It's now semi-officially the start of summer, and with it comes the best reason of all to escape town on the weekends: Fog. You'll be itching for some warmth and sunshine in the coming weeks and months, and the great thing is it's just a short drive away. Below, a few of our favorite, ultra-easy itineraries for wine tasting. Keep in mind that much of Napa is overrun with tourists all summer long, so your best bets are a little further afield.
You can't get much easier than Carneros when it comes to finding a cluster of good wineries close to the city. Start the day at the gorgeous Ram's Gate, which opened in 2011 and is designed by noted North Bay architect Howard Backen. Call ahead at 707-721-8700 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule your appointment and request a picnic to be made for you by the winery's executive chef Taylr Benham. There are also a number of VIP tasting options, in case you're entertaining the in-laws, or a client. Ram's Gate specializes in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir ($36 to $70 a bottle), but they've also got Cabernet Sauvignon, a sparkling brut, and a Sauvignon Blanc as well.
Then you can move on to an array of sparkling wines at nearby Gloria Ferrer, which is right up Route 121 (a.k.a. Arnold Drive). Call 707-933-1917 to book a tour, or just take a seat on their terrace and enjoy a full glass and some cheese. The wines range in price from $20 to $60, and we recommend the Brut Rosé and Blanc de Noirs.
Finish the day at Cline, which is open later than most (until 6 pm), and thus often attracts a late-day rush. They're Zinfandel specialists, but they have also consistently put out excellent Rhone blends and varietal wines as well, like their Marsanne-Rousanne, Viognier, and their stellar Ancient Vines Mourvedre. No appointments are necessary for groups under six.
A little further north there's another cluster of great wines in and around the charming town of Glen Ellen. We'd recommend starting north and working your way down, beginning with Loxton, an under-appreciated, low-key tasting room in a warehouse with a talented Australian winemaker. Don't miss their Syrah Rosé, or their terrific, low-production Syrahs.
Next up, you can spend a chunk of the afternoon at Landmark. The grounds are gorgeous, with a bocce court and plenty of room for picnicking. And they make several solid Chardonnays, Pinots, and Rhone varietals.
Then you can roll into the village of Glen Ellen and the modest tasting room founded by former Chronicle photogapher Eric Ross, which bears his name. He makes several interesting varietals and blends, the Tempranillo being perhaps the best. And you can finish the day at Mayo Family Winery, which stays open until 6:30 and serves a good Meritage blend.
On the Napa side, we recommend avoiding the constant shitshow of the lower portion of Highway 29, and the inevitable rip-offs of the Silverado Trail, and heading further north. It's a little longer of a drive, but you'll be happier away from the throngs. Start things off at the low-key, but totally excellent Dutch Henry, housed in a converted barn. No appointments are necessary for groups of four or fewer, and the winery veers well beyond the Chardonnay-Cabernet binary that you'll see across the Valley, with a great Cabernet Franc, and a swell Bordeaux blend called Argos.
Then, though you may encounter crowds and a steep tasting fee, we think everyone should experience the historic Chateau Montelena. Best known for their inclusion in the legendary Judgment of Paris victory for California wines, Chateau Montelena remains a top producer of French-style Chardonnay, and expensive Cabs. Their grounds are beautiful, though picnics aren't allowed. Finish off the mini-tour either with a scheduled tour appointment at Schramsberg, for some top-tier sparkling, or by taking the fun gondola up to the mountaintop tasting room at Sterling.
Begin the day at the brand new SHED, a big, multi-purpose complex with a home and garden retail store, and a restaurant-cafe. Their 'Fermentaion Bar' serves a number of local wines, as well as beer and kombucha. Next, walk across the street to Hawley Winery's underappreciated tasting room, which serves some solid Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. Then head across the town square to RoadHouse Winery, the tasting room for a small, two-man outfit that makes wine out of a nearby warehouse in town, where you'll find some carefully made, top-notch Pinot Noirs.
Finish the day either with a quick bite to eat at the many excellent restaurants nearby (Scopa, Campo Fina, and Pizzando are favorites), or by hitting one of several other tasting rooms packed into the small square, like Stephen & Walker. And the best part is it can all be done without moving the car.
Lastly, let's not forget that there's another small wine region to our east that's about as close as Carneros, just over a different bridge. It's even (almost) BART-able. The big player over in Livermore is Wente, with a full-service restaurant and a summer concert series. Next, we'd hit Murietta's Well, a considerably smaller operation specializing in blends, but also producing some interesting, hotter climate varietal wines like a Tempranillo and a Semillon.
Finish the day at organic producer Retzlaff, which recently won some prizes at the Chronicle Wine Competition, and which produces a number of varietals and a pair of Cabernet-Merlot blends — one with mostly Cab, and one with mostly Merlot. See a full map of the area here.