California Wine Country Guide to Food and Drink
The Northern California wine region is one of the premier wine regions in the world. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were first planted in the region in the 1800s, when some of the most historic wineries were established, and they began to gain popularity in the 1940s after Prohibition. Once taken aback by the French, the big upheaval came when California won the blind tasting of the “Judgment of Paris” in 1976, finally propelling Napa Cabernet and Chardonnay onto the world stage.
Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley have since flourished as a foodie destination. Napa has over 400 wineries, Sonoma has over 425, and between the two counties they currently share eight Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s only a half-hour drive from the Golden Gate Bridge to the first winery at Sonoma Gate, attracting many locals from San Franciscans and the Bay Area for weekend wine tastings. . But the wine country is also a global destination, attracting thirsty travelers from all over the world, and there is plenty to eat and drink for those who wish to relax in a luxurious country inn for a busy week.
Welcome to the land of wine and gastronomy
The wine region is a large geographic area, so before hitting the road it is worth choosing the specific region you want to explore. Napa Valley is the renowned destination, luring travelers for its bold big taxis and Michelin-starred gourmet cuisine. Napa, of course, is the name of the valley, county, city, and river that runs through it. There are two main highways, and Route 29 is the main artery, while the Silverado Trail is off the beaten track. You will reach six cities from the south, starting with the city of Napa, followed by luxurious Yountville, picturesque St. Helena, and beautiful Calistoga. With over 400 wineries, it attracts big sightseeing buses, but for good reason.
Sonoma Valley is a bit more laid back and preferred by locals, although everything is relative in this wealthy part of the world – overdone chardonnay goes hand in hand with good tacos. Likewise, it is both a valley and a county, and a historic mission, place and town. Right in the valley, Highway 12 is the main thoroughfare, passing through historic Sonoma Plaza, charming Glen Ellen, and quiet Kenwood. But Sonoma County is huge, stretching all the way to the coast, and has 425 wineries in total. In West Sonoma County, the Russian River Valley is literally cooler, with swaying redwoods and tendrils of fog breaking off the ocean. It’s a little more funky and hippie, if you prefer pools and earthy pinot noir – or wild western beer and cider.
Where to start on the best Eater SF maps
Where to eat in a restaurant
Bright Michelin stars: Of course, many travelers head straight to the French Laundry, California’s fine dining institution (as well as the sister restaurant Ad Hoc for fried chicken). But after the pandemic, fine dining is back in the wine country, and many locals are vying for a reservation for one of SingleThread’s superb farm-to-table experiences.
Calo-Italian comfort: There is no shortage of fresh pasta, fresh pizzas and fresh vegetables in wine country. Catelli’s Restaurant is an old-fashioned red sauce restaurant dating back to 1936, which serves Grandma’s Chicken Parma, accompanied by excellent wine.
Hand slapped tacos: El Molino Central has been a long-time favorite stopover for tacos, tamales, and ceviche. Handmade tortillas are also sold at SF Farmers’ Markets under the Primavera brand, but they’re even better fresh off the griddle.
BBQ Food Trucks: The Black Piglet is the darling of a few local Michelin-starred chefs, and it’s often parked at Davies Family Vineyards in Russian River, throwing pulled pork and caramel bacon popcorn.
Picnic provisions: The Oxbow Public Market is the dining room to grab some caffeine and stock up on sandwiches and snacks for a long day of wine tasting in Napa. And the Big Bottom Market in Russian River is also worth a visit for Oprah’s favorite cookies, along with other essentials.
Where to taste wine with food
Cabernet Sauvignon: Stag’s Leap helped put Napa Valley on the map when their daring cab won the ‘Judgment of Paris’ in 1976, and these days the winery also has a solid dining program, serving lakeside pairings .
Sparkling wine: The area is also known for sparkling wine, and Domaine Chandon not only has an over-the-top flower garden and crispy Cali sparklers, but you can also get a picnic basket filled with mini bottles of bubbles, cold cuts, cheese and other snacks.
Pinot Noir: Flowers Winery in West Sonoma County comes close to the coast, producing misty, mineralized pinot noir and chardonnay that you can sip and nibble on in outdoor cabanas.
Natural wine: With the growing movement of natural wine, the Valley Bar and Bottle Shop is the cool new tasting room in historic Sonoma Plaza, created by a veteran couple from the Scribe winery, now serving favorite organic and biodynamic winemakers and serves XO eggs and butter beans.
The best time of year to visit the wine region
Cellars and tasting rooms have a season. Most doors open with cool spring outings in April, welcome many visitors during the summer, and celebrate the fall harvest in October. BottleRock Napa Valley, the wine and music festival, usually takes place in May, although it has been postponed in the event of a pandemic until October 2021. And Sonoma County Harvest Fair is the great food and wine festival which is scheduled as usual for the fall – also in October 2021. It should be noted that forest fire season is now unfortunately an annual event in Northern California, so you may want to check the heat and drought forecast before booking hotels and flights.
California is set to reopen fully on June 15, so wineries and restaurants should be free to resume operations as usual – but many remain cautious after a difficult year of pandemic. Many will need masks, offer hand sanitizer, and take other precautions. And while it was relatively easy to pull over by the side of the road and wander into a tasting room to try out a taxi, more than ever before, wineries and tasting rooms require reservations; and with an influx of enthusiastic travelers, those bookings are going fast. Suffice it to say, book early and book everything from wine tastings to dinner reservations. the Napa Department of Public Health and Sonoma Public Health Department will have the latest local rules and restrictions for both counties.