I can never refuse a set of cobblestone steps. Like Mary Lennox discovering Colin in the attic, I approach with curiosity and and delight in the unknown. Last Friday, I was lucky enough to stumble upon such a hideaway at the Ravenswood Vineyard, located in my new favorite getaway: Sonoma County.
With golden-green hills cascading across the horizon and silk oaks towering into the sky, Sonoma (and it's cool and popular brother, Napa) offer more than just barrels of perfectly-aged Pinot Noir. There are delis with ice cream and olive oil samples, secret hideaways that make wine sipping seem like a Lewis Carroll poem, and a cluster of strangers all searching for a grape-y getaway.
I spent a day up in the two towns, though I would highly recommend longer for anyone who can afford it. Had I the ability, I would have stayed there for days, organizing something that could only be advertised as "The Wine Olympics." Until then, here are some of my favorite hideaways that I suggest with enthusiasm and a lust for the fermented grape.
Before today, my knowledge of Napa Valley came from vivid fantasies and what I remember from The Parent Trap. Hallie Parker, played by a young Lindsay Lohan, lived in Napa with her hot dad, Dennis Quaid, and a good portion of the movie featured scenes from the valley. And man, oh man, that girl Hallie had it made! She could go horseback riding, eat cornbread and chili on the veranda, and go camping to Yosemite all within thirty minutes. I bet Daddy Denis even let her sneak a few sips of his special reserve.
Should you find yourself hungry for adventure and thirsty for grown-up grape juice, here are a few of my recommendations!
Domaine Carneros - In the 1970s, Claude Taittinger of Champagne Taittinger had this crazy beautiful idea to bring the magic of his French bubbles in the United States. (Taittinger Champagne is quite pricey and quite delicious; I had it in New York a few years ago when visiting my Uncle, and my immature taste buds nearly exploded. The best way I can describe it is that a bunch of adorable fairies were taking a bubble bath in my mouth.) The sparkling wines of Taittinger, while not technically champagne, followed suit in their crisp buttery flavor and ability to inspire a sense of whimsy.
Tasters are invited to sit on the wraparound porch and select from a menu of wines by the glass or wine flights. Note of caution: the flights are not tastings!! I ordered one even though it was well beyond my budget (though I strive for budget travel, I can't help but adopt the "when in Rome" philosophy every now and then), and was taken aback by the heavy pours. Luckily, Domaine Carneros provides epic views, prime people watching, and (if you had my experience) hunky waiters.
Yountville - Let's stay with my earlier metaphor and imagine Napa Valley as the cool, older brother who is going to Dartmouth on a football scholarship. Yountville is his sensitive side, the part of his personality that makes him love community service and helping his mom in the garden. Lined with cottages and wildflowers, Yountville delivers you back to the childhood version of yourself. The vineyards are small and unpretentious, offering wines that Bacchus himself would bow down to. Come here to escape and the crowds and lounge in the sun like a wine-loving cat.
Oxbow Public Market - As much as I would love to call three wine tastings a meal, I find it hard to travel and not dive into the local cuisine. Oxbow Public Market presented the perfect way to do so. Located in Downtown Napa, Oxbow presents chocolatiers, patisseries, spice markets, cheeses, ice cream, seafood, and a taqueria. I wandered up and down the aisles, selecting samples of crusty bread dipped in infused olive oils, debating whether or not to go for the oysters or cheese or tacos or all of the above. Perfect for gift shopping or a taste-bud road trip, Oxbow becomes an adventure all on it's own.
Ah, Sonoma. If you were a fictional character, you would be a cross between Winnie Foster, Demeter, and MFK Fisher. You look like a painting and read like a poem. With your silk oak trees and wine-scented winds, you've captured my heart and established yourself as a kindred spirit.
Sonoma Plaza - The town square of wine-o's, poets, dreamers, old men, families, and little girls in cotton dresses, Sonoma Plaza is an ideal choice to begin one's exploration. Around the center square wraps a series of coffee shops, art galleries, shops, and tasting rooms, allowing you (and your partner or family, if they've tagged along for the ride), to sample the town. There's a vintage movie house, a playground, artisan and (!!), an Irish Pub. The two things do not stereotypically run with one another, but there a few things I enjoy more than Celtic music and a glass of wine. Thank you, Sonoma, for finding a way to do so.
Ravenswood Vineyard - Their motto is "No Wimpy Wines", and this philosophy is carried throughout the entire vineyard. The tasting room associates are young and cool, with heavy hands (a great quality at any winery) and knowledge of their different varieties. I took a glass of the 2010 Zinfandel out onto the patio and discovered my cobblestone steps. They led up and around the tasting room, which had been built into and alongside a hill. Curiouser and curiouser!!
As I wandered up the steps, I came upon a large patch of flat land looking over the vineyard and the outdoor patio. I was on top of the tasting room but because it had been built into the hill, still somewhat connected to the earth. As I walked through the patch, clusters of wildflowers and wheat danced alongside my bare legs, and I knew I had found my happy place. Like a chinchilla in a dust bath, I plopped myself down and allowed my senses to party hard. This is the vineyard for those truly looking to wander off the path.
Sonoma's Best - Nestled in the center of Sonoma County sits a wine-tasters oasis known as Sonoma's Best. This little market serves as the ultimate base camp, offering a deli, ice cream, more wine tasting, gifts, and a series of cottages. Stop here for a sweet, snack, or sleep as you make your way through wine wonderland. (P.S. - the owner, Tom is a magician in finding wines, and prices them very reasonably. I told him I was a poor wine-o who loved a good red and he set me up with my new best friend.)
Most of all, my trip to Sonoma and Napa provided a necessary dose of gratitude and empathy. Meeting new people makes me feel good. I like hearing their stories, and forcing myself out of the narcissistic bubble that tends to develop in one's early twenties. Maybe I like wine tasting because it forces strangers to be social. I'm not sure. Whatever the reason, for the wine, for the people, and for the experience, I am blessed. (!!!)
And thank you, dear readers, for keeping me company is this quiet space of the internet. I would love to share a glass with you.
- Stay cozy