A Long Weekend in California Wine Country: Getting a Taste for Napa and Sonoma Wines (Part 1)

A bunch of purple grapes cling to the vine in Napa wine country, California.

“I should like to spend the whole of my life traveling abroad, if I could anywhere borrow another life to spend afterwards at home.”

William Hazlitt

There seems to exist a syndrome among international travelers and expats. They’ve visited the world’s most far-flung destinations, but haven’t seen much of what their home countries have to offer. Perhaps it’s the lure of the unfamiliar, the desire to pin a new country on one’s world map, or just simply forgetting all the worthwhile destinations that exist back home.

Having lived in Europe for more than a decade, this partially rang true with me. From Burgundy and Champagne, to Porto and the Loire Valley, I’d paid homage to many of Europe’s finest wine destinations. However, I had yet to make it to Napa, which together with neighboring Sonoma, is home to nearly 400 wineries.

Last autumn, during one chapter of our whirlwind North American road trip that took us as far east as Québec City, and as far west as San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest, my husband’s parents hosted us during a gorgeous getaway in Napa and Sonoma. They had been eager to do this with us for years.

Palm trees tower over vineyards in California's Napa Valley.
A cluster of grapes hangs on the vine, underneath a reddish-yellow leaf, in Napa Valley.
Red and yellow leaves sit on a curb in California's Napa Valley.

Our timing for the October weekend get-away couldn’t have been better. California’s trees and vineyards were just starting to discard their summer hues in favor of golden red autumnal attire. The weather was perfect: glorious, sunny skies, and temperate days. There was just a hint of fall in the air.

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My husband, Shawn, and his family have been coming to Napa since his 21st birthday, so they naturally have a handful of favorite wineries that they visit in both Napa and Sonoma. What follows is part one of a Napa & Sonoma series that shares anecdotes from our four days in California wine country. Whatever your language, I say Cheers, à votre santé, saúde!

Friday: Ledson Winery & Vineyards

To celebrate our arrival in California wine country, we picnicked at Ledson Winery and Vineyards in Sonoma. As I walked through rows of vines and an aromatic garden filled with white roses, France’s Burgundy region came to mind.

A fountain and white rose bushes at the Ledson Winery and Vineyards in California.
White roses at Ledson Winery.
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Shawn and me.

Though when I glimpsed the young estate’s architecture and contrasted it with my memories of old stone homes in the French countryside, I was reminded that I was in the New World and finally exploring California’s second-most visited attraction. (The land of Minnie and Mickey trumps Napa/Sonoma.)

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As the winery was set to close shortly after our arrival, Shawn’s parents covertly ran inside the tasting room, mischievously returning a few moments later with a golden baguette, Pesto Jack, a small log of Chèvre, and a chilled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in hand. We sat on benches under the handsome old, twisty trees, listening to the birds, reminiscing upon their Napa memories, and plotting the next three days of our Napa and Sonoma sojourn. We also determined the designated driver duty schedule. My trio of companions chivalrously allowed me to opt out of driving so that I could enjoy the long weekend to the fullest extent.

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A lamppost seemingly emerges from vineyards at the Ledson Winery in California.
A bottle of Sauvignon Blanc wine at Ledson Winery in California.
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Saturday: Black Stallion Winery and Sbragia Family Winery

Our day commenced at The Black Stallion Winery, which is situated on the grounds of a former equestrian center. My in-laws are members of Black Stallion’s Wine Club, and the establishment was hosting its annual barbecue on the afternoon of our visit.

Black Stallion had an impressive flight of wines to taste:

  • 2010 Pinot Grigio
  • 2010 Napa Valley Rosé
  • 2010 Monte Rosso Zinfandel
  • 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2009 Napa Valley Syrah
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A statue of a horse at the Black Stallion Winery in California.
Clusters of white and red grapes on display at the Black Stallion Winery.

There were also activities to distract guests. The first was a varietal matching activity, which was visually-pleasing given the six leaf types and grape clusters that were arranged on plates before us. (I wonder how many of those grapes were devoured during the intense deliberation sessions?) The aim was to properly pair a leaf with its appropriate bunch of grapes. Despite the presence of aids nearby to assist, Shawn and I did not pass the test with flying colors. Perhaps we were enjoying the wine too much to give the game the attention it deserved.

Later, we embarked on a tour of the production room and cellar, learning that due to earthquake concerns and related regulations, the newer Napa wineries do not have underground cellars. Instead, they try to simulate subterranean temperatures in an above-ground room. Wineries that were built before such regulations were put into law were grandfathered in.

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Our favorite activity was Black Stallion’s educational vineyard. Among the rows of vines were placards explaining the history and characteristics of each grape. Surprisingly, we were encouraged to pluck the plump specimens right from the vine as part of our educational experience. We happily obliged. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to devote as much time to ‘wine school’ as we had liked, because Black Stallion’s wine menu, hearty lunch offerings, and conversation with newfound friends kept the four of us occupied.

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Sunflowers in a glass jar in California.
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Afterward, we drove up the windy Silverado Trail of Napa Valley, cutting across the mountain range dividing Napa and Sonoma into the Dry Creek River Valley. My father-in-law had purchased some wine futures from the Sbragia Family Vineyards and had been invited to a wine futures pick-up party there.

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We arrived at Sbragia just as the sun was preparing to set, casting a magical golden glow over the surrounding vineyard-adorned hills. It was extraordinarily beautiful!

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As we admired the sunset, we continued our lessons in winemaking, watching as a barrel was crafted out of oak planks then forged over a small flame to give it an essence of smoke.

A man crafts a wooden wine barrel in California.
A man assembles a wine barrel in Sonoma, California.
A man assembles a wooden barrel at Sbragia Winery.
Two wooden wine barrels soak up the early-evening sunshine in California.
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At our earlier stop, we’d learned that Black Stallion uses Hungarian and French oak for its barrels. The art and science of fermenting and aging wine in oak barrels is fascinating. One specialist I spoke to at Sbragia mentioned that the cost for French oak can often be prohibitive for wineries, leading many to use Hungarian and American oak. A new French oak barrel can carry a price tag of around $1,000 USD, whereas American oak is usually half that amount. American oak is said to be more intensely flavored than French oak. I have read that some wineries even use oak wood chips to produce the sought-after oaky flavor within a quicker amount of time.

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With the sun having slumbered over the Dry Creek River Valley, we decided to call it a wonderful day and head back to our home away from home.

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Where in the World?

Whether close to home or somewhere international, what is your favorite wine destination?

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

54 thoughts on “A Long Weekend in California Wine Country: Getting a Taste for Napa and Sonoma Wines (Part 1)

    1. Sharon, ah, it was a special weekend! We were so grateful that everything fell into place to make it happen.

      Wonderful to hear from you, as always. Hope you and your family have a splendid weekend.

  1. I have yet to visit the Californian wine country. It is another one of those destinations that I have been thinking about of late! I have to say, I got lost in your photos. They are stunning. Love your use of space, lines and repetition. Beautiful work.

    1. That’s very kind of you to say, Sid! Each photo makes me realize how much there is to learn. Photography is a complex creature. :) It’s certainly fun practicing in such scenic surroundings, though.

  2. Tricia, you captured beautifully the essence of the California wine country. Good Husband and I first started visiting the area over thirty years ago. It was a quiet, sleepy place but even back then one could see what its future would be. Virginia

    1. Virginia, it’s hard to imagine it as a place without much attention. My husband says that even when his family started going there (about 15 years ago) one could have a much more intimate experience at the wineries than now.

      Do you prefer reds or whites?

      1. Tricia, my globe trotting friend, I am into the big reds. Love the cabs. That said I like the whites also. If it’s wine it’s mine. Our son-in-law (now retired) as been in the wine business for over 40 years. When he and our daughter travelled to Napa on business they stayed with the Mondovi’s. It’s nice to have an an oenologist in the family. V

      2. Love your line, “If it’s wine, it’s mine.” And, I just learned the word oenologist the other day when I was writing this piece. I wonder how it ever became associated with wine? I’ll have to take a peek at its etymology. :)

        I need to practice working up to those big reds again, for over the years, I’d fallen back into a habit of enjoying the lighter whites on warm summer days. In California, and here in Croatia, however, I’ve really taken a liking to the ruby beauties. I must read up more on Croatia’s wine history.

  3. What a gorgeous, long, post! It reminds me that I have two tickets for a tour of our local winery that I have never used! Exactly an example of the phenomenon with which you begin.

  4. Truly a great blog. It looks like you have been treated to some wonderful adventures… it reminds me of the fact that I should continue this year with some traveling of my own. Cheers!

    1. James, I appreciate the great compliment. My husband and I have certainly had some amazing travel experiences since meeting each other. :)

      Are you living in Malaysia now? A fascinating place indeed! We spent a week there one year ago, as part of our SE Asian sabbatical. Would love to explore more of the country.

      1. I certainly am. Its a great melting pot of cultures and I would recommend you do it in detail sometime as you will find a wealth of photos and stories to take away!

  5. Beautiful series, Tricia. My wife and I were so keen to visit Napa and Sonoma when we were in California a few months ago except we had the kids with us. No matter, gives us a reason to come and visit again :-)

    1. Distan, thank you for your compliment. There have been many times when I’ve left a region, thinking I likely wouldn’t make it back again to see the spots I missed. Unexpectedly, I end up going to the region again. Croatia (where we are now) is a pleasant example of this phenomenon. I was last here in 2007.

      With that being said, I’m sure you two will be exploring California wine country someday soon. My husband and I feel the same way about wanting to see Australia! :) (We were in Bali last year – so close! – but didn’t make it.)

  6. what a wonderful post Tricia! My sister, husband, and I just visited San Fran but didn’t make it to Napa and Sonoma. it’s DEFINITELY on my list and you’ve whetted my appetite even more :)

    1. Marina, I must admit that I arrived in Napa a bit spoiled by European wine country’s centuries’old architecture, and unsure what I’d think of it. But it was really special. I like being in a community where most everyone is focused upon a common goal or passion! Now that we’re in Croatia, I’m hoping to explore some of their wine country too. Everyone here seems to dabble in winemaking as a hobby.

  7. Tricia, this is beyond beautiful. What perfect treats you have brought to us :)
    I love “Please don’t climb the trees”!!

      1. Hi Tricia,

        Too many treats! I am experiencing with a gooey oatmeal gluten free/vegan treat. However, I have not been happy with any results yet so I won’t post it until I feel it is worthy to eat and share. I am somewhat of a perfectionist. I will keep you posted :)

      2. Judy, since I’ve gone gluten free these past 4 months, I’ll be eager to read more about it! I haven’t tried doing gluten-free baking much (aside from bread) but I have heard it can be tricky to achieve the same consistency as with gluten-filled goodies. A friend of mine runs a lovely gluten-free blog, and details her special flour ratio there. You might enjoy it: http://www.kumquatblog.com. I’ve tried many of her recipes, and must confess that they’ve become favorites!

      3. Thank you very much. One of the publisher reps I work with at the college brought me a local gluten free treat (delicious), and I fell in love with the goodness and gooey texture. I am going to look at the kumquat blog. It is the flour ratio I am having problems with. Whether to go with flour, or not. Thank you so much!!

    1. Thank you for taking the time to leave such a lovely comment! I’m not certain the next time we’ll be in Sonoma. When we do, we’ll definitely come to Sbragia, to sit on your beautiful terrace and enjoy a special glass of wine. On a side note, we’re currently in Croatia, not far from the area where Zinfandel’s genetic ancestors, Crljenak Kaštelanski as well as Tribidrag, originate from. We’re hoping to make it out to the villages associated with these varietals!

    1. Jim, many thanks for your wonderful feedback and for sharing my links on your pages. I can’t imagine how anyone could be disappointed there – such beautiful landscapes and great wines to be enjoyed!

      We’re now in Croatia, and eager to learn more about this country’s long tradition of winemaking. We hear that Zinfandel’s ancestors (the Croatian grapes, Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag) were grown in villages not far from where we now are. We’re hoping to make it there!

  8. I think the reason why we don’t see much of our native countries and choose to extensively explore the county that is our temporary home is because, deep down we are afraid that when away from home we will be extremely homesick and depressed. Subconsciously we try to protect ourselves from the pain of being separated and away from our roots for too long. This has been one of the most beautiful posts I have read in a long time! Your photography is inspirational!

    1. Maria, that’s an interesting theory! Have you been away from home for a long period of time too?

      I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed the post too; thank you for your great compliment! Wine spots around the world are so photogenic.

      I’m happy we’ve connected, as I’ve been perusing some of your gluten-free recipes just now. How long have you been eating gluten free? I just started 4 months ago, and it’s often challenging finding gluten-free fare on the road!

  9. I’m really happy we’ve connected as well!! I’ve been away from home (Greece) for more than 10 years; mostly in Europe with a 3 year spell in Saudi Arabia. Now, my husband and I live in Croatia – It IS a small world after all !!! How long are you going to be there for? It is a beautiful country with so many places to explore!

    I have been eating gluten free for a little more than a year now. I agree with you it is quite challenging finding gluten free food on the road! Most of the time I have to prepare some snacks for us in advance and I always have a bag of died nuts and fruit in my backpack for emergences. It is a bit easier when you are on a road trip with your own car and you can stock up with your favourite gluten free ready-made supplies or just stop at a roadside restaurant (thank God there are plenty of those in Croatia) and order roasted meat and potatoes :)

    1. Maria, what part of Greece do you come from? I’ve only been to Athens (which I enjoyed very much) but I someday hope to make it to the islands. Which ones are your favorites?

      You’ve lived in such diverse spots. How many more years will you be in Croatia?

      We will be here in Trogir for another 3+ weeks, and I’m so happy we extended. From here, we’re not certain where we’re going, but we plan on returning to the EU in June. I love this part of the world!

      We have a lovely little apartment here, so we’ve been doing most of our own cooking. It’s been an adventure trying to interpret the labels at the grocery store, and we’ve had a few gluten ingredients hiding in the products so far. :) The ladies at one of the local grocery stores were very helpful, though, and I found some great cards to help translate while on the road. Are you familiar with this site? http://www.celiactravel.com/cards/

      1. I am a norther girl! I come from a small town northwest of Thessaloniki – a city worth visiting at least once in your life for sure :) – It is called Grevena. To tell you the truth I’m not an island person I have visited a few but I would really love to go to Santorini, Crete and Samos for at least once during my lifetime!

        We are staying in Croatia for at least one more year. If you are ever in Zagreb or Athens drop me a line. I would love to meet you in person! You are such a positive and engaging person!!! Thank you so much for the website tip!

      2. Maria, what a kind offer – I’d love to! I don’t think we’ll be making it to Zagreb on the way back to Germany early this summer, but if we do, I’ll let you know in advance.

        I hadn’t heard of Grevena, so I just looked it up. It sounds as though it has a lot of natural beauty, and an image I saw of one of the bridges reminded me of the famous one in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Speaking of Greek islands, I also have Santorini and Crete on my must-see list. Rhodes also sounds nice. In fact, I’m certain I could probably be happy immersed in island life on almost any one of them. :)

        Glad you found those cards helpful. It’s funny, I printed out one for Croatia, but seem to forget it when it comes time to go grocery shopping here. Have you picked up a lot of Croatian words?

  10. Tricia, this is a stunningly beautiful post. Your photography is so gorgeous. What a wonderful outing for your family. It sounds like you’re really enjoying your time in Trogir. Last year we did the same thing in Dubrovnik – got an apartment, settled in, and did our own cooking. Sometimes it was a bit of a comedy of errors as we tried to guess the language of ingredients. Fortunately we weren’t dealing with any allergies. All the best, Terri

    1. Terri, belated thanks for your kind words about this piece. Mother Nature and all the beautiful details of wine country were at their best that weekend!

      I’d be curious to learn more about your time in Dubrovnik. What month did you visit? Even if we don’t stay there for a long period of time, we’d like to at least drop in for a day trip in the coming weeks. My husband and I have both been there in past years, but that was before our paths crossed. It’d be lovely to explore the city together. I loved walking the city walls.

      I had to smile reading your comment about grocery shopping in a foreign land, because of course, I can completely relate. Where did you go from Dubrovnik? Oh, I’m off to see if you have more on Croatia on your site. Maybe I’ll beat you to the answer. :)

      1. Hi Tricia,
        We visited Dubrovnik in October and loved it – so unlike anywhere we’d been before. I would think the two of you would enjoy exploring it again, sharing past discoveries.

        From there we took a wonderful bus ride to Mostar, Bosnia. The bus goes up along the lovely coast, then turns inland and passes through several checkpoints. Mostar, with its tragic past was enchanting, eye-opening, and sobering for us, and we were so glad that we went. Can’t wait to see where you go next. ~Terri

      2. Terri, thanks for sharing those details. I went to Mostar in 2007, and you described the city perfectly. It was certainly one of the highlights of my time in the region. My husband, on the other hand, hasn’t yet been to Bosnia-Herzegovina, so I’d love for him to see Mostar and Sarajevo. We’re contemplating heading to Montenegro or Albania next. I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg with my explorations in Montenegro, and I would love to see some of the UNESCO-registered towns there. So fun to explore! Hope you have a lovely weekend at ‘basecamp’ /home :-)

    1. Andrea, how lucky you were to have lived in San Fran! I’ve only been there twice, on whirlwind adventures. I’m joining you two late in your journey, but I’ll look forward to your posts from Norway! :) Thanks for stopping by.

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