Many travelers are wondering what to expect when visiting the California wine country in light of last year’s devastating fires. The fires occurred in rural parts of the area, leaving most of the counties physically unaffected. Of course, any loss is heartbreaking, but Mother Nature quickly began to heal burned vineyards and hillsides. Thus today, visitors will find thriving vineyards, charming towns, parks filled with history and natural beauty, stunning vistas and miles of dramatic Pacific coastline eagerly awaiting guests. Due to coronavirus protocols, advanced reservations may be required for wine tastings. Dining reservations are also strongly suggested.
Getting out among the vines
Just an hour’s drive northeast of San Francisco is one of California’s most visited attractions — the vine-covered hillsides of Napa and Sonoma counties. My visit took me to a region reminiscent of Tuscany, with undulating, lush green hillsides crisscrossed with vines and awash in wildflowers — a dramatic landscape sprinkled with appealing small towns, world-class restaurants and 600 wineries and tasting rooms. Wine, wine everywhere and drops and drops of it to spare.
Glen Ellen, in the heart of Sonoma Valley, is a sweet little hamlet of less than 1,000 people. It is steeped in a blend of inspiring libations, local dining delights and the region’s noble, natural beauty. Here the Benziger Family Winery is an 85-acre estate that has become a research and teaching center for the cultivation of grapes with more flavor and aroma. For more than 30 years, the family has been singularly dedicated to three things — family, great wine and healthy vineyards. I hopped aboard a tram that took me through the winery’s vineyards, caves and factories. The guide explained that Benziger wines are certified sustainable and organic — not because Benziger wants to be known as “the green winery,” but because its experience has shown that great wine has green values. My tour ended in the Benziger tasting room. Did the wines I tasted have more flavor, more aroma? I can only tell you that I left the winery a happy camper.
Veni, vici, vido
While wine may be the main attraction, this region’s supporting cast — land imbued with dazzling beauty, a lineup of acclaimed restaurants and a multitude of recreational and cultural activities — makes nearby Napa Valley in the North Bay portion of the San Francisco Bay area a most desirable destination. In Yountville, I checked into my hotel and then quickly set out to discover this town, which is saddled with a rather unfortunate name. Actually, to give credit where credit is due, when one George Calvert Yount first saw the Napa Valley, he said, “In such a place I should love to live and die.” How’s that for a glowing stamp-of-approval? Yount settled here in 1836 and planted the first vineyard in the valley. Today, wineries in Yountville include such well-known producers as Domaine Chandon and Robert Mondavi. And only in Napa Valley could a tiny rural village boast more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any other place in North America. Yountville: The name sounds better already.
The town’s compact layout makes it great for wandering on foot or bike. To quote one of Napa’s chefs: “For those of us that have to commute or run to the airport and back, it’s nice to come home to a community that has almost everything you need within 300 yards.” I explored upscale, deluxe boutiques and checked out the Napa Valley Museum with its Èdouard Manets and Andy Warhols, and the lively, offbeat diRosa Center for Contemporary Art Before returning to the hotel, I just had to see the holy grail of gourmet dining — Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. It’s situated down a side street — a lane, really. The restaurant is sited on what looks like an abandoned lot. I made my way to the front door flanked with pretty green topiary. Expecting grandeur, I thought this citadel of haute cuisine appeared somewhat ordinary and unprepossessing. Perhaps the magic lies within.
Wined and dined out
My wine country experience, albeit heady and delicious, left me needing a break. I needed to clear my head and instead feed mind and soul. I needed to be “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” — and there’s no better place to do it than in Sausalito, where Otis Redding penned his song of the same name. Listening to the lyrics, I found his song is kind of sad. Redding sings that he’s traveled 2,000 miles from home just to sit on the dock of the bay “wastin’ time.” Sorry, I can’t relate to that. The town offers many delightful diversions, not the least of which is a tour of its iconic houseboat scene. Victoria Colella was my guide for her ‘Docks of the Bay” historic houseboat tour. This vibrant community of floating homes recently turned 72, but it remains as rebellious and funky as ever. I saw original houseboats, art studios, wooden boat building shops and working boat yards. Victoria told tales of the Beat era, the houseboat wars and showed us the boat where movie actor Sterling Hayden lived in his heyday.
Sausalito is a mere hour’s drive from Napa and is ranked as one of the top 20 destinations in the country, with its small-town charm, Mediterranean character and awe-inspiring views of San Francisco, its sister city across the bay. One of the best views to be had — anywhere — is from a small, chic and understated hotel with just 31 rooms — The Inn Above Tide. Each room comes with its own private deck and though it was chilly out there and cozy inside, the view won me over. I realized that from my vantage point, I was seeing San Francisco in an utterly unique way. Darkness fell softly over the bay as the lights of the city came alive before a backdrop of flaming orange. Granted, there are hundreds of hotels around San Francisco Bay, but there’s only one hotel on it — and that made all the difference.
For more, visit sonomacounty.com, napavalley.org and Sausalito.org.