I received an e-mail from my sister last week asking me for some wine country recommendations - restaurants and winery tasting rooms - that she can share with a friend visiting San Francisco this holiday weekend. Since leaving New York City in June 2005 to pursue a career in wine, I have received similar electronic queries and the occasional, desperate phone call or text message (always at New York City dining hours) from friends who are eating out and looking to order a decent wine from a lexicon of a wine list. I always feel a bit chuffed being considered the quote unquote wine expert but that moment of pride is a bit fleeting because it is always followed with the feeling of walking to a bookstore with a dozen titles on the tip of the tongue that I am supposed to read (i.e. buy for my bookshelf and never actually read) and once I cross the threshold of the store, I draw a blank like the pages of a brand new Moleskin (notebook of choice). It is at these moments that I promise myself that I will draft a document to cut and paste in reply. To this day, I have not done that and I feel terrible about it. So, I have decided to begin here with two suggestions that need to be considered when planning a trip to Napa or Sonoma .
1. Driving Distance. Contrary to popular belief, Napa and Sonoma don't reside "just outside" the confines of San Francisco . No real mass transit options are available to tour Napa or Sonoma . Limo rentals from SF are reserved for those who could afford to buy $100 bottles of Napa Cabernet by the caseload, and bus tours from the City are usually reserved for the crowd that were on last month's round-trip to Atlantic City.
On a good day, your rental car will get you up to Sonoma (city) in about an hour. But true Sonoma wine country tasting would have you starting about a half hour north of that in Healdsburg or Dry Creek and making your winding way back down to the Golden Gate . Top-notch Sonoma ( Russian River Valley ) wineries are spread out just a few miles west of Highway 101, the County's main artery. A map is necessary and I recommend the "Quick Access Laminated Map and Guide of Napa-Sonoma Wine Country" available on Amazon or the wine store at the Ferry Market (Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant) in SF for about seven bucks.
Napa , however, is a different experience whatsoever. It will take you about 1.5 hours by car to get to Napa (city), but the real wine tasting begins when you pass the city and head up Highway 29 (or Silverado Trail) for what should be deemed adult Disneyland - 26 miles long and a mile wide, two roads in and out, plump clusters on vines contained by two mountain ranges and (some of) California's best expression of grape juice. Driving up 29 is like walking the aisles of your wine store. All the wineries behind the shelf talkers unfold in front of you. However, be prepared to spend thirty minutes driving 29 and crawling towards St. Helena on a Saturday afternoon.
2. Power Tasting. Sadly, for those visiting, wine tasting tends to be too much like my golf game - out there taking as many swings at the ball to get my money's worth. But winery hopping, like bar hopping on Amsterdam Avenue is not recommended. And with many wineries being "appointment only" these days you don't want to be stuck behind a wall of tasters sticking your arm over another's shoulder to get a glass of that "oh, so delicious twenty dollar Chardonnay." You didn’t come all this way to shop at Costco. Do your research because you want your trip to pay the huge dividends that are achieved when you return home to impress your friends with your "in the know" knowledge and first hand experience tasting at the source.
End Note: Congrats to the guys and gals at Snooth for accomplishing as much as they have in the few short Beta months they have been in existence. And I am sure they have better things on their to-do lists to keep this site up and running than this idea - but maybe we can get collective power behind suggesting a communal section on the site that lets users post their favorite wine country tasting room experience(s) for the would be wine country traveler. [Just typing out loud. Keep up the good work guys.]
Dan Petroski is Assistant Winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards in Napa Valley. Dan has an MBA from New York University and worked as an Ad Exec in New York for several years, before switching it up and trading his suit for a move out west.
(No) Power Tasting
- Blog comment by alesha, Feb 13, 2008.
Good advice Dan. I've been planning a trip to Napa with some of my friends, now I know what to do before attempting to visit wineries.
- Reply by Philip James, Feb 13, 2008.
Dan - have you been sneaking a peak at our top secret plans again? In a few weeks we'll be unveiling the first part of a major push into enhancing and drawing out the snooth community. Phase I = "talk"...
- Reply by Mark Angelillo, Feb 13, 2008.
Thanks for your wishes, Dan, and the information here. The research step is key. I know there are folks who make their living (or a side living) planning trips for wine country visitors. Some of them will even DD for you!