We weren’t off to a good start. After rushing to pack after a long day at work and driving for over six hours to get to our destination, we walked into our Airbnb only to realize it wasn’t what we had expected. Not even close. I broke down in tears; we’d been planning for this trip for weeks now — our first real getaway since the pandemic. We sat there, our car half-unpacked, wondering what to do. It was past 1 a.m. Should we stay, or should we leave? Anton, being the trooper that he is, looked at me and said: “Do you want me to drive us home?” I shook my head side to side. I didn’t want to go home.
“OK,” He let out a long sigh, allowing himself a dramatic pause. “Do you want me to look for a hotel?” I didn’t even get a chance to answer before he took his phone out and started scrolling through our options. Finding decent accommodations that aren’t booked is hard enough with weeks’ notice. A same-day request for a room would be impossible, we thought. Reservation Gods, however, were on our side. There’s one room, a hotel clerk told us, king-sized with a balcony. Yes!
We threw everything back in the car and set forth toward our new home base for the weekend. Packing for an Airbnb is so different from packing for a hotel stay, where there’s no expectation of cooking or food prep. We checked into our room, and borrowed a luggage trolley, shamelessly carrying a carton of peaches, bread, breakfast items and haphazardly packed Nespresso machine up to our room. Luckily, it was close to 2.m. at that point — no one was around to see it.
Relieved, we coalesced into the room’s king bed that night, knowing that we’d have to wake up only a few short hours later … a full day of swirling, swishing and sipping ahead of us. But we were glad things worked out for us. After all, we had spent so much time planning this trip. Cramming a week’s worth of tastings into two days? Not easy! California’s wine country is about as vast and expansive as the sky above it. There’s so much to see, so much to do and even more to sip and eat.
What’s more, travel has been accelerating so rapidly recently that reservations were being scooped up as quickly as they were posted. We had to make a lot of decisions — and we had to make them fast. So, here it is: Our two-day vino-infused itinerary. I’ve included highlights of each place, with more in-depth and guided narratives coming up in the weeks ahead. (Like, what it was actually like being in a 13th-style medieval castle that, yes, also serves up some incredible sips.) I’ve also listed a few honorable mentions — places that long-time wine-country visitors told us about or ones that constantly kept cropping up in our research.
Enjoy this list, and keep an eye out for more features over the next few weeks!
Day One: Napa Valley
Chateau Montelena Winery
What we loved most: our incredible host, Rico, who told the story of the property and the history of its wines with so much passion.
Climb up the staircase, following signs to the tasting area, and you’ll see it — the property’s ivy-covered, stone-built facade that feels as though it’s been plucked from France. Harvest season was well underway when we visited, and the winery had set up a “crush viewing area” where visitors could stop and watch the grapes being sorted, stemmed and crushed. (I highly recommend booking your trip at this time; the smell alone is fantastic.) Inside, we were treated to five of the winery’s vinos, including its claim to fame, the chateau’s Chardonnay. In case you don’t know (and if you don’t, someone at Chateau Montelena will surely remind you), it was the winery’s 1973 Chardonnay that won the Judgement of Paris, where it was pitted against French wines in a blind tasting. All to say, this Napa institution is proud of its past because it’s that history that drew the world’s eyes and palette’s to his incredible winegrowing region in California.
What we loved most: the standout wines!
There’s a reason Beringer Vineyards will come up on every must-see, must-sip list in Napa. It’s considered “the oldest continuously operating winery in the Napa Valley” first founded in 1876. As you follow the signs to the parking lot, you’ll notice the elaborate, German-style Rhine House (built in 1883–84), which boasts gorgeous stonework, stained-glass windows, gables and turrets. There are tastings that are held there, which, in hindsight, we should’ve sprung for. Atmosphere, after all, is half the taste. Because we had a lot of wineries on our list, we opted for the more affordable Legacy Indoor Tasting. Although I was aching for an al fresco situation, the wines were some of Anton’s favorites, and we went home with bottles of 2018 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. If you go, I highly recommend going for the salon or veranda tasting, and make sure to set some time aside for a walk around the gardens, estate and wine caves.
Castello di Amorosa
What we loved most: the architecture, the sweeping views and the variety of wines offered
Castello di Amorosa is about as famous as the region itself — and for good reason. Modeled after a medieval, 13th-century Tuscan castle, this property is the brainchild of Dario Sattui, who spent over $40 million to construct it in 1994. It’s about as authentic to the time period as can be, which was Sattui’s goal. The castle boasts a drawbridge, a chapel, a moat, defensive towers and even a torture chamber. The best? You’re allowed to wander through most parts after your tasting. (Well, for a tour of the underground cellars, torture chamber and armory, you’ll have to spring for the $65 “Diamond Estate” tour and tasting. Fair enough.) But it’s not all just for show here. Castello di Amorosa promises (and delivers) some seriously good bottles here, from the bold and fruit-forward Le Castellana to the sweet and sparkly, fan-favorite La Fantasia. Heck, there’s even grape juice for the kiddos on the menu — a deliciously rich and sweet treat Anton and I whole-heartedly enjoyed.
- Hall St. Helena
- Domaine Carneros
Day Two: Sonoma County
Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery
What we loved most: the feel of the place, which truly felt like a jaunt to Italy
Do not — I repeat, do not — skip the al fresco situation here. The vineyard views were some of our favorite, which says a lot because Wine Country is chock-full of them. Nestled in Dry Creek Valley, Ferrari-Carano offers up a commanding view of carefully pruned vineyards that catapulted us right back to Tuscany. We only took our eyes off the horizon to sample the winery’s flight of four sips. Ferrari-Carano’s Tresor, a Cabernet Sauvignon-based Bordeaux-style blend, and the Tre Terre Chardonnay were standouts, and we went home with several bottles. It was hard parting with our perch, but there was more to explore. The winery also houses five acres of gardens, which you’re allowed to roam through before or after your tasting. It took us about 15 minutes to walk through everything, but I suggest leaving some more time to really savor the stroll.
Dry Creek Vineyard
What we loved most: the picnic grounds and the general, laid-back feel
The atmosphere at Dry Creek Vineyard was, by far, the most laid-back of all the vineyards we’ve visited. We called the winery, letting them know that we were running late and asked if we could bring some nibbles we’d picked up at the Dry Creek General Store (a fantastic spot for a little afternoon pick-me-up, by the way), and they were more than accommodating. We arrived with our heads low in guilt (we hate being late), only to find everyone else unpacking their own picnic baskets and noshing on lunch. The picnic grounds were a lovely spot for a rest — even lovelier when the wine arrived. Founded close to 50 years ago, this family-owned and operated winery is big on low-intervention winemaking, and though it does boast other varietals on its tasting agenda, it’s mainly known for its Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc. In short, Dry Creek Vineyard was a fantastic mid-day stop, and if we lived locally, Anton and I both agreed, this is the place we’d go to on a sun-drenched weekend if we wanted to kick back. Of course, we’d be bolder in our decision to pick up a few more things from the General Store.
Flowers Vineyards & Winery
What we loved most: the interior design, the comfy seating nooks and architecture
Walk into the House of Flowers’ visitor’s center, with its modern, bald-cypress siding and soaring ceilings, and the winery’s connection to nature will become immediately apparent. The first thing you’ll see is a large-scale print of a vast expanse of rolling hills covered in grapevines, one of the winery’s two estate vineyards on the Sonoma Coast. As we walk up the open-framed staircase, I’m blown away by the architectural synergy of the place, which feels modern and very much of the place. Outside, sheltered seating nooks are nestled within the property’s sprawling gardens; all feel very private, elegant and cozy. At the end of a long day of playing tourist in Wine Country, I coalesced into the low-slung, plush couch — hands down, one of the most comfortable ways to savor wine. And speaking of, we opted for the Flowers Flight, which paired the winery’s most prized varietals, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with seasonal, plant-based bites. Think: Bite-sized puff pastry topped with a smattering of fig jam and goat cheese, and a delicious corn-fennel soup shooter. One word: Yum.
- Jordan Vineyard & Winery
- Buena Vista
- Matanzas Creek
- Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens
- Chateau St. Jean
- Hanzell Vineyards