As my blog name implies, I have long suffered from a condition known as California Envy.
It started with an obsession with pop culture as a teenager and the celebrity feeding ground of Los Angeles. I visited the state a few times after college and decided I was a Southern California girl all the way. I liked San Francisco, but it was a little too “fit” for me. All those steep roads? No thanks. Plus, I studied some enriching nonfiction about the history, economies and people of LA and Orange County that really deepened my understanding and appreciation of the area. (I watched Laguna Beach and The Hills.)
But it wasn’t until I visited Napa Valley with my husband JB three years ago as an extension of a trip to San Francisco that I decided the Northern California Wine Country was where I belonged. Or at least where I belonged once we retired. In that one visit, I determined if heaven exists, mine is a country road lined with grapes. And somewhere there is a tasting room just ready to welcome me in through its pearly gates when the time comes.
And it’s not even that I like wine that much.
Sure, it’s delicious, soothing and can take the edge off a rough day, but coffee, pizza and ice cream do that for me too. I will nod my head as you tell me a particular bottle is special because of the unique blend of a rare Grenache grape from a region in France usually known for its Merlot. But I probably can’t tell the difference between it and the $9.99 bottle I just bought from Trader Joe’s.
Falling in love with the Wine Country was about more than the wine, and that was reinforced last week when JB and I took a brief escape from parenting and everyday life to visit Sonoma County.
It’s about the aesthetic beauty of Northern California. Mountains, valleys, and the comforting feeling that even the ocean isn’t too far away. It’s about the stories of the winemakers — those who have farming and viticulture in their blood and others who come to this world from radically different walks of life: from an Australian software engineer to a former head of MGM Studios (raised here in Dallas no less!).
It’s learning about the relationships on the vineyard — fathers and sons, brothers, spouses, and college buddies. And meeting one of the few female winemakers in the region.
And it’s about the camaraderie that naturally forms among strangers when you are taking part in a common interest. On our recent trip, it seemed everyone we met had a Texas connection and one group we shared a tasting with included a couple of fellow alums from Northwestern University. Go ‘Cats!
Wine tasting isn’t just about drinking or even enjoying a glass of wine. It’s education. It’s learning about a science — just a little more fun than dissecting a frog or remembering the difference between atoms and particles (at least for me).
For those who are interested in traveling to the region for the first time or because you too dream of retiring there (look me up in 25 years!), I listed below the wineries and restaurants we visited. I am not too hard to please, and I truly thought they were all great. We stayed in the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg, which is considered a hotspot in the area in terms of restaurants and shopping, as well as being convenient to the three main AVA’s (American Viticultural Area) in Sonoma. My husband loves to delve into research when it comes to trip planning, so we had a general schedule each day, but you could also just show up, follow the street signs to the different wineries and go!
- Unti Vineyards: This was our first stop and probably my favorite. I’m not sophisticated enough to tell you what made it so special… just fine-tasting wine and a friendly, knowledgeable sommelier behind the bar.
- The Meeker Vineyard: The cutest dog hangs out there. And of course the wine wasn’t bad either.
- Sbragia Family Vineyards: A little more commercial, but expansive terrace and views.
- Ridge Vineyards: Taste the world-famous Monte Bello cab.
- Stuhlmuller Vineyards: My second favorite visit. Again, just ’cause.
- Stonestreet Estate Vineyards: Spring for the upgraded package of lunch on the patio. Stunning views.
- Medlock Ames: Ask to see the speakeasy bar attached.
- Field Stone Winery: No frills, great prices.
- Iron Horse Vineyards: A bit of a party atmosphere with great views and delicious sparkling wines to taste (my favorite!).
- Merry Edwards Winery: The winemaker (who is also the owner) is female! #getitgirl
- Martinelli Winery and Vineyards: Long-time family vineyard.
- Bergamont Alley: A bar in Healdsburg that doesn’t sell any local wines, so, as we were told, is a popular place for winemakers to hang out with no hard feelings.
Eating (all in Healdsburg except when noted)
- Flying Goat Coffee
- Diavola Pizzeria (Geyserville)
- Bravas Bar de Tapas
- Campo Fina
- Willow Wood Market Cafe (In the town of Graton in the Russian River Valley)
- Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar
I have gone on way too long, but just typing out the wineries and restaurants makes me long to return. If you have never been and enjoy wine, I hope you will add Napa, Sonoma or both to your list. There are no doubt other fantastic wine-making areas in the United States (including in my beloved Texas), but none more beautiful and all-encapsulating of what makes wine tasting so special than here — at least for this wannabe California girl.