So you’ve explored Napa and Sonoma and fancy yourself a CA Wine Country enthusiast. Not so fast…there’s a whole lot more exploring to do! When you first move to the Bay Area, you spend a lot of time in Napa and Sonoma and bring all of your visitors there…but after a while you branch out a bit, and fall in love with the California wine country all over again. So when we don’t have Wine Country virgins in town (who really should be first introduced through Napa in my opinion) our preference is actually some of these lesser known regions. We prefer them for the more laid-back, humble feel and because they make wine (and sometimes food) just as good as the more famous and expensive regions. So here are my favorite regions beyond Napa and Sonoma and a few recommendations for where to taste, eat and stay for each…photos to help inspire can be found here:
Alexander Valley/Dry Creek Valley/Russian River Valley: We first fell in love with this region (which is really our favorite) during the annual Wine Road Barrel Tasting Weekend which happens each Spring…it’s a fantastic event, like a big wine country party that happens over the course of two weekends. You can read my blog post on the event here…but whenever you decide to visit, my recommendations are blow:
Where to Taste:
- Taft Street Winery -I have a soft spot for this one because there’s a Thunderbird (my business school) connection and I love the story of the winery, but I also really enjoy their Chardonnays.
- Arista Winery – this is the first winery I ever bought futures from. I tend to really like their Pinots, which is rare for me since I’m not the biggest fan of Pinot. But their property is a big part of the pull for me as well…serene with little alcoves and gardens, perfect for a picnic lunch.
- Hop Kiln – I love the look of this winery. I know, silly reason to recommend a winery but it is just so rustic and perfect to me…if I were to own a winery I’d want one like this. The tasting room tends to be a bit busy and have more of a Napa feel than most others (meaning it’s large and you get churned through a bit more) but for some reason it’s worth it to me.
- J Vineyards & Winery – Oh, J! This is my one high-class pick for the region…such amazingly good wine (especially the bubbly) and often good food to nibble on as well. It’s classy, cool and worth the bit of a splurge.
- Rodney Strong – this is right next to J, and also a bit higher class but in a slightly warmer, more comfortable sense. And their reds are amazing…when I was about 25, I bought my special bottle to open on my 30th here and it was worth the wait. Fun summer concert series here as well.
- Sapphire Hill – this is right downtown in Healdsburg, so the tasting room isn’t super exciting but I do love their Zinfandels…especially the late harvest one.
- La Crema – oh, La Crema chardonnay, how I love thee! Another one that’s right off the square in Healdsburg so the tasting room is a bit impersonal but stop by for the wine.
- Everett Ridge – this winery has a spectacular view on nice days and a great outdoor patio for tastings. Their Zinfandel & Riesling are both quite nice.
- Martorana Family Winery – we’ve only been here once during the Barrel Tasting Weekend, but it had such a warm family feel to it (and bocce courts!) that I have to recommend it. Their finished wines, particularly the Zinfandels, were quite good as I remember.
- Grove Street – they used to make some of my favorite wines in the region…particularly their Peter Paul label, but in revisiting their website it looks as though they may have really paired down their offerings and are now primarily focused on their sister winery, Windsor Vineyards, which I know nothing about. Looks like I need a trip up to the region to investigate this new information! I’ll be pretty sad if the majority of their Grove Street wines are no longer in production…
- Truett Hurst – fantastic grounds and spot for a picnic…right on the river. Pretty tasty wine as well!
Where to Eat:
- Cyrus – this is an event….dinner at Cyrus is special. Not only because it is rather expensive and often named as one of the top restaurants in the country, but because it is amazingly delicious and the ambiance just feels special. You can choose either the 5- or 8-course tasting menu and of course wine pairings are always offered to go along with the food if you so desire (highly recommended). And, of course, in the oh-so-Californian manner, there is a vegetarian tasting menu option as well. If you can splurge here, it’s worth it!
- Zazu – so technically, this is in Sonoma Valley…but we always hit it up after a day of wine tasting in this valley since it’s kind of on the way home. We LOVE Zazu…in fact I have a whole post written about it that you can read here. This is about as true of a Farm to Table experience as you can get, which I love, and the food is all about honoring the ingredients. Simple, yet somehow complex in the flavors and flat-out delicious. The homemade pastas are amazing, and if they have the bacon waffle on the dessert menu, please get it! Don’t argue with me on this.
Where to Stay: we’ve never actually stayed overnight here since it’s so close, so I don’t have any personal recommendations and I haven’t really heard much about one place in particular so I can’t in good faith recommend a place. I would try to stay in downtown Healdsburg if you can though, super cute and convenient.
Livermore Valley: Livermore is not quite as picturesque as Napa, but the small-town, intimate feel of the place is unique and rewarding. You’ll spend much less money here, learn more about wine (since the staff are happy to chat you up and not rush you through), and drive quite a bit less (closer and fewer wineries all clustered closer together). Perfect day trip from San Francisco. Make sure to indulge in some of the port tastings while here…especially those that pair with chocolate!
Where to Taste:
- Wente Vineyards – so Wente practically owns Livermore! This is the one Napa-esque feeling spot, but they do make good wine and in the summer they have a great concert series. Their restaurant is pretty good as well.
- Big White House Winery – we really like the family-run vibe of this place. Their Syrah’s are to die for and they host a “bottle your own” weekend once or twice a year that can be quite fun.
- Tamas Estates – Tamas makes great, affordable Italian varietals, owned by Wente
- Crooked Vine – we love the ports here
- Murietta’s Well – another great port spot, owned by Wente
- Thomas Coyne – quaint and rustic, we find ourselves continually coming back here for both the wine and the people
- Westover/Palomares – so this one’s a little quirky. The tasting room is slightly “Elk’s Lodge” feeling and their specialty is flavored ports…but if you like port this is a fun spot. There are seriously like 30 different ports to try; white and red. We like the Angelica, their Red Chocolate Port and their Zinfandel Port.
Where to Eat:
- Campo di Bocce – we love this place….it’s kind of a Livermore tradition for us. I’m usually a bit tipsy by the time we get here so I honestly can’t say if the food is fantastic, but the food is super comforting and exactly what you need after a day of wine tasting. I almost always get the lasagna, and it is really good. If you plan in advance you can make a reservation for one of the Bocce courts and play before or after dinner…otherwise you can just watch others play while you eat!
- First Street Ale House – for those of you feeling a bit “wined out” at the end of the day, this is a nice change of pace. Food is your typical pub food…so nothing to write home about and certainly not good for you, but decent.
- The Rose Hotel – this is honestly the only hotel I’ve heard people talk about in the area…probably because John Madden owns it so there’s a strange piece of star power associated with it. We’ve never stayed there, but it looks nice enough and everyone I’ve heard who has stayed here enjoyed it and found it’s location in Pleasanton to be convenient for wine tasting in Livermore.
Mendocino & Lake Counties: The drive up to Mendocino along Route 1 from San Francisco is one of the most amazingly beautiful drives you’ll ever take. Give yourself enough time to stop and enjoy it and then when you arrive at your destination you’ll find yourself in quaint, secluded little towns that are full of charm, good food and great wine. Oh, and they grow a ton of cannabis up here too…it’s a huge industry for the region. I’m just saying, it’s a bit more mellow here!
Where to Taste:
- Husch Vineyards – I really like Husch wines and their outdoor area for having a little picnic or enjoying your wine. They are also one of the few wineries that makes non-alcoholic juice from wine grapes…great for those Designated Drivers or kids! I also really like their Vin Gris and Christian likes their late harvest Gewurztraminer.
- Roderer Estates – fabulous spot to get your sparkling wine fix!
- Navarro Vineyards – I like it here because they offer an hour long tour which makes it a bit more of an experience…especially for those newer to wine tasting. Bring some snacks and hang out afterwards for a picnic with a bottle of their wine.
- Scharfenberger Cellars – another great spot for bubbly….I particularly like their Brut Rosé
- Zina Hyde Cunningham – this place has a lot of history so it’s just kind of a fun spot to visit right in Boonville. It has that wild wild west feel going on, which I rather like.
- Anderson Valley Brewing Company – okay, you caught me…I snuck a brewery in here. But if you’re up near Mendocino you really should stop by AVBC…probably most well known for Boont Amber Ale. They have some hops growing right there on the property and it’s a fun, lively spot. Great for a picnic and 18 holes of Disc Golf…right there at the Brewery. Fun times.
Where to Eat:
- Moody’s Coffee Bar – I love this little spot. Great coffee and yummy treats for breakfast or a snack. Perfect for those foggy Mendocino mornings.
- Bones Roadhouse – so this is technically in Gualala, but if you’re staying at the Wharf Master’s Inn (below) it’s very close. What gets me here is the fabulous BBQ oysters when they have them, but their traditional BBQ is pretty great as well.
- Victorian Dining Room at the Mendocino Hotel – great for Sunday brunch, lunch or dinner. Classic, perfectly prepared food…their French Onion Soup is delish. Depending on what meal you are there for, the Garden Room and Lobby Lounge serve similar food and have great, unique ambiance as well.
- Wharf Master’s Inn – we spent a nice long romantic weekend here once and really enjoyed it. The decor of the rooms is a little “quaint” for my style, but the large jacuzzi tubs and nice big decks are nice. It’s also right on the water in Point Arena, so it’s a very relaxing environment.
- The Mendocino Hotel & Garden Suites – this is a historic hotel right in downtown Mendocino. We’ve never stayed here, but have stopped by for a drink and to enjoy the historic elegance of the place. The Lobby Lounge and Garden Room are great. Really quite beautiful, so I would definitely consider staying here in the future.
There you go! I hope this is enough information to encourage you to expand your wine country repertoire beyond Napa & Sonoma. When you do you’ll be rewarded with unique wines, food and scenery. If you need a bit more convincing, check out my Beyond Napa & Sonoma Photo Album. Then, get out there and start gourmet globe trotting in California Wine Country beyond Napa & Sonoma…and share favorite finds when you do!