A Northern California Wine Bootcamp Adventure

Not exactly a summer rosé day...but the rain doesn’t damper the experience of Medlock Ames’ rosé and tasting room in the Alexander Valley (Trevor Felch/KQED)

Editor's note: Welcome to "A Northern California Wine Bootcamp Adventure." Over 6 days, writer Trevor Felch took on the task of visiting a variety of wineries and eateries in Wine Country to make an "as close as possible" definitive Napa Valley-Anderson Valley-Sonoma County list. Use his journey as a jumping-off point fo your own. Cheers!

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Like many ambitious ideas — some good, some less wise — this idea started during a wine-filled evening. I don’t remember exactly where or when, but at some point during the summer of 2018, I gave an idea to my girlfriend Meg’s stepdad John that instead of explaining for seemingly the 500th time in my life to a non-Bay Area resident that Sonoma and Napa are not the same place, why not come west and I’ll show you firsthand how complex the many Northern California wine regions really are?

I figured it would be laughed off but John was dead serious in agreeing to my not necessarily serious idea. Quickly, it became serious. I design the trip. He books his flight. I recommend hotels. I’ll arrange the wineries and do the driving, plus connecting all the complex dots.

Fast forward to the week after Thanksgiving and away we go on NorCal Wine Bootcamp, partly a nod to John’s past military experience and partly because this was going to test how much these wine lovers really loved wine.

The initial idea was for seven regions in seven days. However, there were all kinds of technicalities which made that not realistic.

In my prior role as Zagat’s Bay Area editor, I had the rare task in food & drink journalism of having to know pretty much everything about everything in the Bay Area — burritos, coffee, croissants, Manresa, trattorias, cider, dumplings, Ethiopian cuisine spots, on and on. There was no single niche. Part of the job also involved trying to answer the question of what the “best” wineries were to visit in Sonoma and Napa counties, so I tried to meet with as many wineries as possible, which is a very different field of study than checking out restaurants.

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So, first, a few handy lessons from the road I’ll pass along if you ever think of doing something intense (and slightly crazy) like this:

  • Start planning the itinerary with 3-4 winery and/or restaurant “tentpoles” to determine where to be and when. Everything pivots from those vital wineries.
  • You will run late. It’s a fact. Just try and make it not an issue.
  • Visit 3-4 wineries per day.
  • Go for a variety of winery styles: the beautiful fancy estate, the family-run rustic spot, the chic millennial favorite, the bare bones wine geek.
  • Go for a variety of visit styles. As fun as it is to meet with the winemaker, it can get old if you’re having a 90 minute tour at every winery.
  •     Go for a variety of varietals! Nobody wants to miss great Syrah or Zinfandel if it’s near all the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Spread the love.
  •     Don’t even acknowledge the wine club offerings.
  •     You’ll start rating the shapes and positioning of dump buckets and spittoons.
  •     You’ll want a cocktail or beer after the tasting, instead of wine. Luckily, the main hubs of our wine regions have great bars/breweries.

The hope of this article is to both give you an amusing story like any road trip can provide, along with being a list of what I consider the answer to “What wineries should I visit?” I’ve added 3 additional recommended wineries to make this as close to a definitive Napa Valley-Anderson Valley-Sonoma County list as possible per my experiences. Of course, there are still hundreds of others worth visiting, so take this with a big grain of salt.

I’ve also added our restaurant picks and additional recommendations, along with the wines I chose at dinner, specifically as wineries that should also be visited/known about that we didn’t have time to visit. Finally, I’ve listed the highlight wines from each winery. With the sheer amount of wine tasted, it would be a 500-page book if I added my notes on every wine tasted.

Cheers, and enjoy!

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