The beautiful entrance to the Sterling Winery

Planning a day trip to California wine country

If you find yourself in San Francisco, you should consider taking a day trip to wine country.  Granted, leaving San Francisco to take a day trip anywhere is hard to do…simply because San Francisco has so much to offer a visitor; it’s hard to want to leave!  However, if you are like me, the call of the grape will get the better of you, and you’ll be looking for a way to spend a day in California wine country.   The good news is that a visit to wine country in just a day is actually very easy to do.  You’ll get a good fill of beautiful views, delicious wines and a bit of an education on wine making and tasting even in such a short period of time.  Granted, a visit to wine country is best done over a long weekend, however, you can still have a great experience in just one day.  Here are some tips for planning a day trip out to wine country.

Vineyards at Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley

Vineyards at Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley

Best time to visit – it’s all about good timing!

Hopefully you have some control in the timing of your trip to Northern California.   I don’t necessarily want to say that there is a bad time to visit California wine country, but there are some things to consider when it comes to your timing.  If you are visiting in the summer months (June-August), keep in mind that this is going to be the busiest time to visit.  You’ll be competing with large crowds, waiting in traffic jams, and dealing with hot weather.  For smaller crowds, nicer weather and an overall better experience, hopefully, you’ll find yourself in the area in the spring (April – May) or during the harvest season (September – October).  I visited Napa in mid-May, and the weather was perfect, there was no traffic along Route 29, and the wineries were not crowded.  The vineyards were in full bloom with green vines, there was a relaxed ambience at the wineries, and it was a very enjoyable experience.  I highly recommend visiting wine country in May.


Napa or Sonoma?  There can only be one … for a day trip

The two best known wine regions that are easily accessible from San Francisco, Oakland or Sacramento are the Napa Valley and Sonoma County.  You’ll have no problem finding some great wineries in either region, from the large familiar ones to small boutique wineries.   With the valleys of Sonoma and Napa sitting right next to each other, divided by the Mayacamas Mountain Range, visiting both valleys in one day might seem possible; it simply is not.  If you just have one day, you’ll be forced to decide between the two.



Napa Valley is considered the more sophisticated valley, primarily due to the number of fine dining establishments, the many opportunities to enjoy boutique shopping and fancy spas, and diverse options for accommodations.  It has been described as the Disneyland of winemaking.  I find it hard to reconcile those two descriptions, as when I think of Disneyland, sophistication is the last thing that comes to mind.   However, one thing is for sure, the Napa Valley is wine country geared towards tourism.  Some of the famous wineries that you’ll find in the Napa Valley include:  Sterling Vineyards, Robert Mondavi Winery, Domaine Chandon, The Hess Collection, Sutter Home, Beringer, Frog’s Leap and Silver Oak.


Sonoma County is considered the more relaxed and rustic wine region.  Here, the focus seems to be less on the tourists, and more on the winemaking.  It is also a much larger region than Napa, sitting between the Pacific Ocean and the Mayacamas Mountains.  This is the place to visit if you want try a wide variety of wines, and you don’t want to have to bother with huge crowds.  If you plan a day trip to Sonoma, try to stay focused on its most renowned regions which include:  Carneros, Sonoma Valley, Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Anderson Valley.

At first glance, trying to pick a few wineries to visit in wine country seems like a daunting task with over 700 to choose from.

At first glance, trying to pick a few wineries to visit in wine country seems like a daunting task with over 700 to choose from.

So many wineries, so little time

Once you know which valley you will be visiting, you’ll next want to plot out your route and choose three to four wineries to visit throughout your day.  Whichever wineries you decide to visit, keep one thing in mind:  if you are doing a full tour with tasting, allow at least 2 hours for your visit at each winery.  The full tours take a lot more time than simply stopping in somewhere for a much quicker tasting experience, and on a first visit, I highly recommend doing the tours with tastings.  Keep in mind that most wineries operate 10:30AM to 4:30PM, so to have a fun-filled day of tours and tastings, you really should plan to see no more than three wineries. Although it would be possible to visit four wineries in one day and incorporate tours into those visits, it will make for a very aggressive itinerary.  Limiting your visit to just three wineries, especially if you want to stop and smell the roses while sipping your wine, will make for a much more relaxing and enjoyable day.

With over 300 wineries in Napa Valley, and over 400 wineries in Sonoma County, trying to choose which three to visit can seem very daunting. You could simply choose to visit the wineries of some of your favorite wines.   However, what you should really do is try to get as much of a wine country experience as you possibly can. To do that, look for a winery that offers a very good educational tour and tasting, one that has unique architecture or beautiful views, and one that has exceptional wine or is a personal favorite of yours.


Robert Mondavi Winery

It’s Wine Time!  

After you select your top three wineries to visit, check to see if they require reservations.  Most will require a reservation for a tour and tasting.  Otherwise, you can visit one of the larger wineries for a tasting, skip the tour and enjoy your wine on a terrace overlooking the vineyards.  Most wineries also have gift shops that offer not only bottles of wine for sale, but a lot of unique kitchen, cooking and of course, wine accessories. Plan to spend some time perusing the gift shops at each winery.

During your visit, you may also be presented with an offer to join the winery’s wine club.  If you have any interest (it’s tempting when they make an offer of 40% off bottles that you can’t buy at your local wine shop), do yourself a favor and look at the information on their websites prior to visiting the winery.  The last thing you want to do is take the time out of your busy day to review the wine club information and try to make a decision as to whether or not you want to sign up.  Know before you go whether you want to join the club or not!

cheese platter at Sterling Vineyards

Cheese and Meat Platter at Sterling Vineyards costs $25.00 but big enough to share. If you belong to the wine club, you’ll receive 20% off.

Finally, you are probably wondering where you’ll fit in time for lunch.  There are a few small towns along the main arteries in wine country that offer plenty of dining choices, as well as roadside restaurants.  However, stopping for a sit down meal will take time, and instead, I recommend getting your day started right with a big breakfast.  As the day progresses, if you start to get hungry, order a cheese and meat platter at one of the wineries.  Some wineries also offer a small sandwich selection.

If you take a little bit of time to plan your day to wine country, you’ll be rewarded with a wonderful experience.  I guarantee after just one day, you’ll want to start planning another (longer) visit.  If you don’t have time to plan out your own day trip itineary, check out my itinerary for a day trip to Napa, where I visited Sterling Vineyards, Robert Mondavi Winery, and Domaine Chandon on a beautiful day in May.

Trip Tip:  Don’t forget to pick up some wine skins to take with you because chances are, you’ll be buying a bottle or two (maybe more!) to bring home with you.  I used the wine skins to transport two bottles home in my checked luggage, and they arrived home without breaking.  Another nice item to take with you is the small foldable wine freezer bag.  Stick it in the freezer, and you’ll have cool transport of your white wine.   It is small enough to pack in a bag when you finish your wine, too.  However, don’t worry if you forget to pack these, as the gift shops at the larger wineries are well stocked with everything you need to get your wine home and enjoy it once there.

© 2014, TrippingBlonde.