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When things are falling apart, and the center cannot hold, go to the place where an eternal sun holds court over teal blue skies, and wine is the center of attention—something you can hold (or swirl) in your glass. California wine country is a place of gorgeous, wide-open spaces, hiking and biking trails, and fewer people to obstruct the views everywhere of rows upon rows of lush, green manicured vines that sway gently amidst coastal breezes.
Related: How to Spend 24 Hours in Napa Valley
Daily life is anything but ordinary during this worldwide pandemic, but there’s still plenty of extraordinary things to do and see from Napa and Sonoma south to Santa Barbara County. The rules are being re-written in real-time, and new opportunities to wisely experience wine country are waiting.
Here’s how to safely visit and what you need to know about hotel accommodations, Michelin-star dining, tasting opportunities, and a few truly elevated experiences:
“You can still get that iconic Napa Valley experience without a lot of noticeable impacts,” says Linsey Gallagher, the President and CEO of Visit Napa Valley. “Tastings in Napa are allowed outside, and the reality is that most experiences are outside this time of year anyway.” The primary difference is that reservations are required, and because of limited outdoor capacity, wineries are booking out well in advance.
“We are trying to get in touch with guests and set expectations for how to safely visit Napa and how to do that in an elevated way,” says Gallagher, who points to a Visit Napa Valley blog post detailing a bevy of tips and what to expect.
As for accommodations, hotel rooms are meticulously cleaned Gallagher explains. “When a guest checks out, the room is left empty for 24 hours, and cleaning involves a host of extra protocols, and then the room is left vacant for another 24 hours—sealed off until the next check-in.” Unless requested, hotels are not offering traditional housekeeping, not changing sheets, or picking up wet towels.
Dining in Napa is al fresco for now. City and local officials have come together to grant special permits allowing restaurants to expand their outdoor footprint. Face coverings are required at all times except when eating or drinking. Once you’re seated at a table, you can remove your facemask. If you get up from your table for anything—your face mask goes with you. “You still have world-class service and hospitality and still get to try new wines and food, and we are doing it with the utmost care,” says Gallagher.
Nestled into the western reaches of Pritchard Hill, at 1,400 feet in elevation, the east-facing, expansive views of Napa Valley from OVID are surreal—almost as breathtaking as their divinely structured and eminently age-worthy wines. CEO & Chairman David R. Duncan says, “We’re seeing a trend of multi-generational families traveling together and taking their bubble somewhere beautiful—much like the whole property buyouts you're seeing with dude ranches and resorts. When guests visit OVID, they are essentially the only people on 70 acres.”
The Duncan family also owns iconic Silver Oak and Twomey properties in Napa and Sonoma, and have implemented, “even more rigorous safety protocols than we are required to by the state,” says Duncan, as they’ve begun hosting guests throughout their vast outdoor spaces, effectively bringing enthusiasts even closer to the vineyard.
Every restaurant has had to turn up the dial of creativity, including Michelin-rated ones, and following suit, resorts are introducing new partnerships with local wineries. Calistoga Ranch, part of the Auberge Resorts Collection and an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property, has teamed up with Chateau Montelena, best known for their first-place victory over French wines in the Judgement of Paris tasting of 1976. Anyone who has seen Bottle Shock has been witness to actor Bill Pullman playing a character based on Montelena founder Bo Barrett.
“We’re currently offering three distinct tasting experiences,” explains Montelena winemaker Matt Crafton, “one of which is hosted by myself, or Bo.” The tastings include an in-depth flight of wines spanning five decades, special access to large format bottles, and very limited bottlings. Two of the options also incorporate a private dinner prepared by Calistoga Ranch’s Chef Chris Ludwick, paired with Montelena wines from the tasting. “These are really on another level,” adds Crafton. On an exceptional level, if you’re really missing the spa, you could buy out the entire spa at Calistoga Ranch.
Two of the best dining experiences in all of Napa can be found in St. Helena and both are helmed by wunderkind Chris Kostow, owner of The Charter Oak, and chef for Michelin-3-Star The Restaurant at Meadowood.
“We’re fortunate in that we have expansive outdoor spaces,” says Kostow of both restaurants. At The Restaurant, they’ve co-opted an elegant lawn space, raised sail cloths and umbrellas, and offer 14 tables for service. The current menu is heavily driven by what is in season in their gardens and local farms. Even today, reservations are booked plenty in advance but Kostow advises getting on the waitlist because there is movement every day.
At Charter Oak, an outdoor courtyard shaded by mulberry trees can seat 75 with ample space between the tables. The food is lusty and delicious and the burger—the burger—inspired by memories working at a greasy spoon in Chicago, is arguably the best in America. It’s worth a trip to Napa, just for this burger, which is built on two thin patties of aged whole chuck crisped on a flat-top grill, topped with American cheese, and pickled jalapeno relish with lots of Japanese mayonnaise served on a house-made steamed bun. Call ahead for reservations because it does get busy on the weekends.
In Sonoma, magical misty mornings give way to hot sunny days where “guests can explore the outdoor splendor of our many Sonoma estate wineries and ready for an adventure during off wine tasting hours,” says Maureen L. Cottingham, Executive Director for Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance. “You can get a bird’s eye view of endless vineyards and the beautiful bay area and even the golden gate bridge on a clear day from most of our mountain top estates.”
The best time to visit is on weekdays, where you mostly have 1,700 square miles to yourself. Just as with Napa, dining is outdoors, and hotels are running at half occupancy, as compared to the year prior. Cottingham suggests using the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau to help with planning an itinerary. The Vintners also publishes a list of wineries that are open, updated daily.
For Pinotphiles, the thrill of driving along Sonoma’s world-famous Westside Road and catching sight of the world-class wineries that have put the Russian River on the map is akin to the thrill of river-boating along the Garonne or Dordogne in Bordeaux, or the Douro River in Portugal.
Roughly ten minutes outside of downtown Healdsburg, in the heart of the bucolic Russian River Valley, is The House of Flowers. The winery’s multiple outdoor cabanas offer a cozy, breezy, and spacious place for minimal contact, plenty of physical distancing, and generous pours of electric, pure-fruited, and dazzling Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays produced by Chantal Forthun.
Bay Area celebrity chef Tyler Florence has partnered with Flowers to offer “Flowers & Florence” fried chicken dinners for takeaway. There may be no better way to spend a night in Sonoma than take out of Florence’s juicy, crisp, and rosemary-tinged fried chicken, a bottle of vivid Flowers Chardonnay, and spreading out amidst an oversized, impeccably clean room with Royal European trappings at the Relais & Chateaux Hotel Les Mars back in Healdsburg.
What’s unique about Sonoma is there are plenty of practical experiences to satisfy one’s inherent instinct to kick-back and relax in nature. Head over to one of Jeff Bundschu’s family properties, like their Gundlach Bundschu estate, home to the annual Huichica music festival, and sit outside for tastes of cooler-climate Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon, crisp Gewürztraminer, and more.
Los Olivos in Santa Barbara County
A trip to Los Olivos for collectors is not to be missed—quality all around is skyrocketing. From Stolpman and Dragonette Cellars to Holus Bolus & Black Sheep, Blair Fox Cellars, Carhartt, and Liquid Farm, tasting rooms are getting very creative with their spaces.
Liquid Farm ushered in one of the first tasting rooms that lacked a typical centralized tasting bar, replaced with comfortable couches, a barrage of pillows, and a huge butcher block table in the center of the room for a more casual, interactive experience. They’ve built a solid reputation on intricate, complex, and sophisticated Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines, along with a tension-fuelled Mourvèdre-based rosé, and a new second entry-level label called Dandi, which offers remarkable value and stunning expressions of Rhône varieties.
The main thoroughfare, Grand Ave, is expansive, with plenty of outdoor space, newer nearby hotels and luxury stays (like Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn right in downtown Los Olivos) and as foot traffic has dipped, there’s never been a better time to visit this part of the Central Coast. “It was getting busy up to Independence Day,” says Sparks, but that has fallen off a bit. “So come support us, wear your mask proudly, and help us contain this as much as possible,” he adds. No need, of course, to contain your enthusiasm, so buy with abandon and raise your glass to the good ole days—and better days ahead.