One of the things I knew I wanted to do when I went out to California at the end of the summer was to visit Napa Valley.
When I was very young, my parents took me to Napa Valley — and as you can imagine, while I enjoyed the lovely surroundings as a kid, I obviously was not enjoying the full experience.
So, it seemed like the perfect thing to do and we started to research tour options.
I would 100% recommend going through a tour company. Unless you're staying in Sonoma or Napa Valley overnight, a tour means you don't have to worry about driving, making reservations at each place you want to go, worrying about lunch, and the list goes on. There are dozens of companies with various deals, just figure out which one sounds like the most bang for your buck and what you're looking for. We went with this one.
*Note: most of the wineries require advance reservations, even for just a couple of people. One perk of this is that you can reserve picnic tables at some of the wineries, which is perfect if you're looking for a relaxing way to spend the afternoon with friends (how I envied the locals when I saw this in action!)
We grabbed a few pastry and coffee my first morning in SF and then waited for our tour to pick us up and take us out of the city.
Our first stop was in the Sonoma Valley at Jacuzzi Winery — yes, the same Jacuzzi as the hot tub.
In fact, the first whirlpool pump was used in wine production and in the 1960s they figured out how to market the hot tub using that pump.
From there we went across the road to Cline Cellars, whose drive and property is dotted with roses.
(Fun fact: vineyards in Italy plant roses at the end of their vines as any insect infestation will kill a rosebush before moving onto the grapes — so they are a beautiful, but helpful tool in early disease detection).
At Cline we learned proper tasting etiquette — hold by the stem so you don't heat the wine, swirl to aerate, smell to begin detecting any particular flavors, take a small taste to introduce the wine to your tastebuds and to also clear out the previous wine you had, then take a larger sip to really register the flavor.
Cline sits on an old Mission site. California is dotted by missions that were created by Spanish missionaries who took over California. You can walk around the grounds and peak into the Mission Museum for more history.
For lunch we stopped at a restaurant in downtown Sonoma — this was part of the tour, which was nice, but nothing to write home about. But downtown Sonoma has a cute square you can walk around window shopping.
Then we headed into Napa Valley to our last stop, Domaine Chandon, created by Moet & Chandon.
If you are at all interested in how champagne became the popular, celebratory drink it is today, or are looking for a fun nonfiction book, The Widow Cliquot tells the story of the woman who founded Veuve Clicquot and made champagne famous. Props to the first female entrepreneur and real marketer in the western world!
Our guide at Domaine Chandon brought us into the fermentation room, a curved, temperature-controlled gallery filled with a hundred 14,000 gallon tanks of fermenting champagne.
She described the different types of champagne Chandon makes and shared the vineyard's history, letting us taste along the way.
Before the tour ended, she also taught us how to properly serve champagne. First, it must be chilled (there are a few ways to cool it faster if you forgot to put it in the fridge the night before), dry the bottle, pull the tear tab to fully remove the foil, twist the cage's tie 6 times to loosen and ensure the cage is fully open at the bottom, keeping the cage on the cork tilt the bottle slightly away from yourself and cover the cage and cork with a napkin or cloth and twist the bottle to open. When done properly, the bottle should whisper open (no loud popping noises).
Full permission to grab a bunch of bottles and practice all week long — I'm not sure I've quite mastered it myself!
A wine tour is the perfect way to incorporate some culture into your travels — it's fun, you learn about the local culture, and it feels luxurious.
One of my favorite parts was learning how sustainable the three wineries we stopped at are — all three are fully sustainable and Jacuzzi makes enough energy it sells some back to the local town.