I came here back in the early 80’s when the big Napa valley wine boom was barely getting started. At that time, you could cruise from winery to winery tasting all of the wares for free-and without an appointment. Boy, have times changed.
Today, many (perhaps half?) of all wineries require an appointment. Almost none will allow a free tasting from more than one bottle. And all of these places are full to the brim with tourists, especially in September when I went.
But what can’t be denied is that this is some of the best wine in the world, and the weather in CA this time of year is glorious. I took advantage of that by putting the top down on my BMW convertible and just cruising on some days and renting a bike on others. In between, I drank some awesome vino and drank in some of the best scenery on the planet.
If I had to choose where to go-Napa or Sonoma? I would say Napa if you are new to wine tasting and/or don’t care about wine at all. It offers more for the casual tourist-castles to explore, gondola rides with great views, huge wineries with restaurants attached, uber chic small towns. But if you love wine and just want to enjoy great views in an unpretentious setting, “do” Sonoma. There, you will find fewer crowds and still get the great wine.
Don’t get me wrong-Napa has some world class wines. It’s just that Sonoma does, too, and there you don’t have to share the tasting room with a busload of Chinese tourists. Sonoma is laid back and easy going. Quite a bit cheaper, too. I found more than one winery there eager to share a free tasting with me (for one wine), and I got personalized service and fantastic vineyard views to boot.
In Napa, I lined up with 4-6 other guests and bellied up to the bar in an underground cave to vie for the attention of the harried staffer. Yes, I drank great wine, but generally I had no view, and I felt like I was just a number.
Sonoma is for those who want a more personalized, casual, “old school” experience. It’s best if you like white wines or Pinot Noirs. Napa is for those who love heavy reds like Cabernet or Zinfandel and who prefer a more structured tasting experience. As for where to stay, Calistoga in Napa, Healdsburg in Sonoma.