California wine country and children

Sonoma Square

Sonoma Square

Wine country and children? When you think of visiting California wine country, you think of a weekend away from children, work, life. Taking your children to wine country is not a thought most people would consider. My friends it can be done! And it can be an amazing family vacation spot as well.

We have spent the past three summers taking our children (8 and 3 1/2) to Sonoma, CA. We make this vacation the best of both worlds. My girls adore visiting Sonoma and look forward to this tradition. Many people are shocked that I bring my children to Napa/Sonoma (“don’t they get bored?”). I always think, why not? In Europe families go everywhere together, even through wine villages/vineyards. Why, as American’s, shouldn’t we have the same laid back mentality? I love spending time with them. Why not make it a family holiday doing things we all enjoy?

In Sonoma Valley alone, there are more than 370 wineries. Of course, even without children, it would a challenge to visit every winery. We make decisions to visit Sonoma and Napa wineries carefully when traveling with our children. Below is a list of kid-friendly wineries, restaurants and places to visit with your kids. I am sure there are MANY more, but these are tried from yours truly.

Places to stay:

There are loads of hotels in the Sonoma and Napa Valley regions, many which offer amenities for little ones. However with our children, we rent a house. For the past three years, we have rented the same home outside Sonoma Valley. It comes with a pool, bocce ball court, Ping-Pong table, trampoline and loads of bikes and other kid-friendly gadgets. The home is not fancy by any means, but it suits us perfectly. We spend many hours in the pool and playing games.

Another plus with renting a home, is that you can make your own meals. Taking a family of 4 out to dinner in Sonoma or Napa is very expensive. With a home, you can make a lunch/dinner, drink a bottle of wine, let the kids run around and everyone is happy!

Loma Vista and swimming

Loma Vista and swimming

Being silly on Vacation

Being silly on Vacation

The website that I recommend is VRBO.com. Check out homes in the areas of Sonoma, Healdsburg, Calistoga, and Napa (including St. Helena, Yountville, Oakville). Santa Rosa isn’t that far either and would have good deals.

* On a personal side note: The nice thing about staying in Sonoma, is the family feel of the town. They have a Plaza with many shops, restaurants, Tuesday farmers market, a huge play area for kids, a Whole Foods, toy shops, Train Town, etc. And on the plus side, within the plaza square (where the park is), you are allowed to have beer and wine. How perfect!

Kid Friendly Wineries

This is where I have to admit, I am biased. A few are my most favorite wineries ( I have blogged about in the past).. but what I love about them, besides amazing wines, is they are accommodating with children. I know there are wineries where you don’t bring kids, period (i.e. Napa wineries-  Opus One, Silver Oak and Cakebread are a few that come to mind). I totally respect those that would prefer to keep the riff-raff of children out (and visit them when I am kid-less).

Here is a small list of wineries we have explored which welcome children.

Sonoma Valley region:

Ledsonhttp://www.ledson.com/

Talk about a little girls dream. This winery has a Cinderella-looking castle atmosphere (if Cinderella drank good wine). They have a little deli/picnic area and patience for the little ones. Wines are pretty remarkable as well! My husband enjoys their oaked Chardonnay! I prefer the Bellisimo.

Larson Family Winery: http://www.larsonfamilywinery.com/

Now, the complete opposite feel from Ledson, but extremely family oriented (hence family in the name). Larson winery is on a farm, with plenty of animals. And what kid doesn’t like animals? They also have games and a few bikes for kids to ride as well. This winery has the family-feeling thing down pat, pretty smart. Their wine isn’t my favorite, but a very enjoyable experience (try the Three-Lab Cab… it’s pretty delicious).

Bump: http://www.bumpwine.com/

Bump Winery

Bump Winery

Although it’s a brand new winery and tasting room, the wine maker has been around for ages – making wines at some big known wineries in Sonoma. His tasting room isn’t made for little kids (lots of homemade pottery around), but he has small children himself.. so he is very friendly with those that want to stop by with kids. His wines are simple, but balanced eloquently. A couple of his wines could be on my top 10 favorite Sonoma wines list! Try the Fortune (a white Rhone blend) and Zinfandel when you pop in. Both are divine!

Domaine Carneros (outside Sonoma): http://www.domainecarneros.com/

I have talked about this winery in the past – one of my favorites. They make outstanding bubbles. They have a breathtaking facility and sparkling wines to match. They may not look “kid-friendly” but are very patient with kids (they have kid, non alcoholic wine). This is a place where it’s ok to bring out the IPad/IPhone for the kids. There isn’t much running around for the kids to do. But, totally worth the stop (with or without the rug-rats).

*you will meet other families with kids there, which made my girls very happy this time around. They played contently with the others, so this time there was no need for the IPhone!*

Napa Valley region:

Salvestrin Winery: http://www.salvestrinwinery.com/

Salvestrin Winery

Noelle enjoying Salvestrin Winery

My favorite in California wine country. Not because they make the best wines (but, they are pretty stellar) or because they have the biggest Chateau.. but because of who they are. A very unpretentious, small, family vineyard – competing some very big players in the Napa wine world (Mondovi is a few wineries away). Right off highway 29,  you drive up to their 100 year old home (which they still live in), and are welcomed as though you are family. We have been going to this winery for years now, and it really does feel like home. My girls love running through the vineyard’s, playing with the Salvestrin grandkids if they are around, or just hanging out with us on the patio set up against the vineyard. It’s a place of tranquility and amazing wines. They are appointment only, but I would HIGHLY recommend going if you are in St. Helena/Napa Valley area.

Frogs Leap: http://www.frogsleap.com

How can you not take your kids to a winery whose motto is “Times fun when you are catching flies!” This is another winery with impeccable grounds. And they want you to explore them! My girls love finding the chickens, petting the fat cat and playing outdoor games. They even give kids crayons and a frog coloring book. They also recommend making reservations. But another must-see when you are traveling with your kiddos.

Oh, and the wine is delicious too!!! Check out their Zinfandel and Cab’s! The sauv blanc is also very refreshing on a hot day.

Flora Springs: http://www.florasprings.com/

Flora Springs is a little more popular and on the touristy side. But, it is a great place to take a break, get some lunch from Dean and Deluca next door and try some wines. They have a nice patio out back (I wouldn’t recommend having your kids in the tasting room area) where you can enjoy the sun and your lunch. If you are able to taste their Sangiovese… do it! it’s pretty delicious.

Sterling Vineyard: http://sterlingvineyards.com/

This is one of those big, huge places that I often don’t promote. However, if you want a fun experience for your kids.. go visit them! To reach their winery, you have to take a Gondola ride. It’s fun (except for those who may be nervous of heights). Wines are ok… you can find them in about any grocery store throughout the country.

Healdsburg Region:

J Vineyards: http://www.jwine.com/

Bottle of J Vineyards bubbles

Bottle of J Vineyards Cuvee

Another fantastic bubbles place that is kid friendly and on beautiful grounds. They may not have activities for them or places to run around. What they offer though is patience and kindness to little ones (and animal crackers and juice). You will also need to make an appointment to visit them as well. Their rose bubbles (sold out) are killer!

Field Stone Winery: http://www.fieldstonewinery.com/

Another biased winery. My daughter Ava goes to school with the granddaughter of the winemaker. Which means they are used to having their grandchildren come by, along with other children. They are very pleasant and welcoming to kids (it’s a plus they have a horse at the winery). When you visit, you must try their Merlot!

Places to eat with your kids:

(a quick, simple list)

Sonoma:

1. The Girl and the Fig

2. Sunflower Café

3. Chocolate Cow (for dessert)

4. Tuesday Farmers Market in Sonoma Square

5. Olive and Vine – in Glen Ellen

Napa Valley Region:

1. Picnic at V. Sattui Winery

2. Rutherford Grill

3. Dean and Deluca (not a sit down, pick up for a picnic)

4. Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen

5. Gotts Roadside (rated best burgers in Food and Wine Magazine)

6. Pizzeria Tre Vigne

Kids Activities:

To make this a whole family vacation, there are loads of family activities and adventures:

1. Train Town in Sonoma – great for the little engineers in your family

2. Rent bikes in Sonoma/Napa Valley and ride through the vineyards

3. Playgrounds in Sonoma Square

4. Check out some cute shops (and toy shops) in Healdsburg

5. Safari West – outside Santa Rosa – a hit for our family vacation this year. Pricey and takes most of the day but well worth it. And you can drink wine while on the 2 hour jeep safari ride.

6. Sonoma Farmers Market

7. Stay at your rental home and swim

8. Loads of parks all over wine country

9. The Sonoma Overlook Trail (probably best for kids over 10).

10. Calistoga Hot Springs

11. Ride horses at Bodega Bay (and pick up some salt water taffy).

It’s very possible to make California Wine Country the most perfect family vacation. Its about spending time together (and having good wine). Just keep in mind that 1 or 2 wineries with small children is about all they can handle ( I have pushed it to three though). If they still take naps, visit one before and one after. Let them also have a say in what they want to do for the day. There is nothing worse then dragging cranky, tired, crying children to a winery. You will be miserable and not enjoy the wines.

If you rent a house, I would highly recommend one with a pool. It will make your vacation so much more pleasurable, especially in the summer heat. Also, plan on making a few dinners in the house, so you can enjoy the meal, wine and your family – without having to rush out of a restaurant with overly tired children.

And above all, it’s ok to  let them play on the phone/Ipad/Ipod, etc. while you are enjoying a winery. It’s not bad parenting, it’s letting yourself enjoy a little peace and quiet while focusing on the wine you are tasting. It will not rot their brains. Trust me, you will have a lot of family time and activities together. Remember this is about you, them and wine….

Cheers to you and your family!

*feel free to leave anymore family-friendly wineries/restaurants you know of in the Napa Valley/Sonoma area. This was just a small list!

Lunch in Petaluma

Lunch in Petaluma

Treats at Chocolate Chow in Sonoma

Treats at Chocolate Chow in Sonoma

Mom's are also good to bring on Vacations

Mom’s are also good to bring on Vacations

Ava on a Safari Jeep ride!

Ava on a Safari Jeep ride!

Sometimes you need a night out.. without the kids

Sometimes you need a night out.. without the kids

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On a snowy day… drink bubbles!

Or you could drink a hot cocoa, hot buttered rum, hot toddy, Irish coffee, kahlua and milk, etc. I prefer bubbles. To me, champagne, sparking wine, bubbles are an any occasion drink. Hot or cold weather, special event or a night in watching movies. Sparkling wine creates good moods and let’s you feel fancy. So, after 4 days of being cooped up with a 2 and 6-year-old due to “Snow Extreme 2012” in Seattle, I needed a night to relax with some bubbles.

I appreciate quality bubbles. Ian and I took a “growers Champagne” class – which promotes small, boutique wineries in the area of Champagne, France. I came home with a bottle (or two) of small vineyard Champagne’s. Unfortunately, these champagne’s are not cheap. Each bottle that we tasted during the class priced around $35-$100. I have to say though, worth every penny. I have never tasted such smooth, lively, quality sparkling wines.  On the other side of that, our wallet’s did not appreciate the price of the smooth, lively, quality wines.

Not everyone is able to spend large amounts of money on a sparkling wine. Which is why I am here to help you. Now, I would suggest if you have a little extra money to spend, head to your local wine shop and talk to the owners about a growers champagne. If you are able to find a bottle, snag it. Or if you are at your brother-in-laws on Christmas you are lucky enough to enjoy a 1984 Dom Perignon, then take a moment to really enjoy that glass (because it probably won’t happen again). But, if the mood hits for a nice, inexpensive bubbly, I have one for you!

Tonight’s Tasting

Mumm Napa, Brut Rose, Napa Valley, CA (Safeway, $15.99).

Mumm Napa

When the mood  calls for bubbles, then this is wine I will purchase. Mumm Rose Brut is a go-to bubbly. This wine can be found in most major grocery stores.  It’s relatively inexpensive, has a dry/sweet/bouncy flavor that lingers in your mouth and a smell to awaken your soul. It is primarily a Pinot Noir grape with a little splash of Chardonnay thrown in. On the nose you smell strawberry, cherry and a slight citrus breeze – all with a taste to match. I have brought along this bottle to non-wine drinkers, which they have enjoyed its pop, fizz and smooth finish. And since Valentines day is right around the corner, you will be a favorite if you show up with pink bubbles. If rose isn’t your color, their other sparkling wines are also decent (try to find the reserves if you can).

I guarantee you will be able to find this wine almost anywhere. So, when an occasion like snow hits, put on your snowsuit and head to the store. Cozy up by the fire and enjoy!

http://mummnapa.com

Cheers and stay warm my friends!

Washington girl in Napa Valley

“So, you are from Seattle.. what do you think of Washington wine?”

I was asked this question about 3 times from 3 different wineries in Napa Valley this past weekend.

” I enjoy Washington wine, as well as Napa wines, Italian wines, Spanish wines, etc.” It seemed like an odd question to be asked so many times. Talking about this with my mom, we came to the conclusion that Napa, California in general, may be getting annoyed of Washington, since we make some outstanding wines. We are giving California a run for their money. They may feel threatened, since Washington wine country is becoming more known throughout the world. For the longest time, California had their niche in the US wine market. But we are closing in on Napa Valley and producing high quality vino!

With that said, it seems funny that this Washington girl would head over to California for wine, since we have some amazing wines in this state (which was solidified by the worried questions of the Napa Valley wine salesman). But, there are times when one needs to leave town for the weekend and find sun. And that is what I did. My mom and I hopped on a plane and met up with some friends in the heart of California wine country.

 I attempted to go on a budget this time, which is extremely hard to do in Napa (those who have been are nodding their heads in agreement). There have been occasions where I have become carried away in the amount of wineries I visited in one day, as well as the need to bring many bottles home. This time, my finances were low and I had to stay on a budget. Times are tough at the moment and many people are not throwing down $100 on a Napa Cabernet right now. People want to spend $20 a bottle of wine. Napa is feeling the pressure and have dropped their prices, slightly. Still,  it is very rare to find a winery that sells a bottle of wine under $20… at least the one’s I visited.

Most wineries in Napa charge a tasting fee. It can range between $15-$50. You are able to taste 3-5 wines and some places the waive the fee if you purchase a bottle of wine. I (somewhat) planned my visits this time, so every last cent I was not just on tasting fee’s. We were able to hit a few new wineries this time, which is difficult since I have  loyalties to certain wineries. My repeats  this trip were, Cakebread Cellars, Salvestrin and Flora Springs (check previous blog Washington vs. California wines). The three new wineries I explored were Frogs Leap, Chimney Rock and Domaine Chandon.

Here are some updates on the new wineries I visited!

Frogs Leap winery, Oakville

www.frogsleap.com

Tasting fee: $25

Frogs Leap has sentimental meaning to me, since as a child I remember my parents enjoying Frogs Leap wines. I have heard many wonderful things about the winery itself, in person I was stunned. What gorgeous grounds! And on top of that, family friendly. I saw kids running through the vineyards, tweens playing bocci ball and adults basking in the sun relaxing in Adirondack chairs. We lounged on the deck, enjoying the 5 tastings poured right at our table – along with a small cheese platter. The three outstanding wines in my book were the Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Petite Sirah.  But all of the wines were superb and reliable… and the winery itself is a must see. Even if you have your children in tow.

 

Chimney Rock Winery, Stags Leap/Yountville

www.chimneyrock.com

Tasting fee: $20-45

What do you do if you have a 1987 bottle of Chimney Rock Cabernet in your wine collection? You visit the winery (and open that bottle soon). This was a pick of my mom’s. Chimney Rock is located in the Stags Leap district and are known for their kick butt Cab’s. But world-renowned Cab’s lead to out of this world prices. I assumed this winery would be out of my league. I just knew when I walked in, Wine Spectator would be checking palates to see if I was worthy of stepping into the building. I was prepared to be kicked out for being a novice. Alas, I was wrong. Talk about a place I assumed to be pretentious, but was the opposite. They were very willing to help a novice on her journey to learn wines. Yes, pricey wines… but I tasted an 2006, 2007 and 2008 Cab and was shocked at how different each vintage tasted. All so different, yet all so silky and sleek. Mom joined their wine club, so I am excited to enjoy bottle sometime soon (probably on a special occasion, since their wine was the cost of my childs college tuition).

Domaine Chandon, Yountville

www.chandon.com

Tasting fee: $15

If you are in your early to mid twenties, single, wear over sized sunglasses, skinny jeans and Jimmy Choo’s, this is your hang out. Chandon is very pretty and makes decent bubbles. But Napa offers other excellent sparkling wines, without the intensity to dress up in heels. This was our first stop during our Napa weekend. We purchased a glass of bubbles (you don’t have to taste, you can also purchase bubbles by the glass as well as small bites) and a Panini to share. We basked in the sun, sipped rose bubbles,  planned our next stop and jetted off. I am glad we visited, but I have no need to go back. Unless I find myself suddenly single and need to pick up on 23-year-old men in skinny jeans.

My trip was fantastic. I had great wine, bonded with my mom and was able to say good-bye to some dear friends who are moving to the UK. However, I am ready to hit the Washington wine market… I need to help keep California nervous of Washington wines. Hmmm, what shall I pop open tonight?

Cheers!

Washington vs. California wineries part 2

I am absolutely thrilled to be heading to Napa Valley in two weeks. This is a much-needed, mini-vacation with my mom (my wine inspiration). Although a bittersweet trip as well, since I will be saying goodbye to a dear friend from the bay area, who is packing up and moving to London. Talk about going out with a bang though, a final Napa Valley wine trip.

As I said in the last blog, I am a fan of local businesses and proud to support Washington wineries.  But, how can I resist a wine trip to California? The birthplace of US wines.  Visit almost any country and no doubt you can easily obtain a California wine. And they make damn good wines too. You must look past Gallo, Mondovi and Sutter Homes (I’m not putting them down, they have their place) and search for smaller (using the term lightly)wineries. There are so many wineries in California; it will take me years to get through them all, if that is even possible. There are over 107 American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s) in California, which include, Napa, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Valley and Rutherford.

California wines really made their mark in the world (even though before that, many people in the were travelling to California to fill their empty wine bottles right from the barrels) in 1976 when they beat France in a famous wine competition. A huge blow to the French ego’s. Check out the movie Bottle Shock… it will tell you all about that!

 That was a beyond brief history lesson. Now, here are some of my recommendations for wineries to visit. To be honest, I have only been through Napa (about a half-dozen times). So, my recommendations are limited to that region. And if you hadn’t noticed, I am visiting again in 2 weeks, so I may discover some new favorites to tell you about.

Here we go! Take notes my friends: my top 5 favorite wineries in Napa.

1.) Plumpjack Winery, Oakville

620 Oakville Cross Road, Oakville CA 94562

www.plumpjack.com

Fun and hip. Those are the first word that pop i to my mind when I think of Plumpjack. They cater to parties and are off the beaten path. They make a killer Cab that you will want to hold on too, for probably 10 years or so. Very much worth the trip.

2.) Peju Province, Rutherford

8466 St Helena Highway, Rutherford CA 94573

www.peju.com

Who doesn’t love wine and chocolate? This is place to visit if you want beautiful scenery and grounds (fresh flowers everywhere), fabulous wine and chocolate. I don’t know what I love more, their Cabs or the chocolate sauce they make. To top this visit off, it is family owned, intimate and very friendly to visitors (even those visitors who are wine novices). Peju is a very easy stop; right off Highway 29.

3.) Cakebread Cellars, Rutherford

8300 St. Helena Highway Rutherford, CA 94573

www.cakebread.com

I heard about Cakebread through my Arizona girlfriend who is also a wine fan. She raved about them, so on my last trip to Napa, I made an appointment to taste (they are appointment only). Cakebread wines are expensive, but they make you feel like a million bucks when you visit. They tour you through their facility, which is breathtaking. It has a modern feel, but the building is a barn. I can see why they have such a loyal backing. They are known for their Cabs and Sauvignon Blanc, but to be honest I loved their Syrah. But, I am not complaining about their other wines (well, maybe their Pinot Noir, I am not a fan of that)- very impressive. They are also another family owned winery right off of Highway 29.

4.) Andersons Conn Valley, St Helena

680 Rossi Road St Helena, CA 94574

www.connvalleyvineyards.com

Now this is a winery off the beaten path, by about 15 minutes. The best thing about this winery is the location. You taste the wines in wine caves! With wine barrels surrounding you. It is pretty cool, to say the least. The wine is alright. Not my favorite Napa wine, but for the tour and tasting, the trip is totally worth it. The Anderson’s are down to earth and not pretentious. They are by appointment only as well.

5.) Salvestrin Winery, St Helena

397 Main Street St Helena, CA 94574

http://www.salvestrinwinery.com

Again, I save the best for last. And again, I may be a bit biased. My husband  and I stayed at their Inn the last time we visited Napa. Wow is all I have to say. We met the family, sat on their patio, tasted their wines (some from right out of the barrel), and woke up at 4:30 am to watch them harvest the grapes. And to top that off, their wine is truly outstanding. Sadly though, you will not be able to Salvestrin in stores. It is only available through their winery (they can ship though!). My two favorite is their Sauvignon Blanc and Retaggio (a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, Cab and Cab Franc – it will knock your socks off). They are also appointment only, but if you pop by without one, they will not turn you away. As a side note, if you want to throw a party, they have an amazing facility you can rent. A patio within the vineyards!!! And for a true experience, stay at their Inn for the weekend.

Happy wine trails in California and don’t forget your designated driver and wallet (you will need loads if cash in Napa).

Cheers!