Boutique wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma don’t get the attention that the big ones do, but they should. A girlfriend getaway in Napa Valley and Sonoma should include stops at wineries both large and small. Those big, beautiful wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma are showboats; popular, and well-known. Sure, it’s important to visit them to get an overall sense of what a long weekend in California Wine Country has to offer — but so are those smaller, off the beaten trail boutique or unique wineries. The joy of individualized service and personalized attention cannot be overstated. If a California Wine Country travel goal is to walk away with a well-rounded sense of what the wineries there have to offer, these four special or boutique wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma fit the bill.
A girlfriend getaway in California Wine Country is heavy on fun and laughter, light on touring the romantic side of Napa Valley and Sonoma. While some wineries are deeply romantic, others thrive on serving up great generous pours to groups of friends — and the atmosphere of camaraderie is appreciated by all. Unique, fun, special wineries are recommended for girlfriend getaways because they mirror and enhance the joy of getting away for a long weekend with your best gals.
1. Jericho Canyon Vineyard in Calistoga: This boutique, family-owned winery specializes in a spectacular Cabernet Sauvignon, though other varieties are created here as well. The Jericho Cabernet Sauvignon, Jericho Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, and Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon are special wines, though, and are the epitome of what makes visits to boutique wineries memorable. This canyon hillside winery and vineyard are the perfect setting for special Cabs and also for a close-up look at what life is like for a family growing grapes and raising children in Calistoga. There’s something old world-like about touring this property: the ancient dog half-heartedly guarding the front gate, the guys bumping around on small tractors, and, of course, the rows of grapevines, wine cave and and generous pours of that fantastic Cab add to the effect. Jericho Canyon Vineyard is family-owned and run, and boutique tours are by appointment only — so call ahead. Try the “Polaris Tour & Wine Tasting” tour for a start-to-finish look at the wine making process with a little off-road ATVing feel thrown in for good measure.
2. Lambert Bridge Winery in Healdsburg: No, that huge Saint Bernard laying down in the middle of the room with her eyes closed and tongue sticking out is not dead, that’s just how she hangs. There are two other oversized and lazy dogs wandering the premises, hoping for snacks from gullible visitors, too. They are symbols of the relaxed, friendly atmosphere at Lambert Bridge Winery, another boutique winery with a great attitude. Part of your girlfriend getaway in Napa Valley should include a picnic-style lunch at Lambert — with, of course, wine for every course. We had our picnic lunch inside, but the scenic grounds are also lovely for such a meal. Lambert Bridge Winery makes some of Sonoma’s more complex Zinfandels, hand-crafted and balanced. Take a look at the grape-sorting process; every individual grape is examined and chosen or discarded accordingly (it reminded me of the squirrels sorting nuts in Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory). The big wineries don’t have the time or capacity for this artisan touch. Boutique wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma such as Lambert and Jericho Canyon really illuminate the artisan elements to smaller vineyard wine-making.
3. Chateau St Jean in Kenwood: This winery is a bit too big to be considered boutique, but it’s not overwhelmingly large at all. Chateau St. Jean was one of the first wineries in Sonoma County to bottle single-vineyard wines, so, it has “boutique” offerings including winery exclusives. Of the four boutique or special wineries recommended here, Chateau St. Jean is by far the most graceful one, with a feminine feel to the architecture and interior design. Lovely, lovely, lovely. This was the first Sonoma winery to have a wine named “Wine of the Year” by Wine Spectator Magazine, for one of its Cabernet Sauvignons. Chateau St. Jean, in other words, had a big part in getting Sonoma on the map as being on par with Napa Valley — together, the two make up one of the world’s top wine regions. Because wine pairs so well with food, Chateau St. Jean (which doesn’t have restaurant facilities) offers charcuterie and gourmet treats to accompany tastings. The tasting room is intimate enough that the hosts can provide one-on-one tastings for you and your group; this experience keeps the feel of the winery small. Take time, if you can, to stroll the Mediterranean-style gardens as well.
4. Rutherford Hill Winery in Rutherford: Around three quarters of Rutherford Hill’s production is Merlot, which is someone unique; in Napa Valley, Cab is king. While Rutherford Hill is well known nationally, a visit to the winery itself is a pleasant surprise. Rather than the large, faceless production center you might expect from its famous name, Rutherford Hill Winery has the feel of a smaller winery, with a pretty picnic area in the front and the best views of Napa Valley around. After driving up a winding road, you’re atop a hill yet tucked away, with views of Auberge du Soleil below and the wider valley all around. Take a tour of the wine caves, and a picnic afterwords. Your guide will arrange a table in the picnic area for optimal views, but plan ahead — if you shop at one of Napa Valley’s grocery stores you can purchase all your picnic needs beforehand. Then, buy a bottle of wine here for your picnic. Rutherford Hill Winery has some desserts (like chocolate covered blueberries, in season) but not entrees for picnics.
These four special or boutique wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma play down the purported snootier aspects of California Wine Country vacations, and up the relaxed, friendly quotient. This is especially important for a fun, memorable girlfriend getaway in Napa Valley. Giddy laughter, delicious food, and a little gossip (come on, we’re only human!) combine with wine education, wine tastings, wine and food pairings, and, okay, just one more glass of wine are all the elements needed for your long weekend with friends to be the California Wine Country vacation of your dreams.
Thank you to the Wine Institute, which hosted my own girlfriend getaway in Napa Valley and Sonoma County.