We’ve often described the Northern California Wine Country as a ‘Disneyland for Adults’, but that doesn’t mean you have to leave the children behind. For many people, visiting wineries is only one day of their trip to San Francisco. After all, with all of the attractions it has to offer, the Bay Area is a great destination for the whole family. A daytrip to the scenic counties of Sonoma and Napa provides an opportunity to enjoy a relaxed pace with stunning views, wonderful tours and interesting wineries. The wineries and their gift shops are admittedly more interesting to the adults than the kids, but they will still enjoy the trip because it is, after all, farm country, and what kid doesn’t enjoy that? Sonoma especially takes great pride in their agricultural diversity, so as you travel around you’re going to see a wide variety of plantings, orchards and livestock in between the vineyards.
We’re seeing increasing numbers of children in Wine Country. While it is still a relatively small number, parents are finding ways to make it work. The secret to having a great time together in Sonoma and Napa is to realize that while many wineries are not suitable or enjoyable for children, there are many others that are. Sonoma and Napa have over seven hundred wineries, of which about half can be visited easily so there are plenty to choose from, as well as many other family attractions.
One of the most kid friendly and adult enjoyable destinations is the Plaza in downtown Sonoma. If you’re coming from San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge you’ll be at this historic and charming place in a little over half an hour. This is the ‘Philadelphia of California’, because it is the place where the Republic of California declared its independence from Mexico.
It is helpful to know that there are the counties of Sonoma and Napa, and the cities of Sonoma and Napa.
Even though Sonoma is a small city of about nine thousand people, it is big on history. It is the only city in California that enjoys all three of these distinctions; it was an official Pueblo, or city under Mexico, it was a Franciscan Mission (the twenty-first and final), and it was the military headquarters for the entire West Coast under both Mexico and the United States. Around the Plaza, which is the largest in California, there are numerous historic sites as well as nice restaurants and shops. In the Plaza there are great picnic tables near the playgrounds and the newly restored duck pond.
The tourist bureau sits on the Plaza in an old Carnegie Library building and it can provide additional information for a great day with kids. A unique attraction called Train Town is just two minutes back down Broadway, the road that led you to the Plaza. This is a small old-style amusement park suitable for young children up to approximately age ten. There is a small train to ride and a traditional merry-go-round and it harkens back to a time before special effects were digital. There is even a petting zoo.
Around the Plaza are several winery tasting rooms where you can taste some excellent wines without spending all day getting there. Then you can nip back to the playground before moving on to the next winery. Five minutes from the Plaza is one of the Sonoma originals, the Sebastiani Family Winery, with their great old barrel room, one of Sonoma’s best gift shops and some very nice wines for you to sample. They also offer a trolley tour of Sonoma that explains about its wonderful history. Just to the south of town is the Larson Family Winery, on the old Sonoma Rodeo site. This was where the champion race horse Seabiscuit stabled overnight when he was racing on the West Coast. It has a farm-like setting with llamas and sheep. Horse rides through the vineyards can arranged in advance, bocce courts and picnic areas round out the experience.
From the Plaza you can head north on Route 12 up the Valley of the Moon, a scenic route. Voted Sonoma’s best tour, the Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen offers a wonderful mix of agriculture, education and fine wine. Their vineyards are tucked in a pretty little valley on Sonoma Mountain just down the road from Jack London’s old ranch, now a park.
Their tour, aboard a tram attached to the back of a tractor, winds its way up into the vineyards where they explain the biodynamic approach to agriculture, a remarkable system that is increasingly popular with many high-end wineries. Next you visit the barrel caves and finish up in the winery for a tasting. Admittedly wineries are about adult enjoyment, but there are often children on the Benziger tour and they always seem to enjoy themselves.
Please don’t make the mistake of bringing children to trendy wineries where they have nothing of interest for kids. They will spend the hour while you are tasting wine bored with nothing to do. The wineries that are kid friendly have made a big effort to be so. At both the Sonoma Plaza and Benziger you’ll find good picnic tables, so pick up some sandwiches either at the Plaza or at the Glen Ellen Market.
Many of the wineries in the Valley of the Moon are kid friendly as long as you have an adult willing to keep an eye on them. The grounds are gracious and park-like allowing for a little outdoor enjoyment in beautiful surroundings. Some of those that come to mind are B.R. Cohn, Imagery, Landmark and St. Francis. Chateau St. Jean and Ledson Winery both have deli markets and picnic tables on site. They are all within five miles of each other along Route 12, the main road in the Valley. Hint: Bring a soccer ball or a Frisbee. There are some great lawns in the Valley of the Moon.
Visiting Napa with Children
Napa is a great place to visit because everything is close together. The whole valley is only thirty miles long by five miles wide, and while there are other wineries tucked up in the hills, the variety of wineries that are easy to reach is wonderful. However, it is not as agriculturally varied as Sonoma. Napa is another half hour farther from the Golden Gate Bridge, but the ride brings you through the beautiful Carneros district with its vineyard covered rolling hills that have a distinctly Tuscan feeling. Napa is closer to San Francisco via the less scenic Bay Bridge.
Napa has a bit more of a city style than its country cousin Sonoma, but there are several places that children will especially enjoy. Everyone enjoys spectacular architecture and great views, something at which Napa excels. A classic example of this is the Artesa Winery, with its hilltop site overlooking Carneros and the Bay. Artesa is close to San Francisco and despite not being built with children in mind, the feeling is relaxed enough and the variety of places to explore extensive enough that everyone in the family will be charmed. They even have an elevator for those with strollers.
Just to the north in Yountville is Domaine Chandon, one of Napa’s original makers of sparkling wine. This is a favorite for groups and people with children because the grounds are gracious and accommodating, with lawns, ponds and wildlife. Up on the patio, they offer snacks along with their elegant sparkling wines and the tables make it easier to keep everyone together. The springtime tadpole explosion in the ponds will keep any child entertained.
One of the most enjoyable family wineries is Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon in Rutherford, about half way up the Napa Valley on Highway 29 (St. Helena Highway). He took the historic Neibaum/Inglenook building and surrounded it with gardens that have all of the graciousness of a southern Italian villa. The exhibits and old barrel rooms upstairs are enough to entertain most children. During the summer they provide model sailboats to send gliding on the fountain pool in front of the building. There is a small café, with outdoor seating, a great gift shop and of course some wonderful wines.
Just to the north is the V. Sattui Winery which in this context is most valuable for their great deli offerings and large picnic area. Napa does not have a lot of picnic areas. On a Saturday in season it can get busy, but finding food, wine and picnic tables all together certainly makes the logistics of blending wineries with children much easier. The wineries have dramatically more traffic on Saturdays than Sundays.
The Wilds of Calistoga
For the San Francisco-based traveler, unfortunately, two of the most interesting wineries for children are all the way at the northern part of the valley, just south of the ‘old west’ style town of Calistoga, which is a great, kid-friendly place to visit onto itself. These two wineries are not suitable for infants in strollers, but for children eight years and older they are a fun experience. First is Sterling Vineyards, famous for its aerial tramway that carries visitors to its hilltop winery. Many years ago it was the first large winery to charge for their tastings. The price includes the tram ride. Between the tram, the gift shop and the tasting you need to allow an hour and a half to enjoy the place. Get there early to avoid the lines.
Just across Highway 29 is one of the newest, large wineries in Napa, although it was built to look old. The Castello di Amorosa is built like an authentic castle, from real stone and hand wrought iron. The vision, the forty million dollars and thirteen years it took to build produced a remarkable place. Children are restricted to the early morning tours so you should check their website for the schedule. The tour with tasting takes about two hours. The admission for Rubicon, Sterling and Castello di Amorosa all range between $20 and $25, although they offer discounts for children and young adults.
Napa gets hot in the summer, but very dry, so there are very few flying bugs. During the Winter it gets rainy, but not very cold. Both Spring and Fall are gorgeous, and harvest time, from late August through mid-November, is a very busy, exciting time in Wine Country.
Small, private wineries are often at people’s homes, so for the collector, traveling with children, you should ask your potential hosts if children are welcomed. If you want to get to the smaller wineries with children, consider hiring a guide with a car or SUV (avoid limos due to the need to sit sideways or backwards which increases the possibility of carsickness). While there are limo services in San Francisco, many of the experts live in Wine Country but they pick up clients in the city. Hiring a driver greatly reduces the stress and increases the enjoyment. Explain that you have children and ask them for a guide that is comfortable with that. Some guides are parents and actually like children. For them it’s something different and in fact we remember every tour we’ve ever done with kids. Touring with children is educational and a lot of fun, as long as you go to wineries that they’ll find interesting too. So enjoy your day with the kids in Wine Country.