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  • Writer's pictureMelissa L. Smith

What to know when visiting wine country

We're constantly acclimating to the new realities of living in a pandemic, and the constant changes in mask policies, indoor and outdoor dining and tasting room policies, and of course, our new annual threat, fire/smoke season. Having spent almost every week in Napa Valley and Sonoma for the last few months, I figured I would update you on the state of things in wine country and hospitality so that you can best plan your visit.

Sparkling wine and food pairing.
Mexican culinary experience at Domaine Carneros

Current Considerations

  • Bring a mask and evidence of vaccination. San Francisco is implementing this policy and it is only a matter of time before other regions follow suit. Better safe than sorry and face the threat of being turned away upon your arrival. In most cases we've been able to enjoy outdoor tastings, but as soon as you go inside to make a purchase or use the restroom a mask is required.

  • Make reservations. Gone are the days of just showing up at a tasting room. One day I drove my guest and I all the way from Carneros to Oakville, zigzagging the valley in search of a tasting room allowing walk-ins (including wineries I never would have even considered tasting at), only to run out of options and end up at a restaurant between seating's in Yountville. Another time myself and three guests drove all the way from the coast through Russian River Valley and were unable to get into any tasting rooms because of reservation requirements and being short staffed. If you can, make reservations two to three weeks in advance, including at restaurants.

  • Plan every aspect of your trip. I've found that two wineries a day with a leisurely lunch in between and dinner after the final tasting is the perfect way to enjoy a day without feeling rushed or drinking too much. My first tasting of the day is generally at 11, lunch at 1, and final tasting at 3:30 or 4 depending on the tasting room hours. If you are sticking with one region, it's possible to fit in a third appointment. Use Waze to plan your travel times and routes. With two main roads in Napa Valley, and even fewer in Sonoma, and wine regions being as busy as ever, expect traffic delays.

  • Arrive on time. Because (with few exceptions) all wineries and restaurants are requiring reservations, you must be on time, or face being turned away (and a deposit withheld).

  • Support small, family run wineries whenever possible. These guys have been impacted the most from the fires, Covid, and staffing shortages. Spending your money with them will have a much bigger impact than with the larger production wineries with massive back up capital and wide retail placements.

  • Practice patience, be kind, and be generous. Working in a mask and on your feet all day is no joke. Most of the staff has been unemployed off and on for the last year and a half, and are doing the best that they can under the circumstances.

  • Do take fire season into consideration. If you are immunocompromised, have asthma, or any other difficulties breathing, being outdoors can wreak havoc on your lungs, and 45 minutes driving through a smoky region or spending any amount of time outdoors in poor air quality just isn't worth it. Having just returned from Lake Tahoe, my lungs are still shot from the small amount of time I spent outdoors, and just driving though the smoke even with the car's cabin filter having just been replaced. There are plenty of opportunities to attend a virtual wine tasting, or host a Covid safe tasting at your home. Also, stay on top of fire conditions in the regions you are planning to visit. And I know none of you would do this, but my god, if your tasting appointment gets canceled due to an active fire threat, expressing anything but compassion and aid is unacceptable.

  • Immerse yourself in the experience. As we've seen, there are no guarantees and many of us took winery visits for granted until we could no longer visit them. Enjoy the hospitality, meditate on the wines, ask about vineyard practices and if they were able to have a 2020 vintage, ask how the winery was impacted by the pandemic. Also, see what additional experiences the wineries are offering. A lot of them have gotten creative with culinary experiences and special tours that weren't previously available.

The view from Auberge overlooking Napa Valley


  • Do not wear strong scents (or any for that matter) to any wine event. You may not be able to smell the strength of your perfume or cologne or body lotion, but you are in a hypersensitive environment and that could ruin an entire tasting room's experience. Cigarette smoke is another consideration.

  • Tip your tasting room person. I tip anywhere from $20/person for a casual tasting, to $100/person for a more prestigious experience. Anything above that definitely earns karma points.

  • Hire a driver. You will be way more relaxed and safe if you have someone else responsible for getting you safely from one appointment to another.

  • Don't store wine in your car. This is the easiest and fastest way to ruin a bottle. (Although my friend found a wine enthusiast life hack on her Tesla that is designed to keep pets cool in the car, but it also happens to work well for keeping wine at a safe temperature.)

Kenzo Winery
Between the rows at Kenzo.

Recent Wine Country Visits Recommendations. In addition to this list, I've enjoyed a few additional spots that are not yet listed.

  • Torc Fantastic California cuisine in the old Ubuntu spot in downtown Napa. Great wine and cocktail program.

  • Auberge du Soleil Perfectly luxe wine country dining experience. Definitely score a table on the terrace overlooking the valley from their property in Rutherford. The lunch tasting menu is a fantastic deal.

  • RH Yountville An unexpected find. The food was really good, but the ambiance is incredible. Great casual spot to snack on truffle fries and crispy artichokes, accompanied by a truly great BTG wine list.

  • Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch A very high volume restaurant with ample outdoor seating on 29 in St Helena that features ingredients from their own gardens. The wine list is heavy in offerings from their winery, with some great playful cocktail additions.

  • Kenzo Tucked away at the base of Mount George is a 4000 acre plot purchased by Kenzo Tsujimoto in 1990, planted by celebrity viticulturist David Abreu, and wines made by Heidi Barrett. The Sauvignon Blanc is liquid enjoyment, and the reds are all beautifully polished. The wines of Kenzo are in nearly all of my clients collections. They also own an exclusive izakaya restaurant in downtown Napa that sounds fantastic.

Let us know which spots you'd like us to add to our list, and please feel free to reach out with any wine country needs if you are looking for specific recommendations. And if you want to bring the wine country to you, contact us here.

Cheers from Napa Valley

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