Food Tourism: California Wine Country
Where America Meets the Med
(This article was first published on Exciting World Travels.)
Food tourism adds a deeply delicious element when planning your next vacation. Still, with all the remarkable places on our planet where natural beauty, friendly natives, and good food collide, it isn’t always easy to choose a destination.
But what if we gave you all the info so you can find the best fit for your next food tourism adventure? That’s where Exciting World Travels comes in, helping you pick where and when!
Northern Californian wine country is blessed with rolling hills, stunning scenery, and an ideal Mediterranean climate. Only two hours from San Francisco by car, it’s easy to reach; with a multitude of outdoor activities should you ever tire of eating and drinking.
But, to make your trip truly unforgettable (in a good way), you’ll need to know how to avoid the crowds.
In season and out
The best season to visit depends on the experience you’re after.
Spring brings beautiful weather. Summer brings hordes of tourists. Fall is the best season if you’re exceptionally interested in viticulture. Winter is the time the locals prefer, enjoying the restaurants and wineries, free of summers’ masses.
Still, don’t visit at the end of December ’til the middle of January, as many venues are closed – it’s their holiday season too.
Evocative of Tuscany, with a casual, laid-back lifestyle, California wine country has been welcoming visitors since Mexican colonial times.
Today, there are over 450 wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties, producing some of the world’s finest wines. The emphasis is on Chardonnay, Pinot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot varietals.
We think wine country is at its best in autumn when the air is thick with the scent of the harvest and summer’s crowds are long gone. Off-season or peak season, don’t leave your plans to chance: The best wineries open for bookings only, so you run the risk of not finding anyone there if you don’t call ahead.
Exciting world travels don’t happen when you’re disappointed. Plan your trip and book well ahead – at least a month is recommended.
With 450 wineries, which do you pick?
To get you started, here are some wineries providing unique and superior experiences.
- -Don’t miss Domaine Carneros in Napa. Brilliant sparkling wines in a chateau setting with a fantastic view. The wine tasting and the food paired with it (in this case, a cheese plate) is fantastic.
- -In Sonoma, Gundlach-Bundschu is California’s oldest continuously family-owned winery with a fun, unstuffy vibe.
- -Jordan Winery in Sonoma County makes an elegant Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Tastings offer stylish food paired with great wines.
- -St Francis Winery, Sonoma. There are two basic tasting menus. The market list is for wine you’ll find at a wine shop. For the great wines, you won’t see in stores, sample the reserve list.
- -Benziger Wineries are a biodynamic and organic winery in Sonoma. They have an excellent tour with friendly staff, and the reserve wines are outstanding.
- -Robert Hunter Wines by appointment only. If you want an exclusive experience that most other wineries don’t offer and you want to take the time to enjoy it, this is your vineyard. Private tours and beautiful grounds in an intimate setting and the wines are excellent as well.
- -Ledson Winery specializes in small lots of hand-crafted wines reflecting California’s uniquely diverse terroir varietals. A short tasting here can turn into an epic one with great hosts and excellent reserve wines.
World class and famous, food for every palate
What you may not know about this part of California is that it also has some of the best restaurants in contemporary America. This isn’t so remarkable, food and wine have been inspiring each other since cuisine began. Wine country is famous for the quality of cuisine on offer.
Here is a quick list of not-to-be-missed dining experiences.
- -The French Laundry, located in Yountville, Napa is a regular in the annual Restaurant Magazine list of Top 50 Restaurants of the World. With three Michelin stars, Anthony Bourdain called it, “the best restaurant in the world, period”.
- -Only a few minutes from the French Laundry, The Restaurant at Meadowood is also a Michelin Guide, 3-star restaurant in Napa Valley, specializing in local, sustainable California cuisine.
- -In Healdsburg, try Cyrus, 29 North Street, just off the splendid town square. With two Michelin stars and a spot in Gourmet’s Top 50 restaurants in America, you’ll need to book well in advance
- -St. Helena has French Blue, a country-style French restaurant on Main Street that gets rave reviews
If you don’t have a budget for Michelin star dining, and you want to meet the natives, Napa and Sonoma have lots of casual bistros, cafes, and diners with excellent, affordable food and wine lists to match.
- -Della Santina, in Sonoma, makes delicious, authentic Italian food served with their homemade pasta. The scrumptious and boozy tiramisu is justifiably famous amongst locals.
- -Don’t miss the rock star experience that is Gott’s Roadside, an idealized sort of American fast-food eatery using boutique ingredients from local purveyors, cooked-to-order. The style is California-casual, featuring micro-brewed beer and boutique wines alongside gourmet cheeseburgers and other roadhouse fare. The James Beard Foundation Award designated Gott’s Roadside as one of America’s Classics.
- -The Schellville Grill, 22900 Broadway, Sonoma, is a casual place with friendly staff. Try the browned butter chicken or pulled pork and the carrot cake and bread pudding are simply the best. If you want a great place to eat (where the locals go) with excellent food, this is it.
- -In downtown Calistoga, the All Seasons Bistro is a good choice for lunch. The fresh hand-made fettuccini with garden-fresh vegetables and pesto is out of this world. The food is hearty and every dish is prepared with care.
- -Should you be out and about early, the best breakfasts are at Jeffrey’s Hillside Cafe in Santa Rosa. Give them a try if you’re in the area. The latte is superb – hot, which many lattes aren’t – and bursting with coffee flavor and the breakfast itself was outstanding.
Go wild and have a picnic
It’s a relaxed bohemian lifestyle, here in wine country. Life is in tune with nature, the way it should be. Eat freshly picked tomatoes, local olives, and artisanal cheeses, under a tree in the sunshine.
With all the fantastic food happening in every village, picnics are remarkably well catered for. When the wine tastings and Michelin starred meals leave you feeling a little jaded, it’s time for an al fresco picnic.
- -Picnic fixings can be found at the Sunshine Market, in St. Helena. Walk in and walk back in time, this Old World, European-style market provides fresh, local cheeses, and olives with great local wines.
- -Also in the town of St. Helena, be sure to stop in at the Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturer. This is a well-kept, local secret and is the best place to get the ingredients for another fabulous picnic. You’ll have to ask the natives for directions. Stuck away in a quiet residential area of St. Helena, this is an old-world, Italian market and the aromas and ambiance will transport you back to 1950s Italy.
- -If you’re in the town of Napa, head over to Oxbow Public Market and have a coffee or croissant before you choose your lunch.
Take your food and head off to one of the many wineries that have picnic spots and enjoy the peaceful landscape.
The countryside is spectacular, wild and arid in stark contrast to the vineyards, fertile and bright with color filling the strips between the vines. The gnarled old Californian oak trees, black bark covered in lichen, have seen the ebb and flow of life here for decades. In late winter, fields of mustard begin flowering. In California’s wine country, it all comes back to the land, inspiration, and nourishment for the necessary pleasures of life.
Get in the mood with a boozy, blue cheese, burger recipe
Is your vacation still too far away? Let Exciting World Travels give you some advance inspiration. Invite a friend around, crack open a bottle of mellow California red, put on some laid-back music and make these amazing burgers.
Boozy Blue Cheese Burgers
(These are sooo good!)
Use a mellow California red to marinate the burgers. Yes, the same one you’re drinking.
- 1 ½ lbs ground beef (about 750 gr) – there should be some fat in it.
- 4 green onions, green and white parts, finely chopped together
- ½ bunch parsley, finely chopped
- 1 t. salt (or to taste)
- Fresh ground black pepper to taste
- 1/2 C (125 ml) red wine
- 1 pack – flavorful blue cheese
- 4 large hamburger buns – from your local artisan baker?
- Sliced red onion, pickles, and burger goodies (mustard, secret sauce, etc.)
How you’re going to do this…
Combine meat, onions, parsley, salt, and pepper – there’s nothing quite like squishing hamburger stuff together with your fingers! Form 4 large patties with a large hollow in the middle of each. Place patties in a shallow bowl and pour wine over, filling the hollows. Refrigerate for anywhere from 3 hours to overnight. Longer is better.
Remove burgers from the wine. Put them, hollows down, on a hot grill or in a frying pan to which you’ve added a tablespoon of olive oil. They tend to want to break apart and can get crumbly, so be careful. Grill or fry about 7 minutes per side or until the internal temperature reaches 160F (70C). Top with thin pieces of blue cheese, and let the cheese melt on the burger for a moment. Serve on lightly toasted burger buns with all your favorite burger trappings.