Northern Wine Country
California Wine without the crowds
How To Get There: Prop plane via Charles Shultz Airport (on Alaskan Air) or San Fran via Ferry.
Soundtrack: Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Leon Bridges, The Temptations.
Best For: Romantic getaway, wine without the crowds.
Tips: Go early to wineries. Book appointments at spas at hotels without staying there and use amenities.
Good to Know: Grape varietals.
Attire: Silk top, skinny jeans, bangles, flowy skirts.
When planning to go to a wedding in San Fransisco over Memorial Day weekend, we figured we should make the most of our cross country trip and plan a little wine country excursion in addition to some city exploration. We decided to stay in Calistoga over the more touristy Napa and Sonoma, a charming little town tucked into the northern most part of the Napa Wine Valley.
GETTING TO CALISTOGA
When comparing fares and dates for round trip tickets from DC area to SFO it ended up being pricey (given it was a long haul flight on a holiday weekend). So it was time to get creative. Since I knew we wanted to go to Napa first, I looked around to see what the closest airport was. Turns out there’s regional airport in Sanoma County and as it turns out was significantly cheaper to book 2 one way flights (BWI to Santa Rosa/STS and SFO to BWI) via Alaska Airlines. Plus it saved us from having to drive 2+ hours through San Fran to get to Napa and we could get straight to wine tasting. Bonus! Although Alaska Airlines isn’t as well know on the East Coast apparently everyone in Cali loves them (the Southwest of the West Coast apparently). And for good reason: affordable fares, great customer service, and free alcohol which was appropriate when flying into wine country (on National Wine Day no less).
After my first cross-country flight we landed in LA for a quick layover. Then took the smallest prop plane I’ve ever experienced (i.e. you can see the propellers spinning and the wheels pop out of the wing).
But those fears disappeared once we started our descend right over vineyards (I figured if this thing goes down at least WINE COUNTRY is the place to go!)
Once arriving at Charles Shultz Airport (aka the cutest airport ever) you deplane straight on the tarmac. There’s no gates, no airport terminals, no security lines (or other planes for that matter). Just a little sign pointing you towards the baggage claim (about the length of our plane away).
The outdoor turn style exit led you into a room to retrieve your bags, and even had a Charlie Brown lemonade stand info desk and an outdoor bistro overlooking the runway so visitors can sip on a glass of wine white they wait, of course!
This airport is the best kept secret y’all! It was like we had our own private plane with the best customer service, such a stress-free way to travel and start a vacation. Even people who frequent wine country have told me they’ve never heard of this STS but I really can’t recommend it more. Literally gate to grape in 5 minutes. (Kendall Jackson is right around the corner from the airport which we got to just in time for their last tasting of the day).
From Kendal-Jackson we headed due East about 20 minutes to Calistoga. The only way to get there really is by car. Perhaps it’s within Uber range but you’ll need a car anyways to get around to the various wineries (and to get us to SF). And it’s a gorgeous drive with mountaneous views, winding roads and photo ops (& safari stop) along the way (but we didn’t partake since we were anxious to get to our hotel after a long day of travel).
WHERE TO STAY IN CALISTOGA
I’m a sucker for a boutique hotel where you have a more unique, intimate experience and the Sunburst Calistoga was just that (weren’t any chain hotels in Calistoga anyways). A chill, quiet bungalow with outdoor heated geothermal pool and hot tub with picture-perfect vistas to enjoy after a long flight (or day of drinking wine).
No bar or restaurant on the hotel premise, although it’s a short 5 minute walk into town and they give you vouchers for breakfast at a nearby cafe. Plus there’s a free Calistoga shuttle that will take you anywhere you want to go (but we didn’t end up using).
Update: I recently got an email from the hotel saying they are “undergoing new renovations and will relaunch as Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa that will have a fresh new restaurant, completely renovated guest rooms, lively communal spaces and outdoor games including bocce and ping pong.”
Calistoga is known for its spas including Indian Springs, the Solage and the Calistoga Ranch and Bed and Breakfasts. Pro tip: if you stay at the Sunburst you can book spa appointments at one of the nicer hotels and enjoy their amenities in case you want the best of both worlds.
We splurged on an infamous mud bath (which was equally disgusting as it was relaxing. For one hour (but it seemed like an eternity) we soaked in what felt (and smelled) like boiling hot cow manure (but supposedly really good for your skin). Luckily, it was a two for one special otherwise I don’t know if I could have convinced us to do it (definitely glad we did though, just might not do again).
WHERE TO EAT IN CALISOTGA
The first night we wanted something close with outdoor seating to get some fresh mountain air after being in a metal tube all day. Although we quickly realized that everything is close and has patios so we asked the hotel front desk who recommended Calistoga Inn and sat at a table on the creek.
The next morning we had a hearty breakfast at Johnny’s a hopping little dinner spot (and of course ate outside) before a full day of wine tastings.
That night we had the most amazing dining experience at Sam’s Social Club – HUGE patio, cozy fire pits, delicious craft cocktails (a nice break from a day of wine) and farm to table food nestled in the foothills. I highly recommend this place and would go back to Calistoga just to eat here again.
The next day we checked out of the hotel and headed south to San Fran and stopped for brunch at Archetype about half way to Napa. I picked this place out of necessity and convenience. But, as it turns out, most known for their daily brunch. It didn’t disappoint.
Once in Napa we had some time before catching the Ferry so explored Oxbow Public Market which is a foodie heaven full of local artisans where you can pick up nibbles to snack on (or just get inspired like we did).
In reality, you can’t go wrong when it comes to good food in Napa Vally; because obviously people who enjoy good wine also enjoy (and need) delicious food to pair it with.
WHERE TO DRINK IN CALISOTGA
It wouldn’t be a trip to Wine Country without the wine! When originally planning our trip I was overwhelmed with the number of vineyards in the area so staying in Calistoga helped us narrow it down since it’s less dense and there are fewer options to choose from (and just as good of wine). And one of my favorite things about venturing off the beaten path is that it’s far less expensive and much less touristy.
First stop was at Sterling Vineyards (on the top of our list which happened to be closest). There’s a gondola that takes you to the outdoor tasting room at the top of the mountain. (And glad we got there early to avoid Gondola lines). The winery’s architecture is Mediterranean style and is filled with world-class fine art (in addition to the panoramic views).
From there we went across the road to Castello Di Amorosa, a Midevil Castle that felt like we were in mid-Century Italy. The tasting and tour are separate in case you just want to pop in and check out the castle (complete with a moat!). The tasting room is in the basement which was packed full of tourists but if there’s a wait you can always check out the gift shop (like we did).
Last but not least was Chateau Montelena, just a few minutes north of Calistoga where they filmed Bottle Shock and had the Judgement of Paris. It’s in a historic mansion and tucked away from all the action which makes it a little more exclusive and romantic. Although there’s a random selfy station outside the entrance (for those who are so inclined).
BONUS: Because we drove through the heart of Napa we couldn’t help but stop at one more winery at Mondavi, legendary family winery right off the main road. We sat outside to soak in the sun, enjoy every sip and savor the last bit of scenery before heading into the city.
That afternoon we took the evening commuter ferry from Vallejo and an hour or so boat ride into the bay was the relaxing ending to our wine country adventure. With outlets to charge our phones and a full-service bar and snacks on board, we could plug in and keep the wine party going. (Not to mention worrying about having to drive after day drinking).