napa valley vacation

we're officially back from our extended weekend in wine country! we thoroughly enjoyed our time in north cali and can't wait to go back. like almost too much. one of those vacations that reminds you why you work so hard, and that you never ever want to leave. 

i went on a family vacation to north cali when i was freshly graduated from high school, and in my head all the things i remember seeing and doing seemed pretty close together, and since we did san francisco on that trip, i'd originally planned on replicating a lot of those destinations to show j (who had never been to california.) i assumed since wine country was just north of san francisco, that it was all in close proximity.

but a quick trip on google maps squashed that plan pretty quick. i realized the items i did on my last trip were a long drive from wine country itself, and each other (which, according to my mom, is why we never stopped in sonoma or napa back in '05 and she informed me we were on the hop that whole trip. funny how i don't remember that part...) i was able to hit a couple san fran highlights with him (see below), but on our next go-round here are a couple more places in nocal worth checking out if you have the time, in addition to what is listed below in wine country:

pch/17-mile drive
pebble beach
big sur

but as for 2016...

san francisco
we did have enough time to do a quick cruise of fisherman's wharf and pier 39, drove down lombard street and glimpsed alcatraz from afar (i keep calling it azkaban.) we grabbed some san fran sourdough and got out of that tourist trap. i'm only half kidding, it's pretty cool but the locals tend to look down on it.

where to stay
once into wine country, we headed to our hotel - the macarthur place, which is located on the southern end of napa valley, convenient to san francisco near sonoma plaza (we were able to walk to dinner and the original williams-sonoma store!) the staff was super attentive, and very sweet. they upgraded our room to one of the suites in the manor house, (which included a small sitting room and walk in closet), gave us detailed information on the property's amenities, and provided vouchers to the spa! housekeeping was on point, managing to sneak in for cleanings and turndown service whenever we were out. there is also free wine and cheese served daily in the library from 5-6pm, and breakfast each morning at the on site restaurant, saddles from 7am until 10am.

what to wear
california is casual and colorful. pack your skinny jeans (in any color) and cute sweaters but leave your frumpy sweatshirts, high heels and black on black on black outfits at home.  in the same vein as other western states, you'll see a lot of fleece, vests, and sensible yet stylish footwear.

the wineries are surprisingly casual, and you can wear jeans or if the weather is warm, a sundress to all of them. no jackets or ties needed for the guys, however you will see the jeans-and-blazer combo in the cooler months. given the amount of tourists in wine country you'll see a little bit of everything in terms of style, however the locals and staff have a definite look of preppiness. (think colored, patterned shirts and leather loafers abound.)

the february weather was incredibly mild thanks to the lack of humidity but even so, you will still experience california's microclimates. bring light pieces to layer (tops, sweaters, jackets and scarves.)

where to eat
le garage (brunch, french)
we stopped at le garage in marin for sunday morning drinks on our way to sausalito and fort baker, which had the most charming little waitress. whether for effect or not, she had a french accent and stopped her traditional spiel to comment on what a gorgeous day it was. she reminded me of a waiter we met once at a small beach restaurant back home - a guy who had quit his job and moved to the beach after his cancer went into remission. both had that same simple attitude - grateful to be alive. and in a place as gorgeous as marin, i can see why. it's hard to have a bad day in the face of such overwhelming quaintness. 

the small bistro offers great views of the marina and we highly recommend their white peach bellini and cappuccinos, and be advised that they do not take brunch reservations. tables are first come, first served. 

el molino (mexican)
stop by this pint-sized restaurant in boyes hot springs for some of the freshest mexican food you've ever tried. there is no seating inside (like one tiny table), only out back on their outdoor and covered patios. so save this one for a nice day, which isn't too tough in cali!

hopmonk tavern (american pub food)
after all the wine tastings, we were ready to switch it up with a little beer. this adorable tavern located between our hotel and sonoma plaza boasted surprisingly great food, and a cozy patio area with a small fire, heaters, and carnival lights.

poggio trattoria (italian)
located in downtown sausalito, poggio was an impulse decision that ended up blowing us away. we grabbed lunch at one of the outside tables, with the best margherita pizza (me) and mezzaluna ravioli (him) we've ever tasted. [i'm still a little surprised j was willing to give one up so i could try.] the staff was also top notch - despite hardly being able to discern what he was saying thanks to the thick italian accent, our waiter went to his locker and grabbed his own jacket for a customer at the table behind us, who was chilly. [the job market must be competitive in this region!]

where to visit
sonoma plaza
this plaza is home to a collection of stellar shops, hotels, restaurants and tasting rooms surrounding the town hall and a small park. be sure to stop by the original williams sonoma store while you're in the area!

sugarloaf state park
this gorgeous park offers 25 miles of hiking trails, horse trails and campgrounds. you'll receive a map upon entry, with details on trails, level of difficulty, and expected duration. i'm not sure as to the exact level of altitude of wine country, but despite living at sea level we didn't feel any effects while climbing, as we did in colorado last year. (so i'm thinking it's pretty low.) that being said, those inclines will still kick your butt a bit depending on your fitness level. although to be fair, my heart rate was definitely elevated from our drive to the park. let's just say when we plugged the destination into google, it tried to take us up a mountain itself... up a private road we should not. have. been. on. j "wanted to see where it went" while i begged him to turn around instead. i thought for sure we were going to slide off the mountain and die in a two wheel drive rental car. so after that, the hike was nothing major. 

depending on the season be sure to wear layered comfortable clothing, bring water, and don't pull a blonde moment as i did...remember to pack a backpack to stuff jackets/bottles/your camera in.

we visited this seaside town between san fran and napa valley which is complete with lots of shops and restaurants after our stop at fort baker. this was a pretty crowded area on the weekend, be ready to hunt (and pay) for parking and maybe aim to arrive on the early side.

fort baker
this ex-army post now includes a fishing dock, children's museum and play area, not to mention some heart-stopping views of the golden gate bridge. thanks to the view and ever-perfect cali weather it's a popular spot; heavily trafficked by pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as cars. this is another be-ready-to-fight-for-a-parking-spot locale.

valley towns
in addition to sausalito, we took some time to cruise through yountville and healdsburg on our trip. i wanted to make the trek to bouchon bakery for fresh pastries, and to french laundry in yountville. our server at the beringer winery recommended the big bear brewery for lunch in healdsburg. we broke up our wino weekend with some beer and burgers at big bear, and walked around exploring the shops. (and wondering how anyone who works in retail can afford wine valley rent/a mortgage? we're thinking it's similar to an nyc real estate situation.)

castello di amorosa
we stopped in at castello di armorosa, which proved to be a really cool venue for wine tasting. while these weren't our favorite wines by any means, the experience and ability to roam the castle (the basement is another tasting room and a gift shop) was awesome and we ended up spending a good chunk of time here. we saw some sheep, chickens, an emu and j even made friends with the goat-in-residence, jacmo.

you have a lot of options at castello, you can pay general admission to look around, pay extra for a tasting and tour, or do a tasting with accompaniments (your wine is paired with cheese and charcuterie) as we did. 

dormaine carneros
dormaine proved to be my favorite wine-tasting experience of the trip. both the sparkling wine selection and the views of wine country from their balcony are something you just can't get anywhere else. it's truly breathtaking and spectacular. if nothing else, i recommend stopping by to snap a couple photos, and be sure to make a reservation (especially in the busy season!)

beringer winery
beringer boasted some of j's favorite wines we sampled. (they were on the drier side, a little harsh for my taste.) the wines were unique to the beringer tasting room and it was here we also experienced some perks to visiting in the off season. we had a great chat with our server, who [in addition to leading a pretty interesting life - for real, what is with the servers in this area?!] provided us with some two-for-one tasting passes at nearby wineries. there are close to 500 tasting rooms and wineries in napa valley, so some offer coupons and specials to stay competitive. definitely chat up the staff to take advantage! they are also well versed in the area, so be sure and ask for restaurant or tasting recommendations if you're stuck.

other tips, tricks/things to know:

wine country seems to be a couples/girls' trip kind of locale. we saw very few [if any] singles.

sonoma and napa are primarily daytime destinations. aside from the restaurants and breweries that are open in the evening, the larger wineries are only open between 9/10am and 5/6pm depending on the season, so you'll likely be wrapped up with the tastings early.

you don't need to know anything about wine to enjoy napa. no one is asking for your professional opinion on the wines, you're just there to enjoy yourself. and funny enough, we learned a lot about our preferences (or what we thought were our preferences) on this trip. 

most places will allow you to share tastings, so if you're not up for a full flight you can split it! (that one uh, didn't occur to us. until our final tasting when i saw another couple sharing.)

this is minor, but if you plan on doing any shopping in bulk (groceries, etc.) try to bring a bag with you. it's 10 cents for each one if you ask the store to provide.

as previously mentioned there are a billion places to tour and taste in napa. i recommend searching out wineries that specialize in your favorite varieties of wine (or just browsing for destinations that look cool) to narrow down an area you'd like to cruise around in before selecting a hotel. the valley is deceptively large and you don't want to be driving all over creation after your tastings.

need a nudge in the right direction? in addition to the wineries we visited, i had earmarked the following as possibles as well:

robert mondavi: they have an interesting "wine tasting basics" tour.
francis coppola
ferrari carano: their outdoor terrace and enoteca room look fantastic!

thanks for the memories cali, you were awesome!