At the confluence of the Napa River and San Pablo Bay lie the gently rolling hills of the Carneros wine region, boasting 31 Wine Alliance wineries. Here, in addition to tasting the acclaimed Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines, you’ll find other diversions that are worth exploring in their own right. Country roads, good eateries, a craft brewery, an incredible art experience and more are only 20 minutes from Benicia, making it the perfect destination to sample the season at a casual, relaxed pace, without the crowds.
A cooler climate and encroaching morning fog in the Los Carneros AVA is ideal for the cultivation of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. Carneros has a distinctly different feel than the vineyards that populate Napa and Sonoma further north. While distant travelers feel compelled to squeeze as many wineries as possible into their day further up the valley, Carneros wineries invite visitors to pause, and enjoy the experience.
A left onto Cuttings Wharf Road from Highway 29 and a couple of turns lead you to Bouchaine, the oldest continuously operating winery in the Carneros district. A boutique winery producing only 22,000 cases annually, Bouchaine is an excellent starting point for your tasting tour. The tasting room and lovely garden for sipping include views to the marshes beyond, and the winery offers tours by appointment and a walking map for a self-guided tour through the vineyards. Bouchaine’s focus on sustainability and a commitment to working with the elements is reflected in the quality of the wine. Try the Dry Farmed Gee Vineyard Pinot Noir, an earthy, concentrated wine with flavors of red and black fruit with a hint of chocolate on the finish. Tastings: $20-30, Bouchaine.com, 707.252.9065
Nearby Acacia Vineyards is a larger facility, producing approximately 156,000 cases annually. Tasting at Acacia’s 300-plus acre estate is a fun experience, by appointment; reserve online or call ahead. Southern-facing vistas capture both Mt. Diablo and Mt. Tam across the Bay.
On a recent visit, we were able to tour the winery during the crush and our guide, the highly knowledgeable tasting room associate, Valentina de Portu, gave us a behind-the-scenes peak at what’s new at the winery, with details such as what type of French oak barrels are used, the size of the bins that grapes are transported in from the vineyard for various wines and how many tons of grapes are produced in Sonoma County (255,000 tons) and Napa County (175,000). Everyone you meet at Acacia seems passionate about winemaking, especially Senior Winemaker Matthew Glynn, who, on that day was taking a cake to an employee for his birthday along with freshly picked grapes to sample. Acacia produces Winery Select wines and Carneros Tier wines, mostly pinot noir and chardonnay. The grapes are followed carefully from vineyard to bottle—the winery select grapes are hand picked at night and arrive fresh at the winery in the morning, where they are weighed and recorded, and at each stage of processing important decisions are made that will influence the unique characteristics of the wine. Carneros Tier wines that we see in local stores are gently machine picked with a special picker, and very enjoyable for casual meals or events. The minerality and flavors of fresh apple and pear in the 2012 Sangiacomo Chardonnay, awarded 93 points by Wine Enthusiast, found a home in our cellar, as well as the flagship 2012 Lone Tree Vineyard Pinot Noir, awarded 94 points by Wine Enthusiast. Tasting options vary in price, Acaciavineyard.com, 707.226.9991
Considering that fortification may be needed between or after tastings, try the popular Fremont Diner, where on weekends the wait can take an hour. Open for breakfast and lunch, patience is rewarded with seasonal country cooking with a southern flair, including house-made buttermilk biscuits, smoked, cured and grilled meats, and sandwiches, salads and freshly made pies. Thefremontdiner.com, 707.938.7370
If expectations, emotional associations and overall experience influence how we enjoy wine, as suggested by neuroscientist Daniel Salzman, surely having nearby tasting rooms to sample quality wines will make for happier palates. Whether you come to Carneros for the art at di Rosa, wine or beer tasting or enjoying one of the area’s eateries, you won’t be disappointed.
Carneros member wineries: Carneros.com
The Fremont Diner: thefreemontdiner.com
Area restaurants: The Carneros Inn 707.299.4900 and Meritage Resort & Spa 855.318.1768
Carneros Brewing Company 707.938.1880.
di Rosa Preserve 707.226.5991