There’s really no such thing as a bad time of year to explore California’s wine country, but we’ll let you in on a little secret: the best time to go is during harvest. From mid-August to October, the region is ripe with activity, and so too are the vines as their gorgeous grape clusters wait patiently to be picked. The scenery combined with mild, sunny weather makes for a perfect early fall getaway. Below, we’ve put together a sample trip itinerary with our recommended restaurants, hotels, wineries, vineyards and tasting rooms.
Benziger Family Winery
There’s an undeniable family-owned feel that you get when you first step foot onto the Benziger Estate. When you visit, if Mike Benziner is around to give you a tour, he’ll proudly tell you about the rich history of the property, which he purchased with his wife in 1980. Just a year later, 14 members of the Benziger clan were living and working together on the vineyard as they prepared to launch the family wine business. The brand has since become synonymous with biodynamic winemaking, a practice they implemented in the early ‘90s and continue to employ today. Benziger currently produces everything from Sauvignon Blanc to Syrah, but their standout is undoubtedly a 2011 Bordeaux blend called “Tribute,” which pays homage to the winemaker’s parents.
1883 London Ranch Rd
Glen Ellen, CA 95442
Kunde Family Estate
The best time to visit Kunde Family Estate is, without question, a few hours before sunset. You’ll want to make a reservation for the 3:30pm “Mountain Top Tasting” (though it’s also offered every hour on the hour starting at 11:30 am)—and see if the estate’s quick-witted and knowledgeable general manager Len is available to give you the tour. You’ll start off with a glass of crisp white wine in the tasting room before being chauffeured on a short, scenic ride up the mountain. When you arrive—1,400 feet above the valley floor—you’ll settle into a chair on a simple wooden deck and take in what is easily the best view in Sonoma. There, you’ll be guided through a tasting and hear about the rich history of the fifth-generation family-owned winery. You also might find yourself shocked by the 2012 Kunde Reserve Chardonnay, which is like no other chardonnay you’ve ever sipped before—and arguably the winery’s best.
9825 Sonoma Hwy
When you first pull up to the rustic Farmhouse Inn, there isn’t much to see besides a small freestanding cottage that serves as the guest check in. Beyond that, there’s a non-descript building that seems, at least exteriorly, underwhelming—but everything changes the second you open the door to your room. We recommend the Luxury Barn Room, which has vaulted ceilings, a gorgeous white willow four-poster bed, heated floors and a fireplace that you can enjoy both in the room and outside from your private outdoor deck. But best of all is the bathroom, which can only be described as a playground for adults. It’s stocked with brown sugar scrubs, bath salts and soap by the slice—all made on the property with local ingredients like avocado and lavender. You’ll find yourself taking leisurely steam showers and hour-long baths in the jetted tub, and the oversized windows will make you feel as if you’ve been delicately placed in the middle of the woods. The inn has a way of treating you like family rather than a guest—as evidenced by the welcome amenity box they place in your room. It’s filled with treats like sliced almond brittle and sea salt caramel pop-corn, or as the hotel calls them, “farmhouse provisions.”
7871 River Rd
Forestville, CA 95436
Glen Ellen Inn
Glen Ellen Inn is by no means the swankiest place in Sonoma, but it’s also not trying to be. The country cottage, built in the 1940s, is located in the heart of Sonoma Valley’s “vineyard district,” making it the perfect place to stop for a no-frills bite to eat in between vineyard visits. Oysters are a favorite at Glenn Ellen in addition to the ginger calamari with grilled pineapple salsa, watermelon salad with micro greens and fish tacos served on soft corn tortillas.
Hestan Vineyard Tasting Room
The recently opened Hestan Vineyard Tasting Room in downtown Yountville was a clever move from the 18-year-old wine company, whose off-the-beaten-path estate is located in a somewhat remote area of Napa. Book a “Reserve Tasting” at the 2,400 square-foot space and you’ll be treated to a selection of Hestan’s premium estate-grown Bordeaux-style blends and cabernet sauvignons.
6548 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
The veranda at Duckhorn Vineyards—where most of the tastings take place—is consistently buzzing with activity. Perhaps it’s the vineyard’s impressive Bordeaux varietals that draw people in or the fact that the brand has an increasingly large presence across the country, specifically in Washington. Duckhorn wines are said to be served with greater frequency in the White House than any other brand. Ask for a glass of the 2011 Three Palm Merlot and you’ll instantly understand why.
1000 Lodi Ln
St Helena, CA 94574
Sciandri Family Vineyards
When you arrive at Sciandri Family Vineyards, you might feel as if you’re intruding on a private residence—and that’s exactly what you’re doing. The property is technically not open to the public, but the family will arrange private tours and tastings upon request. Vineyard tours and tastings take place in the backyard of the Sciandri family home, where owners Ron and Roberta Sciandri currently live. Alongside their daughter, Rebecca Griffin, the family personally hosts all guests, promising one of the most intimate experiences on offer in Napa.
50 Kreuse Canyone Dr
Napa Valley, CA 94559
At Vineyard 29, you’ll get to explore one of the most unusual wineries in Napa Valley. Their technique, which combines traditional winemaking methods with ultra-modern technology, makes perfect sense given that the vineyard’s co-owner Chuck McMinn spent 25 years as an IT executive before jumping into the wine business. After touring Vineyard 29’s state-of-the-art winery, be sure to enjoy a glass of their standout Cru Sauvignon Blanc on the veranda overlooking the vineyard.
2929 St Helena Hwy
St Helena, CA 94574
With new restaurants, hotels and bars opening up on every block, it’s an exciting time for downtown Napa. The 141-room Andaz is right in the center of it all, walking distance from just about everything. Unlike most rustic, country-style properties you’ll find in the area, Andaz has a hip, decidedly modern vibe, complete with a rooftop fire pit and its craft cocktail bar, Mercantile Social. There, you’ll probably feel tempted to take a break from all the wine you’ve been drinking, and when you do, we recommend the Verbena Special—a gin-based drink with Sherry, simple syrup and lemon verbena. As for the rooms, the Harvest Suite is most luxurious with retractable glass walls that open to reveal a private balcony.
1450 First St
Napa, CA 94559
For a more secluded experience, Calistoga Ranch offers the ultimate in privacy— which is why it’s a favorite among celebrities like Lady Gaga, Bono and Mick Jagger. The resort is built in a 157-acre canyon, with scenic hiking trails, a spa and an on-property wine cave. To call the accommodations “rooms,” would be deeply insufficient. Guests stay in spacious private lodges where the living area is actually outdoors—complete with a hot tub, fireplace, large seating area and shower garden.
755 Silverado Trail N
Calistoga, CA 94515
The Restaurant at Meadowood
Dining at Meadowood isn’t just considered “having dinner” – it’s a four-hour-long culinary event with mouth-watering dishes, mind-blowing presentation and service so exemplary it earned the restaurant a James Beard Award at this year’s ceremony. The experience consists of an 11-course tasting menu that incorporates fresh, locally-sourced ingredients in imaginative dishes, such as a whole poussin baked and presented inside a loaf of sourdough bread and crispy kale chips served on a vintage cookbook in lieu of a plate. If you’re able to maneuver out of your chair once the meal is over, ask your server for a tour of the kitchen—it’ll make you appreciate the experience even more.
Located within Napa’s Solage Calistoga Resort, the Michelin-starred Solbar delivers delicious seasonal dishes in a super chic setting. The menu is cleverly designed to please just about every type of diner—appetizers and main courses are separated into “healthy, lighter dishes” and “hearty cuisine.” That way, guests looking for comfort food are able to indulge in dishes like slow roasted Sonoma pork belly and ribeye steak with creamed spinach, while those looking for lighter fare can enjoy togarashi-cured Hawaiian hamachi or lemongrass-poached sole. Be sure to request outside seating, and don’t worry if it gets a little chilly—servers bring out warm blankets straight from the hotel’s laundry room to keep diners comfortable while eating.
Carmel Wine Walk by-the-Sea
With 12 tasting rooms located within just a few blocks of each other, there’s plenty of wine to be had in Carmel-by-the-Sea. The best way to see them all is by picking up a Wine Tasting Passport once you get into town. You’ll get to choose nine tasting rooms to visit at your leisure on a self-guided walking tour with one wine flight included at each location. The tasting rooms—and their respective pourers—all offer distinctly unique personalities. We recommend visiting Scheid Vineyards (and tasting their 2010 Triple Layer Red) and the 2011 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir at Manzoni Cellars.
For more info, visit carmelcalifornia.org
Carmel Valley Ranch
Carmel Valley Ranch is the kind of place that caters to those looking for an action-packed getaway, but also offers the perfect venue for a few days of complete relaxation. The 500-acre resort has a championship-level 18-hole golf course, a nine court tennis complex, two salt-water pools, an on-property farm and pinot noir vineyard, miles upon miles of hiking trails, a 10,500-square-foot spa, three dining concepts and so much more. You’ll want to book the Hilltop Garden Suite, a well-appointed corner unit with a wrap-around deck that promises priceless views of Carmel Valley.
1 Old Ranch Rd
Carmel, CA 93923
Inspired by inns found along the European countryside, Carmel-by-the-Sea’s Casanova serves up rustic Italian and French cuisine in a charming and intimate setting. It’s often hailed as “Carmel’s Most Romantic Restaurant”—and it certainly is—but Casanova also feels like the kind of place you could spend hours indulging in pasta and bottles of red wine with friends. In our experience, pasta is what they do best—particularly the linguini with lobster and clams in a white wine sauce and the gnocchi Casanova with spinach and parmesan.
5th Ave between Mission and San Carlos
Carmel, CA 93923