Number 21 - February 2008
Welcome to "Rick's Tips," Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel's quarterly newsletter of fun and interesting things to do in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and Northern California. Whether you are visiting San Francisco or hosting visitors, Blue Heron can provide an unforgettable experience. Visit our website,, to learn more about our custom tours and vacations.

Winetasting in Napa versus Sonoma - Part I

As you know, Blue Heron provides winetasting tours in both Napa and Sonoma Counties. Often visitors ask which county they should visit. This two-part column will help you pick the wine region that is best for you. I'll cover Napa County in this issue and Sonoma County in the May issue of "Rick's Tips."

Napa and Sonoma are both names of cities, counties, and valleys. Napa County is home to America's most famous wine region, Napa Valley - which has 12 districts - and parts of two other regions, Carneros and Wild Horse Valley. Sonoma County is home to more than a dozen wine regions, including the Alexander, Dry Creek, Russian River, and Sonoma Valleys and the other half of Carneros.

Sonomans say that Napa is only good for auto parts, but there is a bit of envy attached to such statements. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is generally considered the best in the U.S. while Sonoma Valley Cab is frequently seen as second best. Wineries in Napa are frequently showcases for the owners' egos, while Sonoma wineries see themselves as more laid back and down to earth. Crowds flock to the best-known tasting rooms in Napa, but some of Sonoma Valley's wineries can be equally crowded.

Some of the most historic wineries in America - including Robert Mondavi, Beringer, Charles Krug, and Beaulieu Vineyards (BV) - call Napa Valley home. Wineries such as Chateau Montelena, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Freemark Abbey, Heitz, and Clos du Val helped put California wines on the international map back in the 1970s. Small cult wineries like Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, and Colgin command small fortunes for their Napa Valley Cabs. As a result, tourists flock to Napa Valley's tasting rooms, many of which are along the Valley's two main roads, Hwy. 29 and the Silverado Trail.

Today, Napa Valley is home to over 300 wineries, about two thirds of which are open to the public for tastings. Most of the well-known cult wineries are NOT open to the public. They sell all of the wine they produce to high-end restaurants and their mailing lists, and have waiting lists to get on their mailing lists. So don't plan on visiting many of the wineries that produce the wine magazines' favorite $200 Cabs.

Nevertheless, there are about 200 tasting rooms that are open to the public and, with a little planning, you can have a great time visiting Napa. First, decide when you want to visit. Napa gets crowded, especially during the summer and fall. Tasting rooms can be mobbed on Saturdays. Sundays are less crowded, but weekdays are the best days to visit the Napa Valley. If you must visit on a Saturday, visit tasting rooms that are open only by appointment but make your appointments well in advance.

Next, decide if you want to take a tour at a winery to learn about the winemaking process. If you have never experienced a winery tour, I recommend going on one. Then you are set for life. Robert Mondavi, Beringer, and Rutherford Hill offer tours throughout the day. Many other wineries offer tours by advance appointment. Some tours feature visits to caves, walks through the vineyards, or beautiful architecture.

About 80 tasting rooms are open for you to stop by. Most open at 10:00 a.m. and close between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. A few stay open until 6:00 p.m. More than 130 wineries are open only by advance appointment. Some of the more prominent wineries - such as Far Niente, Caymus, and Schramsberg - can book out six weeks in advance.

Decide on the type of winery you want to visit. If you want to see interesting architecture, you might want to visit Artesa (in Carneros), Sterling, Quixote, Del Dotto, Castello di Amorosa, Jarvis, or Hall-Rutherford. To get a sense of California's winemaking history, stop by Beringer, Chateau Montelena, Schramsberg, BV, Charles Krug, or Robert Mondavi. If you like art as much as you like wine, some wineries have galleries. These include The Hess Collection, Mumm Napa Valley, Cliff Lede, Turnbull, and Clos Pegase. Many big, well-known wineries are in Napa but there are also small, family-run wineries that may be unfamiliar to you but produce excellent wines. Some of my favorites are Bell, Regusci, Corison, Sullivan, and Frank Family. As you drive along the Silverado Trail or Route 29, stop in at a winery you have never heard of. You might find a new favorite wine.

Most importantly, try to visit wineries that will have wines you are likely to enjoy. Unfortunately, there is no readily available reference that tells you the wines produced by each of the Napa Valley wineries. A partial list is available on the website of the Silverado Trail Association, which represents most of the wineries located along the Silverado Trail.
If you love Cabernet Sauvignon, a trip to the Napa Valley will seem like a visit to heaven. Nearly every winery has a good Cab.

Those of you who like sweet Rieslings will probably be out of luck. There's not much sweet table wine produced in Napa. You can find high-end dessert wines at places such as Prager Port Works and Van der Heyden. Sutter Home and Beringer offer a few low-cost, sweet wines.

Visitors who prefer white wine may have problems finding a tasting room that offers more than one Chardonnay. Merryvale and Napa Wine Company have white wine flights consisting of four or five different wines. Grgich Hills, Trefethen, Frog's Leap, and St. Supery usually have a few whites available for tasting.

Merlot fans might want to stop by Havens, Twomey, or Rutherford Hill, all of which specialize in Merlot.

While Sonoma County is better known for Zinfandel (red, not pink), you can find some in Napa at wineries such as Cosentino, Bell, Regusci, Biale, Grgich Hills, and Frank Family.

For Pinot Noir, visit ZD and Robert Sinskey. You can also head to the Carneros Region in southern Napa where Pinot and Chardonnay predominate. Nicholson Ranch (technically in Sonoma Valley but located across the street from Carneros) and Bouchaine are two frequent stops on my tours.

Lastly, for sparkling wine, I highly recommend Schramsberg's tour and tasting and the tasting at Domaine Carneros. Cliff Lede and Frank Family are wineries that are known for Cabernet but also offer excellent sparkling wines.

Napa has a reputation of being a bit snooty. However, most tasting room staff are friendly and want to talk with you and help you to enjoy their wines. Their challenge is that on many summer and fall days they are just too busy to spend much time with each customer.

I hope this Napa overview gives you some ideas for your next trip. Please feel free to contact Blue Heron Custom Tours & Travel if I can help you plan your visit or if you would like a tour of the Valley. I can be reached at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or at

New Tours for 2008

While multiple-day tours always have been available from Blue Heron Custom Tours & Travel, three such tours are now described on the Blue Heron website. Waves to Wine is a two-day tour that includes winetasting in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, an overnight along the Mendocino Coast, a visit to the town of Mendocino, and a drive back to San Francisco along the Mendocino and Sonoma County coast. Zin and Gold is a two-day tour that includes winetasting in the Shenandoah Valley in Amador Country and visits to the nearby Gold Rush towns of Sutter Creek and Amador City. Big Sur and Beyond visits Big Sur, San Simeon, and other sights along the central coast. The tour can be arranged for two or more days.

Rick's Blogs

For more information on San Francisco, read my blog: Rick's San Francisco Journal. My other blog, Rick's Wine Country Journal, contains travel information on Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino wine country.

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See you on the road,


Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel
(866) 326-4237 (toll free)
(415) 337-1874 (local)

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