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Oregon’s Willamette Valley is one of the great wine vacation destinations in the U.S. Washington’s Walla Walla region is emerging behind its rich and soft red wine blends. If wine travelers insist on California travel check out the Zins, Pinot Noir and interesting blends of Mendocino County. If you like your wines big and bold at an affordable price, try Paso Robles on the Central Coast.

But if you’re really into wine and want this country’s most unique – and expensive – wine vacation, sooner or later you have to go to Napa and Sonoma counties north of San Francisco.
Wine and wine tourism finds its roots in this country’s most famous wine valleys. I recently spent a couple days there, the first time in five years, and still find it the Mecca for wine lovers.
The area comes with a word of caution for the average wine tourist. Sonoma County lodging and restaurants are not inexpensive. And Napa Valley makes Sonoma look cheap!
Anything above a national chain motel, and there aren’t many of those, can run into the hundreds of dollars nightly. Those national chains can be found at competitive rates ranging from $100-$150 a night. The nicer inns and lodges go for $250 and up. Things won’t be quite as expensive in Sonoma but close.

There are pizzerias, bistros, and burger places in the two counties which are affordable. The real experience is to shop the local groceries, most of which have deli counters where you can pick up great sandwiches. The finer dining establishments compete with any in the world. The French Laundry, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, and many others offer world-class dining.

But people go for the wine and there is no place quite like Napa. Robert Mondavi winery is the heart of this Mecca of American wine. The late icon gets and deserves so much credit for bringing American wine to the world and bringing the world to Napa Valley. His mission-designed winery is a must stop. There are two tasting rooms. The first is for most tourists and wine consumers where you can taste his entry level wines for a modest fee. The reserve tasting is $30 per person. But in this region the pours are generous and a tasting can easily be shared between two persons. Don’t be shy; the tasting room folk are comfortable with sharing.
I recently tasted through five of Mondavi’s high-end Cabernet bottles in the reserve tasting room and thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the wine. The price points ranged from $135-$165. Another highlight is Joseph Phelps winery on the other side of the valley. Phelps makes the iconic Insignia blend which is the closest thing to Bordeaux this side of France. It’s a Cabernet driven wine with other traditional blending grapes. It has consistently been one of the valleys most highly-rated wines for 20 years. It also sells at $200 a bottle.
Okay, those prices may create sticker shock for many and they should. But you can go to tastings and enjoy these wines then you start to understand price differences.
The average tasting room fees range $10-$20 for a normal tasting. If you want to taste the really good stuff at the premier label wineries, be prepared to shell out $25-$50 per person for the experience. A few of the wineries even require reservations just to taste. All wineries in the region have very nice websites which spell out fees, hours and locations.
Recommendations based on personal visits:
Napa: Mondavi, Sawyer Cellars, V. Satui, Andretti, Miner, Joseph Phelps.
Sonoma: Chateau St. Jean, B.R. Cohn, Kokomo Vineyards (and visit Hoosier native Erik Miller), Gloria Ferrer (sparkling wines).
If you’re a Pinot fan, journey into Sonoma’s Russian River Valley: Merry Edwards, Inman Family Vineyards, Gary Ferrell, Davis Bynum, Arista, and Rochioli.

Send comment or questions to: hewitthoward@gmail.com

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