Friday, July 14, 2006

Summer in Sonoma

Having just returned from a trip to California's wine country, I can highly recommend it as a vacation destination. This was my second trip - I was there in 2001 as well. Interesting, both times I had the same reaction -- I greatly preferred Sonoma to Napa. To me, Sonoma has a more casual, down to earth, and friendly vibe. Napa, on the other hand, was more expensive, touristy, and upscale for my tastes. In Sonoma, you could eat at a wonderful restaurant without breaking the bank, and find free or reasonably priced wine tastings. In upcoming postings, I will be reviewing some of the wineries we visited, but for now, I wanted to give some tips for those who may be thinking of visiting this area.
  • Stay in a cottage rather than a hotel. Especially if you are traveling with friends, a cottage makes a lot of sense - you can cook some of your own meals, it's a place to socialize, and it serves as a great "home base." We stayed at Cottage Sonoma, which I recommend highly. More on that in a future posting.
  • Pick up discount coupons. When renting our car, we picked up a flyer in the Hertz office that ended up being invaluable. It had a map, info about wineries, and best of all, many coupons for free tastings, reserve tastings, and discounts on other activities.
  • Get GPS for your rental car. We found the GPS to be a great help navigating from place to place. Most wineries and points of interest were in the GPS and it spared us from wrestling with maps. It even found us a fantastic restaurant in San Francisco which we would never have found otherwise.
  • Start early. Most wineries close at 4:30 or 5 pm, and their hours are limited. So plan accordingly. Don't expect to be able to do more than two or maybe three in a day if you are really going to spend some time in each.
  • Don't drink all your wine. Tastings will often include 5 to 10 different wines... sometimes even more. Although they only pour an ounce or so in your glass, if you try to drink them all you'll end up tipsy and unable to really taste anything. Take a few sips, and pour out the rest. I know that sounds sacreligious, but it's the best way to manage. Save yourself for the wines you really love.
  • Bring crackers. All wineries provide water to help clear your palate between wines, and some even provide breadsticks, but many don't. Bring a package of bland crackers with you and have one between tastings to clean your palate.
  • Ask questions in the tasting rooms. The hospitality people in the winery tasting rooms are often extremely knowlegable about the wines, the grapes, and the whole wine-making process. In some wineries (Rodney Strong for example), the hospitality staff gets special training and ongoing continuing education. It's a great opportunity to learn about wine and wine-making.
  • Take the tour. If you have the opportunity to tour the inner workings of a winery, do so. Some of the tours are guided, some are self-guided, but they are all interesting and educational. Some, like Sterling Vineyards, have extras, like a tram ride up to the winery. Others, like Benziger Family Winery, have tractor tours through the vineyards.

I hope these tips have been helpful. Stay tuned for more Sonoma winery info.


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