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San Francisco, Napa, and Sonoma: A First Visit

Elizabeth Smith,
Professor with a passion for travel

Learn more about her travel and experience at her blog, C’est Beth.

As a language professor, I have traveled internationally for the past 25 years to experience the languages, countries, and cultures of the languages that I teach. However, I quickly learned on my first visit to San Francisco, Napa, and Sonoma that some of the best-kept travel secrets can be found on the “left coast” of the United States.

Flying into San Francisco is actually a treat in itself, especially for those who are aviation buffs. The airport is very well-designed so that you can move from terminal to terminal with ease using the AirTrain. Along the way, from the terminals to the rental car stop, one can enjoy seeing a variety of aircraft liveries and models. My fiancé and I especially enjoyed seeing the numerous Boeing 747 planes parked at the gates. There is also an Aviation Library and Museum for those with more time to spend at the airport. The city of San Francisco is also one of the most beautiful cities we have ever visited. From our room on the 26th floor of the Hilton Financial District, we had an unbelievable view of the city and the bay. During our two days in San Francisco, we took in as many of the top 10 must-dos as possible, including a cable car ride, crooked Lombard Street, Ghirardelli Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Chinatown.

While in the Napa/Sonoma area, we stayed at the Embassy Suites in Napa. For those who may be traveling on a budget but enjoy inclusive accommodations, this is an ideal property, as each guest receives a complimentary cooked-to-order breakfast and Manager’s Reception daily as part of the reasonable room rate. The property also has an indoor pool/Jacuzzi, a cozy lobby with a fireplace, a beautiful center courtyard that four swans and a few ducks call home, a full-service restaurant, and a bar. Downtown Napa is also within walking distance.

We were fortunate enough to enjoy wine tastings at three incredible, but perhaps not as well-known, family wineries in Napa and Sonoma. The first tasting was at Bell’s Wine Cellars in Yountville, a 15-minute drive from Napa. The owner, Anthony Bell, a native South African, produces a nice selection of California wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as our favorite, a delightful 2006 South African Sauvignon Blanc. Tastings range from $15-$250 per person.

Our second tasting was an hour’s drive away in Geyserville (Sonoma County) at Trentadue Winery. While there, we sampled a variety of red, white, and port wines while speaking with the winemaker, Miro Tcholakov, who stepped away from his busy bottling to welcome us. My favorite Trentadue wine was the 2004 La Storia Zinfandel Alexander Valley Estate, while my fiancé enjoyed the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc Dry Creek Valley. The winery also makes its own olive oil. Tastings at Trentadue range from $5 to $20 per person.

The highlight of our trip was our tasting and tour at Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards and Ghost Horse Vineyards, located about 30 minutes north of Napa near the beautiful town of St. Helena. If traveling by car, I suggest using a GPS device as finding this hidden jewel can be tricky. We were greeted warmly by founder and owner Todd Anderson and his Director of Hospitality and Direct Sales, Dave Bryant, and graciously welcomed into the very home-like tasting area. Tastings of Anderson’s Conn Valley wines are $25, while Ghost Horse tastings are $250. All are well worth the price and the fees can be applied towards a wine purchase. The red, white, and Late Harvest wines we tasted each possessed a unique depth of character and complexity that we had never experienced before. Our favorites were the 2005 and 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2004 Ghost Horse Cabernet Sauvignon. We also enjoyed listening to Todd speak to us passionately about how to make and taste good wines, as well as our personalized tour of the caves, where we were able to see and learn about wines in various stages of oak barrel fermentation. After our visit, we had a wonderful lunch in St. Helena at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, also a St. Helena must-do.

It was with a hint of sadness that we departed Northern California for our respective homes on the “right coast.” We did indeed leave our hearts in San Francisco, Napa, and Sonoma, but we plan to return as soon as possible to experience, learn, and taste again.

Beth is a professor with a passion for travel. You can learn more about her travel and experience at her blog, C’est Beth.

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