Secrets of Wine Country Our Insider's Guide to Sonoma County and Napa Valley Travel
Updated February 20, 2010 - Jack
Welcome to our ever-improving guide to Wine Country. We love your feedback! Besides this page, there are currently four main sub-pages that make up this section of the website: Visiting Wineries; Bonus Secrets; Weather, Traffic and When to Visit; and Where to Stay. You can access them from the left column on this page.
A Serious Dinner in wine country is usually an expensive multi-course affair which will take 2.5-4 hours. Note: You really can come to wine country just for the great food. You don't even have to drink wine; some restaurants offer interesting selections of alternative beverages like locally brewed beer.
The French Laundry in Yountville is one of America's greatest restaurants. It's now also very expensive – allow about $500 per couple excluding beverages. The chef, Thomas Keller, now also oversees Per Se in NYC.
How to Get a Reservation at The French Laundry You must call exactly 60 days before the date you wish to dine on. Be prepared to accept any time for lunch or dinner (it's the same menu). Start calling at 10am Pacific Time. Keep hitting redial – you may get lucky. Another chance is via OpenTable.com and here's a link for tips.
Cyrus in Healdsburg is the restaurant more people have raved to us about than any other. You can have as many courses, in any order, from anything on the menu. They have a great cheese course, too. This is the Sonoma County restaurant to dress up for; they are really going for the sophisticated, elegant diner. Our new, very positive review, is here. Chef is Douglas Keane.
How to Dress for Serious Dinner: Jacket usually optional - (tie not at all necessary) Napa tends to be slightly dressier than Sonoma.
in Napa & Sonoma
Almost all restaurants that would be visited by a tourist are open for dinner Sunday night. This is because people tend to arrive in Wine Country on Friday and go home on Monday (although many of the SFers/Silicon Valley'rs go home Sunday afternoon or evening). So, restaurants in wine country, if they close at all, are closed on Tuesday most often. Also, some restaurants are closed during the first two weeks of January.
Make your weekend restaurant reservations well in advance. This is particularly important for special event and holiday weekends.
Eating Like a King on a Prince's Salary: Many of the "serious" dining choices are only open for dinner, but a few are open for lunch, and sometimes offer a less expensive menu.
Dining Picks in Wine Country
There are a lot of wine country restaurant guides. We're not out to be the most comprehensive – we'd rather cut to the chase. So here are our picks, suggestions and thoughts:
Places to Eat Outside - Napa Valley: Wappo Bar (Calistoga) - especially during late August and September, Brix (we've never been there), Julia's Kitchen (COPIA), Auberge du Soleil , Go Fish (but call to see if the patio is open) and, of course, Taylor's Refresher (Saint Helena). * Note many of the larger restaurants in Napa offer some outside seating in the warmer months.
Late Night Dining:
We need to mention that wine country is not a late night dining destination. Especially in Sonoma County, it's hard to find food after 9:30-10pm. If you are planning on eating late, do your homework.
How to Dress for a Casual Dinner:
Casual Smart. You can wear jeans, but there’s no reason for doing so. Wearing a tie looks more out of place than a T-shirt.
Restaurant Reservations: Although Opentable.com is a great resource for Wine Country restaurants, we've found phoning the restaurant directly often reveals a reservation not offered at Opentable.
Something many don't initially realize when dining in California is that you can bring your own wine to lunch or dinner. You are charged a "corkage fee" ranging from $5 to $25 (or more at very high-end places, like The French Laundry. Some restaurants discourage you from bringing your own wine by charging a high corkage fee). Some places waive a corkage fee if a bottle is also purchased from the restaurant's wine list.
Three general rules apply:
• You never bring a wine already on the restaurant's wine list.
• You don't bring cheap/grocery store wine.
• You tip as if you purchased the wine at the restaurant (so you have to make a guess, but!), adjusting for corkage cost.
My own, fourth rule would be:
• Don't bring wine to a restaurant with a very good wine list unless it's a very special wine. It's important to reward the restaurants that make the effort to have a strong wine list, especially those that price them fairly.
Update: Read Jack's comprensive article on Corkage here.
Restaurant Wine Lists
in Wine Country
So, one thing you might expect to find at the better restaurants in Napa and Sonoma are wine lists featuring older vintages of California wines. Ha! An older vintage might be a 1998 (a lousy year!) at most restaurants.
Pricing: Napa restaurants - Medium to High,
restaurants - Very low to Medium.
Restaurants with diverse (i.e., world-wide) wine lists: The French Laundry, Cyrus,
The Farmhouse Inn, Martini House
Restaurants focused on Local wines: Press, Zin, Bistro Ralph, but realize that all of Wine Country has many good to great local wines on their lists.
Cult Wine Availability
Even when you spot cult wines on a list, it's usually the most recent vintages – and why do you want to spend $200-$800 for a wine that's not ready to drink?! This is not to say that every once-in-a-while I don't see a fairly priced one that's ready to drink.
Bringing Your Own Wine
Yes, this can be done at every(?!) restaurant in wine country. You pay a fee called corkage.
Click here to learn much more about this.
Anticipated Wine Country Openings:
Napa Riverfront Project(summer 2010) - Three New restaurants: Morimoto Napa, Tyler Florence's Restaurant, and a Seafood Restaurant from the Lark Creek Group.
Taverna Santi - Santa Rosa - (Spring 2010) The new location is next to the new Traverso's.
Recent Wine Country Openings
Farmstead - St. Helena - The highly anticipated restaurant from Long Meadow Ranch with chef Sheamus Feeley.
Restaurant P30 - Sebastopol - Comfort Food, sustainable & local focus. Obsessive about ingredients.
Norman Rose Tavern - Napa - Owners of Azzurro Pizzeria & Enoteca, along with chef Reed Herrick offer Microbrews and American Comfort Food.
Cantinetta Piero - Yountville - At the new Hotel Luca offers housemade charcuterie, traditional Italian pastas, pizza & entrees.
a|k|a A Bistro- St. Helena - In the old Keller's Meat location, supports sustainable and organic farming. 50 wines by the glass, 600 on the list, and over 150 wines priced at $60 or below
Bistro M- Windsor - The new French Country Bistro from the owners of Mirepoix.
Cuvee Napa- Napa - New American, bistro style. Check out their wine list.
Less Recent Wine Country
La Toque- Napa - Relocation to the new Westin Riversiade
Bardessono - Yountville - Located in the new "green" luxury hotel. Open for breakfast. Chef Sean O'Toole focuses on using local ingredients and working with local farmers.
Neela's - Napa - Chef Neela Paniz of The Bombay Cafe's new restaurant. Searching for Indian food in Napa - this looks like a good bet.
JoLe: Farm to Table - Calistoga - focus on local and organic. Owned by husband-and-wife team Matt and Sonjia Spector who are also the chef and pastry chef respectively. Menu items are designed as smaller portions to have a tasting menu.
Bottega is Michael Chiarello's
new restaurant (Tra Vigne, Napa Style) in Yountville - opened December 5, 2008
Eloise, Odyssey, West County Grill, The General's Daughter, Plaza Farms, GG Surf & Turf, Movin Ahead Cafe (Chateau Souverain - closed for renovation), The Fig Pantry, Elements, Santi (moving to Santa Rosa from Geyserville - stay tuned.), Josef's (Closes end of April '10)
Ad Hoc - Located in Yountville (the building South of Redd), this is the new restaurant from Thomas Keller (The French Laundry).
$45 pre-fixe for a four-course dinner.
Open Thurs-Mon. (Reservations: 944-2487 - the answering machine doesn’t kick in until after eight rings and the phone is often busy.)
Go Fish - This St. Helena, seafood restaurant is from Cindy Pawlcyn (Mustards, Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen), Sean Knight, and Ken Tominaga (Hana), who is directing the sushi bar. Open for lunch and dinner daily - (707) 963-0700. (Go Fish OpenTable)
We’ve been to all of these places either more than once or within the last year. Restaurants listed below are open every day for lunch unless indicated otherwise.
Picnicking at Wineries: Many wineries (the ones with tasting rooms) encourage visitors to bring a picnic lunch and dine at their picnic tables (with a bottle of wine purchased at their winery, of course). Some wineries require Picnic Reservations, so you might want to call in advance. This seems to be more and more popular each year.
And there are decent places to get something good for lunch no matter where you are (for the most part)
Where to get cheese and picnic stuffs
(Note, I’m not suggesting you buy wine at these places, but most have wine and there are some good wines available.)
Calistoga Palisades Deli & Café in the Depot.
St. Helena Dean & DeLuca - They have the largest selection of gourmet foods and cheese in the Bay Area. The Model Bakery - on the main street has lunch items, great breads and pastries, as well as brickoven pizza. Sunshine Foods on Hwy 128 at the south end of downtown St. Helena is the independent grocery store.
Yountville Bouchon Bakery - Offers a limited selection of pre-made sandwiches and pastries, and lots of bread.
Oakville Oakville Grocery – Takeout sandwiches, cheese, wood-oven pizza, etc., and big selection of Gourmet Foods.
Napa Sweetie Pies - Offers pastries, cakes and some lunch items. Their baked goods are wonderful. Recommended. Alexis Baking Co. - Offers a limited selection sandwiches, salads and pastries. You must go in the morning. Oxbow Public Market - Most of the stores now open, including: Model Bakery, The Fatted Calf, Oxbow Cheese Merchant, and Oxbow Wine Merchant should alone make for a nice picnic, but there are also a couple of interesting take-out options and you can also get ice cream from Three Twins and oysters from Hog Island.
Alexander Valley Jimtown Store - They offer boxed lunches to go which should be ordered in advance - and they have a cafe with sandwiches and accompaniments as well as hot dishes - they post their weekly menu online. They are famous for their olive spreads.
Healdsburg The Cheese Shop - For a great selection of cheese, olives, bread, etc. Closed Sunday.
Oakville Grocery - Takeout sandwiches, cheese, wood-oven pizza, etc., and big selection of Gourmet Foods. A very popular destination! Now owned by Dean & Deluca. Downtown Bakery & Creamery - Renowned for their baked goods - although they never seem to impress us - they have lunch items available as well as pastries.
Dry Creek Valley (Near Healdsburg) Dry Creek General Store - in the middle of the Dry Creek Valley, it's a convenient stop on the wine trail. Sandwiches are made to order and the "general store" has drinks, cheese & picnic items. Owned by Gina Gallo.
Santa Rosa Chloe's Cafe - Just off at the north end of Santa Rosa of Hwy. 101, but tucked away in an office building, the search will reward you with some wonderful picnic fare of French style sandwiches, tarts, pastries, etc. Ingredients are often seasonal and local (some organic). Don't miss the tarts.
Sonoma Artisan Bakers - the renowned bread bakery offers sandwiches, pizza and a soup of the day as well as well as bread, cakes, and pastries. The sandwiches, pizza and soup are pre-made so their is no customization available. Sonoma Cheese Factory - offers a deli with a selection of picnic items and they also have a restaurant - we have not been there.
Glen Ellen Raymond Cheesemongers - John Raymond supplies some of the finer restaurants with a selection of cheeses which often includes the wonderful cheeses from Sally Jackson as well as Goats Leap.
Petaluma Della Fattoria - sandwiches and salads are available to go with a selection of pastries/cakes and of course bread.
Four other places we’re not in love with, but you can get decent picnic items:
Basque Boulangerie on the Sonoma square in downtown Sonoma serves sandwiches and pastries (and bread) to go. Warning: Some of their breads have PHOs in them.
Hwy 29, South of town of St. Helena: V. Sattui Winery's Cheese Shop and Deli is incredibly popular with seniors and college students. A recent visit resulted in tasting their most expensive cab (that they were pouring); it was the sweetest cab that I can recall tasting. They have a decent selection of cheese and pre-made salads, packaged foods and cold cuts. (We opt for Dean & DeLuca across the street.)