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From Napa to Sonoma: Planning a Trip to California Wine Country

Your westward wine escape awaits!

Tracy Block Staff Reporter
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You could easily spend a full week in just Sonoma County. There are so many little pocket neighborhoods and wine regions to explore.
- Jacqueline Balletto, tasting room and DTC manager at Balletto Vineyards


If you’re thirsty for a wine excursion to California, suffice to say, you’re not the only one. According to a recent report produced by DiscoverCaliforniaWines.com, more than 23 million tourists visit the California Wine Country annually. Since California produces 81% of all US wine and is the world’s fourth-largest leading wine producer, it’s no wonder why American wine lovers flock to The Golden State – especially to Napa Valley and Sonoma – in search of vino each year. If you’re ready to head westward toward the plentiful vines, consider the below advice when planning your next California winetasting trip.

Napa Valley’s Wine History

Grapes first graced the vines of Napa Valley back in 1839. In fact, the earliest winery pioneers in Napa originated in the 1860s, and include household names like Charles Krug, Schramsberg, Beringer, and Inglenook. Like every industry, the domestic wine world experienced its ups and downs, from a grape surplus around the turn of the 20th century to the Prohibition Era of the 1920s. Then, in the 1940s, 7 Napa vintners joined forces to create the Napa Valley Vintners trade association – which now boasts 550 wineries.

Further, in 1976, a blind, comparative taste test hosted in Paris pitted Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay against some of the best wines in France, and the rest, as they say, is history.

How to Plan a Visit to Napa Valley

As one of the millions of tourists who make the trip to Napa Valley each year, it can be as easy as putting your fate in a guide’s hands or doing the legwork on your own. “It all depends on the kind of experience you want to have,” offers Margaux Reaume, one-half of the sommelier duo known as Argaux, which she runs with longtime friend Arden Montgomery, out of Costa Mesa, California. “Personally, I love researching and planning out my own trips, but hotel concierges in the area are very knowledgeable and are full of suggestions. They can help with scheduling tasting appointments, making restaurant reservations, and arranging transportation.”

However, if you’re like Reaume, and choose your own wine adventure, there are a few steps to take, which, in turn, will ensure you book a memorable and seamless experience. First, Reaume recommends making a list of the wineries and restaurants you want to visit. Map out each location to help you determine exactly where to stay, as well as your winery route. Then, you will be ready to choose your hotel. Next, it is crucial to schedule your tasting appointments and make any restaurant reservations. Finally, arrange your transportation. Although this can be done through your concierge, you can always call Uber and/or Lyft, as well.

So, how many days do you need in order to enjoy Napa? “I would suggest spending at least a full day or 2,” says Reaume. Additionally, it’s important to decide how many wineries you want to visit – and can handle – per day. For example, Reaume recommends 2 to 3 wineries per day. “You want to give yourself enough time to experience everything each winery has to offer, and not feel rushed.” Reaume’s typical schedule includes a visit to winery #1, a later lunch, winery #2, a rest break, and then dinner.

Furthermore, some of Reaume’s lodging recommendations include Auberge du Soleil, which has an onsite restaurant with beautiful valley views, along with Meadowood, Bardessono, and Hotel Villagio. As for dining, the options are limitless, but Reaume has her picks:

• Lunch: Oxbow Public Market and Oakville Grocery

• Dinner: PRESS and Oenotri

• Pizza and Pasta: Cook St. Helena

Napa Wineries to Bookmark Right Now

With so much wine currently in production in Napa Valley, it can be overwhelming when trying to sort through the wineries you want to visit, which is why you should tap a sommelier for some help (wink, wink).

Reaume’s top winery picks in Napa right now include:

• B Cellars Winery: A beautiful property that includes a food and wine experience and a tour.

• Anomaly Vineyards: A very small, mom-and-pop operation with amazing Cabernet Sauvignon.

• Ashes & Diamonds Winery: A new, cool winery, this stop accommodates a younger crowd and scene. Expect a great property and a spot to kick back and relax for a couple of hours.

• Mayacamas Vineyards: If you’re seeking California staples, this stop has some of the best Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon that Napa has to offer.

• Alpha Omega Winery: The central location and stunning grounds make this a top choice.

Facts About Sonoma County

Just a 25-minute drive from Napa Valley lies Sonoma County, where Russian colonists first planted and cultivated grapes in the 1820s. Sonoma is steeped in a melting pot of history – from Spanish to Mexican, and even Hungarian. In fact, it was Hungarian-American Agoston Haraszthy who left Sonoma to study viticulture in Europe and brought back 100,000 prized grape varietal cuttings from Spain, Italy, and France. Moreover, Haraszthy is credited for conceptualizing the notion that finer wines could be produced, not only in Europe but in Sonoma, too.

Meet Family-Owned Balletto Vineyards in Sonoma County

For Jacqueline Balletto, it was only natural to enter the family business: Balletto Vineyards, a 660-plus-acre estate winery in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA). In 5 years’ time, she’s graduated from viticulturist assistant to tasting room and DTC manager, where she now introduces new visitors to the family’s collection of estate wines, with a focus on forging long-lasting customer relationships.

“It’s quite lovely in Sonoma County year-round, but one of the most beautiful times to visit is springtime,” Balletto says of making the trip. “The hills are still so green from all the rain; the mustard is blooming – it really is a magical time in the Russian River Valley.” 

The winery sustainably farms 23 local estate vineyards in the famed Russian River Valley AVA, the first of which were planted by Balletto’s parents, John and Terri, back in 1995. From their 850 under-vine acres, the family sources only 10% of the annual grape harvest. What happens to the rest? “Our remaining fruit is highly sought after by neighboring wineries in both Napa and Sonoma counties,” explains Balletto.

How to Enjoy Balletto Vineyards

Thanks to its roomy grounds, Balletto Vineyards is able to accommodate social distancing protocols. “Guests can feel safe here while still enjoying our wines,” says Balletto. “In fact, we recently reopened our Tasting Room patio.” To illustrate, guests are invited to enjoy two food and wine pairing experiences with views of the estate vineyards, along with accessing the Old Oak Picnic area, which is tucked back in the vineyards with plenty of room for guests to spread out and enjoy wines by the glass or bottle.

Today, Balletto Vineyards specializes in Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Rosé, all of which are classic of the cool-weather Russian River Valley. When you visit, however, you are invited to taste single-vineyard wines – 6 Pinot Noirs and 3 Chardonnays. “These are only available in our tasting rooms.” Balletto shares. “We also have some very special, small-lot Pinot Noirs that are only available to our wine club members.”

And, once you’ve had your fill of vino here, Balletto recommends making stops at small, family-owned wineries including Dutton Estate Winery, Taft Street Winery, and across-the-street neighbor, Hanna Winery Inc.

Dining & Lodging in Sonoma

“Like all the great wine Sonoma produces, there’s no shortage of amazing places to eat,” says Balletto. “In West County, you’ll find some really great, local gems.” And, while you’re eating your way through the county, Balletto says you’ll find unique places to stay, like AutoCamp Russian River, an upscale airstream camping retreat just down the road from the beautiful Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve.

Furthermore, Balletto offers this makeshift itinerary to Sonoma visitors:

• Start off the day with brunch at Fork Roadhouse as you head out Bodega Hwy to the Sonoma Coast.

• Along the Sonoma Coast, Bodega Bay, and Goat Rock Beach are a couple of must-see places.

• On your way back through the Russian River Valley, you’ll want to stop at Gold Coast Coffee & Bakery in Duncans Mills – a personal favorite.

• Then, the Union Hotel Restaurant & Café in Occidental is also a great place to snag lunch on your way back.

• If you’re heading back during happy hour, you’ll want to stop at Underwood Bar and Bistro. It's where all the local winemakers and industry people gather for a drink after a long day.

• Finally, head back into Sebastopol and grab a homemade waffle cone at Screamin’ Mimi’s – they have the best ice cream in all of Sonoma County, hands down.

Extending Your Trip from Napa to Sonoma

According to Balletto, 5 to 10 days is the recommended amount of time to budget for a trip to both Napa Valley and Sonoma County. “You could easily spend a full week in just Sonoma County,” Balletto explains. “There are so many little pocket neighborhoods and wine regions to explore – the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley, the Sonoma Coast. You need at least a full day in each of these places to really take in the full flavor of the region.” Not to mention, the plethora of hiking trails, perfect for those who enjoy the outdoors.

“Essentially, as California’s COVID-19 regulations evolve, visitors should feel safe here,” Balletto offers. “There is so much to explore in Sonoma County; it is the ultimate place for social distancing.”

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From Napa to Sonoma: Planning a Trip to California Wine Country

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