Six spots to swirl and sip—with an urban twist.
As the number of popular Napa and Sonoma wineries continues to grow, choosing where to taste can sometimes seem intimidating. This is especially true when you have to figure in the time it takes to drive from one winery to the next, plus where to eat along the way.
To keep it simple, start by heading to Wine Country’s downtown tasting rooms to try some of the area’s best wines. Many of these hip places stay open into the evening, so it’s easier than ever to make the most of the day.
Starmont Winery and Vineyards
Strategically located a few miles south of downtown Napa, near the junction of Highways 29 and 12, Starmont Winery and Vineyards has served as a welcome sign to guests entering Napa Valley since 2006.
But the real story behind the brand stems from its historic estate vineyard, which was planted in the 1880s. In the 1950s, it became an important research lab for UC Davis, the Wente family, and Louis M. Martini, growing pinot noir and chardonnay vines. The ranch has since been bought by the Schlatter family, who started the Starmont brand in 1989. The winery was closed to the general public until the charming Starmont tasting room opened in July.
Adjacent to the wine-making facility, the tasting room boasts large glass panel doors, and a lovely mixture of barrels, metal lining, and modern furniture. This clean-but-rustic look extends to the outside patio, where guests can relax on chic wicker couches or at small tables with great views of the vineyards.
Along with the winery’s new releases of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, the tasting room offers chances to try limited-release wines made with fruit from the estate and nearby vineyards in Carneros. Seated wine tastings are available every day, and tours of the historic ranch are available upon request.
Drink this: The Starmont 2012 Chardonnay showcases the classic style of Carneros with vibrant flavors of fresh citrus, grapefruit rind, Meyer lemon, and ripe apple, along with a suede texture and bright acidity. It’s great paired with appetizers, seafood, chicken, and pork tenderloin with fruit chutney.
Cellar selection: Made with a mixture of special clones planted around the estate, the Starmont 2012 Stanly Ranch Estate Pinot Noir exudes lovely aromas that lead to deep flavors of dark cherry, cranberry, fig, red licorice, nutmeg, and vanilla, and a hint of toasted oak on the long finish. Balanced and captivating.
Nearby pleasures: Close-by wineries to visit include Acacia Vineyard, Adastra, Cuvaison Estate Wine, Domaine Carneros, Etude, Saintsbury, and Truchard—some of which are open only on weekends or by appointment. The Carneros Inn offers lunch at the Boon Fly Café and dinner at Farm Restaurant. Starmont Winery and Vineyards, 1451 Stanly Ln., Napa, (707) 252-8001, starmontwinery.com. Open daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Boutique producers are all about getting their hands on the best fruit they can find. Michael Dragutsky’s vision for Cornerstone Cellars started in 1991, when he worked with premium grapes to establish a brand that now features three top winemakers: Craig Camp and Kari Auringer in Napa Valley, and Tony Rynders in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Although it’s only 20 feet away from its original site on Washington Street in downtown Yountville, the winery’s new tasting room has more space for guests to relax, as they sip wines from the impressive list of new releases. With its high ceiling, colorful art, and stone countertop, this fashionable new setting is inviting from the moment you walk in the door.
Once you’re seated, the knowledgeable staff offers the inside scoop on each wine on the list, from the crisp and clean Sauvignon Blanc; to the fresh and elegant flavors of a variation of new releases of Pinot Noir; to the bigger, more structured Bordeaux-style wines that have garnered critical acclaim.
For an experience beyond the standard tasting, the staff offers Wine 101 for beginners, as well as packages that include food pairings, cheese pairings, and the intimate Reserve Tasting.
Drink this: With lively flavors of red berries, plum, fresh herbs, and roasted walnut, the Cornerstone 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet Franc, Black Label is a great wine to pair with food, and is one of the hidden treasures of Napa Valley.
Cellar selection: Made with grapes from the Ink Grade Vineyard, the Cornerstone 2011 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon has deep flavors of dark fruits and mineral, and a silky texture.
Nearby pleasures: Enjoy wines at other tasting rooms along Washington Street—including Jessup Cellars, Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley, and Priest Ranch—and be sure to check out V Wine Cellar in the historic Gallery 1870 building next door, which carries an eclectic mixture of boutique and hard-to-find wines. Make reservations at Bouchon Bistro, Hurley’s, or R+D Kitchen for lunch; and Ad Hoc, Bottega, or Lucy Restaurant and Bar for dinner. Cornerstone Cellars, 6505 Washington St., Yountville, (707) 945-0388, cornerstonecellars.com. Open daily 11 a.m.–6 p.m.
Ramey Wine Cellars
Ever wonder what it would feel like to be a winemaker? If so, it’s time to visit Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg.
Since breaking into the wine industry in the early 1980s, David Ramey has become one of the most respected California winemakers. He has a passion for making world-class Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Bordeaux-style blends from premium grapes grown in Sonoma County and Napa Valley.
In 1996, in the midst of a string of successful years spent working at Chalk Hill, Matanzas Creek Winery, Dominus Estate, and Rudd Oakville Estate, Ramey started his own label with his wife, Carla. In 2007, he found a home for his brand near the Russian River and historic Memorial Bridge on Healdsburg Avenue.
At first glance, the gray concrete building looks simple, but inside is a fully operational wine-making facility that features high-tech equipment and barrels holding the future releases of Ramey wines.
Over a 90-minute course, the staff explains the special characteristics and processes of each wine poured, including how the expressive Chardonnays get their creamy texture from sur lie aging and why the finished wine is fined but not filtered.
Drink this: The winemaker’s touch is highlighted in the Ramey 2012 Chardonnay, Russian River Valley made with fruit from vineyards owned by the Rochiolis, Duttons, Martinellis, and other well-known farming families between Healdsburg and Sebastopol. The end result is a quilt of flavors highlighted by notes of peach, melon, poached pear, citrus, cinnamon, and nutmeg, with a nice creamy texture.
Cellar selection: Although the full lineup of Ramey’s classy red wines are great to save for the cellar, don’t miss the Ramey 2012 Chardonnay, Platt Vineyard, a deep, rich, and complex single-vineyard wine with fruit grown only five miles from the coast.
Nearby pleasures: Holdredge Wines, Davis Family Vineyards, and Pezzi King Vineyards have tasting rooms around the corner; and Healdsburg Plaza is less than a mile away. There, you can find food options ranging from the casual Shed café, Baci Cafe and Wine Bar, Bear Republic Brewing Co., and Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar, to the more formal Valette, Scopa, Spoonbar, and Dry Creek Kitchen. Ramey Wine Cellars, 25 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, (707) 433-0870, rameywine.com. Tastings Mon.–Sat. 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Located in the wonderfully reconditioned old Feed Store building, across the street from the historic Sonoma Plaza, the Corner 103 tasting room is within a few blocks of The Girl and the Fig, Cafe La Haye, Oso, Della Santina’s, and other fine restaurants that make Sonoma one of the great dining destinations in Northern California. With this in mind, proprietor Lloyd Davis developed his tasting room program to showcase how new wine releases pair with bites made from seasonal ingredients.
The tasting room, open since April, features daily tasting flights of limited-production wines, showcasing the flavors of seven Sonoma County appellations.
The Corner 103 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast has lovely flavors of apple, pear, and citrus; and the spicy Corner 103 Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley has notes of ripe berries and black pepper. More robust-style wines, such as the Corner 103 Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Valley, which has layers of ripe blue and red fruits, a smooth texture, and chewy tannins, are also featured. As a classy touch, all wines are served in the appropriate type of stemware.
“Our goal is to create a comfortable atmosphere that is fun, engaging, and not intimidating—a place where people will learn more about the wines of Sonoma County no matter how much experience they have before they visit Corner 103,” says Davis.
Drink this: Prime the palate with a taste of the Corner 103 NV Carneros Sparkling Rosé, an elegant blend of grapes that offers balanced aromas and fresh flavors of rose petals, plum, cherry, raspberry, and sage, and a lively mouthfeel.
Cellar selection: From the Rockpile appellation in Northern Sonoma County, the Corner 103 2012 Petit Verdot offers generous flavors of boysenberry, huckleberry, and licorice, and layers of spice. It’s a great wine to serve with barbecued meats or aged cheeses, or to sip after dinner.
Nearby pleasures: Sonoma Plaza offers something for everyone: an expansive park around city hall, retail shops, restaurants, and the historic Mission San Francisco Solano, which is open for tours daily. Try El Dorado Kitchen for lunch, and Harvest Moon Cafe or LaSalette Restaurant for dinner. Other foodie highlights include Vella Cheese Company on Second Street East and the new Williams-Sonoma retail shop located in the building on Broadway where the brand was born in 1956. Corner 103, 103 W. Napa St., Sonoma, (707) 931-6141, corner103.com. Open daily 11 a.m.–7 p.m.
Ancient Oak Cellars
Although Santa Rosa is the county seat of Sonoma, tasting rooms have only recently become associated with the downtown area. The leader of this change is Ancient Oak Cellars.
Ancient Oak Cellars opened the first downtown Santa Rosa tasting room on Fourth Street in 2012, but this year, owners Ken and Melissa Moholt-Siebert jumped on the opportunity to purchase a deli down the street to serve food with their wines in an outdoor setting. The new site offers wines by the glass and tasting flights, plus sandwiches, salads, and soups during the day; and bistro-style cuisine Wednesday through Saturday nights.
“We want our wines to be consumed and enjoyed,” says Melissa. “That’s why we love being a destination where people come to eat as well.”
In keeping with the winery’s mantra, “Real People, Real Dirt, Real Wine,” the deli’s menu highlights local purveyors. These include Imwalle Gardens produce; Zoe’s Meats; Redwood Hill Farm, Joe Matos Cheese Factory, and Cowgirl Creamery cheeses; and chef Conrad Griese’s organic sourdough bread, which he bakes at home and crisps on-site.
In addition to showcasing flavorful Ancient Oak wines made with grapes grown on the Moholt-Sieberts’ properties in the Russian River Valley and on Sonoma Mountain, the wine list offers tastes from other local boutique wineries, including Acorn Winery, Paradise Ridge Winery, Robert Rue Winery, Teac Mor, and Old World Winery. Guests looking for something other than wine can enjoy a wide selection of local brews, including Nana Mae’s Organics cider, Revive Kombucha, Heidrun Meadery mead, and Devoto Orchards hard cider.
Drink this: With vibrant notes of dark cherry, earth, and spice, the Ancient Oak 2011 Pinot Noir, Siebert Ranch is an ideal wine to pair with the magic forest sandwich made with sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions, Brie, and sourdough grilled on the panini press.
Cellar selection: If you are a fan of robust red wines, don’t miss the Ancient Oak 2011 Sappho Red, Berger Vineyard, a dazzling reserve series blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, with deep flavors of raspberry, cherry, and mineral.
Nearby pleasures: The tasting room and deli are only a block away from Russian River Brewing Co.’s popular pub, and are also within walking distance of the lovely Luther Burbank Home and Gardens and retail shops around historic Railroad Square. Ancient Oak Cellars, 621 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, (707) 536-1546, ancientoakcellars.com. Deli: daily 11–3:30 p.m. Tasting room: Sun.–Tues. 11 a.m.–5 p.m., and Wed.–Sat. 11 a.m.–8:30 p.m. Wine bar: Wed.–Sat. 5–8:30 p.m.
MacPhail Tasting Lounge
For decades, Sebastopol was known for its rural setting, fresh produce, Gravenstein apples, flea markets, and underlying hippie culture. But as high-quality vineyards emerged in the surrounding areas, a renaissance brought out world-class wines and hip cuisine. The axis of this movement is The Barlow, a renovated apple-drying facility that is now home to nearly 40 businesses, including art galleries, clothing shops, a distillery, and artisanal wineries.
One of the notable winemakers in residence is talented Pinot Noir specialist James MacPhail, who showcases his small-lot wines from the coastal regions of California at the MacPhail Tasting Lounge on McKinley Street.
Constructed with garage-style doors, aluminum walls, large sliding glass doors, and accents of locally milled wood on the interior, the lounge is colorful and inviting. Outside, the patio features stylish tables and comfy Adirondack chairs.
Tasting flights of current releases and more complex vineyard designate wines are available. But the real showstopper is the Terroir Tasting, which includes an eight-foot cross-section of soil samples taken from vineyards in Green Valley, Russian River Valley, the Sonoma Coast, and Anderson Valley—and tastings of the limited-release wines made with fruit grown on those sites.
On the more casual side, the lounge serves wines by the glass, cheese plates, charcuterie, and chocolates.
Drink this: In the Single Vineyard flight, pay close attention to the MacPhail 2012 Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir, Green Valley. With lofty aromas and complex flavors of wild berries, plum, and dark cherry, and a burst of bright acidity on the finish, this vibrant wine is crafted to please every part of the palate.
Cellar selection: From the special Petaluma Gap region south of Sebastopol, the new release of the MacPhail 2012 Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir features flavors of blueberry, strawberry, plum, cocoa, wild herbs, and savory spices. Rich, elegant, and charming to the senses.
Nearby pleasures: Also at The Barlow, taste regional wines made by Marimar Estate, La Follette Wines, and Wind Gap wineries; fresh beer at Woodfour Brewing Company; and liquor at Spirit Works Distillery. For bites, snag a pastry at Village Bakery; a Neapolitan–inspired pie from Vignette Pizzeria; or farm-to-table food at the award-winning Zazu Kitchen + Farm. MacPhail Tasting Lounge, 6761 McKinley St., Sebastopol, (707) 824-8400, macphailwine.com. Open Sun.–Wed. 11 a.m.–6 p.m., Thurs.–Sat. 11 a.m.–8 p.m.