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Toast of the Coast

California’s Napa and Sonoma valleys delight the eye and palate.
By Kathie Sutin

Northern California is nirvana for American wine lovers. The California wine industry was born here. Literally hundreds of wineries–from tiny, family-owned operations to corporate giants–call northern California home. But there’s more than wine in this breathtakingly beautiful corner of the world.


Above: Napa Valley’s bucolic atmosphere has been protected by early vintners. Visit Napa Valley photo

Below: At MacArthur Place in Sonoma, Saddles acclaimed steakhouse is in the beautifully restored barn on the estate. Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau photo


Visitors and locals use the word “magical” to describe the area. By any measure, Napa and Sonoma valleys, blessed with a Mediterranean climate and picture-perfect landscapes, fit the description. With vineyards clinging to gently rolling hills, verdant fields against a low-rise mountain backdrop, charming towns, outstanding restaurants featuring local foods, crisp fresh air–destinations truly don’t get much better than this.

The bucolic atmosphere is no accident. Early vintners worked hard to preserve the countryside, restricting the development of strip malls and chain operations, said Allison Simpson, senior vice president of marketing of Visit Napa Valley.

With much to see and do, you will want to plan well. Food and wine may take center stage but outdoor activities, like hiking and biking, abound. An unexpected treasure: the unusual number of art galleries, art exhibits, and art walks in both counties.

While exploring on your own is great fun, guided vacations help use your time to the fullest. No decisions to make, no hassles over where to stop for lunch or dinner, and no wasted time looking for a parking space. And by leaving the driving to someone else, you won’t have to designate a driver while tasting the local vintage.

Birthplace of wine tourism

For wine lovers, this is hallowed ground. The California wine experience was forged in Napa Valley.

Fred Abruzzini, a winemaker with Beringer Vineyards, brought San Francisco World’s Fair visitors to the valley to see the vineyards and winemaking process. Interestingly, no wine tastings were held on the tour. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that vintner and master marketer Robert Mondavi developed a winery tour that ignited a trend.

“They know how to do a visitor experience that’s unparalleled,” Simpson said of Robert Mondavi Winery. Depending on your knowledge level, take an introductory tour to learn wine production basics, or more advanced tours, including one that pairs wine with music.

Today Napa Valley is home to 400 wineries, 150 of them offering tours. Big names–Beringer, Mondavi, and Sutter Home–are here, as well as smaller wineries. Some 95 percent of the valley’s wineries are family-owned and operated, with 90 percent producing fewer than 10,000 cases a year, Simpson said. The area is best known for its world-class Cabernet, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel.

With great wine and fertile fields, the “field-to-table” trend is strong here. World-class chefs give the region more than its share of exceptional restaurants.

Yountville is home to The French Laundry, as well as Bottega Napa Valley, which is owned by celebrity chef Michael Chiarello. Fish Story serves “sustainable seafood” on Napa’s restored riverfront.

When appetites are sated, Napa Valley has many opportunities for relaxing. Calistoga, at the northern end of the valley, gained fame for its hot springs in the mid-1800s. Today, visitors flock to the area’s spas for relaxation and rejuvenation, massages, scrubs, and mud baths.

And there’s no shortage of outstanding accommodations in Napa.

Simpson suggests Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, which she called “the epitome of a luxurious experience;” Harvest Inn, a AAA Four Diamond hotel located in St. Helena; or Chateau de Vie set among two acres of vineyards in Calistoga.

While most San Francisco visitors spend a day in Napa, Simpson says four days are needed to visit wineries, sample multiple restaurants, and explore the valley’s towns, each with its own personality.

“low-key” Sonoma Valley

Only 45 minutes north of San Francisco and 15 minutes west of Napa, Sonoma Valley is the birthplace of California wine. Wendy Peterson, executive director of Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, likes to call Sonoma Valley Napa’s “country cousin.” She says it’s a little more rural and low-key.

“Sonoma Valley offers a rare glimpse into a true artisan community,” Peterson said. “Most of our wineries are still family owned. Besides wine, we have this rich artisan community–cheese makers and olive oil producers–as well as . . . people creating art.”

Some 100 wineries, most of which are open to the public, call Sonoma Valley home. “There’s everything from the smallest winery, Kaz, in a cute little barn, to Sebastiani, St. Francis, Chateau St. Jean,” Peterson said.

Each winery that’s open to the public offers a deeper experience, whether it’s tastings, food and wine pairings, self-guided tours, or an opportunity to walk in the vineyards, she said.

In the center of the city of Sonoma, Sonoma Plaza, a National Historic Landmark, houses shops, restaurants, galleries, and wine-tasting rooms. The last Spanish mission built in California also is here.

Olives are the valley’s second-largest crop, and visitors can watch olives being pressed into oil. An excellent place to do that is Olive Press, which has won international awards for its oil.

Dining and lodging options also are plentiful in Sonoma. For a memorable meal, try the girl & the fig. Owner Sondra Bernstein calls the offerings “country food with a French passion.” While not traditional French cooking, “the chefs take a few ingredients and really let those flavors shine,” she added.

Fall is a great time to visit because it’s when the grapes are harvested and crushed. Each year the grapes are blessed at the Sonoma Mission, this year on Sept. 28.

You needn’t worry about tasting and driving.

“We have every kind of tour imaginable–self-guided tours, Segway tours, bike tours, trolley tours, walking tours, traditional tours on a van or bus,” Peterson said.

Overnight accommodations include the MacArthur Place Inn and Spa. Just four blocks from Sonoma Plaza, it is set among gardens filled with original sculptures and fountains.

With its variety of wineries, restaurants, and activities, travel planning will help visitors get the most from Sonoma.

“We want to make everyone’s visit to wine country as memorable as possible,” Peterson said.

Kathie Sutin is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

Sep/Oct 2013 Issue


For more information about Napa Valley, call
(707) 251-5895 or go to For information on Sonoma Valley, call (866) 996-1090 or go to

To visit California’s wine country, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.Ask your AAA Travel professional about organized tours to wine country.

View recipes from Sonoma Valley.



Regional wine trails

By Kathie Sutin

You don’t have to travel to California to have a significant winery experience.

In recent years Midwest wineries exploded in numbers, and scores now dot the landscape. While grape varietals differ from those grown in California, visitors can tour facilities and enjoy tastings of award-winning wines just as they do on the coast.

Illinois and Missouri alone have more than 220 wineries, and most welcome visitors.

“It’s like mushrooms–they just keep popping up,” said Bill McCartney, Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association executive director. The state now has more than 100 wineries. In 1997, it had just 12.

To help travelers plan their visits, vintners in both states created “wine trails” linking wineries along specific routes and sponsoring special events.

Illinois’ seven wine trails include the Heartland Rivers Wine Trail that features several wineries in the southwest part of the state, and Shawnee Hills Wine Trail that covers 25 miles through the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois.

Missouri has 121 registered wineries. With a winery passport, visitors qualify for awards as they visit Missouri wineries.

Missouri boasts nine wine trails, including the Hermann Wine Trail along the Missouri River. The Missouri Weinstrasse runs along the Missouri River and the Katy Trail, and the Route du Vin is in and around historical Ste. Genevieve in southeast Missouri.

For more information, visit and

Missouri Wine and Grape Board photo

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