In our nine week family adventure driving to California and back this summer (thank goodness for wine!), we had the great fortune of spending one month in a rented cottage in Calistoga, CA. Calistoga is located in the northern end of Napa and just a short drive to Sonoma County. The stone cottage was nestled amongst the great redwood trees and far off the beaten path. The bucolic setting was more than perfect. My husband and I have made Napa a staple in our excursions to the west coast in the over twenty years of our marriage. However, the Napa and Sonoma of today has changed tremendously since our first visit.
Twenty years ago it seemed that the main concern in Napa was the "dreaded" Napa Valley Train that would cause noise and pollution throughout the precious valley. If only today the train was their only concern. Every weekend, hoards of cars make the trek along Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail for a two day wine experience. I am not sure if the quality of wine is as important any more as much as the entertainment value of the adventure.
To begin with, 20 years ago wine tastings were for the most part free. People in general had journeyed to Napa and Sonoma as a serious venture in wine exploration. They toured their favorite wineries, learned about the art of winemaking and discovered new wines. Today at anywhere from $5 to $30 a tasting, it's more about the amusement. We were offered private tours, closed room tastings and "don't tell anyone" behind the bar bottles. Is it marketing? Yes. Does it work? I am sure it does for many a guest. My husband and I, however, are still on the eternal quest of filling our cellar with wines that we love and that are not necessarily rated by anyone else other than ourselves. By the way, the $30 tasting was for one wine. Let me not forget to mention that in many cases you do get to keep the glass with their logo. Thanks, just what I needed! Sometimes, but not always, they will even deduct your tasting price against the purchase of wine.
Sonoma, on the other hand, still maintains the charm of old wine country. The region is larger than Napa making winery hopping a bit more difficult. However, within Sonoma one can explore individual areas like Russian River Valley where you will find amazing Pinot Noirs or Dry Creek Valley where Zinfandel reigns. Wine tastings are minimally priced and often free (especially if you have a Visa Signature credit card). Greetings in Sonoma are warm and tasting rooms are welcoming.
The wineries in both Napa and Sonoma have also evolved. Many offer other experiences such as special tastings, food pairings and cooking classes. The tasting rooms are now more elaborate and filled with wine related items waiting to be purchased. Another major difference is that years ago wineries only made a few wines. Today wineries are making up to a dozen wines with a diversity of varietals. Although many of the better wineries focus on their flagship wines, they fill the needs of the new demographic of wine drinkers with a wide selection of prices, wine styles and grapes. It's almost too much.
If you plan on purchasing wine then buyer beware. Do your homework prior to committing to buying wine directly from a winery. If it's the joy of purchasing directly that thrills you than go ahead but in many cases the same wine can be purchased for much less at your local wine store. Many wineries, though, now offer wines that are exclusively sold at their winery. However, for the wines that are widely distributed, better prices can be found with a simple internet search. This is especially true when you take into consideration the cost of shipping into a three tier state like New Jersey. Bring a notebook, take good notes and shop when you get home.
Don't misunderstand me. I still love Napa and Sonoma. There are many more wineries and many more experiences to explore today than there were 20 years ago. With nearly 400 wineries in Napa and over 300 in Sonoma, one month in the wine hills of California were barely enough to scratch the surface. We found ourselves navigating back to our old faithfuls like Silver Oak, Duckhorn, Cakebread and Phelps. However we also searched for boutique wines and hard to find wines on the east coast. It's a comfort and an adventure all wrapped into one vacation.
For information about the wonderful cottage nestled among the Redwoods, please visit www.vrbo.com/217438 and tell them I sent you.