Down by the Bay: A Long Weekend in California Wine Country
By Andrew Hoge
May 3, 2020
Fly into San Francisco for a wine-centric experience blending of culture, cuisine and tasting rooms
Editor’s note: Due to the COVID 19 health crisis, we recommend you save this trip for a time when it’s safe to leave your house. Many of these businesses are not fully operational, and some of the more rural areas we write about in our travel coverage don’t need an influx of Seattleites right now. But it’s fun to dream, isn’t it?
An excellent bottle of wine (or two…or three) has kick-started many a memorable evening. Washingtonians have plenty to be proud of when it comes to our state’s wine industry, but a drive to Woodinville is worlds away from spending time in California wine country. The difference? With San Francisco as your home base, you’ll have the best of both worlds: the dynamic culinary and cultural offerings of the big city, with bucolic wine country and vineyards, and all of it just a scenic one-hour (on average) drive away.
Before your first evening out in San Francisco, visit the 210-foot Art Deco Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill to take in a stunning 360-degree sunset view of the city. Then, launch your weekend at Howells, a wine bar as highly regarded for its airy yet cozy atmosphere as for owners Nate and Chan Welch’s dynamic regional and international wine collection. For dinner, nosh at Nopa, a hyperlocal, seasonal and exquisitely beautiful restaurant showcasing ingredients made from scratch (even the cheese) by chef Laurence Jossel. Take a break from the grape and grab a nightcap at Smuggler’s Cove, an eye-catching tiki bar, softly lit and filled with nautical decor, that boasts the largest rum selection in the U.S. One could spend all night exploring San Francisco’s impressive culinary scene, but be sure to rest up for a morning departure to one of our three wine country destinations.
About an hour’s drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the picturesque rolling hills of world-famous Sonoma County appear. Wineries are thick on the ground here, so deciding where to start can be a challenge. Downtown Healdsburg, centrally located along U.S. Highway 101, the main artery through Sonoma Valley, is inviting and walkable, showcasing kitschy shops and restaurants to fulfill an epicurean fantasy. Immerse yourself in the melting pot of Southern-, Jewish- and Asian-inspired cuisine at Bird & The Bottle and indulge in the 11-course tasting menu at the celebrated Japanese/Californian restaurant SingleThread. (Plan ahead for the latter: Reservations are available up to two months ahead of time.)
Sonoma tourism took a hit after the Kincade wildfire tore through the region last October; business owners are still reporting fewer visitors than expected. Fortunately, less than 8% of the region’s 1 million acres were touched by the blaze. The historic Spire Collection and Soda Rock Winery sustained the most significant damage and both have since reopened, meaning Sonoma still boasts more than 400 wineries. Of note is Matanzas Creek Winery, which is nestled in the Bennett Valley region and well regarded for its Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot varietals. Don’t forget to check out the lavender gardens, whose crop is used in Matanzas’ bath, body and home products. If you’re in the mood for a Sonoma-grown Cabernet Sauvignon, the Arrowood tasting room is a 20-minute drive from Matanzas.
The hills of Napa Valley, which neighbor Sonoma to the east, are similarly picturesque and rolling, but these hills beckon to those who prefer their wine (particularly Napa’s famous full-bodied reds, like those from Viader Vineyards and Winery) with a side of art. Wander through the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, which houses an extensive collection of work by Bay Area artists, or sip your wine while taking in the art at the celebrated Robert Mondavi Winery. For a unique dining experience, board the Napa Valley Wine Train, which serves multicourse meals (with an impressive wine list, of course) within original Pullman train cars, decked in mahogany paneling and brass accents, as the stunning scenery rolls by outside. In search of a bucket-list meal? Call well ahead to The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s world-renowned, three-Michelin-starred restaurant, for a memorable evening of impeccable service.
Santa Cruz Mountains
If the beach is as important to you as the barrels, consider an excursion to Santa Cruz. This up-and-coming wine region features several vineyards, many located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, so plan to stop along your way as you drive south from San Francisco. Bonny Doon Vineyard is said to have popularized Rhône grapes in California; and the scenic Loma Prieta Winery located in Los Gatos and named after the nearby flat-topped mountain, is the nation’s largest producer of Pinotage grapes, a cross between Pinot Noir and Rhône Cinsaut grapes that was originally produced in South Africa. (Pro tip: Make screenshots of your maps, because cell service in the mountains can be unreliable.) Once you arrive in Santa Cruz proper, stop by its signature attraction: the 113-year-old Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, complete with arcade games and old-school roller coaster.
WHERE TO STAY
If you’re interested in spending more time in the vineyard than in your vehicle, consider these luxurious addresses for a night in wine country.
Sonoma: Farmhouse Inn features 25 guest rooms individually decorated in whimsical farmhouse decor. There’s also a spa and free parking.
Napa: Archer Hotel Napa is a luxe new building that has more than 180 well-appointed guest rooms as well as a rooftop bar and deck.
Santa Cruz: Make the Dream Inn Santa Cruz your home base and indulge in beachfront living just a 15-minute walk from the wharf.