When it comes to California wines, Napa steals all of the attention. But like a great pinot noir, the California wine scene is complex. Only 10 percent of the state’s 4,700 wineries reside in the winemaking area, according to the Napa Valley Vintners. That leaves many regions to explore.
To get a real taste of the Golden State’s finest wines, we set out to road trip through several cities, heading south from San Francisco. Of course, we could map out our own winery stop-offs, but we enlisted Four Seasons to help us chart our oenological journey. Four Seasons makes the experience luxurious and hassle-free — it paired us with skilled guides who drove us to the wineries on daylong tours.
Even more crucial: Four Seasons hotels afforded us access to exclusive wineries that are off-limits to the public.
Follow Forbes Travel Guide’s tippling tour in our three-part series. First up are the best-known hubs: Napa and Sonoma.
Napa may be one of the world’s preeminent wine regions, but it’s also among the smallest — its valley floor is 30 miles long and a maximum of five miles wide. Despite its size, the mighty area is renowned for its cabernet sauvignons, cabernet blends and chardonnays (though in recent years, it’s gained a reputation for other varietals).
Nearby Sonoma is less touristy and more laid-back but also teems with delightful pours. Pinot noirs, chardonnays, zinfandels and sparkling wines thrive in Sonoma’s cooler climate.
Where to Stay
Since Napa is only 60 miles north of San Francisco, we flew into SFO and checked into Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco. The SoMa hotel provides a central base for exploring the city, and its rooms are a soothing place to rest (especially the banquette along the floor-to-ceiling windows or the soaking tub in the white marble bathroom) after a long day of wine exploration.
Where to Sip
While San Francisco has several emerging wineries (like Roar Wines and Oro En Paz), a day in wine country consumed our time. Four Seasons set us up on a private tour with Bin 415’s Michael Lagau, a friendly, knowledgeable guide who can make wine approachable to those who don’t know their pinot grigio from their pinot noir. He also has a strong wine pedigree: The Level 2 Certified Sommelier has worked for Four Seasons and Hubert Keller’s now-shuttered Fleur de Lys.
Lagau picked us up from the hotel in a BMW SUV, where an iPad in the back seat was pre-loaded with the day’s itinerary. Then it was off on a 44-mile ride to The Donum Estate to get a good sampling of Sonoma wines.
Donum uses grapes from its estate vineyards in Carneros, Anderson Valley and the Russian River Valley to craft expressive pinots — the spicy, structured 2013 Carneros Estate Pinot Noir was a standout. But a pleasant surprise was the chardonnay, which bucked the usual buttery, creamy profile found throughout the region in favor of a fresh, bright taste with notes of apple and lemon.
It’s quite helpful to have the well-connected Lagau book your tour and the Four Seasons name behind you. The appointment-only winery is hard to get into — and not just because of its pinot.
Donum’s 187 acres also hold a world-class sculpture park. Take Circle of Animals, 12 bronze Chinese zodiac animal heads on sticks from Ai Weiwei, one of China’s foremost contemporary artists. The installation toured the globe, but now permanently sits on the vineyard. Close by is Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s Hombre Caminante, a sculpture of an oversized man stepping on another man’s back.
One of the newest art additions is Giant Head, also dubbed “Sanna,” by the famed Jaume Plensa. Sanna’s larger-than-life white face greets you on the way up to the winery. It looks like a surreal scene straight out of Westworld.
Another addition to watch out for is Donum’s brand-new tasting room, set to open in early September.
The next stop was Viader, a family-run winery on the slopes of Howell Mountain in Napa. From the rustic tasting room, we drank the vibrant 2013 Liquid Cashmere (cabernet sauvignon and cab franc) in the scenic panorama of the vineyards, lake and Napa Valley mountain range.
During our tasting, we sat with director of operations/winemaker Alan Viader, who told us about how his mom, Delia, was a pioneer in Napa for planting cliffside rather than on the valley floor, and what it was like growing up on the vineyard. We listened attentively while enjoying the silky, heavily aromatic 2014 Dare, the cabernet franc for which Viader is known, and a charcuterie plate with red-wine-cured salumi, double cream Brie and more.
Afterward, Alan escorted us out to the moss-covered stone wine cave for a full tour.
The bites triggered our appetite, so Lagau brought us to Farmstead in St. Helena, where we indulged in a brief lunch of warm burrata and roasted garlic slathered on grilled bread and 12-hour pulled pork on a potato bun.
Next, we rolled up to the iron gates of Fantesca Estate & Winery, which turns out bottles from wine world superstar Heidi Barrett (her first project since leaving Screaming Eagle in 2006). Its cozy yet elegant tasting room is the only place where you can try Barrett’s cult wines, so it is an in-demand destination. You need a referral or an invite to get an appointment.
Helmed by Susan and Duane Hoff, both of whom helped grow the Best Buy empire (Susan’s father, Richard Schulze, founded the electronics chain), the winery lures you in with its All Great Things, a lush Bordeaux-style blend with mountain fruit, and its 2014 Fantesca Chardonnay — the only chardonnay that Barrett makes — a light, crisp wine in a hand-blown glass bottle.
Besides its celebrity winemaker, Fantesca possesses beautiful grounds. When the weather is right, ask if you can follow the cave tour with a tasting on the deck overlooking the 10-acre vineyard (the winery will try to accommodate, but members get priority).
To cap off our Napa-Sonoma tour, Lagau drove us to Domaine Carneros for a flight of its Taittinger sparkling wines. Sipping the 2008 Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs, a 100 percent estate-grown chardonnay, on the chateau’s expansive terrace surrounded by Napa’s vineyard-dotted hills made for a dreamy end to our day.
But Lagau still wanted us to savor the region. After noticing our eagerness to try experimental wines, our exceptional guide thoughtfully left us with a parting gift: a bottle of 2013 Napa Matthiasson Refosco. The refosco dal pendunculo rosso grapes are mostly found in Italy’s Friuli-Venezia region, but Matthiasson Family Vineyards has one of the few California plantings.
Where to Dine
Returning for the evening to our San Francisco launching pad, we settled into the hotel’s own MKT Restaurant – Bar, a relaxed, inviting spot with California-inspired fare and fresh seafood. Some highlights from the chef’s tasting menu: Fluke crudo gets a fruity treatment with pomelo vinaigrette and apple butter dollops, and an earthy touch with celery root.
The roasted carrot salad looks too beautiful to eat, but you won’t want to miss out on the vegetables atop creamy rosemary-flecked goat cheese and crunchy quinoa-almond granola. Cooked over an open fire, the tender octopus has nice char, and the scallops are plated with bourbon emulsion, acorn squash puree and short rib ravioli.
A procession of wine pairings came out, though we favored the 2013 pinot noir from DuMol, a boutique winery in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley whose bottles are only available at restaurants and via special order. Another winner came from Santa Cruz producer Birichino. Its 2015 vin gris carried notes of melon, tart cherry and citrus pith that complemented the octopus.
A 10-minute walk from the hotel is another wonderful wine-filled dinner destination, Union Square veteran Farallon. Marking its 20th anniversary this year, the restaurant hosts the annual PinotFest, an all-pinot-noir celebration spotlighting more than 50 West Coast producers (the 19th edition will be November 5 to 18).
The distinctive décor reveals the specialty of the house. Sculpted jellyfish lights dangle from above, octopus stools line the bar and sea creature murals adorn the walls. The fanciful under-the-sea theme skews more formal — plush curved booths add an old-school vibe, tables are dressed with white cloth and grand vaulted dome ceilings remain from the space’s former life as a 1925 Elks club pool.
Start with the gnocchi and oysters, which get a kick from chunks of nduja sausage. Some Taittinger champagne cuts through the spicy meat and warm oysters. Succulent milk-poached fluke with bone marrow lentils, persillade and paddlefish caviar came alongside a refreshing glass of 2014 Ried Steinsetz Kamptal Reserve Grüner Veltliner.
An unexpected selection came at dessert, when our light vanilla bean cheesecake with apple-date chutney and candied pecans arrived with a 2008 Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos Aszú, a sweet Hungarian wine with apricot tones. After a long tasting day, it piqued our palate one last time.