An hour north of San Francisco and an hour east from the Point Reyes National Seashore, the counties of Napa and Sonoma rest in the foothills of the Mayacama mountain range in the west and Vacas mountains in the east. Of the dozens of towns and communities that have sprung up since the Spanish started ranching alongside Native American tribes in the 1700s, most of the activity is concentrated in Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville, Healdsburg, and both Napa and Sonoma proper. Route 29 runs through it all.
IN AND OUT OF THE CITY
From San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Oakland International Airport (OAK), or Sacramento International Airport (SMF), count on about one hour of travel time. Taxis, shuttles, and rental cars await when you land. From San Francisco and Oakland, public transportation is possible with a combination of BART and The VINE, the Napa Valley bus line. From Sacramento, the Fairfield Airporter is an easy share-ride. The trip takes about half the time from Charles M. Schulz - Sonoma County Airport (STS) in Santa Rosa. Charter flights take off and land at Napa County Airport, just past American Canyon as you’re heading into town.
It’s like one big scenic route. Renting a car will allow you to cover the most ground. Cruise on your own time from town to town. Or really put it in gear and head east to Bodega Bay for an oyster-filled afternoon or further north to hike the majestic, only-in-California woodland routes.
But when your schedule is full of tasting room quality time and lavish, languid meals, you might not want to drive (and that’s definitely the wine talking). While the sun is out, many hotels offer shuttle services to central shopping and dining destinations, and, if not, they’ll happily call you a car. Black Tie Taxi runs 24 hours a day, offering the comfort of a town car and the pricing and convenience of a taxi. For group tours, a limo company like XO Transportation just needs a heads up a day or two in advance.
Serious cyclists should pack their spandex (everyone else brings pedal-friendly flats). There is a whole lot of biking to be done, especially on the Vine Trail. For rentals and routes, turn to the authorities: Napa Bike and Napa Valley Car Free. If you only have room for a Vespa-friendly scarf, Wine Country Vespa has a helmet for you.
EBB AND FLOW
Think Mediterranean. Long, hot, dry summers; short, chilly, damp winters. They’re far enough inland to be saved from the dreary, loitering fog, but close enough to the sea that the cool air takes the edge off things. Even naps are common: a midday rest is just the thing to reconcile a vintner’s rivaling rowdy late-to-bed and ambitious early-to-rise tendencies.
CASH AND TIPS
Use credit cards at the hotel, restaurants, and shops. Save your cash for the farmstand. There aren’t ATMs on every corner, but major banks are easy enough to find.
Those in the hospitality industry take their jobs seriously here, which should come as no surprise when chefs’ bold-faced names and coveted, high-scoring wines are on the line. Standard big city tipping rules apply: 20 percent for exceptional service; 15 percent if you’ve had a crummy time.
Do take care of your driver. A tip should land in the range of 10-20 percent, taking into account speedy service, local knowledge, and cleanliness and comfort of the car.
Most tastings have an entry fee, so there’s no expectation or obligation to tip. Do offer a token of appreciation to a guide for delivering a particularly enlightening excursion on a multi-stop tour or ride.
STYLE AND ATTIRE
This is wine country, emphasis on the country. Sundresses or t-shirts and jeans by day; throw on a cozy, chunky cardigan or flannel button-down come nightfall. Always appropriate: a suitable riding boot.
While the locavore movement is trending across the country, for the counties’ residents it’s always been the way of life. With weather conducive to bountiful produce year-round, farmers fill their market stalls and roadside hutches and foster close relationships with the restaurants they supply. More often, chefs take the next step of planting their own gardens and creating seasonal menus after they see what comes out of the ground.
The other thing they seem to harvest are Michelin stars: three to The French Laundry, three for The Restaurant at Meadowood, and one each to Redd, Auberge du Soleil, Solbar, Bouchon, La Toque, and Terra.
Oh, and have you heard? There’s wine. Things had been quiet for the industry in the area until 1976 when wine experts held two separate blind tastings in Paris; four California chardonnays beat out France’s whites and the American reds ousted all of their French counterparts. Today there are approximately 400 wineries operating; back then it was only 25.