Destination guides Food Travel

How to Have the Perfect Vacation in Wine Country

March 15, 2017
sunrise in healdsburg

Good food, great wine, local exploration, lots of time outdoors, and a day of ultimate relaxation come together in the perfect wine country itinerary. 

by Rebecca Holland

The twin valleys of Sonoma and Napa are incredibly popular among tourists and Californians for the more than 600 wineries and tasting rooms between the two, world renowned cuisine, luxurious spas, and lush rolling hills. It can be hard to know where to begin or how to plan your trip. My advice to you: relax.

First of all, you can’t really go wrong. Most of the wine and food in this region is good, much of it is great. Like someone who I won’t name out of fear he’ll get fired from the very beautiful winery where he poured us tastings said, “it’s basically just branding.” While that’s not completely true–of course there are wines that stand far above the rest–to a point he’s right. They’re all grown within a few miles of each other, and most people here know what they’re doing.

That’s why on this trip, rather than go to some of the big name wineries I’d been to in the past, I decided to stay on the fringes and try some less famous places. If you aren’t super into wine or won’t really be able to tell the difference and are going more for the experience of being in Napa, I recommend you do this too. It’s much cheaper (some more recognizable places charge around $50 per tasting), and much more chill.

I was traveling with my boyfriend, and our goal for the trip was to drink good wine, eat good food, do some hiking, and relax. We wanted a mix of activity and relaxation, local charm and luxury, and to enjoy tastings without pretension. Overall, this itinerary (which involved a lot of spur of the moment decision making), gave us just what we were looking for. It helped that we went from a Tuesday to Friday in February, where often we had the place to ourselves. If you can go during the week in off season, do it. 

ridge vineyards healdsburg

Local Exploration In Healdsburg

We left San Francisco around 11am and headed toward Healdsburg. It’s quickest to stay on the 101, but we diverted to the 121 and stopped at Cline Cellars, a beautiful 350-acre property at the gateway to Sonoma wine country. This family-run winery is such a nice, warm welcome to the area. Though they’ve won numerous awards for their Zinfandels, inside it feels like you’re hanging out with guys on a farm who decided to pour you a glass of wine. Which, to be fair, is what most winemakers and producers are–a form of farmer. My favorite wine here was the Cashmere Black Magic, a dark red blend of Mourvedre, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Alicante Bouschet, and Grenache. Outside, gardens, picnic areas, and carp ponds provide a tranquil place to wander. Cline Cellars is located on the original site of the 21st and final California Mission, and a museum behind the tasting room features a collection of replicas of each of the Missions, originally built for the World’s Fair at Treasure Island. It’s an interesting and unassuming place, and with free tastings it’s the perfect start to your trip.

Up the road, Fremont Diner normally serves comfort food to swarms of customers who wait in line for ages to feast on biscuits and spicy chicken sandwiches. At 2:30pm on a Tuesday in February, we had the place to ourselves. After splitting a Nashville Style Chicken sandwich, deviled eggs, and a lemonade (if you go please get a milkshake for me–I resisted and am still craving it!), we were back on the road.

fremont diner sonoma

The intention was to get to Healdsburg, but passing by the rows of grapes and cute vintage truck outside Turnbull Wines, we made another pitstop. This was probably the biggest name place we stopped on this trip. In the public tasting space they feature a rotating collection of photography from Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange and more, which would be worth a stop even if they didn’t make great Cabernet Sauvignon.
turnbull wine tasting

When you eventually make it to Healdsburg, there are plenty of options for hotels and B&Bs. Camellia Inn is pretty and pink, and serves a great breakfast that changes daily but often features fresh juice blends, egg dishes, and local bread and preserves. The owners are really sweet too and happy to talk to guests during a nightly cocktail hour in the beautiful Victorian-style living room. Healdsburg has pretty perfect weather, but I’m always cold and it did get chilly at night, so I was especially grateful for the in-room fireplace.

where to stay healdsburg

We had a dinner of small plates at nearby Chalkboard our first night. The menu changes often, but like most in the area pulls from local farms to stay seasonal. Homemade Korean BBQ chips, salad, a wonderful dish of asparagus with shallot sauce, and bucatini with wild mushroom, chestnut soffrito, black garlic, and sage left us happily full. We had just enough room for a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream, which prompted discussion of how vanilla has a bad reputation as a boring flavor, but when done well can be oh so delicious, as this one was. The wine flight options are nice too, because you can pick any three red or white from the by the glass list.

Spend the rest of your days in Healdsburg wandering from tasting room to tasting room and driving or biking to wineries. Banshee, Cartograph, Williamson, La Crema, and Thumbprint Cellars are great options in/near town. Quivira and Da Vero are wonderful to bike to because they’re in such picturesque spots, and both have large gardens and picnic areas. One of my favorite stops this trip was Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves. It was a gorgeous sunny day as we drove up to the rolling hills of vines, arriving to an empty tasting room in the caves. Here, an enthusiastic employee guided us through the tasting menu, plus a few extra. The small, family run winery makes lots of Zinfandel with a focus on ancient vines and sustainability. The winemaker came out at one point to have our guide taste a rosé, and we were treated to sips as well, proving off-season, when people have plenty of time to talk with you, is the time to go.

If you get sick of wine, stop in Bear Republic Brewing or Healdsburg Emporium for craft beer, Sonoma Cider for apple and more unique cider options, whiskey at Alley 6, or Duke’s Spirited Cocktails, Barndiva, and Spoonbar for cocktails. Barndiva and Spoonbar also serve some of the best food in town. Other favorite restaurants include Cafe Lucia for Portuguese, Bravas de Tapas (get the hot rum balls for dessert!), and Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar

One morning, we woke up early and couldn’t sleep. Instead of waiting for breakfast to be ready at the inn we made coffee in our room and headed to Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. The drive was spectacular.

sunrise drive in healdsburg redwoods in healdsburg best sunrise in sonoma best time to visit healdsburg

The sun rose over acres and acres of vineyards, and the winding road eventually immersed us in towering trees. The hike here is short and very easy, but the trees are incredible and it feels a world away from town, even though it’s less than 10 miles. Plus, after an early morning hike you’re totally justified in drinking wine the rest of the day.

visit redwoods from healdsburg what to pack healdsburg

{I bought this backpack just before leaving and am in love with it for everything from hikes to weekend trips}redwood hiking near healdsburg

Luxury Relaxation In Yountville

After a few days in Healdsburg, we decided to move on to Napa, specifically Yountville. This tiny town has more Michelin restaurants per capita than any other place in North America, luxury spas, and beautiful hotels, not to mention you’re within a mile of some of the best wineries in the country.

We took our time getting there though, stopping first at Dry Creek General Store for picnic supplies, and then at Ridge Vineyards. This wasn’t my favorite tasting experience (maybe I was just sick of Zinfandel, or maybe the man pouring really was as into himself as he seemed), but it was one of the prettiest properties we saw on the trip.

dry creek grocery healdsburg
ridge winery healdsburg pretty wineries healdsburg

{Floral wrap dress}

We drove on and stopped at Field Stone Winery, which sits just off Highway 128. This place summed up the idea of the trip. It’s not the most popular in the area, and yet we had a lovely experience. The tasting room is small but welcoming, and the Estate Bottled Trinité, a blend of Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, was one of my favorite wines of the trip.

Just a few miles on we picnicked by a stream in Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, praising ourselves on our grocery finds and for for once not going overboard on the amount of food we thought we could consume. Then, finally, we drove into Yountville.

We stayed at the Bardessono Hotel and Spa, which immediately became one of my favorite hotels I’ve ever stayed in for the giant in-room jacuzzi, views of hot air balloons at sunrise, beautiful gardens throughout the property, and eco-conscious emphasis. The only downside was that we didn’t have more time, because if we did we could have rented some of their bikes or “fleet of Lexi” to explore the surrounding vineyards, spent more time at the pool or gym, and taken advantage of the spa services.

bardessono best hotel yountville

hot air balloons yountville

The rooms here are so spacious and nice that you won’t want to leave. We forced ourselves, but only as far as to Lucy, the hotel restaurant, which was wonderful. I’m sure you can’t go wrong when ordering, but I’m going to strongly suggest the duck charcuterie to start.

lucy restaurant yountville
where to drink yountville

While we didn’t make it to other restaurants in town, we did have pastries from Bouchon Bakery for breakfast, which we ate in bed while debating if we really ever had to leave.

There’s a lot to eat, drink, and do in Yountville, but as it was the last stop on our trip and we were staying at such a beautiful hotel, we took the time to relax and didn’t explore much.

On the way back to San Francisco we spent a few hours at Point Reyes National Seashore, a gorgeous park only an hour from the city. Stop at the lighthouse for whale watching (sadly, we didn’t see any) and sweeping views, then head inland for hiking.

point reyes national seashore viewpoint where to hike near SF point reyes lighthouse

We did a five mile hike that took us over hills and through meadows, with coves along the ocean in the middle. The park is massive and takes time to drive through, but it’s ok because every turn is beautiful.

hiking point reyes day trips from sf driving in point reyes cypress tree tunnel california
And then it was back to San Francisco, and traffic, and the stress of losing a phone in the rental car, and 20-something hour flights. Writing this now, five days in wine country seem like some kind of dream. A really, really good dream that I can’t wait to repeat hopefully sometime soon.

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