Number 31 - August 2010Welcome 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, www.BlueHeronTours.com, to learn more about our private, custom tours.
Most folks heading to the Napa and Sonoma Valleys drive through the Carneros wine region without knowing that they are in a distinct American Viticulture Area (AVA) with its own unique characteristics. This is too bad as there is much to see and do in Carneros. One can easily spend a day in Carneros tasting good wine, eating delicious food, and enjoying the rolling, vineyard-covered hills.
Carneros, which means sheep or rams in Spanish, got its name from an old Mexican land grant. Located closer to San Pablo Bay than either the Napa or Sonoma Valley, Carneros is cooler and windier than its neighboring wine regions. As a result, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive in Carneros. In recent years, more Syrah and Merlot vines have been planted with increasing success.
Located just one hour from San Francisco, Carneros is a perfect day-trip destination. The drive along CA 121 through the rolling vineyards is one of the loveliest in all of wine country. I especially enjoy the back roads drive along Duhig, Las Amigas, and Cuttings Wharf Roads.
Driving from San Francisco to Carneros is simple. You can easily make a loop by departing San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge and returning via the Bay Bridge. Below I'll cover some of my favorite Carneros destinations, starting on the west (Sonoma) side and finishing on the east (Napa) side.
The first major destination you'll come to is at the intersection of CA 37 and 121, Infineon Raceway. You'll want to avoid this area on big race days such as when NASCAR comes in June, NHRA (hot rods) in July, and Indy League in August. Traffic backs up for miles. However, if you are a race fan, this is the place for major league racing in the Bay Area.
As you drive along 121 through Carneros you'll see wineries on both sides of the road. The first winery on the left side is Cline Cellars. What I like about Cline is that the tasting room offers a wide variety of reasonably priced whites and reds. There's something for almost every palate. One of my favorites is Cline's Ancient Vines Mourvedre. Cline is one of the rare wineries that still offers complimentary tastings, although there is a small fee to taste their reserve wines. While at Cline, you can visit the California Missions Museum and learn about these important parts of the State's history. There's also a picnic area where you can enjoy lunch under sunny skies.
Directly across 121 is Cline's sister winery, Jacuzzi Family. (Yes, it's that Jacuzzi.) Sharing the building is The Olive Press. Here you can taste artisan olive oils and vinegars. The staff is quite knowledgeable and can tell you more about olive oil than you ever wanted to know.
Further along 121, on the right side, is Cornerstone Gardens, home to beautifully landscaped gardens and shops. You can walk through gardens commissioned from landscape architects, stroll through the stores, taste wine at Grange Sonoma and Roots in Sonoma, or lunch at Sage Fine Food and Provisions. Sage can also pack your lunch so you can take it to a winery for a picnic.
Just past Cornerstone, 121 turns right. A couple of miles down the road, you'll see a small white building on the left. If you want to lunch on some serious diner food with a southern accent, stop in at the Fremont Diner for fried pies, barbecue pork, burgers, and other delights. You can sit at one of the outdoor tables or take your food to picnic at the next winery down the road, Nicholson Ranch.
At the next traffic light, you'll see a winery on the hillside in front of you. This is Nicholson Ranch, a small, family-owned winery that makes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Merlot. While the winery is technically in Sonoma Valley (Napa Road and 121 form the dividing line between Sonoma Valley and Carneros), the winery is much easier to visit on a tour of Carneros. Here you'll find friendly staff, good wine, and a pretty setting. You can picnic by the lake or on the patio next to the tasting room. With a prior appointment, you can tour the winery. You may even get to meet the owners, Ramona and Deepak, during your visit.
Continue east on 121. You'll climb a small hill. At the top you will cross the line from Sonoma to Napa County. Shortly after you descend the hill, you'll see a large chateau on the right. This is Domaine Carneros, a producer of excellent sparkling wine and Pinot Noir. On a sunny day, life doesn't get much better than sitting on Domaine Carneros' terrace while tasting wine accompanied by cheese, caviar, and/or smoked salmon. A variety of tours is offered daily. Advance reservations are recommended. Be sure to check out the sheep across 121 on the Di Rosa Preserve. If they're moving, you have had too much to drink.
When you leave Domaine Carneros, you can turn right and go south on Duhig deeper into Carneros or you can turn left and continue east on 121. If you go right, you'll be rewarded with some of the prettiest views in all of Carneros.
Two wineries worth visiting in this off-the-beaten-track part of Carneros are Bouchaine and Etude. To get to Bouchaine, continue south on Duhig and turn left on Las Amigas. When you come to Buchli Station Road, you'll see the smallest winery sign in all of Napa County directing you to turn right to get to Bouchaine. While best known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Bouchaine also makes wines not commonly found in this region: Pinot Meuneir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer. Bouchaine offers two tastings: an indoor, stand-up tasting for $15 and an outdoor, sit-down tasting accompanied by some nibbles for $30. The latter is the way to go as Bouchaine's terrace is one of the nicer places to linger in wine country. Bouchaine also offers a Table for Two lunch with an advance reservation.
To get to Etude, go back on Buchli Station Road and turn right on Las Amigas. Las Amigas curves into Cuttings Wharf where you will find the winery. Etude is one of the few wineries in Carneros with Cabernet to taste. So, if your group includes both Pinot and Cab fans, Etude is a must stop in Carneros. You can taste at the bar or take your wine outside to sit on the patio. Etude also offers reserve tastings and wine and food pairings with a prior appointment. When you are done at Etude, turn right coming out of the driveway. Cuttings Wharf Road will you bring to 121. If you turn right on 121, you'll soon come to CA 29, the main road up the Napa Valley. If you turn left on 121, you can visit wineries off of 121 that you missed after leaving Domaine Carneros.
If you turn left coming out of Domaine Carneros, you'll return to 121. Turn right to continue towards the Napa Valley. You'll immediately come to a traffic light, where you can turn left to get to Folio and Artesa. After turning left on Old Sonoma Road, turn left on Dealy Lane, which soon becomes Henry Road. You'll shortly arrive at Folio Winemaker's Studio, a project of Michael Mondavi - son of the legendary Robert Mondavi. The tasting room features a variety of labels associated with the Michael Mondavi family. Here you can taste a wide array of whites and reds including Zinfandel (red, not pink) and Petite Sirah, which are hard to find in Carneros. Take your wine to the patio on the back of the tasting room and enjoy the Carneros sunshine.
When you leave Folio, turn left and you'll quickly come to the driveway for Artesa, one of the prettiest wineries in all of wine country. You'll soon see that the winery is covered with grass and is both above and below ground. Climb the hill, park your car, and then ascend the steps for a panoramic view of Carneros. On a clear day, you can see San Francisco. Artesa offers two tastings, classic and reserve, usually with one white wine and a variety of reds including at least one Cabernet. Artesa, being Spanish owned, is one of the few producers of Tempranillo and Albari?o in Northern California.
When you leave Artesa, retrace your steps to 121 and turn left to get to the Napa Valley. However, if you are hungry or need a place to stay turn left on Old Sonoma Hwy. (unmarked) just before you come to 121 and you'll soon see the driveway for The Carneros Inn, a luxury resort and spa. Here you can spend the night or dine in one of its two restaurants, Farm or Boonfly Caf?. The former is more upscale while Boonfly is casual. If you prefer to finish up in the Napa Valley, just continue east on 121 and you will soon come to CA 29. Turn left to head up the Valley or right to return to San Francisco via CA 37, I 80, and the Bay Bridge.
Thus concludes our journey through Carneros. As you can see, there's lots to see and do. There are even more wineries than the ones I've mentioned. However, these are my favorites. For more information on Carneros, contact the Carneros Wine Alliance. If you want to take a private tour through Carneros, just call or e-mail me.
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