“What’s the rush? The secret to any road trip is to stop along the way,” says our intrepid traveler.
Long vacations have now become happy memories as summer winds down and fall promises only get-away weekends until the holidays.
A trip to Napa Valley’s wine country is a long drive and requires more than a three-day weekend but if you can’t make it all the way to the rolling vineyards of Napa, then transition slowly—so slowly, in fact, you may not get there. Instead, you immerse yourself in the countryside and small, historic towns, linger over local wines and experience delectable eateries along the way.
Our Napa destination itinerary took us to Santa Barbara, Los Olivos, Las Alamos, Fresno, Yountville, Healdsburg, then back San Francisco way.
Santa Barbara is not Napa, but it is wine country-plus. The place to fuel up with a quick authentic taco is La Super Rica Taqueria (622 N. Milpas St., Santa Barbara. Closed Wednesdays). With its modest digs and casual patio seating it is a discovery that Julia Child loved and food critic Jonathan Gold raved about in 2013. It’s been there that long. “Order the tacos de rajas,” Gold wrote, “because it is the right thing to do…and may be the most delicious thing you have ever eaten in your life.”
Your next stop is Los Olivos, one of five communities (with Ballard, Buellton, Solvang and Santa Ynez) that make up the Santa Ynez Valley. Los Olivos dates back to the 1860s when the stagecoach route passed through. The town is near SR 154, a scenic road from Santa Barbara over San Marcos Pass, through the coastal Santa Ynez Mountains. On your way there, take a detour through San Marcos Pass along the Alamo Pintado Highway and feast your eyes on a lavender farm, orchards, vineyards, horse trails and majestic ranches for a one-stop wine country experience of the small-town charm of the valley and some of the best wine tasting and restaurants. Take the time to tour the art galleries and upscale shops and take a nice country stroll.
Mattei’s Tavern (2350 Railway Avenue, Los Olivos, CA 93441; (805) 325-9275; matteistavern.com) was built to house and feed the stagecoach passengers but now is home to a luxurious restaurant. We were fortunate to go in June when the town hosted the Jazz and Olive Festival, but schedule a visit for Saturday, October 21, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., for Los Olivos Day in the Country with a morning family fun run, a small-town parade, tractor show, local crafters, artists and wine tastings.
My favorite restaurant was the Los Olivos Wine Merchant Café (2879 Grand Avenue, Los Olivos, CA 93441; (888) WINES4U; winemerchantcafe.com) where Sideways was filmed. The rustic elegance creates an inviting ambiance that pairs perfectly with the extensive award-winning wine list of the California Central Coast to wet your whistle.
Wait until dinner to check out Los Alamos, the next town over, a small town with an Old West heritage. It is the north entry to the Santa Ynez Valley at the Junction of U.S. 101 and State route 135; the main thoroughfare is Bell Street. This town is only seven blocks long but has some great eateries. Its name is Spanish for the cottonwood trees that still grace the area and features an old, one-of-a-kind historic 1880’s Union Hotel called the Victorian Mansion at Los Alamos (326 Bell Street, Los Alamos, CA 93440; (866) 715-0006; thevick.com), now a Victorian-style bed and breakfast.
Clark Staub, a music biz veteran at Capitol Records, owns the Full of Life Flatbreads (225 W Bell St Los Alamos, CA 93440; (805) 344-4400; fulloflifefoods.com), famous for its gourmet flatbreads made in the 900-degree wood-fired oven that put Los Alamos on the Map. Another favorite is Bob’s Well Bread (550 Bell St Los Alamos, CA 93440, (805) 344-3000; bobswellbread.com), a great artisanal bakery owned by Bob Oswaks, who once did marketing for Sony Pictures. Down the street you might run into journalist, now winemaker, Sonja Magdevski’s place at Casa Dumetz Wines (388 Bell Street; Los Alamos, CA 93440; (805) 344-1900; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Now that you’re fueled up and rested, it’s back on the I-5 for several hours of driving. As you approach the next destination, Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant (24505 W. Dorris Ave., Coalinga, CA 93210; (559) 935-0717; harrisranch.com), just off the freeway in Coalinga, CA you can see—and smell—miles of cattle on a feed lot. The Harris Family has been farming for more than a century and this Fresno County farm has been under family operation since 1937. Harris Ranch beef is one of the largest agribusinesses in the nation and is California’s largest cattle feeder and grass-fed beef processor. This warm, hacienda-style resort on a cattle ranch offers dining and lodging with large room accommodations and an Olympic-size pool to relax with a glass of wine, then order that steak.
You are halfway to Napa and this is where you turn around and go home, or…
IT’S NAPA OR BUST!
Sonoma County wine country can be a bit intimidating with hundreds of wineries, restaurants, terrific hotels, B&Bs, inns and a million acres of gorgeous landscape to explore. In fact, there are so many “must-sees” that exemplify the Sonoma County experience, we’re going to make it easy for you
Yountville will be your first Wine Country stop! Only one hour north of San Francisco, this is the place to unwind and pause to breathe in this storybook town in the very heart of the culinary universe where the leading Napa Valley luxury boutique Hotel Yountville (6462 Washington St, Yountville, CA; (707) 967-7900; hotelyountville.com) immerses visitors in a community of master chefs and vintners.
Surrounded by miles of vineyards and breathtaking scenery, as well as wine and food celebrities, the hotel captures the essence of what it is to experience a truly memorable, romantic and exciting getaway. Stroll the one-mile stretch peppered with 14 award-winning wineries, Michelin-star restaurants, world-class hotels, charming inns, tranquil spas and whimsical art sculptures. Yountville offers the quintessential Wine Country experience in a simple, curated setting.
Begin the morning ritual with coffee and a pastry followed by boutique shopping, lunch on a sun-drenched patio, wine tasting with the owner, nibble on gourmet chocolate, stroll through the gardens, dine at distinguished restaurants or find your own as we did!
We settled in first with a drink in the lobby bar at the Hotel Yountville and although the famous (expensive) French Laundry (6640 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599-1301; (707) 944-2380; www.thomaskeller.com) was close by, we walked to dinner and found a quaint French Bistro about two blocks away, The Bistro Jeanty (6510 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599; (707) 944-0103; bistrojeanty.com). It had the ambiance of a Paris café and was packed with people anticipating wine tours and tastings. Our attentive waiter served the most amazing scallops and we dawdled through dinner enjoying every morsel straight through to dessert. After dinner, the wineries had closed so we took a stroll and headed to our hotel in Healdsburg for a two-night stay, with a plan to return the next day
Healdsburg is listed as the second “Best Small Town to Visit” in US Magazine. Founded in 1857, this region is famous for its Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. We hadn’t booked lodging but, through Travel Zoo, were lucky to find a deal in such a central location at The Best Western Dry Creek Inn that runs specials from time to time. Our room cost $99 a night, including breakfast in this Tuscan style resort.
In town, we discovered some great eateries, among them Charlie Palmer’s restaurant, Dry Creek Kitchen (317 Healdsburg Avenue, Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 431-0330; drycreekkitchen.com). For breakfast, we found the best croissants, chocolate éclairs and baguettes at Costeaux French Bakery (417 Healdsburg Avenue, Healdsburg, CA 95448; 707.433.1913; email@example.com; costeaux.com) and for our picnic, we loaded our picnic basket at the Healdsburg Shed, a market café (25 North St., Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 431-7433; healdsburgshed.com) before heading out for wine tasting.
Alexander Valley is one of the most beautiful spots of many, many breathtaking places in Sonoma County. Travel a short bit through Healdsburg up to the hillside area, for a visit to Jordan Vineyard & Winery (1474 Alexander Valley Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448; 800-654-1213; jordanwinery.com) and a 10 a.m., by-appointment library tasting. The estate has been legendary since the stone and stucco castle opened in 1972. The intimate tasting will give you an excellent overview of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in a guided, one-hour immersion accented with small bites.
The small, quaint Hanna Winery (9280 Highway 128, Healdsburg, CA 95448;
(707) 431-4310; hannawinery.com) offers horse-drawn carriage tours (5 hours, $200 per person) provided by thewinewarriage.com (8644 Highway 128, Healdsburg, CA 95448-9021; (707) 849-8989; thewinecarriage.com). The family-owned estate sits on top of a hill with wonderful picnic areas and produces its wines from the Russian River Valley and the Mayacamas Mountains.
Simi Winery (16275 Healdsburg Avenue, Healdsburg, CA 95448; (707) 473-3232; simiwinery.com) made its first wines from Sonoma County grapes in 1876 and has been continuously making wine in the same stone cellar since 1890. I liked their Pinot Gris, which you can only purchase there.
After a beautiful drive through Alexander Valley, visit an authentic 13th-century-inspired Tuscan Castle, Castello di Amorosa (4045 St. Helena Hwy, Calistoga CA 94515; (707) 967-6272; castellodiamorosa.com) for world-class Napa Valley wines made by fourth-generation wine makers in a tradition that has lasted 120 years. The 136,0000-square-foot Castello features 107 unique rooms, 8,000 tons of hand-squared stones, eight levels, 900 feet of caves, a meticulously hand-painted great hall, a drawbridge, moat, a dungeon with its own torture chamber, a chapel and the most impressive barrel rooms. The winery produces 25,000 cases a year and is sold exclusively at the winery direct to the consumer.
Along the route, if you want a diversion from wineries, visit the Old Faithful Geyser (1299 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga, CA 94515; (707) 942-6463; oldfaithfulgeyser.com) in Calistoga, an active geyser that spouts a 350-degree plume of water 60 feet into the air. Five minutes later, and away she goes again! It’s Mother Nature’s version of the Bellagio Hotel Fountain in Las Vegas.
In St. Helena, the world famous, award-winning Beringer Winery Estate (2000 Main Street, St. Helena, CA 94574; (707) 257-5771, http://info-thewinery.beringer.com) dates back to 1868 and is known for establishing many “firsts” as leaders in the wine industry. Frederick Beringer purchased 215 acres of land in 1875, became one of the first wineries in Napa Valley and was among the first to operate using hand-dug caves and cellars. With its stately 19thcentury architecture and vibrant gardens, Beringer is not only one of the most beautiful properties in California’s wine country, but is the longest continuously operating winery in Napa and one of the most historic.
After our tour at Beringer, we headed into St. Helena for a wonderful Lunch at Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch (738 Main Street, Saint Helena, CA 94574; (707) 963-4555; longmeadowranch.com). It was revitalized in 1989 by proprietors Ted, Laddie and Chris Hall, who set out to produce Bordelais style wines centered around sustainable and “full-circle farming” methods. They also raised grass-fed Highland cattle and produced olives from oldest olive orchard in the Napa Valley. Set in a refurbished barn was the down-home, country-style restaurant where I ordered the slow-roasted brisket sandwich and my husband had the best burger ever. We saved the best for last” home-made beignets with a bourbon Carmel sauce…OMG! After that we had to walk around town visiting the many galleries, wine stores and shops to take a break from wine tasting.
Once you travel through St. Helena and Healdsburg, you have really seen the best-of-the-best areas for wine tasting. Healdsburg is only 90 minutes outside of San Francisco and your way home to Topanga.
We took the Berkley route that has several points of interest, stopping for lunch at a Fairmont Hotel, The Claremont Club & Spa (41 Tunnel Road, Berkeley CA 94705; (510) 843-3000). It is a California landmark and one of America’s iconic luxury hotels. Ideally nestled in the Oakland Hills and just 12 miles from San Francisco, it was originally built as a private residence during the California Gold Rush.
After Berkley, the way home to Topanga is up to you. Be creative, relax and enjoy the California scenery at its finest along the coastal towns and back roads of California. It’s no wonder Sonoma County is a traveler’s dream vacation spot. It represents the best of Northern California with its premium wine, farm-to-table dining and unique resorts and attractions.