Within swilling distance of San Francisco, the fabulously fertile and scenically blessed valleys of Sonoma and Napa, groan with over 900 wineries. Before taking in some tasting highlights in fancy-pants Napa, I first ventured to the Sonoma Valley, its folksy, down-to-earth neighbour, studded in historic gravitas. Sonoma Town retains an infectious feel of old California, with a central plaza ringed by restaurants, bookshops, boutiques and the delightful 80-year old Sebastiani Theatre. The town was founded in 1823, the last mission to be established by the Spanish Franciscans in California after first setting about their Christian colonisation in 1769.
The whitewashed adobe mission served as a Mexican outpost and is steeped in dramatic history, which is fascinating to explore, including the Bear Flag Revolt in 146, culminating in the United States taking control of California from Mexico. Be sure to pop in to Sonoma Cheese Factory, where the free tastings are plentiful and the flavour range stupendous.
Intertwined with the Californian wine industry, it was Spanish missionaries who planted the first vines to make wine for their Mass. The bucolic splendour of Sonoma’s 17-mile long valley, framed by tumbling hills, wreathed in vineyards, is soothingly photogenic. I visited in early spring, when the hills are verdant and the manicured vineyards are carpeted with mustard flowers. If you’re visiting in autumn, burnished light and auburn leaves accentuate the sense of calming ambience.
Famed for its boutique and family-operated wineries, tastings tend to be cheaper in Sonoma – in some cases, free. Some highly recommended stops include Madonna Estate and Gundlach-Bundschu, who both produce sublime merlots. Chateau St. Jean is another starring specimen, the pioneer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Sonoma County, offering superb tastings paired with cheese and charcuterie. Pop into the village of Glen Ellen, once the home of famed author, Jack London. The charred remains of his enormous house are preserved in the state park.
Before lining up Napa, I spent a night at the superlative Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn. Exquisite and peaceful, and somewhat reminiscent of the Beverly Hills Hotel, this pastel pink resort, built in California Mission style, is a characterful oasis. My deluxe suite exuded what the resort calls “Wine Country style”, with a wood-burning fireplace, spacious lounge area, four poster bed, sun-catching balcony and indulgent Jacuzzi tub, complete with lavish toiletries.
First impressions count and the resort’s lobby is an eye-grabber with its high wood-beam ceilings, large central fireplace, snug chairs and sofas and unmistakeable sense of conviviality. It’s a charismatic space you’ll want to linger in. As you will in the resort’s pools, fed by thermal hot springs and complemented with a poolside café, bar and private cabanas available to rent, backed by the iconic water tower. The fire pits will ward off any unseasonal chills at night.
If you want to take your zen-like state of bliss to the next level, the award-winning Willow Stream Spa will tick all the boxes, a 40,000 square feet sanctuary boasting 30 treatment rooms. Daily wine tastings take place in the lobby around 430pm, while you’ve got a spoil of vineyards in easy reach, whether you want to head out on a rental bike, or self-drive. http://www.fairmont.com/sonoma/
After a restorative sleep, I pointed the car east to noble Napa, the scene of horrific wild fires last October. You don’t have to look hard to notice the scars on the landscape, but Wine Country has bounced back impressively well. I love driving the Silverado Trail, east of Napa town, clad in Silver Oaks and terraced vineyards, tumbling across the Tuscan-like terrain. You’ll notice the scorched silver oaks in the higher elevations, above superb wineries like Signorello, Pine Ridge and Robert Sinskey.
The Napa Valley is renowned for its majestic cabernets, fairy-tale chateaus and top-end culinary scene. Robert Mondavi winery is powerhouse, widely credited for stamping Napa on the wine world’s map. They offer tours and tastings for every level of interest and expertise. Bubbles? Domaine Chandon is well worth a visit, to marvel over their stellar Californian interpretation of method champenoise. Further north in St. Helena, Charles Krug Winery is a stunning stop, founded in 1861, while Napa’s oldest continuously operating winery, Beringer, is still at the top of class.
Two boutique wineries that enchanted me were V. Sattui winery, with its gorgeous Tuscan character and magnificent deli, while the award-winning Sutter Home family winery is situated right across the road. Finally, Spring Mountain Winery is another inspired choice, but you do need to book in advance. I am a chronic 80s’ tragic and Spring Mountain was the filming location of the hit soap opera, Falcon Crest. All the buildings are so recognisable; I was half expecting Angela Channing to enter the scene, swilling a muscular cabernet sauvignon.
Wherever you choose to stay in Wine Country, lock in your accommodation through www.Hotels.com, which is packed with great deals. Hotels.com Rewards gives you one free night after 10 nights booked– which you can store up. Rewards members and mobile app users also enjoy exclusive access to Secret Prices. Booking a perfect hotel on the go? I found the Hotels.com mobile app to be fast, simple and secure.
Hawaiian Airlines offers one-stop flights between New Zealand and San Francisco or Oakland via Honolulu. For just NZ$145 per person, per sector, Extra Comfort Seating is a great-value way to accentuate the experience, particularly on the haul between Auckland and Honolulu. Bag a great fare and seat to suit. www.hawaiianairlines.co.nz