Self-driving Napa and Sonoma
Fabulously fertile and scenically blessed, the prized valleys of Sonoma and Napa groan with over 900 wineries. Before taking in some tasting highlights in fancy-pants Napa, I first ventured to the Sonoma Valley, its folksy, down-to-earth neighbour, studded in historic gravitas. Sonoma Town retains an infectious feel of old California, with a central plaza ringed by restaurants, bookshops, boutiques and the delightful 80-year old Sebastiani Theatre. The town was founded in 1823 as the Mission of San Francisco Solano, the last mission to be established by the Spanish Franciscans in California after first setting about their Christian colonisation in 1769.
The whitewashed adobe mission served as a Mexican outpost and is steeped in dramatic history, which is fascinating to explore, including the Bear Flag Revolt in 1846, culminating in the United States taking control of California from Mexico. Be sure to pop in to Sonoma Cheese Factory, where the free tastings are plentiful and the flavour range stupendous. Intertwined with the Californian wine industry, it was the missionaries who planted the first vines to make wine for their Mass.
The bucolic splendour of Sonoma’s 17-mile long valley, framed by tumbling hills, wreathed in vineyards, is soothingly photogenic. I visited in early spring, when the hills are verdant and the manicured vineyards are carpeted with mustard flowers. If you’re visiting in autumn, burnished light and auburn leaves accentuate the sense of calming ambience. Famed for its boutique and family-operated wineries, tastings tend to be cheaper in Sonoma – in some cases, free. Some highly recommended stops include Madonna Estate and Gundlach-Bundschu, who both produce sublime merlots. Chateau St. Jean is another starring specimen, the pioneer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Sonoma County, offering superb tastings paired with cheese and charcuterie. Pop into the village of Glen Ellen, once the home of famed author, Jack London. The charred remains of his enormous house are preserved in the state park.
Before lining up Napa, I spent a night at the superlative Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn. Exquisite and peaceful, and somewhat reminiscent of the Beverly Hills Hotel, this pastel pink resort, built in California Mission style, is an oasis of characterful calm. My deluxe suite exuded what the resort calls “Wine Country style”, with a wood-burning fireplace, spacious lounge area, four poster bed, sun-catching balcony and indulgent Jacuzzi tub, complete with lavish toiletries. First impressions count and the resort’s lobby is an eye-grabber with its high wood-beam ceilings, large central fireplace, snug chairs and sofas and unmistakeable sense of conviviality.
It’s a charismatic space you’ll want to linger in. As you will in the resort’s pools, fed by thermal hot springs and complemented with a poolside café, bar and private cabanas available to rent, backed by the iconic water tower. The fire pits will ward off any unseasonal chills at night. If you want to take your zen-like state of bliss to the next level, the award-winning Willow Stream Spa will tick all the boxes, a 40,000 square feet sanctuary boasting 30 treatment rooms. The signature European Bathing Ritual includes an exfoliating shower, dips in mineral-water soaking pools, herbal steam, dry-salt sauna and a riveting rain tunnel. Dining in? Santé is the resort’s salubrious signature restaurant, showcasing haute Modern American cuisine and seasonal local ingredients.
The whip-smart 38º North Lounge, inspired by Sonoma’s location along the 38th parallel, serves fabulously fresh and flavourful light fare, soups, salads and smoothies. Daily wine tastings take place in the lobby around 430pm, while you’ve got a spoil of vineyards in easy reach, whether you want to head out on a rental bike, or self-drive. A variety of added extras included complimentary guided hikes in the nearby state parks, and fitness routines including yoga. www.fairmont.com/sonoma/
After a restorative sleep, swathed in crisp linens, I left the resort, pointing the car east to noble Napa. You may recall the horrific scenes of those wild fires that monstered Napa and Sonoma last October. And you don’t have to look hard to notice the scars on the landscape. Costing over 40 lives and severely damaging several dozen wineries, Wine Country has bounced back impressively well. I love driving the Silverado Trail, east of Napa town, clad in Silver Oaks and terraced vineyards, tumbling across the Tuscan-like terrain.
You’ll notice the scorched silver oaks in the higher elevations, above superb wineries like Signorello, Pine Ridge and Robert Sinskey. The Napa Valley is renowned for its majestic cabernets, fairy-tale chateaus and top-end culinary scene. Robert Mondavi winery is a powerhouse, widely credited for stamping Napa on the wine world’s map. They offer tours and tastings for every level of interest and expertise. Bubbles? Domaine Chandon is well worth a visit, to marvel over their stellar Californian interpretation of method champenoise.
Further north in St. Helena, Charles Krug Winery is a stunning stop, founded in 1861, while Napa’s oldest continuously operating winery, Beringer, is still at the top of its class. The gorgeous chateau of Greystones is home to the West Coast branch of the Culinary Institute of America, if you want to savour some seriously posh nosh paired with local wines. Two boutique wineries that enchanted me were V. Sattui winery, with its gorgeous Tuscan character and magnificent deli, while the award-winning Sutter Home family winery is situated right across the road.
Finally, Spring Mountain Winery is another inspired choice, but you do need to book in advance. I am a chronic 80s’ tragic and Spring Mountain was the filming location of the hit soap opera, Falcon Crest. All the buildings are so recognisable; I was half expecting Angela Channing to enter the scene, swilling a muscular cabernet sauvignon. www.sftravel.com
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Driving on the other side of the road can be a challenge. Check that your travel insurance covers you for rental car insurance excess in the event of a few dings, an accident or theft of the rental vehicle. Cover-More’s Options policy covers up to $10,000 for rental car insurance excess on international trips (and $4,000 for domestic travel if hiring a rental car in New Zealand). Cover-More’s 24 hour global assistance centre is just a phone call away. Call 0800 500 225 or visit www.covermore.co.nz
By Mike Yardley.