5 Ways to Experience California’s Wine Country

Whether you choose to walk, bike or enjoy a luxury tour on a hot air balloon, Napa Valley and Sonoma County offer experiences for everyone
Katie Ballalatak

Minnesota is home to its fair share of wineries, but no state compares to that of California, the largest wine producer in the United States. As of 2017, California is home to 4,800 wineries. Although the largest concentration is in Napa Valley and Sonoma County, other counties such as Lake, Mendocino and San Luis Obispo are on the up and up. Still, it’s not just the wine that brings flocks of people from all over the world—it’s the sunny weather, impressive estates and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Imagine rolling hills of vineyards (did you know wine grapes are grown across nearly 600,000 acres of California land?), small towns with charming boutiques and eateries, and breathtaking views enjoyed on some of the best winery patios in the country.

Planning your first visit to California’s wine country can be daunting, especially if you’re relatively new to the wine scene. And, truth be told, there’s no way to experience it all in one trip. There are a few staple wineries you won’t want to miss, such as Sterling Vineyards overlooking Napa Valley, Ferrari-Carano’s beautiful estate winery near Healdsburg in Sonoma County or Castello di Amorosa, an authentically styled 13th-century Tuscan castle winery. In addition to these stunning wineries, there are numerous wine tours you can’t experience anywhere else. Here are some of the best ways to immerse yourself in wine country, no matter your taste or traveling style. You’ll be planning your next trip before you leave the airport runway.

Ride the Wine Train

The Wine Train might sound like a generic name, but the experience is anything but standard. Elegant and classic, the Wine Train offers full-day, six-hour tours through Napa Valley. Try the Legacy Tour which features the history and wine of Mondavi, Charles Krug and V. Sattui (a great start for first-timers!), or go for the Collective which features St. Supery Estate, owned by fashion house Chanel, and Beringer Vineyards, the oldest continuously operating winery in Napa Valley. Between winery visits, you’ll enjoy a four-course meal while cruising through the valley in beautiful, incredibly decorated train cars.

Wine Train Tour in California
Napa Valley Wine Train

Take a Wine Trolley

You can also experience Sonoma County or Napa Valley by going on a wine trolley tour in a hand-built replica of an 1890s San Francisco cable car. The daily tour includes four winery visits (which alternate throughout the week), a catered picnic lunch and knowledgeable, friendly tour guides to answer all of your questions. This is a casual, informative way to get your footing in wine country—plus the scenic views from an open-air cable car are hard to beat.

Explore Wine Country Via Bicycle

If you’re hoping for more active exploring, check out a tour with Sonoma Valley Bike Tours. You can choose a full-day tour and visit three wineries, covering 14 to18 miles of biking, or a half-day tour with two wineries and 8 to 11 miles of biking.

For a self-guided excursion, check out the Napa Valley Vine Trail. So far, 12.5 miles of the 47-mile project are completed; you can follow the trail from South Napa to Yountville and take detours to visit wineries along the way. (Tip: Some of these wineries require you to book a reservation in advance.)

Alternatively, Wine Country Bikes in Sonoma County and Napa Valley allows you to customize your adventure, with moderate, intermediate and advanced routes. Plus, it includes a variety of bikes available for rental. For your first ride, Wine Country Bikes recommends the Dry Creek Valley Out & Back route for its flat terrain with only small rolling hills. Download the route onto your phone to get biking with ease.

Go on a Walking Tour

Walking sometimes sounds like the easiest option, but even then, you can choose how intense you’d like it to be. Dive deep into one location with Wine Country Walking Tours in Healdsburg. Try the original tour, which includes four hours of gourmet tastings with world-class wines. For a more vigorous, multi-day walking experience (not for the faint of heart!), look into Wine Country Trekking which provides self-guided, walking vacations. For example, you could try its signature 10-day vacation from San Francisco to Sonoma County.

Try Something Different

Go for something Instagrammable. For starters, you can skip the tour bus and opt for a vintage VW bus with West Wine Tours. The company offers book-a-seat and book-a-bus options for both Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Plus, if you book a bus with friends, you can pick your own itinerary.

For a new vantage point, look into Napa Valley Balloons for a hot air balloon tour. You’ll begin your visit at Domaine Chandon winery before ascending into the sky, giving you and yours a gorgeous view of California mountains, vineyards and valleys. Once you land, the pilot will toast to your newest adventure—one you’ll probably want to experience again.