Rolling vineyards, sprawling estates, Michelin-starred restaurants—Napa and Sonoma Valley make up a globally revered wine region beloved for much more than excellent Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. It’s easy to spend a weekend, or even a week, tasting your way through the grape-covered countryside, but with 800-some vineyards to visit, the sheer number of options can be overwhelming. There’s fortress-like estates and boutique “micro” wineries, there’s vineyards that focus solely on certain styles and varietals, and there’s stops that include tons of other extras like restaurants, shops, and art galleries. Consider this list of 10 highly recommended wineries just the starting point for exploring California wine county.
When in Wine Country, Which Valley Should You Visit: Napa or Sonoma?
The Napa and Sonoma Valleys neighbor one another, so if possible, visit both. Or let your wine preference set your course: Napa Valley is particularly famous for its Cabernet Sauvignons, buttery Chardonnays, and fruity Merlots, while Sonoma is known for its cool climate Pinot Noirs, Zinfandels, red blends, and sparkling wine. While both are home to many prestigious wine estates, in general Napa attracts the well-heeled crowd while Sonoma is considered a tad more laid-back. Limos regularly carry wine enthusiasts in high style around Napa, while in Sonoma visitors often rent bikes in town to pedal to the nearby wineries.
The best time to visit either area is during spring or fall, generally April through June or September and October. Wineries spring into action during the fall when the grapes are harvested, and the whole valley is at its best in early spring when the yellow mustard plants that line the vineyards burst into bloom.
And yes, devastating wildfires did rage through this area last October, but most of Napa and Sonoma’s vineyards were minimally impacted, luckily—and wine production and wine tourism has happily continued.
If You’re Visiting Napa Valley, Try These 5 Wineries
1. V. Sattui Winery
One of the most popular and all-around top-notch wineries in Napa Valley, V. Sattui Winery hums with activity year-round. Not only do its wines consistently win top awards—winemaker Brooks Painter also received the Winemaker of the Year award in 2015—but the super-social winery hosts hundreds of festivals, balls, seminars, and more, constantly. Check their events calendar before a visit, but no matter what’s happening, plan to linger in the vast picnic area with charcuterie and other delectables from their on-site artisan Italian deli. It’s family- and even dog-friendly, so expect plenty of action. And of course there are tastings, some even available without reservation, daily wine tours, and special wine food pairings as well.
2. Inglenook Winery
Elegant, ivy-covered Inglenook Winery is a Napa original. It was founded by Finnish sea captain and passionate winemaker Gustave Niebaum in 1879, and today operates under the ownership of renown writer, director, and producer Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola has been making films for more than fifty years and wine for nearly as long, and has spent considerable time restoring the property to its original magnificence. All 200 of the property’s vineyards have been certified organic since 2002, and in 2011, the Coppolas acquired the iconic Inglenook trademark and reinstated the estate’s original historic name. Reservations are recommended for hour-long tastings, which always include the winery’s flagship Rubicon. Other notable experiences include tours of the iconic chateau and the vineyards, seated tastings in a private cave, sessions with Inglenook’s wine educators in the expertly restored Pennino Salon, and culinary offerings under the direction of Winery Chef Alex Lovick.
3. Castello di Amorosa
A literal monument to fine Italian wines, the medieval 13th-century-style castle and winery of Castello di Amorosa is a breathtaking sight. It ticks all the boxes you’d expect from an authentic Italian castle—there’s a moat with a drawbridge, gargoyles, and even a fully-equipped torture chamber. At very least, take the guided tour which winds through the castle and is followed by a tasting of five of the estate’s premium handcrafted Italian-inspired wines. Or, book one of the Castello’s “royal treatments,” luxury experiences that can include private blending sessions, intimate barrel tastings, rare library wine tastings, private tours of the property, and much more.
4. Domaine Carneros
Known for its award-winning sparkling wine and Pinot Noir, the fairy-tale-like château and winery of Domaine Carneros was modeled after an 18th-century French mansion. Founded by the noble family behind Champagne Taittinger, the estate is tucked in the southern part of Napa Valley and has become a regional landmark. Looks alone aren’t the reason to visit, though you’ll be reaching for your camera constantly. Truly, the exceptional sparkling wines are the reason to go—and it helps that there’s three terraces that look out over awe-inspiring vineyard views as you enjoy your bubbly. Check out the “elevated experiences” offered by the winery as well, which include opportunities to experience the estate’s sparkling wines paired with caviar or to book a private château balcony for a private tasting for two.
5. Luna Vineyards
If you’re a fan of Italian Pinot Grigio or Sangiovese, don’t miss a a tasting at beautiful Luna Vineyards. The estate is the largest estate-planted Pinot Grigio and Sangiovese producer in Napa Valley, and the first family-owned winery to plant the Italian varietal. Much of their vine is produced in limited quantities, and some only available to taste at the vineyard itself. Sit comfortably on the wrap-around porch to sip, or take a more intimate tour that concludes at the estate’s private tower (and boasts some truly amazing vineyard views). The vineyard is close by to downtown Napa and overlooks of the area’s historic Silverado Trail, a.k.a, the bucolic vineyard-trimmed country road that ambles through Napa Valley.
If You’re Visiting Sonoma Valley, Try These 5 Wineries:
1. Copain Winery
Tucked onto a hillside overlooking the gorgeous Russian River Valley, Copain Winery specializes in Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah. The founder and winemaker, Wells Guthrie, takes his inspiration from France’s Rhône Valley, and even describes himself as “a California winemaker with a European sensibility.” The estate’s white farmhouse and tasting room is an idyllic place to experience a flight of cool-climate wines (and perhaps tuck into locally-sourced cheese and snacks); the winery also leads guests through lengthier experiential tours of the Russian River Valley and Anderson Valley in partnership with nearby wineries Arista and Gary Farrell.
2. Hanzell Winery
Right at the southern base of Mayacamas mountain range that overlooks the south-western end of Sonoma Valley, Hanzell Winery has some of the oldest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines in North America. Founder James D. Zellerbach was inspired to plant these two varieties after extensive time spent in Burgundy. Since then, Hanzell has become the first winery in the world to use temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, and the first in the U.S. to use only French oak for aging–and its state-of-the-art winery is a must-see. Plan to take the lengthier farm tour and tasting, which ranges through the animal-laden farm and heritage vineyards, and concludes at the newly-renovated guest lounge in the historic barrel room.
3. Paul Hobbs Winery
Forbes once called Paul Hobbs “the Steve Jobs of wine” for his ardent devotion to quality and meticulous vineyard management. At his namesake winery, the personable owner occasionally presides over request-only tastings at the estate’s fashionable Lindsay House—designed by famed wine country architect Howard Backen. Hobbs’ unrefined, unfiltered, French oak-aged wines crafted with minimally-invasive winemaking techniques have brought many accolades; Cabernet Savignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah form the cornerstone of his reputation. Hobbs also has a winery in Argentina, and tastings of those wines is also available.
4. Scribe Winery
Founded in 2007 on a property that pioneered pre-prohibition Sonoma Valley winemaking, Scribe is managed by fourth-generation California farmers and brothers, Andrew and Adam Mariani. Their estate Riesling and Chardonnay vineyards have recently produced some excellent bottlings, which can be tasted during request-only visits. But the best time to make a reservation at the picturesque winery is during one of its delectable Hacienda Chef-in-Residence events (check the winery’s calendar), which this year hosts James Beard-award winning chefs like Ashley Christensen of multiple Raleigh, NC restaurants, among others.
5. Stonestreet Estate Vineyards
Stonestreet Estate Vineyards is one of the most extensive mountain estates in the world. Visiting is like going to a national park—deer, wild boar, and coyotes might be sighted within the vineyards of the 5,100-acre property. The estate has a collection of distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc wines available, all crafted from the elevated landscape. To truly take in the magnificent property, make a reservation for one of the winery’s picnic on the patio experiences, with amazing views of the Mayacamas Mountain range, or opt for a privately guided four-wheel tour up to an overlook nestled into the vineyard.