One Day in California Wine Country

First thing first… I’m not a big wine enthusiast but I’ve slowly learned to appreciate the subtleties of some varieties, specifically Icewine and Pinot Noir.  However, my girlfriend loves wine and is slowly earning badges towards amateur sommelier status. So for her birthday this year we headed out to the California wine country (Sonoma and Napa counties) for four days.  It was a cool experience with good wine, and really good food.  So here’s my completely novice advice if you only have one day in wine country.

Some general information

  • Watch Bottle Shock & Sideways before your trip
  • Most wineries open at 10:30am and close between 5-6:30pm
  • There are over 400 wineries, and they cover a large area across two counties and many AVAs
  • Tastings at the wineries that we visited ranged from $10-$25 for 3-6 different wines
  • We were able to find many 2-for-1 tasting coupons and mobile “check-in” deals which softened the blow to the wallet
  • Reservations are a must for the busy restaurants and most are on OpenTable

We chose to do about three tastings per day, which was a pleasant pace. One could certainly spend more time at an individual winery or hit several that are grouped together, we chose a more scattered approach, which meant more time in the car.

If you have one day in the area here’s my suggested path:

Breakfast or brunch

The Girl and The Fig | Sonoma
A beautiful little cafe-styled joint that has fantastic food and a super friendly wait-staff.  The fig is featured and they have their very own charcuterie shop. Their menu changes seasonally, but I opted for the BLT tartine (grilled green tomatoes, little gem lettuce, basil aioli, crispy onions) with a fresh egg and it was great.  A delicious way to start the day.

Post fig

After your meal, stroll along the Sonoma town square and check out the numerous and eclectic shops.  Once you feel like you’ve worked off breakfast/brunch stop into Basque Cafe on the east side of the square and grab some of your favorite bread for a snack later.  The croissants are incredible, be sure to grab at least two of those.

Hop in your car and drive just a few blocks north to the Vella Cheese Company which is a wholesale cheese factory with a tiny little shop for visitors.  The staff will be happy to feed you great tastes of all of their offerings.  I enjoyed the Chedder-style Italian Table Cheese, other favorites of our group included the Messo Dry Jack and Rosemary Jack.  Be sure to check out the 1960’s letter from Cary Grant to Vella framed near the door. The cheeses will last several days without refrigeration which makes them great for shipping, and keeping in the car for a few hours.

Now, time for wine…

The beginning

Buena Vista Winery | Sonoma
Where it all began, literally.  Billed as the “first premium winery in California” the history of the place is really a great way to step into the story of the region.  The premises feels like an old fort or mission and is laden with wood and gravitas.  The tasting features two of their Pinot Noir wines, which were the overall favorites of our group.  The “Bela” Pinot Noir was hands down the best wine of our entire trip.  A great way to start your day of wines.

The process

Benziger Family Winery | Sonoma
After a quick ride back through town and north towards Glen Ellen the Benziger Family Winery is aloft in the hills.  Two elements of Benziger stand out.  First, it is still family owned and operated, a rarity in the region.  Secondly, the winery promotes bio-dynamic wine-making which is a step “above” organic certification and illustrates this process via a great tour (led by a local wine-grower on a tram) of their winery from the vineyard to the cellar.  After the tour you’re invited in for a tasting.  While none of the wines at Benziger were off-the-charts on our favorites list they were solid and very drinkable.  Grab a bottle, get your bread and cheese out and have a picnic a midst the Eucalyptus trees.

The bubbles

Mumm Napa | Napa
A beautiful drive northeast into Napa and you’ll be welcomed by a Champagne/Sparkling Wine maker called Mumm; which is a much more commercial operation.  I’m not much of a bubbles fan, but the experience of the tasting was premium.  Most tastings in the region happen at a crowded stand-up counter in a noisy room; at Mumm, tastings happen on a patio overlooking the vineyard while your group is seated at a table.  Because you are seated with your party the experience feels very personal and enjoyable; after all, champagne needs to be sipped.  Mumm also hosts a great free art gallery featuring Ansel Adams photography in their wine-aging facility, a great place to take your final tasting glass.  Everyone liked different variations of the bubbles, my choice was the Cuvee M Red.  Don’t forget to ask a staff member about why only US wineries are allowed to designate their sparkling wine as ‘Champagne’ outside of France.


Brix | Napa
Watching the sunset on the patio of Brix with their flower and vegetable gardens in the foreground is a great way to end the day.  I chose the Hanger Steak and it was prepared perfectly.  A great meal.

Napa vs. Sonoma

So there is a friendly rivalry between the two counties about their wine-making prowess.  The truth is, wine is such a personal affair anyway so who cares.  Find wines that you like.  For me, I prefer the family-oriented nature of the wineries we stopped into around Sonoma county, and each of the places we stopped in Napa were very busy.

The map

Here is a map of our four day trip with locations mentioned in this post highlighted in green. Note that Wine Country lies in two valleys, therefore the driving can get significantly curvy and hilly when hopping between them.

On the way out

Muir Woods | Mill Valley
If you’re heading to San Francisco after your day in wine country and you still have daylight left, be sure to stop at Muir Woods.  There is certainly a full day’s worth of activity in the woods, but you can take a peaceful stroll on a well-kept boardwalk through fantastic Coast Redwood groves.  Just remember that Coast Redwoods (taller) and Giant Sequoia (wider) trees are different and you’ll need to drive much further north or east to encounter a Giant Sequoia.