Trips with Sips

(written for the Los Altos Town Crier)

With vacation season upon us, wine-loving citizens from around the world make summer pilgrimages to California for our glorious weather and wine. Whether you’re entertaining a couch-camping second cousin, hosting a college roommate reunion or helping the in-laws explore, I’ve got some thoughts on how you can make this the best wine vacation they’ve ever had.

A wine welcome

Kick off your guests’ visit with a casual wine-tasting evening at your home. Road-weary visitors might not want a big feast. Serve instead a Tuscan-style meal of cured meats, cheeses, breads and salads for a tasty welcome dinner.

Before they leave their homes, ask that guests pick up a bottle of wine from a favorite winery near where they live. In the meantime, you grab a bottle of the same varietal from Northern California. This will allow you to do a vertical tasting (that is, same varietal, different appellations).

Disguise the bottles or decant the wine before you pour. Then taste the wines side-by-side to see if you can guess which is which. It’s the ideal starter to a conversation about regional differences.

Tried and true

Whenever I’m asked for winery recommendations, I always steer folks to Sonoma County. In particular, I recommend the Westside Road Wine Trail (
While I believe that all wine-tasting adventures are worthy, the ones that feel as though you’ve discovered something unique are extra special. By diverting from Napa and exploring the wineries of Westside Road, your visitors will experience smaller and more intimate wineries. In fact, you might even meet the winemaker at some of the family-owned spots. Mill Creek Vineyards & Winery ( in Healdsburg is one such tasting room.

Pinot Noir fans in particular will love exploring Westside Road because many of the incredible Russian River Valley producers are located along the trail. Arista Winery ( and Moshin Vineyards ( in Healdsburg are both palate-pleasing options with beautiful tasting rooms. But you can’t really go wrong with any of the wine stops along the Westside trail.

There are plenty of wonderful dining options near Westside Road, too. I like the locally sourced and expertly prepared food served at Backyard ( in Forestville. And the tapas at Underwood Bar and Bistro ( in Graton make the restaurant a super spot to enjoy communal dining with touring friends or family.

Road-trip worthy

Your visitors might be exploring other parts of California. If they’re heading south, consider taking Highway 101 to explore the wine regions of Paso Robles and Edna Valley. We took friends to Hearst Castle last year and found a great lunchtime stop at AronHill Vineyards ( in Templeton. The view from the tasting room and the light food menu were both welcome after hours on the road.

Niven Family Wine Estates ( in San Luis Obispo is worth making time for on the drive south. The tasting room – located in the historical Independence Schoolhouse – is family-friendly, relaxed and staffed by truly charming folks. Plus, guests can sample wines from the six separate wine labels.

I was pretty wowed by the 2013 Zocker Grüner Veltliner, the 2012 Baileyana El Pico Pinot Noir and the 2011 Trenza Tinto. Plan to stay long enough to play a round of bocce ball – being sure to give your designated driver first throw.

To be explored

Of course, there is no need to wait for visitors to come to town to explore nearby wine regions. I plan to get to know Livermore better over the summer.

I was introduced to Livermore’s 3 Steves Winery ( at this year’s San Francisco Chronicle Public Tasting in San Francisco. Its Zinfandel won Best of Show in the Chronicle’s annual wine competition. After tasting 3 Steves’ wines, I’ve put Livermore on my list of places to explore.

In planning my trip, I reached out to Steve Burman, one of the three Steves behind the winery, to ask his thoughts on neighboring wineries worth visiting.
“My list of Livermore wineries worth visiting is very long,” said Burman, encouraging me not to limit my trip to the few he mentioned.

Burman said McGrail Vineyards and Winery ( and Nottingham Cellars (, which also has the label Vasco Urbano, are two examples of great people making great wine in Livermore. His list of truly passionate winemakers also features Steven Kent Winery for its elegant wines, including memorable Cabernets.

Darcie Kent ( is a great stop, too, according to Burman.
“They are building a world-class winery,” he said. “Plus, the tasting room showcases the very seasoned winemaker’s artwork.”


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