10 Tips for Your First Trip to the California Wine Country

Undulating, emerald green hills; rolling vineyards bursting with ripe, purple fruit; blankets of wildflowers and carpets of mustard fields. The natural scenery of California’s wine country is intoxicating enough, but when you realize that there are 600 plus wineries in Napa and Sonoma — and who knows how many must-eat restaurants — planning your first trip to the region can be a tad daunting.

You’ll want to check out some of the bucket list activities, of course, but since your time (and cash) is probably limited, go for quality, not quantity. Here are ten tips to help you design a wine country adventure that’s sure to engage and inspire all of your senses, offering just the right mix of romance, revelry, and rest.

1) Ride the Wine Train under the full moon

Do the Wine Train right: dine at a private table for two with an unobstructed view of the full moon under the Champagne Vista Dome’s curved glass windows. The Wine Train offers an exclusive monthly dinner package that accommodates just 16 parties. This is about as intimate and romantic as a three-hour tour of the moonlight-soaked vineyards gets.

You’ll be welcomed to your private booth with a glass of bubbly, sink into your velveteen fabric armchairs, and feast on a four-course gourmet dinner prepared fresh in the antique train’s state-of-the-art, lower level kitchen.

2) Hire a driver

You’ll want to get your bearings on the first day out, so why worry about directions and blood alcohol levels? Let a pro do the driving. An affordable solution: hire a designated driver service that will shuttle you around in your own private or rental car. You’ll benefit from a local’s intimate knowledge of the best wineries and eateries and the least trafficked routes, plus you’ve got a photographer for the day!

Step up the class a notch and spring for a private driver and a Lincoln Town Car. You’ll pull up to the best wineries in style and taste without worry while your driver fetches you a gourmet picnic lunch and a secluded grassy spot with a stellar view.

3) Picnic in the vines

Speaking of picnics, make sure to allocate one day’s lunch at a winery that offers outdoor seating areas and allows you to bring your own meal. (Oakville Grocery? Yes!) Only a handful of wineries in Napa fit this bill, and Clos du Val on the Silverado Trail is a delicious choice. Reserve a private outdoor cabana that overlooks the beautiful Stags Leap vineyard, or pull up to a picnic bench on the winery’s front lawn or in the olive grove. You’ll need a reservation; seating is definitely limited.

4) Savor lunch on Auberge du Soleil’s terrace

Hands down, “Auberge” offers one of the most spectacular outdoor dining experiences in Napa Valley. Perched on a peaceful, 33-acre hillside olive grove in Rutherford, this renowned Inn and Spa houses a Michelin-rated restaurant. Mediterranean-inspired cuisine is paired with a lovingly curated wine list that boasts over 1500 selections. Coveted tables on the famous terrace offer sweeping views of the neighboring vineyards. If you can’t make it for a meal, at least set aside time for a sunset cocktail or two on the heavenly wraparound deck.

5) Appreciate great art and great wine

Some winery owners are as supportive of the visual arts as they are the vinicultural arts. Treat your eyes and your palate to masterful artistry at Napa’s Hess Collection. The world-class wines are paired with Donald Hess’s passionate art collection housed in a stately 1903 stone winery. The collection showcases 20 living artists whose creations move Hess so deeply that he is compelled to procure and then share the works with guests.

Clos Pegase Winery, just outside Calistoga, is an architectural wonder. This stunning property created by visionary architect Michael Graves in 1987 evokes ancient Mediterranean temples blended with sleek modernity. The manicured grounds and 20,000 square feet of caves dug into the volcanic knoll behind the winery all attest to the deserved title of, “America’s first monument to wine.”

6) Spa and soak in Calistoga

Your wine weary bodies are going to need some pampering and detoxing, so book a couple’s mud bath halfway through your trip. Entrust yourself to the loving hands of your personal spa attendant at Golden Haven Hot Springs as you slide into a soothing mud bath full of clay, peat, and mineral water. Your new BFF will apply a clay facial mask and a cold compress as you surrender those tight muscles and stiff joints to the alchemical mud.

Clean off with a hot springs shower, luxuriate a while in your private Jacuzzi with water from the spa’s geothermal aquifer, and then get your aromatherapy blanket wrap on. Bliss.

7) Explore the caves

It will be hard to choose just one, but you’ll have to do some wine cave spelunking while you’re here. Hit up the Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves, the first sparkling wine house in Sonoma Carneros. After your tour, spend an hour outside on the patio enjoying a bubbling tasting flight and cheese platter, drinking in some of the best vineyard views in the entire valley.

8) Sleep in Carneros

The Carneros Region (Los Carneros) straddles the southern ends of both Napa and Sonoma Counties and gives you the best of all worlds. You’re centrally located for all of your destinations, and it’s the coolest region in the area thanks to its proximity to the San Francisco Bay. Ergo: Carneros Pinot Noir rocks!

Stay at the secluded and beloved Carneros Inn, tucked into the verdant rolling hills and surrounding pastures. While the guest cottages look a bit funky on the outside, the spacious interiors offer 400 square feet of exceptional amenities, complete with fireplaces and heated slate floors in the baths. French doors open out to your own private patio and garden equipped with alfresco showers, fire pits, and soaking tubs for two. Calm, relaxing, serene.

9) Soar the sunrise skies in a balloon

Head up to Yountville for an early morning bird’s eye view of the entire wine-growing region from the thrilling interior of a hot air balloon basket. You’ll launch just after dawn when the winds are still, the air is cool, and most of the valley’s inhabitants are still sleeping it off. Drink up the majestic Mt. St. Helena to the north, the Mayacamas Range to the west, and on crystal clear days — you might even spot the San Francisco skyline and the Sierras.

10) Drink outside the Napa Valley wine box

It’s natural to think of Napa and Sonoma first when planning your inaugural adventure to California’s wine country, but keep in mind that there are over 100 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in this grape abundant state.

Coastal Mendocino lies further north and offers bucolic country lanes, an unhurried pace, and ten distinct wine regions. The 300-mile Central Valley is California’s largest AVA, stretching from the Sacramento Valley south to the San Joaquin Valley. But Monterey, Paso Robles, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, and way-down-south Temecula are all renowned wine growing regions with their own viticultural signatures and shining wine stars to explore. Cheers!