The charming town of St. Helena, California.
Brian Baer

Charming Towns of Northern California's Wine Country

Northern California's wine country is much more than vineyards and rambling country roads. Here's how to experience the region's most charming town squares and thriving communities, many of which have raised hospitality to an art form.

When to Go: Harvest season spans September and October, so plan to visit during those months to see the vines heavy with grapes and the wineries whirring at production pace -- but expect to face crowds, pay high prices, and for your first-choice hotels and restaurants to be booked. For better availability (but iffy weather and scenery that's less lush), arrive between November and March. By spring, the tourist influx starts to thicken again, thanks in part to the profuse mustard bloom.

Photo Caption: The charming town of St. Helena, California
Oxbow Public Market in Napa, California.
Town Highlights: The riverfront Historic Napa Mill building dates back to the 1880s, when it operated as a grain mill (the old tin silos are still attached). It's now a gourmet shopping center and the home of the endearing Napa River Inn. Look for the mosaic fountain depicting scenes of Napa's colorful history. Other food-filled retail complexes include the newer Oxbow Public Market (plenty of artisan bites and wines) and the Napa Town Center, where a pedestrian street connects antique buildings -- you'll know it by its two massive oak trees.

Best Nearby Wineries: French-owned Clos du Val is known for its cabernet and pinot noir, both of which you can sample in the rustic tasting room (tastings start at $15, a fee that's waived if you buy a bottle). Outside, there's a rose garden, a petanque court, and two picnic areas. Less than 2 miles away on the Silverado Trail, impressive Darioush has a different feel: Its namesake and founder, Darioush Khaledi, is from Iran's Shiraz region, so the grand Greco architecture here is inspired by the ancient Persian city of Persepolis. Tastings of Darioush's strong Bordeaux-style wines start at $18, though a private tasting-and-cheese-pairing tour costs $60.

Unforgettable Meal: Michelin-starred La Toque, in the Westin Verasa, gets lots of attention for its French-American cuisine: Wine Spectator called it one of America's best restaurants. Chef Ken Frank uses organic ingredients in inventive dishes such as the Japanese hamachi salad, or the seasonal ravioli in a Parmesan wild-mushroom broth -- and do go for the recommended wine pairing. If you're a mushroom fan, try the truffle menu.

Where to Splurge: The Cottages of Napa Valley, once a rundown 1929 motel, now epitomize country chic. Each freestanding unit features a fireplace, a jacuzzi tub, and a back porch. Rates start at $305 per night, a price that includes a delivered-to-your-door breakfast from Bouchon.

Where to Save: Napa's Embassy Suites isn't your typical chain hotel. Sure, it has the brand's signature cooked-to-order breakfast and evening happy hour included in the price (nightly rates start at $179), but it also has a swan pond, a wooden mill, and a courtyard to remind you that you're in wine country.

Photo Caption: Oxbow Public Market in Napa, California
Downtown in Sonoma, California.
Town Highlights: The town of Sonoma is what the whole county is named after. The plaza's crowning jewel is Mission San Francisco Solano (also called Sonoma Mission), Mexico's last and northernmost outpost in California. Take the time to appreciate the town's deep historical roots, but also enjoy the plaza's duck-and-geese-filled ponds, whimsical shops, and excellent restaurants.

Best Nearby Wineries: Sonoma is more laid-back than Napa, a fact that's evident at wineries like Gundlach Bunschu. Its cavernous tasting room rocks lively music while fun-loving staffers pour delicious reds (tastings cost $10). A tour ($20) gets you into the caves and vineyard. Bring lunch; GB's picnic grounds overlook the valley. Ravenswood, another family-owned winery, has no wimpy wines -- a cheeky slogan that's a tipoff to its bold zins. Tours ($15) include the vineyards and barrel-tasting in the cellar. Otherwise, tastings start at $10.

Unforgettable Meal: Restaurateur extraordinaire Sondra Bernstein's signature eatery, the girl and the fig, is a cozy place on the plaza that serves imaginative French food. Perennial favorites here include the fig-and-arugula salad and the duck confit. Fans of alfresco dining eat in the garden, while cheese lovers appreciate the salon du fromage.

Where to Splurge: A few blocks off the plaza is an inviting complex called MacArthur Place (from $375 per room per night, with breakfast). Amenities include a welcome glass of wine, a DVD library, a life-sized chess set, and a gray cat named Arthur in the reception area.

Where to Save: For a less expensive option, consider El Dorado Hotel (from $165 per room per night), which is right on Sonoma Plaza. Its small, sunny rooms each feature four-poster beds and a balcony or patio. There's a heated lap pool, plus a hip restaurant -- El Dorado Kitchen -- that serves great food. The menu changes weekly, but popular staples include the truffle fries and the peach-jalapeno martini. Hotel guests can dine by the pool for lunch and have dinner in the poolside courtyard.

Photo Caption: Downtown in Sonoma, California
Evening at Bardessono Hotel in Yountville, California.
Town Highlights: Things to see here include the upscale swap meet that is V Marketplace, the art galleries of Beard Plaza, and Thomas Keller's meticulous garden of ingredients, which you can admire from the sidewalk. But if we're being honest, this town is all about the restaurants. The big names include Bistro Jeanty, Bottega, Bouchon, Brix, Hurley's, Lucy, Mustards, Redd -- and a little place called French Laundry.

Best Nearby Wineries: Domaine Chandon has been owned by French champagne house Moët et Chandon since its 1973 opening, and it turns out only sparkling wine (tours start at $12). Pair your bubbly with food at the winery's upscale Etoile restaurant, where you can dine outdoors if the weather agrees. If you're more in the mood for Bordeaux-focused varietals, head to Cliff Lede Vineyards, a winery known for its reds as much as its art: Gardens and a gallery display the works of modern masters like Keith Haring and Jim Dine. Tastings cost $20.

Unforgettable Meal: There's no question that a meal at Thomas Keller's French Laundry is the most exquisite dining experience you can have in California -- maybe even in the whole United States. If you can't stomach a $270-per-person tab (excluding wine), head down the street to Bistro Jeanty instead. It's a delightfully French restaurant with jovial service and delectable food options that include the signature crême de tomate en croute (a puff-pastry-topped tomato-cream soup) and crème brûlée for dessert.

Where to Splurge: Bardessono (from $550 per room per night, with a basic pastry-and-coffee breakfast) is California's only hotel to have earned LEED Platinum certification for its many efforts toward sustainability. Dine at the on-site restaurant, Lucy, where ingredients are plucked from the hotel's own garden and the pasta is made in-house. Be sure to check out the rooftop pool.

Where to Save: A slightly more affordable option (from $315 per night) is North Block Hotel, where most of the 20 posh guestrooms open directly onto a courtyard (think Tuscany meets Melrose Place). The adjoining restaurant, Redd Wood, is fun and more casual than Redd, its parent restaurant up the street. Try one of its pizza creations, like the one topped with ricotta, bacon, white corn, basil, and chili flakes.

Photo Caption: Evening at Bardessono Hotel in Yountville, California
The Jordan Winery in Healdsburg, California.
Brian Baer
Town Highlights: Healdsburg comes up as many travelers' favorite wine country town because it has everything a getaway destination should: fancy hotels, world-class restaurants, unique shops, and a collection of tasting rooms representing the best local wineries. Even with all those big-money attractions, Healdsburg manages to stick to its friendly -- and sometimes quirky -- small-town personality. Don't miss the twice-weekly organic farmers' market or the interesting (really, it is) Hand Fan Museum.

Best Nearby Wineries: Stryker's tasting room has floor-to-ceiling windows, the better by which to see one of Sonoma's prettiest vineyards. This modern winery invites guests to take free self-guided tours, or to taste the excellent reds (tastings cost $10). For refined opulence, head to oil magnate Tom Jordan's Jordan Vineyard & Winery, whose serious tour ($30) doesn't cover all 1,500 acres but does show off the fermentation room, stainless-steel tanks, and the vine-covered chateau. Jordan's $20 tasting includes not just sips of the cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay but also tastes of cheeses and olive oils. If you're still hungry after that, picnic under the patio's oak trees.

Unforgettable Meal: Dinner at Barndiva is an experience you'll remember for years. The restaurant looks like a cross between a country farmhouse and an edgy modern-art gallery. Chef Ryan Fancher is a French Laundry alum, so the culinary standards here are high: He uses only local, seasonal ingredients in his colorful farm-to-table concoctions. If the weather allows, dine out back in the string-lit courtyard and order Fancher's signature creations, like the cauliflower velouté or the chévre croquettes with lavender honey.

Where to Splurge:
Gracious service awaits amid the old-European luxury of Hotel Les Mars (from $500 per night, including breakfast). Everything about this Relais & Chateaux property is refined: Its 16 rooms feature lavish details like Louis XV armoires, four-poster beds, and Bain Ultra soaking tubs. Foodies will enjoy the nightly wine-and-cheese tastings in the library.

Where to Save: Enjoy your room's private patio or balcony at the eco-oriented h2hotel (from $265 per night), where the bamboo floors are a refreshing change from hotel carpets. On-site Spoonbar rocks 'til late, serving up cocktails made with edible flowers or organic herbs.

Photo Caption: The Jordan Winery in Healdsburg, California
Walking down Main Street in St. Helena, California.
Brian Baer
St. Helena
Town Highlights: The main thing to do in St. Helena (say "Hel-een-uh") is to browse the boutiques, galleries, and showrooms on Main Street. Up the road is the Culinary Institute of America, a castle-like building that's sure to remind you of Hogwarts. Its massive store is stocked with any type of culinary tool or book you could ever need, and its fine-dining facility, Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant, lets you watch as chefs prepare your small plates.

Best Nearby Wineries: In 1876, German brothers Jacob and Frederick Beringer established what's now the oldest continually operating winery in Napa Valley (they kept it open during Prohibition by cranking out sacramentals). Tours start at $25; tastings at $20 -- the cabernet sauvignon stands out. Nearby is the mission-style Robert Mondavi Winery, another Napa heavyweight. Robert Mondavi pioneered the concept of public tastings, and now his namesake winery boasts three tasting rooms in which you can sample a fume blanc (Mondavi coined the term) or a reserve cabernet. Also on offer: an array of tours, rotating art exhibits, and summer concerts. Tours and tastings start at $15 each.

Unforgettable Meal: Tra Vigne is a local favorite, in part for its pretty courtyard (though there's a huge indoor dining room too) and Italian food -- favorites include the mozzarella "al minuto" (so named because it's made the minute it's ordered) and the sage-infused pappardelle. An adjoining "cantinetta" offers sandwiches and lighter meals.

Where to Splurge: If you're a fan of Relais & Chateaux properties, opt for Auberge du Soleil, whose striking interior décor is contemporary Spanish-Mediterranean in style. Upscale rooms feature oversized beds, outdoor terraces, and flatscreen TVs. Highlights include the spa and eponymous restaurant, as well as the outdoor art gallery. Nightly rates start at $600.

Where to Save: Most of the rooms at Harvest Inn (from $319 per night, including breakfast and wine) come with cozy fireplaces. You can book a massage in one of four private treatments rooms, or plan to reserve the cabana at least one week in advance for an alfresco massage experience. After a day of wine tasting, relax in one of the two heated swimming pools, both of which stay open year-round. Tip: Consider upgrading to a suite with a private terrace overlooking Whitehall Lane's Leonardini Vineyard.

Photo Caption: Walking down Main Street in St. Helena, California
The Old Faithful Geyser in Calistoga, California.
Town Highlights: Calistoga is an Old Western-style town with a California twist. Most of its sights are on or just off its main street (Lincoln Ave.), including the railroad depot that now functions as a quirky little shopping center. Also on the main drag is Dr. Wilkinson's -- one of Calistoga's many hot-spring resorts, where you can detoxify in a volcanic-ash mudbath. At a bit of a distance from the town itself is the Old Faithful Geyser, which shoots a plume of hot water 60 feet high every 30 minutes.

Best Nearby Wineries: Schramsberg Vineyards specializes in sparkling wines so good that U.S. presidents serve them to foreign dignitaries. Take the tour to see the hand-carved champagne caves and the sit-down tasting room, where you can try the brut rose and other vintages ($45 buys a guided tour and tasting). Also nearby is Chateau Montelena, which really is a chateau, complete with a stone castle built in 1882. The tour starts with a video, goes through the vineyard and cellar, and ends up in the Estate Room for a reserve tasting ($30). Or just head upstairs to the cavernous main tasting room to sample the chardonnay, cabernet, and Riesling (sips start at $20).

Unforgettable Meal: Inside Mount View Hotel is JoLe, run by Matt and Sonjia Spector. The husband-and-wife team's New American cuisine incorporates local, organic ingredients and comes served as small bites with huge flavor. The Spectors also offer an interesting selection of small-producer wines.

Where to Splurge: Elegant Calistoga Ranch, operated by the prestigious Auberge brand, is a quiet, airy property amid the pines. Its earthy-modern décor extends into guests' freestanding (and pet-friendly) lodges. Services include a high-end restaurant and spa; rooms start at $825 per night.

Where to Save: Stevenson Manor, a 34-unit Best Western near town, offers nightly rates from $139, with breakfast. For that small price, enjoy big rooms with either a fireplace, a kitchenette, or a balcony. Amenities include a pool, a hot tub, a sauna, and a steam room.

Photo Caption: The Old Faithful Geyser in Calistoga, California
Sheep grazing at the Benzinger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, California.
Brian Baer
Glen Ellen
Town Highlights: Small and sweet, Glen Ellen is a bit different than other wine country cities in that it doesn't have a truly defined downtown -- it's comprised mostly of woodsy scenery and lovely byways. Also, the people (there aren't too many) of this unincorporated village are still slightly obsessed with a prolific former resident: Jack London. There's much that bears his name here, from the Jack London Lodge to Jack London State Historic Park, where you can visit his gravesite.

Best Nearby Wineries: The best part of Benziger Family Winery is the 45-minute tractor-drawn tram tour ($15) of its hilly vineyards. There's also a peacock aviary, rose gardens, and the educational Vineyard Discovery Center. Bring lunch to enjoy the picnic grounds, and $10 to taste the wines in the German-style mansion (the fee also gets you a souvenir glass). Nearby B. R. Cohn Winery is known for its cabernets and merlots as well as its fine olive oils and vinegars. Fun fact: Mr. Cohn is the Doobie Brothers' longtime manager, so musical events are common here. In the small tasting room, pay $10 for samples, a fee that's waived if you buy wine.

Unforgettable Meal: Glen Ellen Inn Restaurant's seasonal -- and beautifully presented -- California-French cuisine complements a warm, romantic atmosphere. In the dining room, watch the chefs dance in the open kitchen or outside, eat in the garden or on the covered patio. A 550-selection wine list keeps things interesting.

Where to Stay: Creekside Gaige House Inn is a relaxing retreat built in 1890. Since then, though, it has gotten major upgrades into modernity, including eight woodsy-elegant Asian-inspired suites. Book spa treatments, or enjoy the pool and hot tubs. Nightly rates start at $239, including breakfast. A bit farther away is the self-contained resort complex that is the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, complete with natural mineral hot springs. Many of the charming rooms come with a fireplace, and the nightly rate (from $269) covers wine tastings and hiking and biking tours. There's the upscale Sante restaurant and access to a nearby 18-hole golf course.

Photo Caption: Sheep grazing at the Benzinger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, California
Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates in Santa Rosa, California.
Santa Rosa
Town Highlights: Santa Rosa is Sonoma's county seat and where most of the region's hospitality workers live. The town hasn't gone too out of its way to make concessions for tourists, who tend to head north (Healdsburg) or south (Glen Ellen). Stop by the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, where the famous botanist lived and worked until he died in 1926 -- explanatory signs help you take a self-guided tour. A more famous local hero is Charles Schulz: Statues of his "Peanuts" characters are all over Santa Rosa. At the Charles M. Schulz Museum, exhibits include a replica of the cartoonist's studio, complete with his original drawing board. Nearby Railroad Square offers a fetching collection of antique shops, galleries, and restaurants.

Best Nearby Wineries: The Kendall-Jackson Wine Center consists of an attractive manor and perfect gardens with themes like "culinary" and "sensory." Garden tours are free, and there's also a demonstration vineyard to see and award-winning pinot to try (tastings start at $5). Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy KJ's 100-year-old walnut grove. At DeLoach, you sample wines straight from the barrel ($10, waived with purchase), quite an enjoyable activity if you're into single-vineyard pinot noir, chardonnay, or sauvignon blanc. Guided tours of this Russian River estate start at $15 and include the biodynamic garden.

Unforgettable Meal: John Ash & Co. is a Santa Rosa institution. Its seasonal California cuisine stands out, thanks to the chef's relationship with dozens of local growers. This restaurant, in the Vintners Inn, is run by the owners of Ferrari-Carano winery, so it has one of Sonoma's best wine lists.

Where to Splurge: Gables Wine Country Inn (from $185 per night) is a cozy Victorian B&B with a lavender garden, charming antiques, and claw-foot tubs in the guestrooms. Your hosts offer evening wine tastings and satisfying breakfasts of homemade pastries, quiche, and fruit.

Where to Save: The Sandman Inn has a big pool and a hot tub. Its guestrooms are basic but its staff is endearing, its location is good, and its prices are unbeatable: They start at $83 per night and include a full breakfast.

Photo Caption: Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates in Santa Rosa, California
The marina in Petaluma, California.
Town Highlights: Petaluma is a riverfront town whose walkable downtown consists of a few blocks filled with hidden treasures, quirky antiques, and lots of history. Don't miss the Seed Bank, a grand old building that was a financial bank in the 1920s. Now this light-filled space deals only in organic heirloom seeds, selling almost 1,300 types of plants-to-be.

Best Nearby Wineries: Keller Estate is Petaluma's most prominent winery, due in part to the fact that it's just so utterly gorgeous. The family-owned property displays a commitment to art and architecture just as strong as its devotion to good wine (especially pinot). A five-flight tasting is $20, and a tour of the caves and vineyards costs $35, including a tasting. And OK, this one isn't a winery, but it's still worth a visit: Lagunitas Brewing Co. cranks out tasty IPAs, offers daily tours, and shows off its strong sense of fun in its welcoming "TapRoom and Beer Sanctuary," where generous pours are free.

Unforgettable Meal: Right downtown, Michelin-recommended Central Market occupies a lovely space where patrons savor Chef Tony Najiola's seasonal farm-to-table cuisine, all of it concocted with fresh ingredients, many of them wood-fired to perfection. The motto here is "Slow food, good served," and it's true, especially in notable dishes like the crispy pork confit, sautéed squash blossoms, and the butterscotch pot de crème dessert.

Where to Splurge: The Sheraton Sonoma County is a pet-friendly property two miles from downtown. Nightly rates that start at $129 also buy access to a heated swimming pool, a 24-hour fitness center, and a regionally inspired restaurant called Tolay.

Where to Save: Metro Hotel is a very French-styled inn with eclectic, colorful décor. Feel like sleeping in an Airstream? There's one out back, plastic flamingoes and all. Rates start at $99 per night, including a modest breakfast.

Photo Caption: The marina in Petaluma, California
A flea market in Guerneville, California.
Town Highlights: This town (say "Gurn-ville"), on the banks of the Russian River, looks like it could be any small American borough -- except that almost every business here happily displays the rainbow gay-pride flag. In addition to its progressive orientation and celebration of all things LGBT, Guerneville's highlights include its fun Main Street shops, its access to the river swimming or tubing, and the fact that it's surrounded by one of California's prettiest redwood forests.

Best Nearby Wineries: America's oldest methode champenoise producer, tucked into the redwoods, is Korbel Champagne Cellars. Its tour begins at a historic railroad station and ambles through the cellars and a museum. You can also tour the rose garden, where more than 1,000 types of flowers bloom. Afterward, sample the brut and pinot grigio (for free) in the huge tasting room, or grab a bite at the fancy deli. Not far away is Hop Kiln Winery, built by Italians in 1905 as a hop-drying barn. It still has its three iconic stone hop-kiln structures, a preservation that earned it a spot as a California Historical Landmark. After trying their big reds (tastings start at $7), head to the duck pond or the old fig garden for a picnic.

Unforgettable Meal: boon eat + drink is a small place that serves bright, fresh flavors made from locally grown produce -- much of it harvested right from the restaurant's own garden. Chef-owner Crista Luedtke also owns the gourmet grocery next door, Big Bottom Market, and a nearby hotel, also called boon. Luedtke's specialty is fried Brussels sprouts, so if they're on the seasonal menu, don't hesitate.

Where to Splurge: Applewood Inn is a 1922 mission-revival-style mansion with a forested, remote feel, even though it's just a two-minute drive from town. There's a pool and hot tub, and guestrooms, which are individually decorated, start at $195 per room per night, including breakfast.

Where to Save: For around $90 per night, stay at the Cottages on River Road, a family-oriented place with cute cottages that open onto a lawn with a firepit. The price includes breakfast in the morning and s'mores by the fire in the evening. Other kid-friendly offerings include a swimming pool, board games, and free DVD rentals.

Photo Caption: A flea market in Guerneville, California
Dawn breaks on a small village in Mendocino, California
Town Highlights: Maybe because Mendocino Village is two hours north of Napa and Sonoma, it's often overlooked or underrated. But it's well worth the scenic drive. Enjoy wind-swept coastal views, plus historic architecture, antiques shops and specialty boutiques, and a smattering of tiny museums. There are redwood forests all around, and the best way to get into their ancient groves is via the almost unreasonably fun Skunk Train, an old-fashioned steam-powered train that traverses a circa-1885 railroad.

Best Nearby Wineries: Mendocino is known both for wineries and breweries, and two of the best are Breggo, where a tasting room beckons you to try the signature pinots ($5 gets you six samples), and Navarro Vineyards, which serves up gewürztraminer, pinot noir, and chardonnay. During Navarro's one-hour vineyard tour, you might see a chicken tractor or babydoll sheep. And tastings are free.

Unforgettable Meal: Ravens' is a vegetarian restaurant at the Stanford Inn -- but if you're an omnivore, don't let that put you off. The slow-food flavors here are bright and varied as the list of organic wines.

Where to Splurge: Llamas, horses, and birds of all kinds have found a home at fairytale-like Stanford Inn -- and your pet is welcome too. The hotel's restaurant, Ravens' gets many of its ingredients from the property's delightful English-style nursery. Lounge in the pool-and-jacuzzi solarium, or cozy up by the wood-burning fireplace in your cottage-style room. Nightly rates start at $215, including a full breakfast.

Where to Save: At the Andiron Seaside Inn & Cabins, nightly rates start at $114. On weekends, the price includes an evening happy hour with beers, wine, and snacks. In the morning, a "toast bar" features fresh breads, jams, and jellies. The Andiron's accommodations are down-to-earth cabins in the woods, most of which come with a fireplace and a deck with a view.

Photo Caption: Dawn breaks on a small village in Mendocino, California