Wine tasting and wine tasting and...?
September 19, 2012 6:30 PM   Subscribe

Can I experience Napa Valley without staying in Napa?

My parents have some extra RCI points that will be expiring soon, and the fella and I are thinking of driving up to Napa Valley for a a day or two (or more, if there's enough to do). However, there are only three hotels available, and they are in Nice, Point Arena, and Windsor. It seems like the one in Windsor is the closest to Napa Valley (about an hour), but is this worth it? Would there possibly be anything fun to do in Windsor itself?

We're not big wine drinkers... wine tasting's all right, but we're not gonna be doing it all day. We wouldn't be opposed to horseback riding, which I know is also popular there. Other than that... anyone have any ideas for other things to do?

Thanks for any insight provided.
posted by madonna of the unloved to Travel & Transportation around Yountville, CA (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Windsor's pretty tiny, so there won't be much to do there, but it's close to Healdsburg, which is a pleasant (if kinda fancy) place to spend a day. Personally I think Sonoma is more pleasant than Napa anyway; it's changed a bit in the past few years, but the wineries are lower-key and not as expensive. (IME "wine-tasting" in Napa really means "getting drunk in a pretty location".)

One option would be to spend a day just driving. Windsor would be a great base to drive out to the coast along the Russian River; once you're out there you could visit Fort Ross State Park, which is a restored Russian settlement from the 19th century (and one of my favorite places in the state).

Another option would be to go for a spa day at one of the hot springs in Calistoga. Or you could go for a bike ride along the valley. And while you say you're not big wine drinkers, that area is also home to some great breweries; you could do worse than to go beer tasting.
posted by asterix at 7:04 PM on September 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Seconding spa day at Calistoga hot springs. My boyfriend's family owns a vacation house in the area, and when we went to visit last Christmas, they got us each a massage, which comes with a full day at the hot springs. All the pools have different temperatures and the massage was amazing. It was one of the most relaxing days I've had in a long time.

We took breaks in between swims/massages to go grab lunch on the main drag, then ended the day playing pool at a dive-y bar on the same strip, then taking one last dip in the pools as it was getting dark.
posted by dysh at 7:09 PM on September 19, 2012

Napa Valley Wine Train.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 7:11 PM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

You can do a day trip from San Francisco. Just rent a car and pick a couple wineries that are not too far out of the way. Have lunch at Auberge du Soleil.
posted by kdern at 7:13 PM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Windsor is very close to Santa Rosa which has Annadel State Park. Between Santa Rosa and Sonoma, you have Jack London State Historic Park. In Sonoma itself, you have Sonoma State Historical Park which has the northernmost California Mission and was the birthplace of the "Bear Revolution".

In the other direction, you have the coast -- with lots of different beaches to explore, the Osmosis day spa with its Cedar Enzyme Bath, and my favorite breakfast place, the Howard Station Cafe in Occidental.

Oh, yeah, there are wineries in the area too :).
posted by elmay at 7:32 PM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

A jumble of thoughts, mostly food related:

There's lots of amazing food in Napa. Yountville is pretty amazing. The French Laundry is supposed to be the best restaurant in the US, but you won't be able to get a reservation. Bouchon and Ad Hoc are pretty accessible, though.

If you were to stay in the town of Napa, stuff in Calistoga is still a while away. You'll be doing some driving either way.

Healdsburg is a great town in Sonoma. I stayed there a few days and enjoyed it immensely. Also in Sonoma is Willie Bird Turkeys, which has a restaurant that is supposed to be great.

My wife had a terrible time with the Cedar Enzyme Bath.
posted by joshu at 7:57 PM on September 19, 2012

So Windsor is much more Sonoma county then Napa, and that's fine. Frankly in a lot of ways I prefer that area to Napa, its got its own wineries which are much less expensive to taste at. (BTW I wouldn't even consider Nice and Point Arena wine country.

You're on the cusp of the Dry Creek Valley which is some phenomenal Pinot's, Zins and Chardonnays. Honestly its a great way to spend a day wine tasting (I know you said no but still you can do it and its fun) Check out Unti, Nalle, Porter Creek and Ridge

Or head into Guerneville (technically the Russian River) and take advantage of what they have there

You can even meander and drive out to the coast from there.

Anyway Napa's great too, heck I got married in Calistoga, check out the hot springs or wander through Napa, but if I were you in Windsor I'd go East towards the coast instead of West into Napa.
posted by bitdamaged at 8:51 PM on September 19, 2012

Sonoma County (where Windsor is located) is great! I live in Santa Rosa, minutes away fromWindsor, and hardly ever venture towards Napa, the wineries in the Healdsburg & Russian River Valley area are fantastic, and often a little more charming and less corporate feeling than in Napa. You could do a ton from Windsor!

If you like hiking, Annadel State Park is great. If you like kayaking or canoeing, the Russian River is great. Bodega Bay and Tomales Bay are great rural ocean towns, very cute. Tomales Bay has a bunch of oyster/restaurants, little roadside/oceanside shacks that offer tasty cooked oysters, etc.

Food-wise: there are amazing little cheese farms (Cowgirl Creamery, for one) and there's a whole Cheese Trail (pdf).

There are also a bunch of local farms that are open to the public, some u-pick, some just cute local farms with veggie stands.

There's also something called Art Trails where you can visit local artist studios. (Be warned many Sonoms County artists paint grapes/winery landscapes.)

Ig you think I've exhausted every possible trail, you are correct! Our wineries collaborate on a Wine Road, rather than a trail. Many charge for tastings, some don't though. You'll want to avoid the wineries that allow limos/tour buses, they're crazy on the weekends. Don't be afraid of the wineries that offer tastings by appointment only. They're the cool, small ones. I sent a list of my favorites to a fellow mefite a few months ago, I'm happy to send you one too, should you want it.

I know you said you aren't super interested in a whole day of wine tasting, but it's a fun way to see a bunch of neat farms, if you think about it that way. If you're more into rural history, a trip to the Old Bale Grist Mill in St. Helena is an excellent place to visit. It's a working mill, built in 1846 and restored to working order. They sell the best cornmeal and polenta you'll find, and also buckwheat, whole wheat flour, etc.

In Petaluma there's an old Adobe built by General Vallejo as a summer home. It's a cool local tourist site.
posted by nerdcore at 9:23 PM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Double check the hotels. Specifically check the intersection of I-80, I-680 and Highway 12. Hipmunk is good for doing location-based hotel searches. I looked this Saturday, and the Quality Inn at that intersection (four star user reviews on TripAdvisor) is available for $111 per night. My dad and sister stayed there in a similar situation and thought it was fine.

There is nothing to do (or eat or anything) over there, but you hop on Highway 12 and the first wineries on Silverado Trail are 30 minutes away if there's no traffic. There will be traffic if you go on the weekend, and they're periodically closing Hwy 12 on late nights for construction. However, if you treat your hotel as somewhere you sleep, that location and price are tough to beat, especially on short notice.

Also, don't stay in Vallejo. Trust me on this.
posted by cnc at 11:02 PM on September 19, 2012

Adding - I don't drink, and we had a great time with the scenery in Napa, doing the tour at Castello di Amorosa, seeing the modern art at di Rosa and the Hess Collection, and eating at some outstanding restaurants. You can also do a hot air balloon ride, which is AMAZING.
posted by cnc at 11:09 PM on September 19, 2012

If you are interested in trying to eat at the French Laundry, they typically will accept waiting list reservations and call you if someone cancels. If you're willing to eat at a weird time (say, 5:00 or 10:00 p.m.), there's a decent shot of getting in there. This worked for my boss the last time he was in Napa.
posted by something something at 5:39 AM on September 20, 2012

While it's true that Windsor itself is a suburb of Santa Rosa and not (to my knowledge) near any tourist stuff itself, there will be plenty to do. There's really no need to go into Napa (the Valley) at all. I notice that most people are recommending sites in Napa Valley, which is understandable because that's more famous, but my opinion is that you'll be richly rewarded (especially during the busy, high-traffic summer and harvest seasons) by seeking the path less traveled.

For our weekend "babymoon" we stayed in Sonoma (the town) and didn't go wine tasting once. There's the Sonoma mission, numerous art exhibits at wineries, the place that does safaris (no joke), the Charles Schulz (the "Peanuts" guy) museum, Jack London State Historic Park. One excellent way to get a sense of what's available is 101 Things To Do In Wine Country, which includes both Napa and Sonoma Counties but does a good job of grouping attractions by category (Art, Beer, Lakes, Rivers (yes, a separate category), etc.).

If you have your heart set on doing a particular thing and want to fight the traffic and schlep over into the Napa Valley, feel free, but I highly recommend exploring the area you're already near. Lousy hotel availability may be doing you a favor.
posted by wnissen at 7:17 AM on September 20, 2012

Came in here to reiterate the "Why bother with Napa when you can have Sonoma?" advice. If you want the wine country experience, Healdsburg and Dry Creek Road are just a little north. If you want other awesomeness, there's also the Charles Schultz museum in Santa Rosa, if you head out to the coast I really like exploring the tidepools north of Bodega Bay at minus tides, there are lots of cute little towns and gorgeous vistas out in western Sonoma county (my friends Craig and Sharon at West County Design in Valley Ford are having a little shindig this weekend, they make cool furniture and carry cool furnishings and art).

If you road bike, get on one and pedal west 'til you hit the coast, ride along it for a while, then pedal back. If you mountain bike you'll have to do your own research, but there's lots of it. There's kayaking in Bodega Bay and Tomales Bay and on the Russian River.

Also nothing wrong with heading over into Valley of the Moon and hangin' out in the town of Sonoma and those environs. That's well shy of Napa.

I'm partial to Petaluma, 'cause I live here, I think we're getting over the summer festival thing so I don't know what's going on, but if you're into classic cars, then within stumbling distance of my house this weekend there's the Hill on Wheels car show, next weekend the monthly drive-in at Fourth and Sea, a downtown Antique Fair, the El Día de los Muertos event at the Petaluma Arts Center, and I think we've got a couple of county-wide Open Studios events coming up. And there's Olompali and the previously mentioned Vallejo Adobe state parks, and...

Heck, my sweety and I have made a weekend of stayin' at the Flamingo in Santa Rosa and just hangin' out in downtown.

I don't bother putting fun things to do on the calendar any more 'cause there's too many to worry about missing any.
posted by straw at 7:31 AM on September 20, 2012

Born and raised in Napa Valley. I'd go along with everyone else and recommend Sonoma's full of wonderfulness. If you do venture over to Napa proper, there are plenty of fantastic restaurants that are not French Laundry...Auberge is great, Domain Chandon, Rutherford Grill (doesn't take reservations, but worth it)...these are all along Highway 29.

I haven't been there in years, but my favorite restaurant in the center of Napa (city) is Celadon, just on the riverfront. That whole area has expanded with wine bars and restaurants. But frankly, you can have a really fantastic wine country vacation without getting into Napa or Napa County at all.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:52 AM on September 20, 2012

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