, which is if hiking and kayaking is not your cup of tea, there's an abundant amount of shopping. There are significant amounts of outlet malls. Not only that, a lot of boutiques have set up shops in some of the smaller towns such as Healdsburg and Sonoma, so you can do a little bit of that. Additionally, there are a lot of spas in the area. Napa and Sonoma are filled with fantastic resorts, and they all offer spa services, whether you stay there or not.
David: When do you think is the best time of year to go?
Caroline: That's a tough question. I would say the top season is probably September and October. That's known as the crush; it's basically harvest season, and it's when the grapes are being crushed. The vines are full of grapes, and everything's in full production, and there's a certain energy in the air that simply doesn't exist any time of year -- lots of festivals surrounding it. You really get to see the wineries make the wine. It's really pretty fantastic.
Of course, because it's one of the most popular times of year, it's also one of the most expensive times of the year to go up there, and it's going to be pretty crowded, especially on the weekends.
David: Are there ways to not hit it at high season, or are there days of the week that are better to go than others, that alleviate some of that pressure of crowds?
Caroline: Yeah, definitely. If you really want to visit during the crush season, then I highly recommend visiting during the week. While it's still going to be busy and there's still going to be a lot of stuff going on, it's really pretty concentrated on the weekends.
If you are able to go outside of that season, I'd recommend either the summer -- which, again, is going to be quite busy, but it's going to be nice and warm, which is a great way to enjoy the wine country; you can picnic and really enjoy everything it has to offer.
Another great time to visit would be early spring. All the mustard flowers are in bloom; you've got some really good deals, still, because they're going into the busy season. That's a really great time to go and not freeze to death, but still get some really good deals, even on the weekends.
David: Right. And I guess, even if you're going in the wintertime, you can taste wine any day of the week, really. So once you're in the building, it doesn't matter what the weather's like outside.
Caroline: Absolutely. Well, the winter is known as being probably the rainiest and the coldest season. That said, it's also the low season, and you're going to get fantastic deals in January and February, and even early March. The vines are definitely going to be empty this time of year, but at the same time, because it's the rainy season, you're going to get really lush, green rolling hills all over.
Not only that, you're going to have Napa and Sonoma pretty much to yourself, which is pretty cool. Most of the restaurants are still open this time of year, so you might be able to get into some places without a reservation; that wouldn't necessarily be the case in the summer. Not only that, you're really going to be able to enjoy it and chat with the locals, hang out.
David: Always a better way to travel, if you actually get some leisure time to talk to a winemaker. So if people are going in the wintertime, if they're going in what is truly the off-season, will some of the tasting rooms be closed? Will they reduce their hours?
Caroline: Some of them will reduce the hours, but usually most of them are open seven days a week. Perhaps they'll close at four rather than five or six, as in the summer.
David: That's good information to know. There's nothing worse than going on a vacation and having your heart set on an activity, only to find out that once you're there, it's not available at the time that you had hoped for. Always check ahead.
Caroline: Yeah. I do recommend, however, if you really want to take a tour, those tours that are available daily during the summer are often only available by appointment in the winter. If you want to take a tour of your favorite winery, just call ahead and make sure.
David: Well, that's good to know. Where do you suggest that people stay?
Caroline: I think you should decide what kind of vacation you want. If you would like to be in a place like Napa, which is essentially a small town, and you want to be within walking distance of several restaurants, that's a pretty good option. If you are on a budget, I highly recommend trying to stay at one of the local B and B's, because, quite frankly, one of your meals is going to be taken care of already.
So I think you should really decide what your budget is, and take a look at all the different lodging options there. I mean, in addition to staying in a B and B, or even a hotel, in Napa or outside of Napa; you also might, if you have a little bit of extra time, then you might have the option of renting a house in the area, which is a real economical way to go about it.
David: So people could find, probably -- obviously through Craigslist, now, anybody can go to Craigslist and find properties almost anywhere.
David: But is there any sort of online resource other than Craigslist where somebody could go, just to find listings of properties that would be available?
Caroline: You basically just Google the Napa Tourist Board or the Sonoma Tourist Board. I highly recommend going to those sites, and they will have links to local places where you can inquire about renting a house. They change quite frequently.
David: That's smart, and it's always nice to -- sometimes, if you're renting a residence, you get privacy that you don't get otherwise, if you're staying in a B and B or a hotel. B and B's, you know, they're not always for everybody. You have to realize, if you're staying at a B and B, that you are staying in somebody's house. You're going to be living with the personality of the B and B owner as well, so you have to be open to that.
Caroline: That's correct. And you should also realize that there are also some hotels that are going to have kind of a small-town feel in the area, but at the same time, you're not going to have that feeling of being at a B and B. There are hotels that are, perhaps, in renovated houses, or they sort of have a more country feel to them.
David: That's great. Now, is it pretty easy to get there? I mean, you can just drive, right? What's the best way to get to this part of the country?
Caroline: Well, you're definitely going to need a car for the area. Your best bet is to fly into one of the local airports; you actually have about three to choose from. I recommend either Oakland or San Francisco International Airport; they get the most traffic, and they're about 45 miles south of the Napa and Sonoma area.
Another option, actually, is Sacramento, which is a little further away; it's about 60 to 70 miles west of the area. But that's also a great alternative, for example, if you're flying JetBlue or Southwest, because they all serve Sacramento.
David: When you were there last, was there anything surprising that caught your eye? You were really surprised when you did this activity, or what was your favorite moment?
Caroline: One surprising element of my last visit was how popular northern Sonoma is becoming. Sonoma is -- basically, there's the regular Sonoma Valley, and then there's the northern part that kind of butts up against Mendocino County.
Two years ago, when I was there, it was sort of this unknown region; no one really ever ventured to this area, or at least few visitors did. It's actually home to the Alexander Valley and the Russian River Valley. So I was quite surprised to see that it's obviously on people's radar, and I was happy to see that, because we actually added a chapter on northern Sonoma to our book for the most recent addition.
David: Oh, really?
Caroline: Yeah, and it's just one of my favorite areas, and I was glad to see that it's finally getting a little bit of recognition, while still retaining the qualities that make it so popular, which is basically just off the beaten path. There are a lot of boutique wineries with winemakers that really just want to sit and chat with you, and hang out, and just really enjoy Sonoma for what it is and what it always has been, which is a beautiful location to make wine.
David: So, really, you could say that northern Sonoma right now is a hidden little gem in wine country, and we probably should get there sooner rather than later, because we know how it goes; we start talking about a destination, and very soon it develops. It's the unfortunate effect of publishing information. As soon as you talk about it, it starts changing.
Caroline: [laughs] Absolutely. Yes, it's definitely best to go now.
David: Thanks for talking. Did you have anything else you wanted to say today?
Caroline: No, I think that's it.
David: OK. Well, thanks a lot, Caroline.
Caroline: Thanks a lot, David.
David: Talk to you soon.
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