The lush, hilly countryside of this region is so beautiful it’s a draw in itself, but of course, the main reason to come here is unparalleled access to world-class food and drink served in pastoral chic elegance. Whether you spend a day or a week, you’ll see that wine country is all about the Good Life—so much so that you may want to drop everything and move here to stomp grapes (trust me: I did it, except for the grape-stomping part). But before you sell off your belongings, consider the popular wine country joke that’s not a joke: You know what it takes to make a small fortune in wine country? A large fortune. The same could be true for exploring the region: Even the simplest motels are expensive, destination dining rooms can cost well upward of $100 per person when all is said and done, and wineries that used to charge $5 to $10 to taste now ask closer to $25 per person. Still, there’s fun to be had here on any budget, especially if you pace yourself and visit no more than two to three wineries in a day; picnicking is a fantastic way to dine here, and some of the sweeter, smaller boutique hotels include breakfast and plenty of snacks in their nightly fee.
Deciding Between Napa or Sonoma
Choosing which area to visit is a tough call, but the choice can be easy if you consider the strong suits of each.
If world-famous restaurants, super-luxury accommodations, vintage hot springs, and larger brand-name wineries with elaborate facilities and tours sound good to you, aim for Napa. You can stay in the town of Napa, Calistoga, or anywhere in between—getting from one end of the valley to the other takes about 40 minutes, so it really doesn’t matter. If I were you, I’d plan my accommodations around where I want to dine. Yes, you’ll need to hop in and out of the car all day while wine tasting. (Hire a car service or designate a driver; there’s no public transportation here.) But trust me: There’s nothing worse than gorging yourself silly on a memorable meal and too much wine, and then finding yourself a half-hour’s drive from your hotel.
Sonoma County, on the other hand, is more pastoral, laid back, and wholesome feeling. Here you’ll find more family-owned wineries, where the winemakers themselves are pouring the day’s drink. With charming rural roads leading to the next great wine-tasting experience, it’s less congested, more spread-out, and has the most attractive square around (in Healdsburg). You can still find luxury and hot springs here, too—famed Sonoma Mission Inn is a case in point. There are also noteworthy dining excursions and an abundance of exceptional wines. Should Sonoma be your pick, I highly recommend you choose between spending your time in Sonoma Valley (cute shopping and dining square in the town of Sonoma, and a handful of great wineries, some quite historic) or vast Northern Sonoma, with Healdsburg as its epicenter, a plethora of wonderful wine regions scattered over winding roads, with fun outdoor activities such as canoeing along the Russian River.
Maybe it’s not so easy to choose. But the good news is, you really can’t go wrong.