Even if you’ve been to Napa a handful of times, stayed in the exclusive chateaus and explored all kinds of varietals, there’s always something to uncover in California’s lauded wine country. For veterans of the valley, exploring a nearby AVA that stretches across both Napa and Sonoma counties is a prime zone for a weekend trip.
Carneros (or “Los Carneros,” Spanish for “the rams”) dates back to the early 1830s, when the Spanish government controlled the area. Initially operating ranches and dairy farms, local landowners began to devote their pastures to grapes in the 1870s, and these days, there are over 8,000 acres of vineyards here. The cool air coming off the San Pablo Bay makes it a great region for sparkling wine, chardonnay and thin-skinned grapes like pinot noir, meaning vineyards here yield a slightly different harvest than the rest of Napa.
“It was really the proximity to the Bay — and the fog and cool winds you get being right on the Bay — that defines the area,” explains Napa native Chris Kajani, who grew up in the valley and now serves as the president and winemaker for Bouchaine Vineyards, the oldest continuously operating winery in this waterfront region. “From our vineyard, you can look directly across the water to San Francisco.” With some intel from Kajani, who’s an expert in the area, we’ve put together a guide on how to make the best of a couple days exploring this under-the-radar wine region.
What to Do in Carneros
For most visitors, a trip to Carneros is about the wine, and starting out at Bouchaine is an easy way to get the lay of the land. “A lot of Carneros is off the beaten path, and Bouchaine certainly is,” Kajani says. “But once people get here they feel like they’ve discovered this hidden gem.”
Once you arrive at the estate, the winery has plenty of activities for guests, whether it’s falconry demonstrations (available on Fridays and Sundays) or vine-to-vessel tastings, where participants get to try wine out of concrete eggs, clay amphora and oak casks. If simply tasting through the portfolio of wines here is more your speed, visit the stunning tasting facilities. The tiered terrace affords a higher vantage point, with gorgeous views of the vines and surrounding countryside.
“Anybody who comes to visit us can literally walk up to a grapevine,” Kajani says. “My entire team is WSET [Wine & Spirit Education Trust] Level 2 or 3 certified, and they can talk about viticulture all day long. If you want to know about vines, we love doing that.” Currently, Kajani is most excited about pouring their 2021 Calera clone of pinot noir, so when you visit Bouchaine, make sure to try a glass.
Another spot that comes highly recommended is Ram’s Gate Winery, a great place for foodies who want to pair a multi-course meal with their tasting. On a recent trip to Napa, their seasonal wine and food pairing was a highlight; executive chef Ruby Oliveros worked alongside winemaker Joe Nielsen on a five-course offering that showcases Ram’s Gate wines the way they’re meant to be enjoyed. This lunch will run you about $160 for two hours of in-depth wine knowledge, plenty of food and heavy pours, which makes it a complete steal.
Where to Eat in Carneros
If you’re visiting over the weekend, seek out Boon Fly Cafe for brunch, and likely a few of your other meals, too. “You have to eat at Boon Fly,” Kajani says. “There has been a line there every weekend since day one. The breakfast is legendary, the lunch is also amazing, and I’ve eaten there pretty much once a week since it’s been open.” If you’re there in the morning, seek out the made-to-order donuts with chocolate dip for a pre-wine tasting sweet treat.
Bear, at the newly-opened Auberge property, Stanly Ranch, tops Kajani’s recommendation list for lunch. “Their lunch is so beautiful, you can sit outside and they have heaters and wind screens to protect you from the occasional 30-mile-an-hour Carneros wind gusts. They have a fantastic wine list, and I really enjoy it there.”
Another recommendation from the winemaker is to keep an eye out for the imminent re-opening of Farm restaurant at Carneros Resort, where Arizona pizza guru Chris Bianco is taking over the menu. “I can’t tell you how excited this entire damn community is for Chris Bianco,” she says with a laugh. “We are so psyched.”
Where to Stay in Carneros
The newly opened luxury property Stanly Ranch is an option, as well as either the Meritage Resort or Carneros Resort. Another great spot with easy access to Carneros is The Lodge at Sonoma. It’s technically one block across the northern Carneros border of Napa Road, but we’ll count it for those who also want to explore Sonoma’s central town square, packed with restaurants and more tasting rooms. There’s no main hub like this in Carneros, and it’s still just a quick 10- to 15-minute drive from the best vineyards and wineries in the heart of the AVA.
Kajani and her family particularly love The Lodge for its dining options. “That’s got Wit & Wisdom in it, and we love Michael Mina,” she says. Along with a flagship restaurant from the James Beard-acclaimed chef, the property is known for its standalone cottages with enormous outdoor copper tubs, and a recently revamped spa that uses Sonoma botanicals in its treatments.
Grab a couple of bikes while you’re at the hotel and visit another incredible restaurant, The Girl & The Fig, for a French bistro take on Wine Country fare. If you’re feeling adventurous, take the bikes all the way out to Bouchaine and Ram’s Gate, which are both about a 10-mile ride from the hotel. Just make sure to bring a backpack for all the bottles you’ll want to buy once you’re out there.
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