When people refer to California Wine Country, they usually mean the many fine wine grape growing appellations of Napa and Sonoma counties: Stag’s Leap, Oak Knoll, Howell Mountain, Alexander Valley, Russian River and many more. Only one growing region spans the two famed counties: Los Carneros. In fact, it’s hard to get to Sonoma or Napa without passing through Los Carneros: on the east side Napa is just to the north, and the west side Sonoma is to the north. Los Carneros is bordered by the San Pablo Bay on the south, which provides the same maritime climate influence that helps grow great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, much like the Monterey Bay and the Santa Ynez Valley.
If you head to Sonoma via San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, taking the 101 Freeway to Highway 37, you’ll find two of my favorite West Carneros wineries: Gloria Ferrer and Cline Cellars. Gloria Ferrer is a stately complex, built on a hill and accessed by a long staircase leading up from the parking lot. The view from the deck justifies the effort you’ll put into the climb.
Gloria and her husband José knock out some excellent and relatively affordable Chardonnay, Pinot, and sparkling wines (that’s Champagne to you, but if I say it I’ll get in trouble with the French). Gloria doesn’t do a traditional “line up the bottles” tasting, instead providing à la carte wait service on the deck and a complementary glass of bubbly. I usually opt for the flight of Pinot and am never disappointed by the view, the service or the wine.
On the north side of Highway 37 you’ll find Cline Cellars, a small, low key operation specializing in Rhone varietals like Mourvèdre, Roussanne and Carignane as well as more popular wines like Zinfandel, Syrah, Viognier and a cool climate Pinot Noir. The tasting room staff at Cline is always friendly, generous and knowledgeable. The tasting room is in an old farmhouse with a wraparound porch and not a hint of pretense. Out back you’ll find a large pond stocked with fish and turtles. It’s a great location for a picnic, so bring some sandwiches.
Like many family wineries, Cline keeps an old truck parked out front, in this case a red one. Years ago Cline started a second label which uses this same red truck as its namesake and label art. You can still buy Red Truck wine just about anywhere, but Cline sold the brand after it grew into a much bigger business than they wish to run. The truck is still there.
If you’re heading to Napa, a popular approach is to take the 880 through the East Bay until it merges into Interstate 80 near Oakland. Be sure to take 80 East, even though the signs say Sacramento. 80 West would take you over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. The views are astounding as you cross the San Francisco Bay and approach the city, but save that for an actual visit to SF. Continuing on 80 East takes you past Berkeley and on to Highway 37 at Vallejo, home to a Six Flags amusement park with massive steel rollercoasters and a zoo. This is the same 37 that you take on the East side to get to Sonoma. It traverses all of Los Carneros, and thus ends our geography lesson for today.
A great choice for a Napa trip is a visit to the aptly named Artesa. The building lies atop a high hill with stunning views and magnificent artwork, inside and out.To conserve energy and blend in with the surroundings, the entire building is buried underground save a couple corners peeking out of the hillside. Be sure to bring a camera so you can show the sculptures and views to the folks back home.
The wine and service at Artesa were great and we felt unrushed in the spacious tasting room and adjoining deck despite the brisk business that takes place on a typical weekend.
Wishing to juxtapose the somewhat over-the-top experience that is Artesa, we decided to seek out something low key. My wife had heard good things about Saintsbury, so we looked them up from the parking lot. Smartphones and Google Maps can really be handy on a wine adventure. Saintsbury’s website said they were open by appointment only, so we opted to be sophomoric and call for an appointment in five minutes. They were gracious and accommodating.
Saintsbury specializes in the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs one would expect from the Carneros terroir and they get everything right. There is no tasting room or bar; you can choose to be served at a table under the trees or you can congregate on the rustic porch. There is no wrong choice; we chose the tables and while there were no commanding views of Los Carneros or the San Pablo Bay, we did get to watch the winemakers bottling.
It’s always a treat to mix the grandiose with the nonchalant. Wine adventures are as much about the ambiance of the places you visit and the stories of the people you meet as they are about trying new wines.
Thanks for tagging along with us on another trip.