“Paul, I have to go to San Francisco on business for a week. My wife will be with me. We have never been to the wine country. I intend to schedule a day off and tour. Where do you recommend I go?”
– D.H.Ventura; CA
For a one day trip, and for a first time trip, you are going to be at the right place to take off from!
San Francisco is close enough to the unofficial capital of California wine (in my opinion), to make a one day trip out of it. I am talking about St. Helena. It is the holy of holies. You can reach it by car in a little over an hour. A car is the only sensible way to do it for a one day trip.
Take Highway 101 North across the Golden Gate Bridge, then take 37 to 121, and 121 to 29. Even though you are going to Napa Valley in Napa County, and the town of Napa seems the place to go, forget it this time. It’s boring. The strip between Yountville and Calistoga on 29 is your destination. If we in California had the equivalent of what the French have in their wine regions: “Grand route du Vins”, this would be our best one.
I suggest you drive through from Yountville to Calistoga to get an overview of what I am talking about, then work your way back immediately to make up to four stops I will suggest, for a first timer. If you do not heed my “immediately” suggestion, you will linger and get trapped in quaint Calistoga and never finish.
Driving back from Calistoga, stop at Sterling Vineyards on the left side of the highway. A beautiful winery, perched on a hill, with an aerial tram ride and a rather well done self-tour, and a pleasant tasting room.
Then, just before you enter St. Helena, a worthwhile stop is Beringer, on the right side of the highway. They have guided tours and a charming old building for their tasting room.
It should be lunch time by my estimate, and my favorite go-to for picking up provisions is St. Helena, and find a park bench somewhere to enjoy a country picnic with a bottle of wine.
Then on to Rutherford, just south of St. Helena, to visit Robert Mondavi Vineyards. They have a very educational guided tour, and are an important force in the Napa wine scene.
If you have any energy left, I strongly suggest a stop at Yountville, to visit The Domaine Chan-don Cellars.They are makers of California sparkling wine, and a division of the famous Moet French champagne makers. A very interesting guided tour and a process worth observing.
Of course you will pass, on this short trip, many names you recognize, and you will want to stop. But save that for another day. You will vow to come back and stay a while. I assure you!
– P. K .