Explore San Francisco

How to Spend a Day in Wine Country, According to a Top Tour Guide

The ultimate Napa and Sonoma day trip for the oenophile

The concierges at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco and St. Regis San Francisco have wine country guide Michael Lagau’s number on speed dial. The sommelier and Bay Area native’s company Bin 415 leads private tours and designs custom itineraries. Lagau has been immersed in the luxury hospitality industry for the past 20 years, working at five-star hotels and Michelin star restaurants under prestigious chefs. We asked him to share his no-fail one-day wine country itinerary for the visiting wine lover, and he shared an agenda with stops at some of his favorite boutique, premium wineries with lovely outdoor settings. “Allow 75-90 minutes at each winery,” he says. “There's no shortage of amazing wines in wine country, but less is more when you choose wineries that create a memorable experience that connects you to the vineyards and wines." And with more than 800 wineries, it’s in your best interest consult an expert. 

First Stop: Donum Estate

Lagau likes to start at this Sonoma winery because of its proximity to the city and its wine style. "It’s much nicer to start the day with a well-balanced chardonnay or pinot noir rather than jumping into a full-bodied cabernet first thing in the morning. The natural setting is an old dairy farm, and it’s a very private tasting and a nice way to ease into the day," he says. "Anne Moller-Racke, the winegrower, has been growing wine there for over 30 years and really knows the land. She grows the same grape in different vineyard locations—Anderson Valley, Russian River and Carneros, where this estate is located—and you can see how pinot noir expresses itself where it’s grown. There’s a pinot noir for everyone there. A bonus is the amazing sculptures on the vineyard by Chinese contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei.”

Donum Estate
Donum Estate (©WhereTraveler)

Second Stop: Viader Vineyards & Winery

Lagau suggests ignoring your GPS and turning off Highway 29 at Oak Knoll Road to cross over to the Silverado Trail and taking it all the way up to Viader. "It’s a rustic, scenic view, as opposed to Highway 29, which is more commercialized. As you’re making your way up the valley, take note of how it gets warmer and how that reflects in the wines being a little more bold and bigger in body, with riper fruit," he says.

"What makes this property special is first and foremost the view, and secondly there’s only 10 inches of topsoil on that initial vineyard that the terrace overlooks, and the vines are growing in solid volcanic rock. It shows how rigorous and resilient vines are. They take an Old World approach to winemaking, meaning they don’t manipulate their wines much. They do a sort of Bordeaux style, with the lush, bright Napa Valley fruit. You get the best of both worlds of winemaking in my opinion.”

Viader Vineyards & Winery
Viader Vineyards & Winery (©WhereTraveler)

Lunch Break: Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch

Lagau admits that people throw around the phrase 'farm to table' but insists that's what Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch does. "It’s amazing food without the unnecessary frills, and they use locally sourced, amazing ingredients. It fits wine country more naturally than a more Michelin approach to an agricultural area," he says. "I recommend starting with the burrata and the beef tartare and then the pulled pork sandwich—I get the egg with it. Sit outside unless you’re visiting in late summer, when it gets really hot this far north."

Farmstead at Longmeadow Ranch
(©Kristen Loken)

Final Stop: James Cole Winery

Lagau recommends breaking up the drive back to the city with a stop at James Cole Winery, which is known for its cabernet and makes less than 2,000 cases of wine annually. “They give the attention to detail to cabernet that you just can’t do on a large scale,” he said. “I also love the fact that they have unique wild cards like a 100 percent petit verdot, which is a Bordeaux grape. Only a handful of people do that in Napa. They also do 100 percent Malbec, which is extremely rare in Napa Valley. I also love the fact that they do a Howell Mountain zinfandel. With Napa Valley ripping out most of its zinfandel over the years because cabernet commands the highest price point, it’s nice to see a nice, big, full-bodied zinfandel that’s grown there because those are becoming more and more rare these days. And finally I love that you can even play bocce ball." {C}

James Cole Winery
James Cole Winery (©WhereTraveler)

Bonus Stop: Domaine Carneros

"An optional bonus on the way back would be bubbles at Domaine Carneros on the terrace to end the day." 

Domaine Carneros
(©Domaine Carneros)