Wine Tasting in Sonoma & Napa Valley, California
In the last few months I have been lucky to be able to explore the areas of Sonoma and Napa Valley; the world-renowned wine regions of California. My weekend in Sonoma occurred in late Autumn, when the sun hung heavily in the sky, casting long shadows over the bronzed red and orange vineyards; kissing the end of grape-growing season goodbye. By comparison, my visit to Napa occurred in the Spring, when the blue sky seemed paler still above the serene green landscape; the sun casting bright rays over us, and the brown, sleeping grapevines. The valleys, sister-like, exist side-by-side; offering tourists from the local areas of Marin County and beyond a Californian countryside experience.
A wine tasting session in Sonoma is likely to set you back $5-15 per tasting, although these fees are likely to be waived for the purchase of a bottle. Prior bookings are often not necessary. Napa tastings begin at $20, rising to $40-50 for their finer wines, and tasting fees may be waived for the purchase of two bottles. Booking is often essential (several weeks in advance). How educational and personable the tasting experience varies between wineries, and also depends on your own personal preference. The joy of wine tasting in both places is that there is no pressure to purchase, or even like the wine on offer. What is regularly reiterated across wineries in Sonoma and Napa is that wine tasting is a very personal experience; what appeals to you may not appeal to others and vice-versa.
Sonoma, the baby sister, is the shier of the two. She, being the up-and-coming half offers a more personal, homely experience; where B&B-owners and wine producers know and support one another. The heart of Sonoma and the surrounding areas of Healdsburg and Cloverdale beat with warmth and passion, reflecting the pride and welcoming spirit of the locals that you meet.
1. BobDog Winery - Pine Mountain Road, Cloverdale
Named after the owners’ late dog, BobDog is the highest winery in Sonoma, sitting at 2,000 ft above the Alexander Valley; offering incredible panoramic views. Tim Ward and his wife Kandy, are proud wine producers who focus on red Bordeaux-style wines blended from the following grapes; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot. A casual, farm-like setting, tastings are held in the wine warehouse by Tim who offers one-to-one sessions (so long as no one else has booked); sharing plenty of time and expertise with his visitors. As a relatively inexperienced wine taster, Tim and Kandy offered a well-balanced, informative and fun educational experience; the perfect start to my tour of Sonoma. Additionally, their wine is sold only to those who have visited the vineyard, giving it an extra special exclusivity.
Tasting fee: Free – By reservation
Wines: Red Bordeaux-style wines. Favourites included the SkyPine Vineyards Casi Noviembre Port 2006 ($30/bottle) and Sky Pine Vineyards 2011 Pine Mountain Cloud ($28/bottle)
2. Truett Hurst - Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg
Perfect for a picnic, Truett Hurst offers a more upmarket tasting experience in a beautiful, modern tasting hall. The tasting experience is relaxed, with staff offering a la carte descriptors and advice. Taking a glass, bottle or your own homemade picnic outside into their vibrant gardens is readily promoted. There is a wonderfully relaxing seating area for adults, as well as a five-acre garden where children can play.
Tasting fee: $10 (waived with the purchase of a bottle)
Wines: Popular for Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. Feature Favourite: Black Sheep Pinot Noir ($42/bottle)
3. Ferrari-Carano - Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg
Ferrari-Carano, one of the regions greater exporters, has successfully brought the essence of Napa to Sonoma, with its impressive landscape, grand wine house and extensively tended gardens. Known for consistently good wines, as well as friendly and attentive service; Ferrari-Carano offers an excellent tasting experience. Perfect as the final stop of your day, I strongly suggest sharing a tasting outside on the patio; lingering as long as possible in the setting sun.
Tasting fee: Outdoor Tasting Terrace $25/person for wine and food accompaniments (waived for $150 purchase)
Wines: Large family of wines, with favourites including the surprisingly fresh Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay ($23-38/bottle) and the superiorly bold Ferrari-Carano Tresor ($60/bottle)
4. Frick Winery - Walling Road, Geyserville
Off the beaten track, but well-worth scouting out, Frick was established in 1976 by Bill Frick and his late wife, Judith Gannon, using the proceeds of a 1957 Chevy. Inherently in touch with their surroundings, Frick’s hand-crafted, small-batch wines reflect the unusual and diversified terroir on which the vines are grown and the passion of their artisan producer. With a loyal client-base who return year-after-year, Frick offers an extremely personal, high quality wine tasting experience in a charmingly modest setting.
Tasting fee: $10 (waived with any purchase)
Wines: Wide selection of award-winning wines, made from a variety of grapes including, Cinsaut, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Viognier. All $26/bottle and all favourites.
Napa, is the big sister. She is aware of her prowess, having won numerous awards in recent years. She is known worldwide for her Cabernet Sauvignons, where little Sonoma is still playing catch-up. She has grown and flourished with the drive and passion of local wine producers, who have explored their craft and pursued their dreams. Napa represents the American dream of wine producers, and showcases the fruits of their success. However, with success comes popularity, and with popularity comes crowds. If Napa knows she is the best, so does everybody else.
1. The Hess Collection - Redwood Road, Napa
Hess has a balanced half-half theme to it; being half art gallery, half winery, producing half red and half white, being part traditional and part modern. If you are not pushed for time, it is best to arrive and book a wine tasting session at the reception, have a stroll around the gallery and then return to the foyer to check your reservation. The building is a modernized, converted wine house with gorgeous glass panels, that reveal stacks of wine barrels hidden in vast spaces beyond the tasting hall. Tastings are relaxed, hosted by young employees with a limited knowledge; although the wines largely speak for themselves.
Tasting fee: $20-40 (wine and sparkling wine collections)
Wines: Known for their Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnay. Feature Favourite: Napa Valley Allomi Cabernet Sauvignon (2013) ($30/bottle)
2. Turnbull Winery - St Helena Highway, Oakville, Napa
If Napa is known for its Cabernet Sauvignons, then Turnbull must be one of the reasons why. Set in a stylish barn conversion, Turnbull has a small, intimate bar area known as the Gallery Tasting Room due to its impressive collection of black and white photography. The staff know that the wines are good and are able to offer professional advice to connoisseurs and newcomers alike. The Pairing Garden is open and dog-friendly, offering an alternative, outdoor tasting experience.
Tasting fee: Gallery Tasting Flight $30/person
Wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Rosé and Sauvignon Blanc. Absolute Favourite: Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon ($120/bottle, membership allocation)
3. W. M. Harrison - Silverado Trail South, St Helena, Napa
Offering a personable, country-style experience, W. M. Harrison is a small, family-owned estate, serving tastings in a rustic hall. The experience is understated, informative and relaxed, with a diverse collection of wines available, suited to various tastes. Offering an alternative Sonoma-like experience in Napa, W. M. Harrison is highly recommended as a way to wind-down at the end of the day.
Tasting fee: $25 (waived with a two-bottle purchase)
Wines: Bordeaux-style Reds and Whites. Feature Favourites: Sauvignon Blanc ($28/bottle) and Cabernet Sauvignon ($55/bottle)
Go to Sonoma if you are looking for:
- An unpretentious experience
- Natural settings and landscape views
- A chance to meet the producers
- Wine exclusively sold to visitors
- A diverse selection of grapes and varieties
- Great, award-winning wines
Go to Napa if you are looking for:
- Stylish settings and landscaped views
- A chance to mingle with travelling connoisseurs and fellow wine snobs
- Exclusive wine clubs
- Cabernet Sauvignons
- Great, award-winning wines