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An Eater’s Guide to California Wine Country

Unofficial, highly opinionated recommendations for the famed wine and food destination

Northern California wine country is one of the premier wine-growing regions in the world. Cabernet sauvignon grapes were first planted in the area in the 1800s, when a few of the most historic wineries were established, and they started growing in popularity in the 1940s, following prohibition. Once side-eyed by the French, the big upset was when California won the “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting in 1976, finally throwing Napa Cabernet and Chardonnay onto the world stage.

Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley have since flourished as a wining-and-dining destination. Napa has more than 400 wineries, Sonoma has more than 425 wineries, and between the two counties, they currently share eight Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s only a half-hour drive from the Golden Gate Bridge to the first winery at the gate of Sonoma, drawing many San Franciscans and Bay Area folks for wine tastings on the weekends. But wine country is also a world destination, attracting thirsty travelers from around the globe, and there’s plenty to eat and drink for those that would like to relax at a luxurious country inn for a very full week.

Welcome to the Land of Fine Wining and Dining

Wine country is a large geographic area, so before you hit the road, it’s worth picking which specific region you might want to explore. Napa Valley is the big-name destination, attracting travelers for its big bold cabs and starred fine dining. Napa, of course, is the name of the valley, county, city, and river running through. There are two main highways, and route 29 is the main thoroughfare, while the Silverado Trail is off the beaten path. You’ll hit six towns driving up from the south, starting with the city of Napa, followed by luxurious Yountville, quaint St. Helena, and the beautiful Calistoga. With more than 400 wineries, it does draw big tour buses, but for good reason.

Sonoma Valley is a little more laid-back and preferred by locals, although it’s all relative in this rich part of the world — over-the-top Chardonnay goes hand-in-hand with good tacos. Likewise, it’s both a valley and a county, and a historic mission, plaza, and town. Just in the valley, highway 12 is the main drag through, rolling up through historic Sonoma Plaza, charming Glen Ellen, and quiet Kenwood. But Sonoma County is huge, extending all the way to the coast, and it boasts 425 wineries altogether. Within West Sonoma County, Russian River Valley is literally cooler, with rolling redwoods and tendrils of fog breezing in off the ocean. It’s a little more funky and hippie, if you prefer swimming holes and earthy pinot noir — or wild western beer and cider.

Where to Start on Eater SF’s Top Maps

Where to Eat at Restaurants

Shining Michelin Stars: Of course, many travelers head straight to the French Laundry, the Californian fine-dining institution (as well as sister restaurant Ad Hoc for fried chicken). But post-pandemic, fine dining is roaring back in wine country, and many locals are vying for a reservation at one of SingleThread’s stunning farm-to-table experiences.

Cal-Italian Comforts: There is no shortage of fresh pasta, fresh pizza, and fresh vegetables in wine country. Catelli’s Restaurant is an old-school red sauce joint dating back to 1936, which serves grandma-style chicken parm, along with great vino.

Hand-Slapped Tacos: El Molino Central is a longtime favorite roadside stop for tacos, tamales, and ceviche. The handmade tortillas are also sold at SF farmers’ markets under the brand Primavera, but they taste even better fresh off the griddle.

Barbecue Food Trucks: The Black Piglet is the darling of a couple of local star chefs, and it’s often parked at Davies Family Vineyards in Russian River, slinging pulled pork and bacon caramel popcorn.

Picnic Provisions: Oxbow Public Market is the food hall to caffeinate and stock up on sandwiches and snacks for a long day of wine tasting in Napa. And Big Bottom Market in Russian River is also worth the stop for Oprah’s favorite biscuits, along with other essential supplies.

Where to Taste Wine with Food

Cabernet Sauvignon: Stag’s Leap helped put Napa Valley on the map when their bold cab won the “Judgement of Paris” in 1976, and these days, the winery also has a strong food program, serving pairings by the lake.

Sparkling Wine: The area is also known for sparkling wine, and Domaine Chandon not only has an over-the-top flower garden and crisp Cali sparklers, but you can also get a picnic basket stuffed with mini bottles of bubbles, charcuterie, cheese, and other snacks.

Pinot Noir: Flowers Winery in West Sonoma County edges closer to the coast, yielding fog-kissed and minerally pinot noir and Chardonnay, which you can sip and snack in open-air cabanas.

Natural Wine: With the growing natural wine movement, Valley Bar and Bottle Shop is the cool new restaurant and wine bar on historic Sonoma Plaza, from a couple of veterans of Scribe winery, now pouring favorite organic and biodynamic winemakers, and serving XO eggs and butter beans.

The Best Time of Year to Visit Wine Country

Wineries and tasting rooms do have a season. Most open doors with fresh spring releases in April, welcome many visitors over the summer, and celebrate the fall harvest by October. BottleRock Napa Valley, the wine-and-music festival, usually goes down in May, although it’s been pandemic-delayed to October 2021. And Sonoma County Harvest Fair is the big food-and-wine festival that’s scheduled as usual for the fall — also in October 2021. It is worth noting that wildfire season is now sadly an annual occurrence in Northern California, so you might want to check heat and drought forecasts before booking hotels and flights.

Coronavirus Considerations

California is scheduled to fully reopen on June 15, so wineries and restaurants should be free to go back to business as usual — but many remain cautious after a hard pandemic year. Many will require masks, offer hand sanitizer, and take other precautions. And while it used to be relatively easy to pull over to the side of the road and stroll into a tasting room to try some cab, more so than ever before, wineries and tasting rooms are requiring reservations; and with an influx of excited travelers, those reservations are going fast. Suffice it to say, book early and book everything, from wine tastings to dinner reservations. The Napa Department of Public Health and Sonoma Department of Public Health will have the latest local rules and restrictions for the two counties.

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