Trip Coach: February 12, 2008
Jennifer Paull, editor of "Compass American Guides: California Wine Country, 5th edition," answered your questions on California wine country.
Jennifer Paull: Hello everyone,
I'm Jennifer Paull, here to field your questions on the California Wine Country, from the up-and-coming regions of the Central Coast to the big guns of Napa and Sonoma. Lots of questions have been pouring in (couldn't help the pun) and I'll do my best to get to them all in the next hour. If you have special preferences about the experiences you're looking for, do let me know so that I can best tailor my suggestions. Now let's uncork the questions¿
Bellevue, WA: I am heading to Sonoma (get there about every three years). Once again, I am waitlisted on the famous French Laundry. Hit the wonderful Cyrus last time, but wonder if there is another lesser know gem to dine at—and also a lesser known winery that needs to be discovered (my friends are sending us to Flowers, which I had not tried, and last time we found Bella, which was lovely!) Thanks, Tammy
Jennifer Paull: Hello Tammy—what a mouthwatering question! Sounds like cost is no object in your hunt for a special restaurant, so I won't hesitate to recommend the Farmhouse Inn. Although this place has been in business for several years, it's off the beaten track in Forestville, so it's not jammed with daytrippers. The menu is contemporary with a French slant and they source plenty of ingredients locally, like the goat cheeses from down the road. Another option is Healdsburg's Dry Creek Kitchen, led by star chef Charlie Palmer—very sophisticated, modern cooking.
And speaking of things Dry Creek, have you explored the wineries in the Dry Creek Valley? Places like Preston Vineyards and David Coffaro Estate are laid-back, small-production spots with memorable wines, and Michel-Schlumberger has some terrific cabernet sauvignons to try. Have a great trip!
Northfield, Vt.: I will be in Sonoma 3/19-3/20. What are the "must visit" vineyards in Sonoma for a 2 day trip? The best 2-3 restaurant choices for dinner in the town of Sonoma? Thanks.
Jennifer Paull: Let's see, are you looking for a good place for an introduction to winemaking and wine tasting—or would you prefer to skip tours etc. and find a quiet, family-run spot? Benziger, near Glen Ellen in the Sonoma Valley, has a particularly good tour, during which the guides describe the various microclimates, show you an aging cave, and so on. The tours are first come, first served, so be sure to get here before noon.
If you'd rather stop into smaller places along a scenic route, head for the Westside Road, which follows the Russian River southwest of Healdsburg. Several of the wineries here, like Gary Farrell, make wonderful pinot noir.
As for restaurants in the town of Sonoma, the Harvest Moon is a reliable stop for homey, delicious cooking. Santé, in the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, may be the town's swankiest place to eat. If you'd like to branch out, try LaSalette's Portuguese-inflected dishes. (LaSalette's also a good place for breakfast.)
Henderson, Nev.: What do you think about the wines from Livermore, CA?
Jennifer Paull: I haven't tried very many wines from Livermore (they're not easy to find here in NYC!) but I was impressed by a Rhone-style red blend from Thomas Coyne. Livermore's definitely an up-and-coming appellation, and it's getting more and more daytrippers from the Bay Area.
Dallas, Tex.: I am making my first trip to Napa Valley April 2-5. I am traveling alone. I plan to tour some wineries. Do you recommend a group tour with strangers or getting my own car and driver? I am okay with either, but I want to use a good service with knowledgeable guides. Any recommendations? Also, what are good spas in the area? I am staying in Napa. Thanks!
Jennifer Paull: Your decision not to drive yourself is a good one—you won't have to worry about getting behind the wheel after sipping. But with just a few days in the area, it might be best to maximize your opportunity and do just what you like, when you like, with a personal tour / driver.
Beau Wine Tours can chauffeur you around in a sedan or limo; you can either put together your own list of places to visit, or pick one of their pre-set tours. They specialize in Napa, so they really know whereof they speak. The Napa Wine Tours company has several prearranged options and group tours, including a bike tour.
For spas, a big splurge would be the Spa at Villagio, which just underwent a revamp. The Health Spa Napa Valley is a good choice if you'd like to incorporate yoga or a workout. Hitting the mud baths in Calistoga is a neat way to tap into Napa's history (although sometimes the peaty smell takes some getting used to). Places like Indian Springs have been here for over a century. A new resort, Solage, just opened a sleek spa complete with a "mud bar."