Wine country in northern California is one of the most relaxed regions in the United States with rolling hills, tree-lined roads, endless vineyards and picturesque small towns.
Whilst Napa Valley is the most well-known city within this region and worth a visit; there are also some really wonderful towns outside of Napa that wine lovers (and non-wine lovers) can stop in for a visit as well. It is after all, wine country, so having a car is paramount to getting around here.
When planning on spending a weekend in this region, do bear in mind that MANY people will be doing the same, so the drive from San Francisco especially can be busy on a Friday afternoon, adding time to most journeys. Now enjoy your three days in California Wine Country.
Depending on arrival time, the best place to start is Santa Rosa; one of the biggest cities in the area.
You can reach Santa Rosa from San Francisco, which includes a toll-free trip across the Golden Gate Bridge (you pay a $7 toll online if you want to drive back over it), reaching Santa Rosa in just over an hour (55 miles) in good traffic; taking Highway 101.
Stopping for lunch or afternoon tea here, is a good pit stop with various restaurants and cafes in town to enjoy. You can take in a spot of shopping with various well known stores located in Santa Rosa; or take a drive around some of the neighboring towns to enjoy the countryside and get in the mood for a wine country filled weekend before heading out to dinner.
If you are in town during late July-early August, you will be lucky enough to enjoy the Sonoma County Fair which is held in Santa Rosa. From carnival games to rides, to horse racing to monster trucks…it is a fun filled afternoon (at least!) with general admission tickets set at $11 (though parking and some events will cost extra). But it is well worth checking out.
After breakfast, heading into the town of Healdsburg is quite lovely. This town has a beautiful, but small town square that is very sweet and nice to walk around.
There is also a fountain within this square, which is quite lovely to sit at on a sunny day. For movie buffs out there, this square was used in the 1996 horror film ‘Scream’, with many towns within this region also featured in the film.
Continuing on through to Calistoga, the best winery to visit in the entire wine country region is the Castello di Amorosa at 4045 Saint Helena Highway. This winery is so much more than just a winery, because it is actually an authentically built 13th century medieval castle, inspired by the architecture of the Tuscan region in Italy.
A true labor of love for wine-maker and architect Dario Sattui; this was designed and built over 15 years using medieval methods, as well as importing handmade antique bricks, tiles, doors, windows and other furnishings from Europe.
It has medieval features such as a drawbridge, 5 towers, a Great Hall, a Church, Torture Chamber and wine aging cellars just to highlight a few. All lamps, gates and even door handles were hand made by Italian artisans to ensure the detail was accurate and in line with the rest of the design. It is pretty extravagant and just beautiful to explore. This is truly the must-stop when exploring wine country.
There is a general admission option which allows guests to wander around a decent amount of the castle. However, the guided tour for $35 takes you inside areas that other guests do not see. A wine tasting is held throughout the tour which lasts about an hour, and concludes with a 45 minute wine tasting of 5 wines which are available to purchase.
If you like wine, this is truly a value for money wine tasting. But even if you are not, this is an interesting tour around a really pretty winery that makes you think you are actually in Tuscany. It is amazing!
For lunch, Sonoma Valley is a perfect place to be. I always enjoy The Red Grape at 529 First Street; a moderately priced Italian restaurant, with a decent variety of dishes, featuring local ingredients.
Sonoma is one of the nicest towns in wine country. Like Healdsburg, Sonoma has a town square, but it is on a much larger scale. Sonoma is a beautiful place and you can spend as much time as you like here with restaurants, cafes and cute stores to explore throughout the afternoon.
For the wine lover, there are many wineries to choose from in Sonoma. Fans of the US reality series ‘The Bachelor’, can also check out Sonoma local and former bachelor Ben Flanjik’s winery ‘Envolve’; which is a very nice winery to do a tasting whether you are a fan or not.
There are various options for dinner around here as well, so if you are in the area until the evening, then Sonoma is a nice place to see out the day for sure.
Sundays in wine country allow you to have a restful day no matter what you decide to do.
In the mid-morning, heading into Napa’s historic district is quite nice with the riverfront a major attraction in this town and rightfully so, as it is just lovely! There is a gigantic chair on the riverfront that people can sit on and have a photo to remember their time here too.
There are a number of good quality restaurants on the riverfront, and depending on how much you wish to spend will determine what place suits your needs. But there are various options right here which are worth checking out.
A nice place for something easy but nice is the Napa General Store at 540 Main Street which sells Napa merchandise and wine. The restaurant has a range of appetizers, salads, pizza, sandwiches and other specials which are quite nice; and sitting out along the river makes for a very relaxing afternoon if the time is there.
There are also endless wineries in Napa, which are worth exploring if you have the afternoon to do so.
If the plan is to head back to the San Francisco area, there are 2 options: either going back along Highway 101 and across the Golden Gate Bridge (a toll pass will need to be bought online before driving over). Otherwise, a really nice afternoon/evening can be enjoyed in Berkeley, a seaside town a 45 minutes drive away (37 miles) taking Highway 80; which makes for a nice alternative to getting back (A $5 cash toll is paid when going cross the Bay Bridge).
As USC Berkeley campus is located here, it is a university town which gives it a nice feel.
The wine country region is quite broad and this is just some of what can be experienced here, but these places really should not be missed!
Should we add anything to our three days in California Wine Country?