California’s Wine Country




by Marty Olmstead and Ry Riegert


As you will discover, the real fun of exploring the Wine Country lies along the side roads and country lanes.

Southern Napa Valley covers the lower end of the Napa Valley, including the city of Napa, Napa’s portion of the Carneros appellation, and the towns of Yountville, Oakville and Rutherford.  Founded on the banks of the Napa River, the city has a remarkable Victorian district, where a number of old homes have been pressed into service as bed and breakfasts. The downtown area received a big boost with the 2001 opening of COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts. Major wineries such as Mondavi and Domaine Chandon, to name just two, can be found up the highway, but several intriguing wineries are tucked away in the hills.

In the Northern Napa Valley, shopping, restaurants and inns become a bit more chic and generally a bit more expensive. The charming town of St. Helena is chock-a-block with boutiques and home decor stores as well as the occasional café and bookstore. For a taste of the Wild West, you can head to the top of the valley to visit Calistoga, where bathing in hot water (or even mud baths) has been known to relieve an ache or two.  Nearby is a state park where Robert Louis Stevenson honeymooned.  Scenic Sonoma Valley runs from the top of San Pablo Bay in a crescent that tops out at Santa Rosa. Here, you can not only sample fabulous wines but also learn the history of the Spanish missions and the founding of the Bear Republic. An eight-acre plaza planted with 200 types of trees and dozens of rose bushes beckons year-round with picnic tables. In summer, the Tuesday-night market is quite the after-work scene, with music as well as abundant local produce, breads and other artisanal pro—ducts. Adventure author Jack London and, much later, the late, great food writer M.F.K. Fisher both chose the Sonoma Valley—in particular, the outskirts of the town of Glen Ellen-as their home. Here you can visit a museum devoted to London in a state park and find a winery that gives tours in a tractor-pulled tram. This village is the hub of this region, with excellent restaurants and shopping. Kenwood is known chiefly for its many wineries.

When the valley ends at the county seat of Santa Rosa, Northern Sonoma County begins. By far the biggest city in the region, Santa Rosa is also the most trafficked. Some charming neighborhoods can be found near downtown, which unfortunately was divided when Route 101 was constructed, essentially chopping off Historic Railroad Square. Yet there are underpasses that access this popular enclave of shops, hotels, restaurants, cafés and nightclubs. About 15 miles north, Healdsburg has, like Sonoma, a downtown plaza flanked by oodles of stores and eateries, including a brew pub. It also has a regional museum and a boffo movie house where first-run and avant-garde films are the bill of fare. Healdsburg, with lush valleys in all directions, is the hub for winemaking, one of which, Dry Creek Valley, ends at Lake Sonoma, a busy recreational destination.

The Russian River Area is considered north and west of Healdsburg, though the river itself runs beside that town. Several delightful roads weave through this region, where wineries are clustered to exploit the fertile riverside soil. Sebastopol is a working town with plenty of shops and a handful of good restaurants. Most of the action in these parts happens in and around Guerneville, which somehow works as both a family and a gay summertime retreat, when visitors descend on the year-round residents.

The border of Mendocino County lies just beyond Clover– dale, north of Healdsburg. The inland valleys of this county, already famous for its dramatic coastline, are quietly becoming acknowledged for their excellent viticultural properties. Along with wine touring, a small museum that features exhibits on Indian life and a wonderful state park out in the Alexander Valley, a popular pastime involves hanging out at Lake Mendocino on the outskirts of Ukiah, the county seat that straddles Route 101.


No wonder the great horticulturist and longtime Santa Rosa resident Luther Burbank called the area around Santa Rosa “the chosen spot of all the earth”—it is a plant-lover’s dream. The Wine Country is blessed with what most here consider an ideal climate; winter chill as well as summer heat are moderated by the proximity of major bodies of water. Still, winter does get cold, with averaging lows of around 37º in December, January and February, with highs in the 50s. Almost all the rainfall in the area occurs in these months as well, although, technically, it could rain anytime. The average May rainfall, how– ever, is far less than half an inch. Spring is fresh and breezy, with lows in the 40s and highs warming up to 80º or so. The average summer day tops out at 83º, but there are plenty of days where the temperature soars over 90º. Low humidity helps diminish the impact of all that heat and allows most nights to cool off even following hot days. Fall days can also be quite toasty, but all the truly warm weather ends by the beginning of November.

Many visitors here are surprised by the cool nights, even in summertime.  That’s because fog drifts up from San Pablo Bay, at the top of San Francisco Bay, making the Carneros region and, sometimes, the town of Napa especially prone to chilliness any time of year. The fog, mostly a summertime phenomenon, tends to drift in late afternoon and dissipate under the sun. Similarly, fog and ocean breezes blow in from the coast, keeping areas like the Russian River from overheating. Inland areas that receive no moderating maritime influence tend to get both hotter and colder than elsewhere.

As for the narrow valleys, the towns of Sonoma, St. Helena, Calistoga and Ukiah experience greater temperature extremes because both heat and cold are trapped between mountain ranges. Still, compared to other parts of the United States, this part of Northern California has an enviably moderate climate.

When in doubt, just think about those all-important grapes. They lie dormant in the winter, not minding one whit how much rain falls or how cold the ground gets. As things warm up in the spring, the vines sprout leaves and by the time summer arrives, even the casual observer can see grapes emerging in clusters. By September, the leaves turn red and gold as the grapes ripen to perfection, ushering in the harvest that hits its peak in October.


Northern Sonoma County  The beginning of a monthly series, First Weekend in Alexander Valley features special tastings and discounts at participating wineries throughout the year.

Russian River Area  Wine seminars and tastings and entertainment are the stuff of Winter Wineland on the third weekend. 

Mendocino County  Crab and Wine Days showcase two of the county’smajor food products at restaurants, inns and wineries.


Northern Napa Valley  The blooming of wild mustard marks the start of the Napa Valley Mustard Festival, which runs through March and includes cooking demonstrations, food sampling, art exhibits, and winetasting. 

Mendocino County  The Cloverdale Citrus Fair is a country event featuring all the citrus grown in the exceptionally warm climate around Cloverdale.


Mendocino County  Mendocino and Fort Bragg celebrate a Whale Festival with whale-watching cruises, art shows, and chowder- and wine–tasting.


Southern Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley  More than a dozen wineries in this, the southernmost appellation, band together to offer tastings, entertainment, and wine and food pairings at April in Carneros. 

Northern Sonoma County  Get your Passport to Dry Creek for a weekend of food, wine and easy-to-swallow education.

Russian River Area  The entire town of Sebastopol turns out for the Apple Blossom Festival, staging exhibits, parades and pageants.


Northern Sonoma County  Countless blossoms are grown, cut and rearranged on floats during the annual Luther Burbank Rose Festival in Santa Rosa.


Northern Napa Valley  The Napa Valley Wine Auction, the largest charity event of its kind in the world, brings bidding excitement to the grounds of the Meadowood Resort in St. Helena.

Sonoma Valley  In Sonoma’sPlaza, even vegetarians will find plenty of food to enjoy at the legendary Ox Roast. En– joy the Bard’sdramas al fresco with a picnic dinner during the Sonoma Valley Shakespeare Festival at Gundlach Bundschu Winery. The Vintage Race Car Festival features classic cars as well as classic Wine Country cuisine at Sebastiani Vineyards.

Northern Sonoma County  The splendid, expansive lavender fields at Matanzas Creek are the focal point during the Days of Wine & Lavender. 

Mendocino County  Farmers and winegrowers converge for a long weekend, celebrating the bounty of this northern county in a decidedly unstuffy atmosphere at the Mendocino Wine Affair.


Northern Napa Valley  The Wine Country Film Festival screens features and documentaries at local theaters as well as outdoors at a winery location; the second two weeks of the festival are held in Sonoma. The old-fashioned Napa County Fair at the Calistoga Fairgrounds offers down-home fun with fairs and equestrian events.

 Throughout Sonoma County  The Sonoma County Wine and Food Showcase focuses on the region’sfine foods and wines with winery dinners, barrel tastings and educational programs.

Sonoma Valley  Sonoma’s Fourth of July parade is the town’s favorite annual event, a day-long party that culminates in fireworks near the plaza. The Sonoma Plaza is ground zero for the summertime Salute to the Arts, a smorgasbord of artworks and fine food and wine. Formal or far-out, anything’s fine as long as the colors are right at the Red and White Ball, a wine, food and music charity affair also in Sonoma’s Plaza. Foot races and world-famous pillow fights add a country vibe to the blow-out Kenwood Fourth of July Celebration.

Northern Sonoma County  The Sonoma County Fair brings ten days of food, fun, flowers, wine competitions, livestock auctions and horseracing to the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.


Throughout Napa Valley  The Music in the Vineyards series of chamber concerts plays at various vineyards throughout the month.

Sonoma Valley  The second half of the Wine Country Film Festival (the first half is in Napa in late July) showcases shorts, features and documentaries in theaters as well as outdoors at Jack London State Historic Park.

Russian River Area  Held at the height of the picking season, the Gravenstein Apple Festival in Sebastopol is a family-oriented weekend with an animal petting zoo, arts and crafts, and cooking demonstrations.  The annual Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival features the works of the Bard in a fun, summertime setting.


Northern Napa Valley  The Calistoga Beer and Sausage Festival cooks up a feast of microbrews, cider, homebrews, sausages and sauces at the fairgrounds.

Sonoma Valley  The Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival is a weekend of parades, arts and crafts, winetasting and gourmet food at the Sonoma Plaza and the Sonoma Mission and Sonoma Barracks. The laid-back Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction takes place over Labor Day weekend with barbecues, wine auctions, winery dinners and a barrel of fun. 

Northern Sonoma County  More than 100 varieties of the late-summer fruit are available for tasting at the Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival, which also features gourmet foods, food and wine seminars, and entertainment.

Russian River Area  The two-day Russian River Jazz Festival occurs over a musical weekend at Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville.

Mendocino County  The Mendocino County Fair and Apple Show in Boonville is a three-day event featuring rodeo, sheepdog trials, rides for kids, and country-and-western dancing.


Throughout Napa Valley  Artists throughout the valley hold Open Studios during two weekends of free, self-guided tours. 

Southern Napa Valley  Ghosts and goblins and an assortment of family fun are the focus each fall at Halloween “Spooktacular” at Vintage 1870 in Yountville.

Northern Napa Valley  The CIA Greystone Golf Classic stars vintners and other celebrities along with wines, dinners and culinary education.  Northern Sonoma County  The full bounty of the county is showcased at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, where great weight is given to the wine competitions.

Mendocino County  The Hopland Fall Passport Weekend is an entrée into some of the top wineries in and around Hopland, with special tastings and discounts on purchases.


Southern Napa Valley  The big holiday tree is lit this month, along with most of downtown Yountville, and special events and entertainment are provided at Vintage 1870 as the Festival of Lights runs from late November through New Year’s Eve.

Northern Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley  Holiday in Carneros is a full weekend of open houses, holiday festivities and food and winetastings at more than a dozen wineries in this appellation.


Southern Napa Valley  The Napa County Landmarks society arranges a Holiday Candlelight Tour through various historic neighborhoods.

Northern Sonoma County  A New Year’s Eve with lots of music and entertainment but absolutely no alcohol has become a tradition at Santa Rosa’s First Night.

Before You Go

Several agencies provide free information to travelers. The California Office of Tourism will help guide you to areas throughout the Wine Country. ~ 1102 Q Street, Suite 6000, Sacramento, CA 95814; 916-322-2881, 800-862-2543;  For information on Sonoma and Mendocino counties, check out the Redwood Empire Association, an online resource. ~

Senior Travelers

The Wine Country is an ideal spot for older vacationers and has a growing number of retirement communities. The mild climate makes traveling in the off-season possible, helping to cut down on expenses.

The American Association of Retired Persons, or AARP, offers members travel discounts and provides escorted tours. ~ 601 E Street NW, Washington, DC 20049; 800-424-3410;, e-mail

For those 55 or over, Elderhostel offers educational programs in California. ~ 11 Avenue de Lafayette, Boston, MA 02111; 877-426-8056, fax 617-426-0701;

Be extra careful about health matters. Bring any medications you use, along with the prescriptions. Consider carrying a medical record with you-including your current medical status and medical history, as well as your doctor’s name, phone number and address.



Excerpted from Hidden Wine Country by Marty Olmstead and Ray Riegert. Copyright © 2003 by Ulysses Press. Excerpted by arrangement Ulysses Press. $13.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800.377.2542 or click here.