Northern California wine country might be vast and sprawling, but a trip here doesn't require a day spent in the car, riding miles and miles from winery to winery. Visit one of these quaint downtowns and leave the car parked for the day. You’ll find no shortage of excellent tasting rooms, restaurants, shops and sites to explore on foot.
Population: Less than 3,000
This sophisticated little town bordered by the Napa River and the Mayacamas mountains in the middle of Napa Valley has become a sort of culinary mecca. Yountville is home to the French Laundry and three other restaurants from chef Thomas Keller, in addition to luxury accommodations and spas. In the walkable downtown, you’ll come across more than 40 outdoor sculptures known as the Yountville Art Walk and the high-caliber Napa Valley Performing Arts Center at Lincoln Theater.
Along with chef Thomas Keller’s three-Michelin-star French Laundry (and his four other restaurants: Bouchon Bistro , Bouchon Bakery, Ad Hoc and Addendum) are celebrity chef Michael Chiarello’s Bottega, serving rustic Italian fare, and chef Richard Reddington’s Redd and Redd Wood, the former serving California cuisine and the latter firing up pizzas. Inside the ultra luxurious Bardessono resort is the sleek Lucy Restaurant & Bar, which sources ingredients from an onsite garden. The mood at Hurley’s is inviting, thanks to a stone fireplace and a menu of upscale American dishes with no corkage fees.
Cornerstone Cellars offers a spacious and attractive space to taste, and at Hestan Vineyards you’ll find modern architecture and solid wines. Ma(i)sonry pours small batch, highly allocated wines from a handful of producers in a 1904 stone manor that’s also home to an art gallery (accessible via a stroll through chef Thomas Keller’s garden).
SHOP AND EXPLORE
Located in a winery built in 1870, V Marketplace is a two-story, brick shopping center housing galleries, boutiques and shops where local merchants sell candles, toys, wine, gelato, coffee, home goods and chocolate. Be sure to visit celebrity chef Michael Chiarello’s flagship NapaStyle store, selling kitchen gadgets, gourmet condiments and everything else you need to entertain in Napa fashion.
Inside the posh, understated North Block Hotel, North Block Spa offers a foot and back exfoliation and massage called UnCorked. It mixes freshly ground grape seeds in a scrub and incorporates wine corks to stimulate reflex points during the massage. Napa Valley Bike Tours offers bike rentals and guided tours complete with picnic lunches. They’re also happy to share route tips if you prefer to explore independently.
Located at the intersection of three prime wine-growing appellations, Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander Valley, this small Sonoma town is quaint yet chic. Anchored by a main plaza dating back to the 1800s and planted with redwoods, its downtown packs in an impressive number of Michelin-starred restaurants, tasting rooms, boutiques and art galleries.
For a town of only 4 square miles, Healdsburg has an impressive food scene. Get a taste of its culinary offerings with Savor Healdsburg Food Tours, a progressive dining excursion entailing six stops. Some tours start at Shed, a soaring, barnlike structure of glass, reclaimed wood and steel (winner of a 2014 James Beard Award for design) that houses a coffee bar, fermentation bar, the Larder deli counter and a sit-down cafe. Shed is also a marketplace carrying local produce, gourmet staples, gardening tools, DIY kits, kitchenware and gifts. Upstairs, the Grange events space hosts workshops and dinners with guests like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman.
The tour also makes stops at Campo Fina, serving small plates and pizza inside a cozy dining room with exposed brick and on a back patio with a wood-fired oven and bocce court. Hidden in an alley, the lovely Cafe Lucia serves creative Portuguese fare that showcases Sonoma’s bounty. Moustache Baked Goods sources its ingredients from a 30 mile radius, and its equally charming sister Noble Folk Pie and Ice Cream Bar specializes in clever flavors inspired by the local harvest.
The Gustafson Family Vineyards tasting room pours excellent Zinfandel, sourced exclusively from its mountain winery. You can taste Banshee Wines’ in-demand, moderately priced wines at its tasting room outfitted in hip furnishings. At the Ferrari-Carano tasting room, the wine selections change weekly.
SHOP AND EXPLORE
You’ll find a number of boutiques and antique stores, including the massive Healdsburg Vintage shop, as well as eye-catching art galleries like Paul Mahder Gallery, which at 8,500 square feet is an arts destination in itself. Small and free, the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society, located inside an old public library is worth a peek. If you're inclined to extend your Healdsburg visit into a romantic overnight getaway, look no further than the Victorian residence known as the Honor Mansion, where 13 spacious rooms on 4 acres can come with wood-burning fireplaces, secluded patios with spa tubs, luxurious sheets and morning coffee and biscotti deliveries.
Once sleepy, downtown Napa has become a buzzing destination for visitors and locals, who come for the restaurants, tasting rooms, shops, turn of the century architecture and river walkway.
Inside the Westin Verasa Napa hotel, La Toque is a fine dining destination known for its exceptional wine pairings and French-inspired menu from chef Ken Frank, who uses ingredients from his nearby garden. Oenotri gets rave reviews for its high quality, hearty southern Italian food, including pizzas from the wood-burning oven. Oxbow Public Market is Napa’s answer to San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace. The lively one-stop destination with 22 merchants provides a chance to sample the best of the Napa Valley, from traditional pasta at Ca’ Momi to duck tacos at C Casa. Ninebark from the team behind Public Restaurant in New York boasts a rooftop that would make Manhattan jealous with its sunny views of the rolling landscape. At stylish Ca’ Momi Osteria, chef Valentina Guolo-Migotto will transport you to her hometown of Padua in Northern Italy with unadulterated recipes (some over 100 years old) taken straight out of classic Italian cookbooks. Chef Sean O'Toole’s casual Torc in the former location of vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu has a meaty slant and patio seating.
For an outdoor experience, check out the spacious Mercantile Terrace on the second floor of the Andaz Napa hotel, where you can enjoy live music, craft cocktails and tasty bites by the fire pit. The gorgeous upscale tasting lounge 1313 Main (frequented by industry locals) turns out creative small plates made with the best fresh, local ingredients to accompany the extensive wine list. Down the street, the chic and genial Carpe Diem Wine Bar has a tempting happy hour to kick off the evening. Sip from a sophisticated selection wines from small producers or opt for a full meal from the intriguing menu.
SHOP AND EXPLORE
Take a stroll along the Napa riverfront or soak up some culture admiring the outdoor sculptures of the Napa Artwalk (pick up a map at the Napa Valley Welcome Center). With more than 100 awards, Lucero Olive Oil has won more acclaim for its extra virgin olive oils than any other producer in North America. Try it for yourself free at the tasting room.
Population: Less than 11,000
The small town of Sonoma is marked by the Sonoma Plaza, the largest in the state. Colonial-era adobe buildings surround this town center that’s served as both a Mexican military outpost and a Spanish Mission village.
French-influenced The Girl & the Fig is the best known restaurant in the Sonoma Plaza, for good reason. The wait is usually shorter at the excellent El Dorado Kitchen, where craveable California-Mediterranean cuisine shines in a swanky setting with a fig tree-shaded patio.
History and design buffs will want to visit the Adobe, the new home of Three Sticks Wines near the Sonoma Plaza. Built in 1842 during the state’s Mexican period, the newly restored building is the oldest residence in Sonoma, and San Francisco’s edgy decorator du jour Ken Fulk designed the luxurious, contemporary interiors. Sojourn Cellars pours highly rated Pinot Noirs during seated tastings in a cozy home by the plaza.
SHOP AND EXPLORE
A few blocks from the Sonoma town center, the Williams-Sonoma cookware chain has re-opened its original location, founded in 1956 by Chuck Williams. Williams’ former residence behind the store has been converted into an elegant showroom for Williams-Sonoma furnishings, and the expansive back patio features a dining area, pizza oven and raised beds growing produce for the on-site cooking school. Other shopping highlights include the Sonoma Cheese Factory and the eclectic home decor shop Chateau Sonoma.