You might not be able to taste grapes off the vine, but winter is a relaxing and intimate time to visit California wine country. You’ll find better rates at hotels, it is easier to book winery appointments, and winemakers will have more time to chat. Plus, the weather is still great compared to Chicago!
Meadowood (rates from $750), with all the class of a country club minus any pretension, feels like nothing else in Napa Valley. The all-suite spa reopened a year ago after extensive renovation and the therapists have a magical touch. A special package with Round Pond Olive Mill (available through the end of January) includes an olive oil spa treatment and tasting at the Round Pond. The Restaurant at Meadowood is world renowned and well worth the splurge, but if you’re on a budget, one of Napa’s best hidden gems is the 10-course bar snacks tasting menu at The Restaurant Bar for just $40. You can simply walk in without a reservation and it’s more than enough for dinner, giving you a great taste of Chef Christopher Kostow’s talent.
If you make it as far north as Calistoga, Solage Calistoga (rates from $390) is both luxurious and laid-back. Like Meadowood, it’s a triple threat with great accommodations, fine dining and a spectacular spa. Their signature mudslide treatment is a customized sauna and mineral bath combination and Solbar represents the best of California cuisine. For more casual fare, try Sam’s Social Club. The cheeseburger is a local favorite.
Many of the best wineries in Napa Valley are available by appointment only. That’s not to say that they have an exclusive attitude. Quite the contrary — even if you aren’t a wine expert, meander away from Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail and you’ll find family-owned wineries that invite visitors from all corners of the world to share their wines and their stories.
Antica is a lesser-known estate belonging to one of the biggest names in wine. The Antinori family has been making wine for 26 generations — since 1385. Consider them the Mondavis of Italy, driving the Super Tuscan revolution of the 1970s. Of their 11 vineyards, this is the only one that’s not in Italy and here they produce chardonnay, malbec, pinot noir, sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon, served with treats in their intimate tasting room.
Ehlers Estate has a fun breakfast tasting to start your day, offering Bouchon Bakery croissants to pair with their organic estate-grown wines for early birds. Their cabernet sauvignon is especially elegant, racy with a long, tight finish.
Stony Hill Vineyard makes just 4,000 cases of wine a year, mostly chardonnay — and it’s a rare chardonnay that ages remarkably well. The vast majority of their wine production is white wine, which is unusual in Napa, and everything is made from estate fruit with the exception of their semillon dessert wine.
Somerston Estate is planting lots of new blocks on their more than 200 acres of vineyard. Get a little dusty on a motorized buggy tour of the 1,600-plus-acre property before relaxing with a glass of wine. They make the only estate-produced grenache blanc in Napa Valley along with a great brut rosé and cabernet sauvignon worth collecting.
Cain is most beautiful in the morning, when you observe the thick blanket of fog over the Mayacamas range slowly dissipating to reveal the steep vineyard atop Spring Mountain. Book in advance to taste their three cult classic red wines, and if you’re lucky maybe you’ll run into soft-spoken but brilliant winegrower and winemaker Christopher Howell.
Napa’s quieter cousin is even quieter in winter. But if you’re looking for a more lively scene, plan a trip around the 25th annual Winter WINEland (Jan. 14-15), a chance to meet winemakers and taste new and limited release wines in Northern Sonoma County.
Farmhouse Inn (rates from $395) is the nicest place to stay in the county, with impeccably furnished cottages, multi-course breakfast and Valrhona chocolate s’mores to roast over the campfire each night. Gaige House (rates from $149) and Olea Hotel ($215) are more modest and charming options.
Virginia Dare Winery is Francis Ford Coppola’s second winery project in Sonoma, and like his first namesake winery, which boasts a pool, bocce ball court and Don Corleone’s desk from “The Godfather,” this one is theatrical with a carefully constructed tasting room that could be a movie set and alluring wine labels that serve as movie posters for very affordable and food-friendly wines.
Inman Family makes some of the best sparkling wine in Sonoma and sustainability is of paramount importance. The tasting room is built entirely from recycled materials and there’s an electric vehicle charging station outside. Winemaker and owner Kathleen Inman loves music, so you might discover a new indie rock or folk band playing in the tasting room.
Benovia is a small-production, family-owned winery in the heart of the Russian River Valley, specializing in expressive pinot noir, chardonnay and zinfandel. The Anderson family’s fun-loving, generous spirit makes you feel right at home in the tasting room, formerly a ranch house, where you can enjoy a seated tasting in front of the fireplace.
Quivira believes in growing wine, not merely making wine. Winegrower Hugh Chapelle considers the full potential of his sauvignon blanc, zinfandel and grenache to be present at harvest and aims to make wine that is the truest expression of terroir. Quivira’s Dry Creek Valley vineyards are certified biodynamic and organic and the sustainable ecosystem includes farm animals and a vegetable garden.
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