No trip to northern California is complete without exploring Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Here’s how to maximize a day trip!
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This may have been naive of me, but the Napa Valley is smaller than I expect. Don’t get me wrong, the food and vineyard options are extensive here. I could happily spend weeks exploring, eating, drinking and hiking. But
Maybe it’s the climate the grapes need, but anywhere that qualifies as “wine country” is stunningly beautiful. (Oklahoma wine country, don’t ruin this for me, okay?) Rolling hills slope gently against a jagged mountain backdrop, feeling both rugged and verdant at the same time.
A Day Trip to Napa Valley and Sonoma
We booked an organized tour to see Napa, mostly so we didn’t have to have a designated driver or make uninformed decisions about which of the hundreds of vineyards to visit in one day.
We booked our trip through Viator. There are other options, but this one was the least expensive while still giving us a full day in Napa Valley and Sonoma. We visited three vineyards of different feels, specialties, and market values.
Our first stop was at Nicholson Ranch. This was the smallest of the vineyards we visited, and possibly my favorite. The landscape itself is incredibly beautiful: grassy hills feeding down into their vineyards, blending the vines into an extension of the countryside. Complete with an idyllic pond, miniature Greek amphitheater, and family chapel on the hill, it doesn’t get much prettier than this.
The land itself has a storied past: from the CCC creating the pond during the Great Depression to generations of a family ranching to opening as a winery in 2009, a lot happened here.
Like many Napa vineyards, they specialize in chardonnay & pinot noir. One of their chardonnays they call “liquid sunshine,” and it’s an apt name. As someone who usually doesn’t prefer a chardonnay, that liquid sunshine may have been my favorite of the entire day!
Next stop was a vineyard called Madonna Estate. A medium sized operation, they showed us a bit of their operation before taking us into the tasting the room.
Of the three vineyards, Madonna gave us tastes of the greatest variety. We tried five wines, including one dessert wine. Their pinot noir was my favorite of the day, so be sure to ask for seconds on that one! They also win the award for best gift shop of the day.
Lunch at Ottimo
We stopped for lunch in Yountville, the main shopping town in the Napa Valley. In the middle of town is a shopping center, but to call it a shopping center is almost insulting: its a grouping of excellent food and shopping at various price points.
Our guide gave us a rundown of the options for lunch, and we opted for Ottimo, a mid-priced pizza spot. The inside feels a bit like a high-end cookware store, with tools to make great espresso or pizza and glossy cookbooks lining the shelves.
They have a great outdoor patio, or you can perch at a high top communal table. We opted for bar seating facing the pizza oven and drooled as our lunch was made. Seriously, one of the better pizzas I’ve ever had: simple, good ingredients baked to perfection in a wood-burning oven. Their options are basic but oh so delicious. You can’t go wrong!
Because #vacation, we crossed the street to Bouchon Bakery for some dessert before getting back to the bus. Their glass case was packed with edible art that looked straight from the windows of a Paris patisserie, and we agonized over what to get before settling on some of the biggest macarons we’d ever seen.
If you’ve tried any of the vineyards we visited, you’ve had Sutter Home.
Some people may turn up their nose at this one. Their wine tends to be sweeter, and they’re most known for white zinfandel, not known for its popularity among serious wine drinkers. But as our guide pointed out, many people find white zinfandel to be a helpful starting place when first learning and tasting wines. (True for me, for sure.)
While we may think of Sutter Home as one of the major wine producers in this country, the reality is that they started as a family-run company, just like 90% of the other Napa Valley and Sonoma wineries.
The other interesting part is that they invented white zinfandel. So props for that – even if it’s not your favorite, it’s a hugely popular wine that has been a big seller for decades now. It was cool to hear the history here, how a family operation became such a major seller.
You could easily spend a long weekend exploring Napa Valley and Sonoma County. From the picturesque setting to the incredible food and wine, I could be happy here for weeks! But if all you’ve got is one day, I highly recommend booking this tour.