Holiday events in Napa Valley and Sonoma are a good reason to come to California Wine Country during its shoulder season. Summertime is peak travel time for most destinations, and early Autumn sees a “crush” of wine lovers traveling to California Wine Country for, well, the crush. But what about winter? Those famous vineyards’ grape vines are leafless, gnarled and twisted, and even mustard season is in the past. One might think there’s nothing to do in California Wine Country during the winter…but one would think wrong. Winter is, indeed, a less popular time to visit Napa Valley, Sonoma and the like — but this means it’s easier to get reservations at the fancy restaurants, and finding a discounted hotel room is a piece of cake. So, why go? Why celebrate the holidays in California Wine Country, besides the hotel room rebates and smaller crowds at The French Laundry? Here’s four reasons why.
Napa Valley has its seasonal, annual Napa Holiday Wine Trolley. These “Holiday Light” tours benefit foster kids in the County of Napa. The Napa County Health and Family Services receives a portion of the Wine Trolley’s proceeds. The Holiday Wine Trolley is a charming cable car that takes visitors though Downtown Napa and its charming (yet, let’s not kid ourselves here, high-end) Victorian neighborhoods. The tour lasts for all of December until Christmas week, and is an evening to nighttime tour –hence, lovely views of the Christmas lights. Hot cocoa is passed around and classic Christmas carols are sung; it’s all very jolly and provides a great sense of holiday cheer. The Napa Holiday Wine Trolley lasts an hour and a half, starting at 6:30PM.
The annual Holiday Tree Lighting and Celebration at Robert Mondavi Winery is a huge, swanky event. It’s one day only, and in 2013 was November 30 — so when you read this, please check the website for the right day of the year you’re reading this. The two-hour Christmas tree lighting and celebration includes a holiday party with charcuterie and cheese small plates, wine tasting (of course), hot apple cider, and Christmas carolers dressed appropriately for the season. Robert Mondavi Wine Club members get free admission to the Holiday Tree Lighting and Celebration, as do guests who bring a food donation for the Napa Valley Food Bank. See more at Robert Modavi Winery’s website.
Sonoma Valley has its own Holiday Wine Trolley, a perfect complement to Napa Valley’s. This is, needless to say, a trolley car tour of Sonoma, its historic landmarks, and its wineries. This is a serious tour, though – its’s a six-hour long Cable Car Wine Tour, with hop-on, hop-off times. Guests get wine tasting tours at four different Sonoma Valley wineries, with a little wine education thrown in while everyone imbibes and has jovial, relaxed experiences. Also unlike Napa Valley’s, the Sonoma Valley Holiday Wine Tour is a daytime tour, from 10:30AM to 4:30PM, and includes a picnic lunch catered by The Girl & The Fig Restaurant — one of the best restaurants in Sonoma Valley. The wineries that the trolley stops at vary; wineries includes but are not exclusive to Ravenswood, Benziger Family, Kenwood Vineyards, Valley of the Moon, and Imagery Estate. The Sonoma Valley Holiday Wine Trolley operates through to December 31 each year.
Sonoma Valley’s annual Gingerbread Contest is currently (2013) in its eighth year. The week-long Gingerbread Contest in Sonoma Valley is right after Christmas; December 26-31. This is a pretty great recent addition to winter activities and attractions in Napa Valley and Sonoma. Listen to this: the Gingerbread Contest is a hallmark of the Holiday in the Vines, which is Sonoma Valley’s collective of local holiday events throughout December. Imagine all the fantastic gingerbread houses you’d see in Sonoma Valley; the more relaxed, mellow neighbor of Napa Valley is a premiere location for creative chefs, bakers and artists. Holiday in the Vines also includes visits from Santa Claus, toy drives, Winemaker Dinners, and musical events. For the Annual Sonoma Valley Gingerbread Contest, visitors vote for their favorite, and, by doing so, are entered into a raffle to win a case of Sonoma Valley wines.
There are a few other annual holiday events in Napa Valley and Sonoma, such as the Holiday Open House at Beringer Vineyards and the Dessert Wine Holiday Tasting at Dutton-Goldfield Winery. These, plus the off season hotel prices and less intensely crowded restaurants, make winter a lovely, romantic time of year for a long weekend vacation in California Wine Country.