It is hardly a surprise that the majority of people who come visit California wine country come for the wine first and foremost.
Exploring attractive towns such as Napa, Calistoga, Yountville, Sonoma, etc., will certainly be no more than coincidental with the winery tours. But each of them is full of shops, galleries, and minor points of attraction.
If you only go for walk-in tastings, you can theoretically visit over half a dozen wineries on a given day (setting aside the question of whether you will retain your senses after so much wine). Most are open from 10 am to 5 pm and you have to factor in the time to get from one to another, with 30 minutes being roughly the lower boundary for a reasonable tasting. If you take an extended tour of the place or go for more than the most basic tasting option, expect to run out of time for visiting other places in the late afternoon. Many of the wineries in Napa – but not so much in Sonoma – offer tastings only by appointment. If you choose any of those, it will also reduce the number of places you can call on in a day. That being said, the law of diminishing returns kicks in pretty quickly when you hop from winery to winery – you may be better off limiting your itinerary to 4 or 5 places a day in any case.
Practically all estates charge non-trivial amounts for the privilege of tasting their wines. If you plan on many tastings during a day, consider splitting each flight among two people – helps the wallet and also may help to avoid overdoing it. (This option works only for walk-in tastings.)
Castello di Amorosa ♥♥ is the only winery where we went for a full-blown tour. The castle and the grounds are beautiful, and the tour is nice and informative even if you bump into other groups occasionally. The place is rather touristy, so come in the morning for the smallest crowds. Good choice of wines for tasting included with the tour – a group of four can really “game the system” and try all 15 different wines on offer if sharing glasses is not objectionable to anyone.
Sterling Vineyards ♥ is also pretty popular – a half-hour-long line for the cable car to get to the winery from the visitor center is the norm, but it is largely worth it. There are nice views from the high points, and a self-guided tour at your own pace, aided by video displays, with four wines included in the tasting. You also take your glass home with you.
Clos Pegase Winery ♥ resides in a striking building among nice sculptured grounds. It is practically next door to Sterling but has just a fraction of the other’s traffic.
St Supery Winery ♥ boasts a beautiful courtyard, where you can play a round of Pétanque if you so desire. Pleasant walk-in tasting, although at busy times you may have to wait for an available slot.
Mumm Napa ♥♥ is a champaign-centric estate, but it also offers wines by the glass. The terrace seating provides an opportunity to catch gorgeous sunsets in October (the place is open until 6 pm unlike most other estates). Several champagne-tasting options in flights of 3 or 4.
Hess Collection ♥♥, in addition to beautiful grounds, offers visitors free entrance to its contemporary art museum, which can be a welcome diversion from all of the tasting. The wine is not bad either.
Artesa Winery ♥♥♥ is probably our favorite estate, with gorgeous Tuscan-like hill views, and a large and bright visitor center with available atrium seating.
Cliff Lede Vineyards ♥ offer pleasant tasting, just like many others, but differentiates itself by its collection of guitars signed by famous musicians on display in the visitor center. The winemaker owns a number of vineyards which are all named after well-known rock songs, and the visitor center itself is located at the property called “Poetry”.
Clos du Val Winery ♥♥ stands out in offering a private cabana tasting to visitors – you can bring your food, the wines will be provided, and you make an hour-long picnic out of it. We managed to talk our hostess, who mostly left us to our own devices during the hour, into offering us a couple of extra tastings. For an afternoon change of pace, the experience is hard to beat. The views from the cabana are limited, but still a fantastic choice for a winery visit.
Alpha Omega Winery ♥ is one of only a couple of wineries open until 6 pm, so a lot of people who do not want to be “done” at 5 pm converge here at the end of the day. The tasting is a bit more expensive because of that, but seating in a garden by a pond with a fountain is a great choice in good weather.
When in Napa, you have to wake up early one day and take a hot-air balloon ride ♥♥♥. Balloons Above the Valley is one of the companies offering the activity – very well organized, and a pretty good buffet breakfast gets thrown in at the end. Crisp morning weather is essential for full enjoyment, but your chances are pretty high in that regard. If you are spending more than a few days in the valley, you can find a ride with a 24-hour notice, after checking the weather forecast.
Chateau St. Jean ♥♥♥ is a very beautiful winery with truly palace-like grounds. We went here for a slightly more expensive “reserve” tasting, which is held in a lounge overlooking the vineyard.
VJB Vineyard & Cellars ♥♥ is an atmospheric Italian-style winery, with informative tasting. A deli and an espresso bar on the premises help make the visit a real treat – you can have an impromptu lunch in the styled courtyard.
Imagery Estates ♥♥ labels their different wines with reproductions of paintings, some famous, some less so. A gallery of prints is free to visit on the premises. Excellent wine – and being friendly and inquisitive can help you solicit an extra glass or two.
Ravenswood Winery was the only place on our itinerary where the experience was not positive. In the comparatively small tasting room, all places at the counter were taken. That was not a problem in itself, we understand that a popular place may not be able to attend to us right away, but no one even paid any attention to us as we entered and perused the displays. We left after about 10 minutes.
Buena Vista Winery ♥♥ is the oldest winery in California. The exquisite tasting room, well-decorated to evoke the Wild West, is the centerpiece of the nice grounds.
Gundlach Bundschu Winery ♥ is the second oldest, an interesting winery with its own artistic take on labeling wines. There is a park that can be hiked for elevated views over the vineyards and a small lake. The winery tour in an off-road vehicle is offered once a day.
Jacuzzi Family Vineyards ♥ are styled to evoke the Italian countryside. In a large tasting room, complimentary 5 wines can be selected from many choices. Yes, one or two wineries do offer complimentary tastings, while still limiting how much one can drink. As in many other places, being friendly and inquisitive about the winery can elicit an offer of extra tastings. There is also a separate Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar tasting in an adjoining room/shop (this one is unlimited).
Cline Cellars ♥♥ has a smaller tasting room than others and also offers complimentary 5 wines that can be selected from many. Its Live Oak Zinfandel took the gold medal in our unofficial contest at the end, but we allow that we may have had too much by then.
A few places worthy of specific recommendations: Oenotri (in Napa), a busy Italian restaurant with an inventive menu that changes regularly; Bistro Jeanty (in Yountville), with a great French menu; La Taberna (in Napa), with the tapas-style menu full of non-traditional offerings; La Salette (in Sonoma), a modern Portuguese restaurant.
As a general note, many of the wineries do not allow picnicking on their premises, even when you have a sit-down reservation. However, there are park areas as well as picnic tables at some locations where you can have a meal enabled by one of the local supermarkets.