The following is an excerpt from Wildsam’s latest book, “WILDSAM Napa & Sonoma,” leading travelers into the heart of California’s wine country with guidance from trusted locals and wine experts.
There aren’t many places like Napa and Sonoma — at any rate, not enough places. Two sibling counties, so different but bound together by their singular pursuit: wine.
At Wildsam, we love places that offer some meaty backstory and insight on what makes a culture tick. For our new field guide to Napa and Sonoma, that meant we had to open many bottles of wine, drive some backroads, and talk to some of the sharp folks who shape life in those counties. (“Napa not only attracts smart people,” Abe Schoener, the lauded renegade winemaker behind the Scholium Project, told us. “In order to make it there, you have to be really smart.”)
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Yep, tough job. When Sonoma winemaker Olga Fernandez talked to us about how much she loves the crush process — “I love getting my hands on grapes ”— we could only agree.
Here, variety of climate and landscape rules, and the choices are nearly infinite. To chart our new book’s course, we looked for winery destinations that point the way to the region’s roots (and to the next stop). And we walked the streets of the little towns to find that spot around the corner, the one the locals scribble on the back of a napkin.
Our advice for exploring these two beautiful counties? Here’s some:
KNOW THE LAND
The microcosm of soils, climates and geographies makes the counties’ diverse wine world possible. Here, rivers wind through cool, shady valleys not far from sunbaked, gnarly oaks. Sea breezes drift far inland through mountain gaps. Napa’s sunshine built its reputation for powerful wines and Italianate lifestyle allure. In Sonoma, the sea is always there, heralded by the startling chill that can descend after the hottest day. (The extreme reaches of the coast attract more and more growers and winemakers.)
Some key ecosystems, and where to find them:
Oak Woodland: Uncommon tree diversity, with grassy understories never disturbed by grazers. Trione-Annandel State Park, near Santa Rosa.
California chaparral: High scrub suited to the Mediterranean climate. Foote Botanical Preserve, Napa
And some scenic drives that thread wine, history and land together:
Sonoma County, Freestone to Monte Rio
Short drive, but you may never leave California-dreamy hamlets and Russian River woods. Ravioli and a spritz at Negri’s sounds right.
Sage Canyon Road
Napa County, Silverado Trail to Monticello Dam
Crank the Eagles and twist through tawny hills, past old-time wineries to a lonely county-line turnout atop the dam.
Sonoma County, Healdsburg to Hilton
Wineries dot a Russian River Valley (i.e., pinot-saturated) country road that takes you where you need to go (i.e., more wineries).
Drink the Wine
The options are nearly limitless. A recommended approach: seek a few places that can provide orientation on both wine history and future—and great recommendations from behind the tasting room bar. Ask, listen, then seek out places and bottles lesser known. Some of our favorites:
Ashes & Diamonds: Mid-century design vibes, bloody delicious wine. Founded by an ex-Capitol Records creative, it aims to reflect the lighter, fresher Napa of the 1960s.
Scribe: A stylish exploration of Sonoma wine heritage from a younger-generation team. Bright, beautiful wines aim to express the estate farm’s potential with a light touch. Glorious Hacienda.
Corison: Cathy Courison, a revered figure, wields Napa cab power without bombast.
Heitz Cellar: A ‘60s-vintage Napa stalwart with sharp young leaders. Velvety chardonnay.
Brown Estate: A Black-owned Napa trailblazer, family-founded in 1980. Noted for zinfandel.
Ridge: A midcentury Sonoma icon, wines as exacting as the modernist labels.
Hirsch: Long-standing cult go-to, farming remote and foggy Sonoma Coast lands.
Reeve: A wife, a husband, brainy pinot and chard. Check out Remy Saves the Sea.
Larkmead: You can sense Napa wine history at Larkmead, a spread of vines dating to 1895 with links to some of the trade’s most significant names. And somehow, too, you can catch what’s next. Dan Petroski, Larkmead’s winemaker, builds on a distinctively complex soil collage to create wines that carry Napa’s signature heft without bombast, while current planting projects are exploring varieties better suited to climate change.
Explore the Towns
The big payoff comes when you dig just a bit deeper in the region’s towns, steering towards places the locals know and love.
In Napa get a fresh perspective on the wine scene via bars Cadet and Compline and the Outland tasting room. Tour the Tulocay Cemetery for graves marking Napa’s earliest vintners, immigrants and founders. Tucked-away surprises include campy retiree favorite Trancas Steakhouse (raucous karaoke) or sweet Il Posto Trattoria, a beloved Italian spot right off the side of Highway 29.
In Sonoma G’s General Store serves a crisp dose of expert retail in a miniature department store. Readers’ Books is the cultural anchor; Murphy’s Irish Pub, reputedly, is where deals go down. Recommended: Ease in with a cocktail at Starling, then wander.
St Helena is the launching pad for quintessential tours along Highway 29. Definite stops: Hall’s lavish modern art collection, Del Dotto’s decadent wine caves, Beringer’s Rhine House. In town, Cameo Cinema is the platonic-ideal indie movie house. Outré art meets stylish decor at Erin Martin design—just down the street from Steve’s Hardware, the real-deal Ace that’s the place to stop for power tools (should you need them).
Local, seasonal fare is big in Sebastopol, from the casual Farmer’s Wife to the seafood-oriented Handline. Go cider tasting at Horse & Plow, enjoy everyone’s favorite ice cream at Screamin’ Mimi’s, but be sure to end your evening at Old Main Street Saloon, where you’ll find classic booths, etched mirrors and locals who will let you in on the next round of pool.
Yountville jam-packs so many wine country indulgences into one mile, it’s like Napa in a capsule. Anchoring the rep is the French Laundry, of course. But perhaps the sweetest evening can be found at Ciccio, a groovy Italian charmer. Drink a negroni while you wait on Neapolitan pizza and crispy-skinned whole branzino. But if you don’t need tables, let alone waits for tables, Tacos Garcia never disappoints.
In the vintage bohemian and LGBTQ magnet Guernesville, stay at 15-acre Dawn Ranch and hit the river at Johnson’s Beach, or rent a canoe from Burke’s to find silence along many stretches. Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve holds a grove of the giant trees, including many over 1,000 years old.
Watch & Read
Any travel experience sharpens up when you have a couple film clips and books on call for conversation. For Sonoma, Hitchcock’s The Birds is the obvious home-film-fest choice, shot in Bodega Bay. For a freewheeling Napa state of mind, dig into the Internet for pungent dialogue and wild schemes in “Tuscany Valley”: Falcon Crest, ‘80s TV staple. (The recent documentary Decanted is a straighter take; beautiful, too.) T.C. Boyle’s novel Drop City tunes into Sonoma’s history of commune living. For a deeply researched look at Napa’s most transformative (and entertaining) family dynasty, grab The House of Mondavi by Julia Flynn Siler.
Buy WILDSAM Napa & Sonoma here.