Wine Country Panorama

California Wine Country: The Complete Guide

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From its rolling vineyards to its gourmet restaurants and boutique tasting rooms, Northern California's Bay Area Wine Country—which encompasses both Napa and Sonoma valleys—is the ultimate getaway. There are more than 800 wineries in these two counties alone  , ranging from big-name producers to intimate spaces where their wines are only sold onsite, as well as a bevy of picturesque towns, cozy B&B stays, and stops for everything from mud baths to picnics. Ready to make the most of your Wine Country visit? Here's everything you need to know.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: With its distinct Mediterranean climate and activities that mesh with the seasons, there's never a bad time to visit Wine Country. Summer brings the crowds, though it also offers long nights of wine tasting and live music; while the fall harvest is a celebration like no other. Spring comes alive with wildflowers and the first sprouting grapes; and winter—though often relatively frigid and rainy also sees lesser crowds, offering the opportunity for more intimate tasting experiences.
  • Language and Currency: Wine Country is undoubtedly an international destination, though being in California—English is the standard language and the U.S. dollar standard currency.
  • Getting Around: The easiest way to navigate Wine Country is by car, but being behind the wheel while hopping from tasting to tasting isn't an ideal scenario. Thankfully, there are several half-day and full-day wine country excursions leaving from both San Francisco and Oakland. You can also hop an Airport Express bus from either SFO or Oakland to Sonoma County, then utilize a ride-share service like Lyft or Uber to navigate between wineries. Public transit such as Sonoma Country Transit and Napa Vine buses also provide local transportation, but more between specific Wine Country towns. Two other popular options: the Napa Valley Wine Train, and bicycling.
  • Travel Tip: One of the coolest things about Napa and Sonoma counties and their wine tasting culture is that each area has its own unique feel. While Napa is the more established, elder sibling of the two—home to well-known names in wine like Robert Mondavi and Domaine Carneros—Sonoma is the spunkier, more spirited region, and the largest county of the region —one filled with small, family-run start-up wineries boasting picnic facilities and bocce ball courts, and rustic towns like Guerneville, where river tubing between tastings is a common pastime.

Things to Do

Even if you're not a wine drinker, there are plenty of ways to take advantage of Wine Country's ample offerings—from its spectacular hiking trails in places like Jack London State Historic Park and Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve, to ballooning over the vineyards as the sun rises to the east. Depending on the season and day of the week, you may find yourself sipping vino to live music or embarking on a guided kayaking adventure. Napa's Calistoga is home to soothing hot springs and luxury guest houses where mud baths and massage services are par for the course, while downtown Sonoma and Healdsburg are known for their gourmet restaurants and walkable charm. Sample locally made olive oil at St. Helena's Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturing Co., see the resident wildebeest, cheetah, and hyena of Sonoma's Safari West, or take an audio tour of the Hess Art Collection, which features works by Francis Bacon, Andy Goldsworthy, Leopold Maler and more. Don't miss these main activities:

  • Wine Tasting: It's the obvious top thing to do in Wine Country, and for good reason—despite the fact that every U.S. state now produces some sort of vino, Northern California's Wine Country remains one of the most prominent and respected wine regions in the country, as well as the world. For sparkling wine, try Mumm Napa, and be sure and swing by the exquisite Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville for a walk through the winery's Movie Gallery (and a chance to channel your inner Don Corleone) in addition to sipping, swishing, and savoring Cabernet Sauvignon varietals. Napa's V. Sattui Winery features one of the best artisan delis around (it was grandfathered into the winery), while Sonoma's Balletto Vineyards boasts its own “Field of Dreams.”
  • Hitting the Spa: There's something innately relaxing about wine tasting, making it little wonder that Wine Country and spa services go hand-in-hand. Calistoga is undeniably the region's top spot for soothing mineral springs and deep-tissue massages, but services like those at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa and Sonoma's ultra-luxurious Kenwood Inn & Spa are as equally as popular.
  • Dining Out: Long known as one of the world's top restaurants, Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Napa's own Yountville has attracted gastronomers for decades, but it's by no means the only place to eat in Wine Country. Some of the region's most accoladed restaurants include Healdsburg's Dry Creek Kitchen and Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford. Thomas Keller's more affordable Ad Hoc in Yountville is a personal favorite, while Gott's Roadside in St. Helena can't be beat for burgers, fries, and shakes. If you're looking for a wide variety of gourmet eats, head to Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa.

What to Eat and Drink

While much of this topic is covered above, it should be said that along with its variety of wineries and vineyards, Wine Country is seeing a growing number of breweries and distilleries, along with numerous urban tasting rooms in places like downtown Sonoma, Napa, and Santa Rosa. As far as eateries, Wine Country runs the gamut from exclusive restaurants serving up prix fixe tasting menus to casual spots such as In-and-Out Burger and Buster's Original Southern Barbecue in Calistoga. Picnicking, especially at the wineries in Sonoma County, is also quite popular and affordable.

Explore our articles on the Best Napa Valley Wineries, the Best Wineries in Sonoma County, and stand-alone Sonoma Wine Country Planning Guide to learn more.

Where to Stay

From top-notch resorts to luxury B&Bs, it's easy to find the right kind of lodging for your particular style and budget. For extreme affordability, pitch your tent at Liberty Glen Campground at Lake Sonoma, or park an RV at Napa's Skyline Wilderness Park. Airbnb stays range from Napa farmhouse cottages to a Wine Country “Cabin in the Woods,” and are often central to numerous wineries, while Calistoga is the ultimate getaway locale, with accommodations ranging from boutique hotels to clothing-optional inns.

Learn more about Wine Country's lodgings with our guides to The 9 Best Napa Valley Hotels of 2020, Where to Stay in Napa and Sonoma, and Sonoma Wine Country's Gay Hotels.

Getting There

The majority of visitors to Napa and Sonoma start their trip in San Francisco or the San Francisco Bay Area. If you're an area resident, you probably plan to drive to Wine Country. 

If you're from somewhere else or looking for a way to tour these wine regions without having to drive yourself, check out the ways to get from San Francisco to Napa Valley.

If you're only planning to go for a day trip, check out a fun plan for spending a wonderful day in Napa. And you'll definitely want to know how to survive a day of wine tasting.

The most popular airports for travel to/from Wine Country are

  • San Francisco International Airport (SFO): Serving many of the big-name airlines and easily accessible to/from San Francisco proper, SFO is an ideal choice for anyone looking to combine sites like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz with a wine country visit.
  • Oakland International Airport (OAK): An alternative to SFO, with often cheaper flights many of the same options for getting to/from Wine Country upon arrival, including Sonoma County's Airport Express and the SF Ferry to Vallejo, where you can can pick up the Napa Vine bus.

Money Saving Tips

  • Bring along a picnic lunch, and enjoy it among the vineyards.
  • If you're traveling via Lyft or Uber, visit wineries near town centers like Healdsburg, Napa, and Sonoma to cut down on transport and their associated expenses.
  • Intersperse winery tastings with free activities like hiking or perusing the public art in downtown Napa.
  • Research each winery's tasting fees beforehand and know how much you'll be spending (for example, some wineries waive tasting fees with a bottle purchase, or it may be most economic to split the cost of a tasting or bottle with a friend).
Article Sources
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  1. Sonoma County Tourism. "Wineries & Wine."

  2. Napa Valley Vintners. "Napa Valley Fast Facts." November 27, 2019

  3. Visit Napa Valley. "Napa Valley Weather."

  4. Sonoma County Tourism. "Facts About Sonoma Wine Country."