I took a sip of my Americano as I settled into my window seat on the airplane. “What is taking you to San Francisco?” Asked a chummy older man sitting on the aisle seat beside me. “Well I’m heading up to wine country for the week with Visit California, it’s a media trip”. After briefly explaining my job and after he was able to wrap his head around the fact that I got to travel to fun places for my job he said, “Gosh, I hope there are still some grapes left up there after those horrific fires.” I leaned back in my seat and took another gulp, “me too”. When I was first asked to attend this trip I was ecstatic. Drinking wine happens to one of my best skills. Ever since I was able to appreciate a nice glass of wine (and not the 10 dollar bottles I used to buy in university), Napa and surrounding regions were always on my bucket list. I had a friend visit the region one week before the wildfires broke out in October. I was aware most regions had issued a state of emergency but I was looking forward to seeing how things were two months later.
I was heading to Mendocino, Napa Valley and Sonoma, and I couldn’t wait for my first taste!
After a 2.5 hour drive from San Francisco we arrived in Boonville, CA and were handed a big glass of bubbly. Our hosts gave us a quick overview of the Mendocino wine range, which is much different than Napa where we would be visiting days later. “We have shack-teaus not chateaus!” Laughed Koleen, our bubbly PR rep for Mendocino. Meaning the wineries in this region weren’t all about the show and elaborate tasting rooms, it was about the wine and the people who poured it. I would have to wait until the morning to see what she meant. Ko explained that the town of Boonville is very quaint (population 1035), so pretty much everyone knows each other. They even have their own slang language, Boonting, which I wasn’t able to properly decipher. They are very welcoming to tourists, even though they refer to San Fran city-folk as, Brightlighters and the coastal visitors as, Fog Eaters. I giggled at this and secretly hoped they didn’t have me pegged as a Brightlighter. Pretty sure my attire and suitcase was a dead giveaway!
The Boonville Hotel
The property was built in 1862 and has been converted into a rural roadhouse. We had just missed the sunset when we arrived but the twinkle lights lining the back patio reflected off the fire pits scattered around the property. The air was crisp and the ambience mellow, it made sense that this region was formerly devoted to sheep and apple farming. I woke up to roosters crowing, which is a much sounder alternative to my usual garbage truck wakeup. I stayed in a bungalow suite with my own porch to enjoy my morning coffee. There is an emphasis on minimalism, as guests are encouraged to disengage while they stay.
Vichy Springs Resort
Most people visit Vichy Springs to check out the champagne pools. These baths are the only carbonated naturally warm mineral baths in North America. They are hundreds of years old, and I felt as if I stepped back in time when we arrived at the countryside inn. The rooms were quaint but cozy, with a comfy bed, just what my body needed after a full afternoon of wine tasting.
Hendy Woods State Park
The giant redwoods soared hundreds of feet overhead and we walked the trails not encountering a soul. It felt almost apocalyptic walking underneath the canopy of trees hearing nothing but the sounds of our boots hitting the ground below. Did you know its good luck to hug a redwood?
This brand new farmhouse is stunning. They also happen to produce two of my two favourite things, wine and cheese. I was in heaven as we sat down at a long harvest table and gorged ourselves of fresh cheeses and salads, while thumbing the photos and names of the local residents- the goats! The velvet sister and laychee cheeses were my favourites. Safe to say the cheese plate I ordered on my flight home days later tasted like garbage. After lunch we wandered the grounds touring the farm and learning how cheese is produced.
Phillips Hill Winery
Anderson Valley is a region known for their cooler climate and delicious Pinot Noirs. Phillips Hill was once a former apple dryer, now converted into a winery famous for their red wines and beautiful artistic labels.
This spot is a hidden gem. The relaxed atmosphere in the tasting room, coupled with the owner Vern, smiling as he described each bottle made this place memorable for me. They also pour all their wine out of animal head aerator spouts, sold in the gift shop.
This winery had my favourite view of all. We stood admiring their rolling hills of vines as we enjoyed a crisp glass of Pinot Gris.
Maple Creek Winery
Perched up on a hill, this winery was our first stop when we arrived in Mendocino. The pours were generous and the resident cat kept us entertained.
The Bewildered Pig
This restaurant is a pork lovers dream come true. I had an orecchiette pasta with wild local mushrooms and braised pork belly (both additions which can be added to any meal). The focus here is fresh in season ingredients, with an ever changing menu.
Patrona Restaurant and Lounge
Walking in, the first thing I spotted was the large sculpture with cattle horns protruding from the base. I knew right away this was the spot for a nice steak. This Mendocino classic serves up farm to table fare in a warm environment.
The next morning we said our goodbyes to Mendocino and departed for Napa Valley. Along the way we drove through some of the regions damaged by the fires. It broke my heart to think about families and animals fleeing their homes, not knowing if it would be still standing when they returned. Fortunately from a tourism perspective, in region of more than 1,200 wineries fewer than 10 were heavily damaged by the fires. It will take some time to rebuild the rest of the community, but I can guarantee if you plan to visit the area, it will not be hindered by the fires. The best way to contribute to the area (as an outsider) is to continue to visit these regions. If that’s not in the cards, buying California wine helps too.
Napa Valley was exactly as I imagined it, only better. Beautiful wineries and people wandering the streets, and even better food. Yountville is charming and everyone seemed to be strolling the streets with a smile on their face. Whether it was the buzz from their wine, the sunshine or the county in general- I want to hang around Napa more often!
Archer Hotel Napa Valley
The Archer Hotel had opened their doors just two weeks prior to our arrival. The service was top notch, everyone went above and beyond for us. Custom slippers and festive reading material (The Grinch) were nice touches. The lobby was stunning, it was THE place to seen in Napa. Located right downtown, this location is central to everything.
Napa Valley Aloft
Ever since I saw the late Heath Ledger in Casanova, I’ve always dreamt of going on a hot air balloon ride. I’ve never been afraid of heights. Actually, I welcome a strange sense of calm every time I’m in a plane high above the clouds. This experience was no different. We were up at 6am to catch the sun rising over Napa Valley. It was a lot quieter than I expected, and even though the air was 0 degrees, the heat from the balloon above kept us cozy. Following this surreal experience we joined our flight mates for a champagne brunch.
Napa Valley Museum
This museum features a whole slew of rotating events. I was able to view the Julia Child exhibit while visiting. It was a well curated event I thoroughly enjoyed.
Blue Note Napa
If you aren’t tucked in bed after dinner following a Chardonnay infused day, live music is the way to go. The iconic Blue Note has hosted a variety of musical acts of the years and is still rocking today.
Big Little Book of Experiences
Since we were visiting during the off season, we got to take advantage of this book. It’s the best way to get the most bang for your buck and to visit many attractions and wineries as possible. We spent an afternoon using this book, including Beringer Estate and Clif Winery. The book retails for $100.
We were greeted at Hess and welcomed into the dining room. We were treated to a three course lunch menu with wine pairings courtesy of chef Chad Hendrickson. Their logo is a lion, and their mottos is, ‘People and wine should greet everyday with the heart and courage of a lion’. I was happy to see that the LCBO carries Hess, as my suitcase could only fit so much! After your tasting, be sure to check out the upper floors to view Donald Hess’s art gallery.
Silver Trident Winery
Walking into this tasting room was like walking into a regal English country home. The entire facility is furnished by Ralph Lauren Home (with each item for sale). Instead of sitting at a stuffy bar we were lounging on plush chairs and served canapés which complemented our wines.
I had been drinking Beringer Wines for a long time, but the historical estate was really something to see. We explored the whole property from the dining rooms, to the garden. My favourite had to be the caves and cellars.
Also included in the Little Book of Big Adventures guide, the Clif Winery (owned by the Canadian Clif protein bars family) is right off main street in Yountville. We enjoyed some complimentary samples by friendly staff. Protein bars, and delicious jams as well as spandex biking gear is for sale for those who plan to kick off their New Year’s fitness resolutions.
Lucy Restaurant and Bar
In one word, Lucy’s is chic. It definitely gives off more of a SoCal vibe, with their modern decor and waterfalls surrounding the property. They offer full and half size portions and encourage sharing so guests can sample a variety of the house favs. My favourite was the deconstructed beet and goat cheese salad.
Charlie Palmer Steak House
Steak and red wine have always been a well married couple. Charlie Palmer takes this relationship to the extreme by offering a variety of cuts and an incredibly extensive wine cellar. Located in the Archer Hotel, it is the place to be as crowds extend into the bar and hotel lobby. You can’t go wrong with the pig’s ear pad thai appetizer.
Sonoma is so much more than great wine. While only 6% of the land is occupied by grapes, the agriculture in the county is able to feed all of Napa and the Bay area. The shopkeepers were chatty, eager to hear where we had been, and where we were heading next. Everyone seemed to be very supportive of one another, even their competitors. People took pride in what they offered whether it was a bakery describing their scones, or a winery describing their Chardonnay.
The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn
I felt a little bit guilty staying stay solo in a gorgeous King Suite with a jacuzzi tub positioned in front of the fireplace. I can’t think of a classic hotel which can top this one. It is a little slice of California love. The Spanish style buildings are stained pink to compliment the sunset skies at twilight. Make sure you leave some time to visit the Willow Stream spa located in the hotel. The Watsu pool allows you to hear the music below the water’s surface. I floated on my back while witnessing a meteor shower, something I’ll never forget. Over brunch the next morning, I learned that although the hotel was evacuated during the fires in October, they opened their doors and kitchens for the rescue workers.
Cornerstone is a marketplace with shops, dining, gardens, and winery and distillery tasting rooms. They had a skating rink for kids in the winter and they host a number of evening events in the summer. We spent a couple of hours wandering around and picking out souvenirs.
I sat on the back patio eating my avocado toast and people watching, basic I know, but I was in heaven! Groups of friends gathered on bright yellow patio sets gossiping and enjoying the afternoon sunshine. This place had me wishing I grew up as a California girl. Patio lunches year round? Yes please!
The Girl & The Fig
The cheese tower we ordered as a starter didn’t stand a chance. This french bistro serves up a variety of classic favourites with a twist, mainly local ingredients. Afterall, Sonoma is known for its agriculture.
If you want a break from your traditional bacon and eggs breakfast, Santé is the spot to go. They take classics like eggs benedict and add Dungeness crab. They infuse pancakes with lemon and cottage cheese. If you want to be a hero order the Bloody Mary fishbowl for the table!
Buena Vista Winery
One of the highlights of the trip was taking the ‘Be The Count’ blending seminar at Buena Vista Winery. This seminar is offered for groups to learn the ins and outs in what goes into making a decent bottle of wine. We sat down with measuring cups and medicine droppers and mixed our way to our own perfect custom bottle of wine. It definitely added to the effect being coached in caves of California’s oldest commercial winery.
Prohibition Spirits Distillery
This tasting room fuses fresh fruits into a variety of spirits including whisky, brandy, gin, rum and limoncello. My favourites were Figcello (fig infused limoncello) and Jack’s Melon & Mint Gin.
Sigh Champagne Bar
It is scientific fact that the sound of a champagne cork popping out of the bottle is one of the top sounds associated with happiness. We stumbled upon this adorable bubbly bar when we were walking through the main square. The details in this place made me want to stay for another glass.
I left Sonoma feeling great, maybe a few pounds heavier from being well fed. It was a great week in California, and while I wouldn’t (yet) call myself a wine connoisseur, I will say my palate is evolving. I’m eager to come back and bring my friends and I urge you to do the same. Although they have endured a lot of the last little while, I promise you California Wine Country is alive and well!