To Wine and Dine

Alastair Bland |
Beer, Wine, and Spirits

San Franciscans know that while the city may be buried in its iconic summer fog, just a few miles inland, the skies of July and August are endlessly blue. Indeed, summertime in the Bay Area is the season for deck dining, picnics, and patio barbecues. It’s also one of the best times of the year to wine and dine in the warm, oak tree hill country of Sonoma and Napa counties. Days are long this time of year, distances between destinations short, and, happily for San Franciscans, it takes only a day trip to go, see, and taste—while still making it home in time for dinner.  


Headed north, the fog will usually break just past the Golden Gate Bridge, and blue skies will stretch from here to wine country. Take Highway 101, then cut east at the Highway 37 exit for Napa—and prep your palate. Artesa Vineyards and Winery {1345 Henry Road, Napa; 707.224.1668}, a hilltop palace at the foot of the Mayacamas Mountains, is one of the first wineries on your path. Try the tapas-wine pairing menu on Artesa’s back patio, which overlooks vineyards of French and Spanish grapes. If you have a picnic in mind for the afternoon, swing through downtown Napa and load up on summer’s best at the Farmers’ Market {500 First Street}, open Tuesdays and Saturdays. Indulge in a wealth of peaches, figs, and melons, bread, nuts, and cheese, then move northward on the Silverado Trail Highway.

You are now deep into some of the finest terroir in the world, overlooked by Mount St. Helena and home to superb examples of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel. Trinchero Napa Valley {3070 North St. Helena Way, St. Helena; 707.963.1160}, for instance, is known for its single-vineyard Bordeaux varietals and features an idyllic picnic ground. Similarly, at Raymond Vineyards {849 Zinfandel Lane, St. Helena; 707.963.3141}, Cab, Chardonnay, Merlot, and other superstars of France take shape in peak form. The property also includes the “Theater of Nature,” an educational exhibit explaining the key players and their roles in the art of biodynamic farming. Mumm Napa {8445 Silverado Trail; 800.686.6272}—just a hop back down the valley—takes a unique approach to Napa Valley winemaking, using French production methods in its line of Champagne-style sparkling wines. They’re the perfect refreshing treat on a hot afternoon.

Guests who wish to stay out of their cars most of the day might book a table on the Napa Valley Wine Train {1275 McKinstry Street, Napa; 707.253.2111}, where long, slow meals are served with fine wines to match on a moving antique train. The Western-themed Silverado Car features open-air service, with warm sun and a fresh breeze.

However one chooses to taste through the Napa Valley, you cannot skip Grgich Hills Estate {1829 St. Helena Highway, Rutherford; 800.532.3057}. The winery was founded by Croatian-born Mike Grgich (aka The King of Chardonnay), who is often credited with putting California on the map as a wine region. In 1976, Grgich was working as the winemaker at Chateau Montelena, near Calistoga, when he decided to enter a young Chardonnay into a small competition in Paris. The event’s wines—consisting of several other California bottlings and a lineup from France—were tasted blind by French judges. To the shock and shame of France, Grgich’s 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay took first place. California emerged as a recognized winemaking force thereafter, and Mike Grgich—now 90 years old—became a hero.


The Sonoma Valley parallels Napa, lying about 10 miles due west, and makes a perfect corridor home, with tasting opportunities along the way. In the quiet town of Kenwood, Kunde Family Estate {9825 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood; 707.833.5501} offers a tasting of local terroir through a comprehensive lineup of reds, whites, and dessert wines. The landscape here—quieter than the Napa Valley—may inspire some exploration, and Kunde offers a perfect guided outing; a hike to the summit of Sonoma Mountain is an idyllic trek, where a picnic of food and wine awaits. If the day is too hot to think about marching up a mountain, look no further than Kunde’s patio, splashed by sun and shade in equal measure and perfect for wine tasting.

Or, for those who have come with a tail-wagging companion, Kunde offers dog-friendly tours through the vineyards. Other wineries worth a stop include Chateau St. Jean {8555 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood; 707.833.4134}, with its grandiose French-style estate and single-vineyard wines representing the best vintages of the valley, and Viansa {25200 Arnold Drive, Sonoma; 800.995.4740}, home to a unique set of vineyard designates, handcrafted blends, and an exciting representation of Italian varietals, including Arneis, Tocai Friulano, Vernaccia, Barbera, Dolcetto, Sangiovese, and others.
If a San Francisco dinner is still on the itinerary, it may be time for the homeward trip. Downtown is the dining mecca for the city, and a classic way to see the town’s heart and center is by cable car. Tours and charters can be arranged with Classic Cable Car Sightseeing {415.596.9929 for sightseeing; 415.922.2425 for charters}. Alternatively, in the same spirit of adventure that drove the afternoon, consider heading off the beaten path. Hug the seaside coast of the city instead—through the Presidio, along Baker Beach, and just past Land’s End. There, on a precipice over the sea, is the imposing Cliff House {1090 Point Lobos Avenue; 415.386.3330}. Mark Twain once wrote of a harrowing wagon journey to this landmark in the days when it was still a lodge in the wilderness. Today, the road there is easier, and visitors may dine at either the casual Bistro Restaurant or the more elegant Sutro’s at the Cliff House. Vie for a table by the window and savor your meal as the sun sets and the sky turns red. But even if the city is once again buried in fog, you’ll revel in the sights seen and the wine sipped on your day trip through wine country.