Notes from a Napa and Sonoma Valley First-Timer

Let me get a few things out of the way before you read this post further: first, I am not an avid wine drinker, I am and would always be a beer-girl, thank you very much, wuzzah Paulaner Munchen! Second, I do not have a very discerning taste (READ: I’m a cheap drunk), especially with this type of alcohol. Although there are 50-kabillion varietals out there, I only segregate wines into two groups: that which I like, that which I don’t. That rule has simplified my life since I had my first tasting party with 5 1/2 Twists.

Fast-forward to June 2015, I had a couple of days left in San Francisco, so I opted to book a quick and basic, 88-dollar Napa and Sonoma Valley Tour. It seemed like a pretty good deal because I just wanted to see the valley–the tour company didn’t even advertise which wineries or vineyards we’d be visiting. My guess was that it would be one of the big players like Domaine Chandon or Mondavi.

Napa Valley Marker
The Napa Valley Marker

So, welcome to Napa Valley! With 45,000 acres of land under cultivation and a Mediterranean climate–Napa is one of the world’s smallest wine growing regions with a big reputation. The tour I joined had three wineries on the itinerary: Madonna Estate at the Carneros Region, Sutter Home, and Sebastiani at Sonoma.

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Madonna Estate

Madonna Estate. A relatively small vineyard and winery at 169 acres, producing only about 10,000 cases a year. Of the many vineyards in Napa, only 5% are certified organic and they belong to that bucket. There are several wines that Madonna specialises in (Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cab), but the Italian heritage means they also carry a few Italian varietals like the Barbera and the Dolcetto (side note: I took home a Barbera, set me back 35-dollars and I am not complaining).

What’s interesting about Madonna is that they still do dry farming, meaning they don’t irrigate the grapes at all. When they plant, they help it a bit until the grapes become strong enough, have roots that go much deeper. As a result, the grapes tend to be a bit smaller but have a more concentrated, robust flavor. I call them Grapes of Steel. Lol!

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They ferment their red wines for about 20 days and white wines a little bit longer like about a month. The barrels in the photo carry about 60 to 65 gallons or up to 300 bottles inside. They use the barrels for about 6 years. After that they sell it off because that’s when the flavor starts going away.

Madonna Estate | 5400 Old Sonoma Road, Napa, CA 94559
Phone: (707) 255-8864 | Toll Free: (866) RAGAZZE (724-2993) |

Sutter Home. Of course, Zinfandel is red. But 40 years ago Sutter Home created the White Zinfandel and the rest is history. It is the second-oldest and fourth-largest winery in the United States. Their tasting rooms are pretty straightforward–starting with a Reserve White Zinfandel and finishing off with Port. This place is not for diabetics, because there are just too many tutti-frutti wines (Pink Muscato, anyone?). One thing I remember pretty well about the place is their wasabi-flavored mustard. Oooops. Haha.

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Sutter Home | 277 St. Helena Hwy (Hwy. 29) South St. Helena, CA 94574 | (707) 963-3104   ext. 4208 |

Sebastiani. Our sommelier said it succinctly, “we like it red here at Sonoma.” We started with Chardonnay and the rest is red, red, red. This winery has a rich history, which started with a Tuscan migrant named Samuele Sebastiani. He mined cobblestones at Sonoma Hills and eventually saved enough money to buy land and set-up the vineyard.  His son, August, took over sometime in the 1940s. August is responsible for the many carved barrels found in their tasting room today.

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Outside, they have a nice picnic garden, a few vines to help them conduct the tour and tell people how the winemaking process happens. To me, their wines are just okay–meaning not too memorable. But Sebastiani is a very pleasant last stop after hours of hopping on and off the bus. It is also located five minutes away from downtown Sonoma, which has a lot of art shops and tasting rooms.

Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery | 389 Fourth Street East, Sonoma, CA 95476 | Phone: 707-933-3230 | Email:

Why only three wineries you say? According Sylvio–our funny, half-Italian guide–they used to do five, but some people end up too happy (drunk), it was hard dropping them off at the hotels. Haha! Also, in truth, I would find it too hard to remember everything. Imagine: 5 wineries x 5 wines each = 25 different glasses. Good luck trying to take notes. So for those who take their wine seriously, a day-trip is clearly not enough (but guess what, hotel rates are pretty damn high in that area).

I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge late afternoon with a buzz. All’s well and I am still a beer-girl. 🙂


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