If America has an answer to Tuscany – our own locus for great wine, great food, and the good life – Napa and Sonoma valleys are it. These fraternal twins, separated at birth by the Mayacamas Mountains, now bask in international recognition among oenophiles. Together they produce about 10 percent of the world’s wines.
The 35-mile-long are of Napa to the east is the better known and more densely populated: Three hundred-plus wineries lie along Highway 29 and the scenic Silverado Trail, taking advantage of the area’s sunny days, cool nights, and long growing season.
Crowd-pleasing wineries include power-house Robert Coppola’s Rutherford’s Rubicon Estate; Yountville’s Domaine Chandon; and Sterling Vineyards, near Calistoga. But don’t overlook smaller gems like Schramsberg, in Calistoga and Swanson Vineyards, in Rutherford. Board the Napa Valley Wine Train, a 3-hour journey in restored 1915-era Pullman cars, which runs 36 miles from Napa to St. Helena, past 27 wineries.
Visitors from San Francisco often come for the day, but to truly appreciate Napa, stay awhile. Rooms at Meadowood, with its rambling main lodge and cottage like suites get snapped up the first week of June by attendees of the Napa Valley Wine Auction, the world’s most soigné wine event.
The more intimate Auberge du Soleil is perched on a hillside dotted with olive trees and features both an excellent spa and an acclaimed restaurant. You won’t want to leave the leafy 33-acre ground, but to further enjoy the valley’s gastronomy, there’s perhaps on better choice than the legendary French Laundry. Neighbouring competition is fierce these days, but Chef Thomas Keller’s nine-course tasting menu is culinary theatre, making it one of the top restaurant, Bouchon, serves classic bistro fare. Other long-time wine country standouts include Mustard’s Grill, in Yountville, and St. Helena’s Terra and Tra Vigne.
Foodies share Napa with spa lovers, drawn by the famed mud baths of Calistoga. It’s most luxurious option is Calistoga Ranch, with 46 cedar-single guest lodges and hot springs. Decidedly more low-key is the non-profit Harbin Hot Springs, known as the birthplace of “wastu” (water shiatsu).
Sonoma, located to the west, is lusher, greener, and cooler than Napa, and known for California’s best chardonnays, and point noirs. It still retains many orchards and farms, which specialize in olive oil, lamb, and artisanal cheeses that complement the vintages produced by the country’s 250-plus wineries.
Sonoma Valley’s oldest city is Sonoma, centered around a shady plaza and an 1824 adobe mission. Buena Vista, one of California’s first estate wineries, was established in 1858 a couple of miles northeast of here. Sonoma is also home to a host of popular eateries, such as the informal The Girl and the Fig, where fresh local ingredients occupy center stage.
A sprawling pink Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa has been the region’s most luxurious place to stay since it opened in 1927, one of a handful of resorts here to have its own hot springs. Nearby in Glen Ellen, Gaige House Inn, a Queen Anne Victorian dating to 1890, is now one of the country’s finest B&Bs.
Sonoma’s northern Russian River Valley is anchored by the lovely town of Healdsburg. Its historic town square is flanked by the Hotel Healdsburg, where guests come for the spa but particularly for acclaimed chef Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen. Nearby, the exquisite Les Mars Hotel evokes the inns of France; and you have one of Sonoma’s finest overnight addresses. Foodies flock to the less pricey Madrona Manor, surrounded by gardens and cool woods, for its cutting-edge restaurant.