The Napa Valley conjures up images of rolling vineyards, upscale wineries and well-stocked gourmet stores. While it is widely known as a romantic destination for couples, it can also be a great location for a memorable girl’s trip.
Three friends and I took a long weekend bridesmaid trip here. We live in different cities, so there was no time to bond as a group before my destination wedding, an opportunity needed to be created. As an older bride in a long term committed relationship, I also felt no need to have a “live it up for one last night” experience, so we chose a wine country weekend instead of a traditional bachelorette party or bridal shower. We flew into San Francisco from our respective cities, rented a vineyard house and a Mercedes and explored several areas of California wine country.
Accommodations: Trentadue Estate View, Geyserville
Our trip was over Memorial Day weekend, so accommodations were scarce. While initially searching hotels and Air B&B without luck, we eventually settled on a vacation rental house with four bedrooms. The house was set at the Trentadue Winery in Geyserville – a bit further north than we wanted, but conveniently located near several of the wineries on our list. Additionally, four separate bedrooms with ample bathrooms sounded like a good idea for a group of women. The house was located across from Trentadue and Clos du Bois with impressive vineyard views. Stay at Trentadue Estate View
Upon arrival, we investigated some waterfront areas in San Francisco, then drove over the Golden Gate Bridge and up Route 101 to Geyserville. We were pleasantly surprised the size of the house and it’s grounds, along with the view. We stopped at nearby Big John’s Market in Healdsburg to get gourmet provisions for the weekend – wine, cheese, fruit, meats, breads and spreads. Because the 4:00 a.m. wake up time for the early flight had worn me out, I went to sleep early. The next morning, I found the living room decorated with various bachelorette items!
While a wine country weekend might seem like an opportunity for drunken debauchery, it is actually more of a sophisticated aficionado experience. You have your seeing, your swirling, your smelling, your sipping and your savouring. Yes, there are copious amounts of wine involved, but as any self-respecting connoisseur will tell you, wine tasting is less about getting drunk and more about identifying the distinct nuances lovingly crafted into each vintage. Most experts even spit the wine out after tasting!
A location like Napa and Sonoma allows visitors to see the location, experience the climate and understand the terroir of where their favorite brand of wine is produced by touring the grounds to understand how it is made. There is art, science and philosophy involved. A winery trip gives you an up close, local view of the global brand you see in the supermarket. Additionally, some wineries are known for more than just their wine.
While planning the trip I asked each of the girls to choose a winery to visit. Since the region is home to so many famous wineries, I wanted everyone to see their top choice. Our picks were Jordan, Francis Ford Coppola Winery and Château Montelena. The fourth choice of Simi was later replaced by Castello di Amorosa in Napa.
Jordan Vineyard & Winery, Healdsburg
Our first stop was to a beautiful winery estate called Jordan. Jordan only makes two wines – Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, but they do it well. The château is a large yellow building, covered in ivy with red shutters. As château’s go, it has more of a French country than a Loire Valley feel. Like any grand estate, there are living quarters, kitchens, gardens and livestock. We received a long and friendly tour and a library tasting, paired with food. Topics included wine production, agricultural methods, pairing philosophy and winery history. It lasted about 2 hours and it was an excellent experience. Visit Jordan Vineyards & Winery
Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Geyserville
Coppola’s winery is like a resort. A large estate with a more modern interpretation of a château, it almost has a Disneyland like feel when you walk up the steps. We entered by the pool and sipped a drink at the pool bar. Inside the main building was a restaurant and gift store, with memorabilia from many Coppola movies. The gift store has a museum quality due to the film items and is very large. We sat awhile on the scenic terrace before making the short drive home. Visit Francis Ford Coppola Winery
Château Montelena, Calistoga
Famous from the movie Bottleshock, where California wines first beat world renowned French wines in a 1976 blind tasting, Château Montelena is a beautiful château set amidst shaded woods and serene gardens. Upon entering we had high hopes, despite the fact that they only offered the “Beyond Paris & Hollywood” presentation on Thursday and it was Sunday.
We settled in for a flight from a friendly wine educator, only to be rushed through the process with no real mention of the movie and its significance. This had been my first choice because of the movie and history. The only wine we liked was the final reserve at $150 a bottle, which could not be shipped to Florida until October. As a marketer I was stunned at the lost potential from the glorious history, going unrealized in the customer experience. I would have imagined some museum like displays and a permanent video installation, but perhaps that would be considered too commercialized.
A bottle from the famous vintage year was encased in glass on the wall, and a book about its history was for sale in the gift shop area. They also sold some great biking shirts. I was later told by someone who grew up in the area that some of the most well known wineries have some of the worst tours and tastings. Still, the château, grounds and the history go a long way toward making it a great visit. Visit Château Montelena
Castello di Amorosa, Calistoga
This winery is known for its reproduced Italian castle. Having been to this one before, I thought it would be a hit. Walking through its ramparts and courtyard is similar to being in Tuscany, and the wine is good too. With no tours available that morning, we spent an hour or so exploring the castle, watching a video about its construction and enjoying a tasting in the wine cellar. The flight allows you to pick 5-6 from a large list, best accommodating the various tastes of the group ranging from dry to sweet. For an extra $5 it can be paired with chocolate.
Though our educator was new, he was fun and we spent a long time there. The gift shop is one of the largest with the highest quality items in the valley. The European style grounds are stunning with vineyards, mountain views and Italian cypress trees. There are gardens, livestock and a chapel here as well. Their wines are only available via the winery or their website. Overall, it is a truly memorable experience. Visit Castello di Amorosa
Wine country is known as a foodie zone, with many popular restaurants and bistros dispersed throughout. There are small, well rated restaurants, with high marks ranging from Yelp to Zagat to Michelin.
Alioto’s, Waterfront, San Francisco
Set near the famous Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf, this traditional seafood restaurant offered great waterfront views from its upper floor. We settled into the trip, getting to know each other over seafood bisque and clam chowder. Eat at Alioto’s
Big John’s Market, Healdsburg
A gourmet market with a large selection of cheeses, bakery, charcuterie, wine and produce items. A great place to stock up on food for your rental or picnic items for the day. If renting a house, don’t forget to buy your morning coffee, or you will be heading out the next day like we did! Shop at Big John’s Market
Costeaux Bakery, Healdsburg
This was our breakfast spot, in downtown Healdsburg. It offered coffee, traditional French bakery items with a sit down breakfast – either inside or in the outdoor courtyard. Fabulous eggs benedict’s and dessert-like french toast. Eat at Costeaux Bakery
A trendy, new restaurant in downtown Healdsburg featuring creative cocktails and inventive dishes. We had the tasting menu with 5 courses at $15 each. A tasting menu is good way to sample many offerings on a first visit to a restaurant. You are served smaller versions of the house’s best meals. Though pricier and often filling, it allows you to get a good idea of the chef’s quality and range in one visit. At Valette the tasting menu must be ordered by the entire table and dishes can be split in two – meaning two different options are brought out to be shared by two different people. It was a culinary experience extraordinaire. Friendly staff added to the celebration. Eat at Valette
Dry Creek General Store, Healdsburg
An updated country general store set amidst vineyards, this is a regular stop for morning coffee, pastry items, small lunches or picnic fare. There is also a great selection of French country decorative items. Eat at Dry Creek General Store
Auberge du Soleil, Rutherford
This is an upscale resort belonging to the Relais & Chateaux line, offering a beautiful view of the valley from the Rutherford Hills. Though a little warm that day, we enjoyed some wine and cheese in the sun before making the final trek back to the airport for our redeye home. Eat at Auberge du Soleil
When traveling to this area, realize that what people often refer to as the Napa Valley actually includes several valleys, counties and towns. There is Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley, each respectable wine growing regions in their own right. There are the cities of Napa, Sonoma, St Helena, Oakville, Yountville, Calistoga, Kenwood and Healdsburg in addition to the counties of Napa and Sonoma – which are mainly connected by routes 101, 128 and 29. The area is high end rural and travel time isn’t long between wineries if you plan well. There are many tours and drivers available if you would prefer not to drive. From our rental, 2 well known wineries were within walking distance. Bicyclists are also a common sight.