Summer months in parts of Northern California often mean temperatures in the 90s, and cooling off with an afternoon swim is almost an American birthright, the iconic images of lakeside jumps, as familiar as the taste of barbecue, ingrained in our collective memory of the season. At one pool in Sonoma County, the simple pleasure of a swim incorporates sipping wine and sampling bar bites from the comfort of a poolside chaise lounge, then perhaps a shower in a private cabin and an afternoon nap. Wrap up a poolside afternoon with a stroll through an onsite movie gallery, replete with memorabilia from The Godfather movies, then settle in for dinner at a restaurant on the property helmed by a known chef. No, this is not happening at a five-diamond resort. This is Sonoma’s Francis Ford Coppola Winery, and it is just one example of how the experience of wine tasting in Napa and Sonoma Valleys has transitioned from serious business to international tourist attraction.
... Napa and Sonoma have long struggled to balance growth with the pioneer spirit that launched an industry.
The history of wine in Napa and Sonoma dates back at least as far as 1823 when Father Junípero Serra established a mission in what is now downtown Sonoma and planted the first vineyards on mission land. On the other side of the Mayacamas mountain range which separates Napa and Sonoma, homesteader George Calvert Yount was the first to plant grapes in Napa in 1839. The Gold Rush, a phylloxera blight and Prohibition each took their toll on the area, but wine growing slowly re-emerged as a viable industry after World War II. Napa’s Mondavi family, credited with bringing awareness to the region’s wines in modern times, purchased the former Charles Krug Winery, while John Daniel, Jr. resuscitated Inglenook winery. But it was the Judgement of Paris in 1976 that first brought the region fame and respect. A blind, comparative tasting by European wine savants pitted California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay against wines from France's Burgundy and Bordeaux. Napa’s Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon came out on top, shocking the wine world and transforming the perception of California’s new world wines from second class to top of the class. California had finally captured the wine world’s attention. The tourists soon followed.
Thus validated, Napa and Sonoma have long struggled to balance growth with the pioneer spirit that launched an industry. "Even when the wine train came in around 1986, everyone in Napa said Napa was turning into Disneyland," says Chris Howell, winemaker and general manager at Napa’s Cain Vineyard & Winery. But those who came and built vineyards in Northern California brought a passion for wine and for the experience of wine. Perhaps the gewgaws and gimmicks arrived only after the pencil pushers bore witness to the years-long lifecycle required to develop a vineyard’s acerage into quaffable, saleable product. And they soon realized that adding quickly sellable swag to the mix—food, t-shirts, and pool passes to name just a few—could help keep a winery financially solvent. Until recently, a visit to a California winery was a simple affair. Stroll through the well-manicured grounds to reach the tasting room where, often, the winemaker would personally pour tastes of current vintages.
Though rare, finding the small, family-run winery with the winemaker pouring tastes is still achievable (Cain’s Howell is known to lead the occasional winery visit), but as Northern California’s pre-eminent wine grape growing regions—Napa and Sonoma—have grown, and as the industry itself has exploded to include thousands of niche wineries and labels, the pressure on wineries to attract customers, and maintain business through onsite sales, has intensified.
A passion for wine brought Peter Newton from the U.K. to Napa to open Sterling Vineyards. Perched on a Calistoga hillside just off of Highway 29, Sterling Vineyard opened in 1964, twelve years before the Judgment of Paris. Newton added a Visitor Center in 1974 clad with an art gallery bedazzled with Picasso lithographs, original pieces by Chagall and Renoir, and a rare Ansel Adams photo essay. "Art has always been a part of Sterling," says director of winemaking Harry Hansen. True enough, but to access the knoll top, visitors need to step into the newly installed aerial tramway, complete with gondolas and world-class views.
The tram, wine tasting, and the tour at Sterling were enough, until 2013 when the winery added a series of tasting and tours, including the Silver Experience, which involves a seated, interactive discussion with a host, eight wines (three from the reserve list) and a charcuterie plate. "We realized we had more than one type of customer coming here," says Hansen, "and we changed to accommodate people who were more knowledgeable about wines."
... as Northern California’s pre-eminent wine grape growing regions ... have grown ... the pressure on wineries to attract customers, and maintain business through onsite sales, has intensified.
Napa Valley extends east and west from Highway 29, the Valley’s main thoroughfare, and countless wineries with tasting rooms are easily accessible. Visitors to the area still seek out delicious and cult wines but some—whether they are more knowledgeable oenophiles or a group just looking to have fun—are seeking out more complete experiences. Up-valley in bustling Saint Helena, Cairdean Estate represents a possible future for the industry. Stacia and Edwin Williams, owners, operators and vintners at Cairdean, which opened in 2014, bought a defunct shopping center and transformed it, piece by piece, into a wine country destination. Onsite amenities include the 2015 Michelin Bib Gourmand award winning restaurant Farmer & the Fox, a bakery, tasting room, wine club lounge, mercantile, art gallery and winery. "More and more guests are coming to experience the wine country lifestyle," says Stacia Williams. "They want to walk through the caves with you, taste from the barrel."
Sonoma Valley, until recently Napa’s less well-known western neighbor, has changed as well. At St. Francis Winery & Vineyards in Santa Rosa, the programming has expanded organically since 2002 when the visitor center first opened. "It evolved as guests demanded it," says St. Francis’s director of sales and marketing, Barbora Hawkins. "Our vision for the brand was always to have food pairings to accompany the wines." With an executive chef onboard from day one, St. Francis launched its food program with a simple tasting—"four bites at the bar," says Hawkins—then expanded to a seasonal charcuterie program in 2008. Guests requested a more formal experience and a seated five-course tasting with pairings for up to 16 guests was introduced. "We went from two to three seatings a day almost immediately," says Hawkins. "People wanted food and friends with their wine."
Like any business, wineries follow dollars. Sterling, which accommodates over 200,000 people a year from around the world, is looking at additional culinary programming to heighten guests’ enjoyment. "We want to give each guest a one-on-one experience," says Hansen, "and we are most able to give that personal touch with the restaurant experience." St. Francis is also considering a food-related expansion. "We are looking at a takeoff of our estate dinners," adds Hawkins. Francis Ford Coppola Winery launched bocce, music and art programs. Nightly specials, such as family-style fried chicken Sundays and dollar oysters on Thursdays at the bar are part of Cairdean’s effort to bring in locals as well as out-of-state travelers. "Napa is so well laid out, there is nothing to detract from the beautiful landscapes," says Williams.
For some guests, the experience of wine tasting remains in the glass, but for others its about the big picture adventure: the train, the pool, the friends, the food. And then the wine.