Wild adventures in wine country.
Sampling wine at a tasting-room counter is simply not enough anymore. Now, in addition to tasting a winery’s latest vintage, you can spend the day cooling off in an expansive pool, or haul on up through a biodynamic vineyard on a tractor-drawn tram. There’s also a full-on farm experience—cattle and horses included—or the opportunity to try your hand at a two and a half day, hands-on wine camp. Whether you seek out still wine or sparkling, the wine-tasting experience in Napa and Sonoma has transformed into something truly multisensory. Meet winemakers and grape growers, get out in the vineyards, get into a swimming pool, and experience the world of wine in a totally new way.
Coming Full Circle
Napa Valley Dream Tour at Long Meadow Ranch
Ideal for: Foodies, farmers, and those with an interest in sustainable, organic practices.
More of a culinary farm tour than a wine-specific experience, this three-hour stint starts with coffee and house-made pastries, and ends with a three-course, wine-paired lunch at the historic house/tasting room. Logan-Ives House was built in 1874 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In between breakfast and lunch, you (in a group of no more than 10) will venture out for an extensive circuit of the nearby ranch that climbs up to 1,800 feet in the Mayacamas. Along the way, you’ll discover the valley’s oldest olive grove (at 130 years) and a 14-year-old retired Scottish Highland steer named “Custom.” You’ll also taste sangiovese grapes from vineyards overlooking the entire valley. Tour guide Aaron Feaver says, “There’s just no way to express all of this over a tasting-room counter.” 738 Main St., St. Helena, (707) 963-4555, longmeadowranch.com/farmstead/farm-adventures.
Ideal for: History buffs with a taste for adventure.
Just 14 acres when it was established by Ambassador James D. Zellerbach in 1948, Hanzell Vineyards is now 44 acres, requiring a Land Rover to cover the territory. On the 1.5–hour tour, Ben Sessions, one of the estate educators and son of winemaker emeritus Bob Sessions, leads a small group through the property, including the original ambassador’s vineyard, with a peek into the barrel-aging cave and the new wine-making facility. Depending on the weather, wine tasting also includes an off-roading tour of the vines, in an effort to “show people more and do something different,” says Amelia Bennett, ambassador liaison. After experiencing the terroir via four-wheel drive, the tour moves to the historic heritage winery building for a tasting in one of three rooms, including the original wine-making room turned wine library. 18596 Lomita Ave., Sonoma, (707) 996-3860, hanzell.com/experience.html.
The San Francisco Treat
Sonoma Valley Wine Trolley tours
Ideal for: San Francisco admirers and historians who’d enjoy a great limo alternative.
This new tour combines multiple elements of history and wine from the perch of a hand-built replica of a turn-of-the-century San Francisco cable car. With period music from the 1890s to 1920s in the background, this open-air alternative to the ubiquitous limo takes you from Sonoma to Glen Ellen and back. Not only will you learn more about the Valley of the Moon, see the home of California’s last mission, and discover the birthplace of the California wine industry, you’ll also enjoy wine tasting. In a group of up to 30 people, you’ll visit four nearby wineries (two historic and two boutique) on this six-hour expedition, with a catered lunch by the Girl and the Fig. There’s certainly a “whimsical feel” to the open-air experience, says Beau Wine Tours President Thomas Buck. 21707 Eighth St. East, Sonoma, (800) 387-2328, sonomavalleywinetrolley.com.
Benziger Vineyard Tram Tour
Ideal for: The eco-conscious wine buff who doesn’t mind a little dust.
Spinning off its public tractor-pulled tram tour, Benziger recently added a more private Partners Tour. While the original takes you into the biodynamic vineyards, to the fermentation room and crush pad, and into the barrel caves—culminating in a wine tasting in its cellar—the Partners Tour is a longer, more intimate peek into the wine-making process. On this more exclusive, behind-the-scenes tour, 10 people (as opposed to 28) ride an electric tram through hidden vineyards and enjoy a seated tasting of estate wines in the wine cave. Either way, it’s a “grape-to-glass look,” intended to share Benziger’s distinct farming practices with guests. 1883 London Ranch Rd., Glen Ellen, (707) 935-3017, benziger.com/come-visit.
Ideal for: Gardeners and vintners to be who want a behind-the-scenes, hands-on look at making wine.
Two times a year (spring and fall), this two and a half day camp exposes eager oenophiles to the ins and outs of how sparkling wines are made—from vineyard to bottle. Depending on which season you choose, you could be pruning vines and doing preliminary blending, or helping with harvest and crush. Both camps feature gourmet wine-paired meals at Meadowood, riddling lessons, tours of the caves with the president and chief winemaker, and lessons on the technique for sabering bottles. 1400 Schramsberg Rd., Calistoga, (707) 942-4558, schramsberg.com/news/campschramsberg.html.
The Perfect Blend
Judd’s Hill Blending Camp
Ideal for: Scientists, mathematicians, and those who want to be a winemaker for a day.
You’ve tasted enough wine in your day to know what’s good and what’s not. Now, you’ll get to apply that experience to your own Bordeaux-style Cuvée. It all starts with a barrel tasting of two Cabernet Sauvignons, a Merlot, and a Cabernet Franc, with one of Judd’s Hill’s master blenders. Then, equipped with beakers, test tubes, and a calculator, you’ll concoct your own exclusive composition. Since it’s all hands-on, you’ll hand bottle it, label it (using your own custom label), and even dip the bottle tops in wax to seal the deal. Just make sure Judd still has a job once the day is done. 2332 Silverado Trail, Napa, (707) 255-2332, Ext. 3, juddshill.com.
The Wine Carriage
Ideal for: Someone wanting to slow way down but still cover a lot of ground.
For those who want to visit multiple wineries over a leisurely afternoon, this tour of three boutique wineries (with a voucher for one more) is just right. Start with a barrel tasting at Alexander Valley Vineyards, then ride via carriage to Soda Rock and Hanna Winery. Along the way, you’ll stop to taste grapes right off the vines as well as feast on charcuterie, cheese, olives, and baguettes for lunch—with Syrah-filled chocolate truffles from White Oak for dessert. Owner, carriage driver, and tour guide Bret LeRolland has been “a one-man, two-horse operation” for nine seasons, and keeps you off-road, “going where no limo dares to try.” 8644 Highway 128, Healdsburg, (707) 849-8989, thewinecarriage.com.
Sip and Dip
Francis Ford Coppola Winery’s Pool
Ideal for: Families looking for all-ages fun on a sprawling wine park.
Wine tasting often leaves little for underage family members to do, aside from running around the property and munching on crackers. Francis Ford Coppola Winery manages to appeal to kids and adults alike, with bocce courts, stone game tables, and new 3,600-square-foot swimming pool, open daily through September 30. Reserve one of the 28 poolside cabines—each of which comes equipped with fluffy towels, a private shower, and changing area—and you’ll have access to four of the highly coveted chaise pool chairs. Lounge by the pool, and sip glasses of wine, delivered from Rosso and Bianco Pool Café, while the kids play in the water or pour over age-appropriate books from the children’s lending library located inside a teepee near the water. Venture inside the actual property for a peek at movie memorabilia from Coppola’s films, but make sure you return poolside in the evening, when the Godfather II–inspired performance pavilion hosts live music and dancing. 300 Via Archimedes, Geyserville, (707) 857-1400, franciscoppolawinery.com.
Additional reporting by Kristen Haney.