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Exploring the quiet side of California Wine Country

Avi MartinLonely Planet author

Blooming orchards under azure skies, vivid mustard flowers beneath budding vines, and rocky hillsides wrapped in fingers of fog – it’s no wonder California’s Wine Country receives millions of annual visitors. With its mild Mediterranean climate and mineral-rich soil, Napa and Sonoma Valleys seem preternaturally suited for growing grapes. Ever since the first commercial grapes were planted here in the 1850s, people have been enjoying the fruits of the land’s labor. But with the advent of celebrity wineries, massive faux villas and bus-only parking lots, some might say that Wine Country has become the Disneyland of farmland.

Spring mustards blooming among the vines. Photo by Avi Martin / Lonely Planet.

Avoiding the crowds can sometimes be as easy as avoiding the high season and weekends. From July through October the Valleys receive summer vacationers, harvest parties and the majority of its wedding celebrations. A better time to come is April through June, when the majority of the wet weather has passed, the vines are blooming, and schools haven’t closed for summer break. Those that come in winter will be rewarded with the cozier side of Wine Country: dip in the geothermal hot springs and sip some warming zinfandels and cabernets – you’ll feel like you practically have the place to yourself.

Whatever season you choose, the best ways to enjoy Wine Country involve getting off the main roads, being outside and tasting the delights of small-scale vintners, farmers, and artisan food producers. Wine Country is a region devoted to, and dominated by nature.

Sonoma Valley

Like the banjo-strumming, hipster sibling to Napa Valley’s class president, Sonoma Valley is a little quieter, a little more laid back, and has a little more dirt on its truck. Highway 121 takes you through the Carneros District at the southern end of the valley, and Highway 12 takes you to Sonoma’s historic town square and north to Kenwood.  For some great wine tasting, get off the highways and take the twisting backroads like Trinity Rd, Moon Mountain Rd, Warm Springs Rd, or Bennett Valley Rd, where you can pay a visit to Matanzas Creek Winery (www.matanzascreek.com) and their extensive lavender gardens. Sip their estate-grown merlot and inhale the perfumed winds off the gardens. Or try Repris Winery (www.repriswines.com) on Moon Mountain Rd, where the views, and the wine caves, are extensive (tastings by appointment only).

Pace yourself and break for lunch, Sonoma-style. Dining in Sonoma is all about eating in season. Stocking your picnic basket at farmers markets is a great way to sample the local flavors, and markets occur daily in towns across the Valley. Petaluma’s markets run on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, and Sonoma’s market days are Tuesdays and Fridays. The Fremont Diner in the Carneros District cooks up roadside favorites featuring local produce, meats and cheeses from the likes of Vella and Bellwether Farms. Local cuisine goes upscale at Glen Ellen’s Olive & Vine (oliveandvinerestaurant.com) where you’ll also find a carefully-curated wine list. For a sweet treat, try Crisp Bake Shop.

Classic diner, classic truck, Sonoma Valley. Photo by Avi Martin / Lonely Planet.

After you’ve swirled, sipped and savored, it’s time to get outdoors and experience Sonoma’s wild side. Hiking trails with splashes of spring wildflowers can be found in Annadel State Park. Try the Asian-inspired woodland views at Quarryhill Botanical Garden (www.quarryhillbg.org) in Glen Ellen or the steep inclines at Hood Mountain Regional Park for a quieter outdoor adventure. Sonoma’s coastline at Goat Rock or Sonoma Coast State Beach off Highway 1 offers powerful surf, rocky paths and sweeping views.

Napa Valley

Napa Valley, now an interconnected web of hyper-localized growing regions, is the Beverly Hills of viticulture. But don’t let the stately estates and tree-lined drives fool you – there are still plenty of backroads and small-scale operations here. For wine tasting, explore the small roads that run between Hwy 29 and the Silverado Trail. Sip sustainably-farmed sauvignon blanc at family-owned Honig (www.honigwine.com), or the newer Blackbird Vineyards (www.blackbirdvineyards.com) renowned for their merlot grapes. Fantesca Estate & Winery (www.fantesca.com) is known for their romantic gardens as well as their cult winemaking star, Heidi Barrett, whose wines have received perfect scores from top critics. All are by appointment only.

Biking the backroads of Napa offers outstanding views, as well as the opportunity to more intimately explore the wines of a single growing region. West Dry Creek Road might be the most idyllic ride with gentle terrain, but Old Howell Mountain offers sparse traffic and the reward of a view from the top. Mt Veeder road and wineries is another good option, as is a ride to and around Lake Hennessey.

It’s not all about grapes in Wine Country. Photo by Avi Martin / Lonely Planet.

After you work up an appetite, it’s time for a bite. Dining in Napa can be an event on its own; restaurants like the famed French Laundry have months-long waiting lists and sky-high prices, but that’s not all the valley has to offer. If you don’t want to spend a month’s rent on dinner, try the Oxbow Public Market, located a bit off Napa’s downtown. This open air collection of some of the most popular vendors in the Valley offers locally-produced charcuterie and cheese as well as burgers, cupcakes and Venezuelan bites. For small plates and ‘farm to table’ food, try JoLé in Calistoga, a sleepier alternative to bustling Saint Helena.

Calistoga is also a great place to take advantage of a delightful side effect of the volcanic influences that create rich soil in the valley – natural hot springs. Popular Indian Springs can have long waiting lists, but recently remodeled Calistoga Spa Hot Springs allows day use passes for a limited number of guests. Line up outside the lobby before 10 am for the best chance to enjoy their three heated pools.

Winter in the vineyards. Photo by Avi Martin / Lonely Planet.

If you have the time, exploring the wine regions beyond Napa and Sonoma often means smaller, newer vineyards, fewer people, and the chance to connect with the winemakers and farmers themselves. Russian River Valley, Mendocino County, and Lake County are all up-and-coming wine regions and well worth a trip.

Avi Martin drinks wine and explores the outdoors in Northern California, where she lives with her husband and son. She knows you won’t regret eating a biscuit (or three) at the Fremont Diner.

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