This ritzy 30-mile-long valley lies between the Mayacamas Mountains to its west and the Vaca range to its east, stretching northward to the extinct volcano Mount St. Elena and southward to San Pablo Bay. Napa Valley was the first region to receive the AVA (American Viticultural Area) title in California. Thirty years later, the region is broken up into 16 distinct AVAs, each with its own soil typology, climate and topography. Napa is particularly famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but produces other exceptional whites such as Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Riesling, and Pinot Blanc, and distinctive reds, including Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Zinfandel, Merlot, Malbec and various blends. It boasts over 400 wineries, with some of the biggest names in the California wine industry holding court here not to mention many prestigious restaurants, such as Thomas Keller's French Laundry. If you are looking for a glamorous introduction to Californian wine, this is where you want to see and be seen.
While Napa still carries more prestige than its westerly neighbor, Sonoma—the birthplace of the Californian wine industry—is not too far behind. Many people actually prefer its unpretentious and more rustic vibe. Zinfandel, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and other heat-seeking varietals are the cream of the crop here, where the temperature gets pretty toasty during summer months. Sonoma Valley is often referred to as Valley of the Moon, which has its origins in the Native American Miwok tribe, who believed the moon nestled among the surrounding mountains (Sonoma Mountains to the west and the Mayacamas Mountains to the east) during the day. Any tour of the Valley would not be complete without a pit stop in the old town of Sonoma. Founded in 1835, when California was still part of Mexico, it's the oldest outpost in wine country and offers a lovely central plaza surrounded by wine and cheese shops, galleries and restaurants. If you're after a casual wine-country experience drenched in history, "Sonoma or bust!" should be your slogan.
Scenic country roads will weave you in and out of three fantastic valleys in Northern Sonoma, each with something special to share: Russian River Valley, with its towering redwood trees and coastal fog, is prized for cool-climate varietals such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Dry Creek Valley, with its great drainage and a mix of cool and warm micro-climates, is prized for its incredibly deep and complex old vine Zinfandel (we're talking about 100+ years here) as well as for its ever-growing number of certified organic and bio-dynamic wineries. Alexander Valley, which until the 1980s was mostly planted with walnuts, pears and plums, offers many family-run wineries that have had much success with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. If unspoiled countryside, no crowds, and a slower pace are more your speed, look no further than Northern Sonoma.
The ocean winds and cool fog coming from San Pablo Bay temper the Carneros District (a zone that straddles the southern most part of Sonoma and Napa Valleys), making it a perfect home for sparkling-wine varietals like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that thrive in cool climates. If suggestive landscapes, elegant Pinots and plenty of bubbly sound like a good time to you, then brush up on your toast-giving skills; you'll be making a lot of them in Carneros.