An hour away from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco are two world-famous wine regions; Napa Valley and Sonoma County. With over 100 wineries to choose from, going out to these two destinations on your own can be a bit daunting. So when I was looking at tours for solo female travelers, I wanted to pair up with a wine tour group that would help me check out the best of both regions, I called upon Green Dream Tours to do just that.
Green Dream Tours operates out of San Francisco and has multiple tours to Napa and Sonoma, including a tour that includes Alcatraz. My favorite aspect of the tour company is the size of their tours-no giant buses here! They only have small vans that transport you around the wineries in groups of 14 or less, which makes the experience more intimate and comfortable.
I was picked up at the North Vista Point of the Golden Gate Bridge as I was staying in Sausalito. The tour has the option of being picked up at several destinations in downtown San Francisco, but I was outside of the city so I told them I would meet them at their first stopping point. The North Vista Point is a popular location for perfect views of the city skyline, the bridge and the bay. As we climbed back on the bus we introduced ourselves and where we’re from, a traditional tour ice breaker. Mark, our fantastic tour guide, passed out an info sheet about wine, including popular places around the city to purchase wine and restaurants that are a must according to each neighborhood. I thought that was really nice and great addition to the tour.
On our way out to Sonoma County (our first stop) Mark let us in on some interesting facts of the area, showcasing the region and its inhabitants. I even learned where Otis Redding got his inspiration for his hit song ‘Sittin at the Dock of the Bay.’
Winery #1 Larson Family Winery
Our first winery was Larson Family Winery in Sonoma.We walked out to the vineyards as Mark told us about the region’s grapes and why Sonoma was a great place for producing wine. The winery had just gone through harvesting their red grapes in preparation for crushing and the harvesters had left bunches of grapes on the vines. So what did we do? Tried them of course! They were super sweet and delicious, yet much smaller than the grapes we see in the grocery store.
After our mini taste-testing, we made our way over to the covered patio to learn the basics of the winemaking process. It was a scorcher that day, over 100 degrees and we didn’t last that long outside, even under the covered patio.
We were taken inside to the beautiful and rustic tasting room where Katie informed us about the wines we would be tasting that day. We were given five different wine tastings while Katie told us the history of the land and the Larson family. Back in the 1920’s to 50’s, the largest rodeo in the Bay Area was held there, housing cowboys from all over the country.
They turned to wine in the late 70’s as they found that the land was perfect for vines. Their motto, ‘Drink what we can, and sell the rest’ still lives on today at this family-run winery. Paying respects to their cowboy beginnings, the tasting room and shop is decorated with old photos of that time, and beautiful rustic wood cabin. But my favorite part of the place were their three labs. They literally laid down wherever they felt comfortable, even if it meant in the middle of the crowd.
After our tastings, Katie let us sample their homemade chocolate Pinot Noir sauce. I think every single person loved it!
We all piled back on the bus ready to hit up our next winery. By now, the heat was killer. I mentioned earlier that Green Dreams offers free water, and that was my lifesaver. They had a little compartment in the back that held ice-cold waters for everyone. I love little touches like that!
Winery #2 Nicholson Ranch
We arrived at Nicholson Ranch after twelve and were guided inside where our tasting was set up. It was a beautiful ranch-style tasting room and house, with beautiful balconies and views around the entire building. Mark had given us a wonderful tip in the van, telling us that if we wanted to have another sip of a certain wine that we asked them if we could ‘revisit that wine.’ I laughed, but it really worked! There’s some wine lingo for you!
Nicholson was impressive. We had two types of Chardonnay and two types of Pinot Noir from their estate-grown grapes. I enjoyed all four, especially the last Pinot. Leave it to me to like the most expensive! After our first Chardonnay, the wine rep had us gather our things and join him for a walk through the vineyards. As we walked, he told us the story Nicholson Ranch, the grapes, and the region. He had brought the second Chardonnay with him, and when we stopped at the top of the hill to look out over the land, we sampled the delicious and buttery wine. I revisited that one twice! It was a nice change to taste wines while in the vineyard.
We made our way back inside to try the two Pinots and my mouth exploded with love. Their wines were delicious and balanced and fruit forward and felt like velvet; just so smooth. This winery was popular with just about everyone, and many left toting a bottle or two.
Our lunch stop was over in Napa Valley at the Oxbow Public Market. It was a collection of shops, restaurants, food stalls, open market, and cupcakes in one building. It was buzzing with activity, people milling about trying to figure out what they wanted to buy, sample, and eat. I chose a little stand that was selling hand-crafted sweets and sandwiches. I didn’t read their entire logo and didn’t notice that it was a gluten-free shop, so when I got my Tuna Melt, I was surprised at how small it was. Well, the size of the sandwich was misleading as the flavor was huge. It was by far the best Tuna Melt I’ve ever had. Hands down.
After I scarfed that down, I went on a little walk and perused the shops selling salts, coffee, bitters, trinkets, wine and more. It was a cute destination and I can see how it can cater to all varieties of tastes. I opted for two mini cupcakes at Kara’s Cupcakes. My god. The cupcake was great but the buttercream frosting and filling were by far the clear winners here.
Winery #3 Judd’s Hill Winery
Our last stop was in Napa at Judd’s Hill Winery. This small estate produces premier wines including a range of Cabernet Sauvignon; Napa’s most famous and prestigious wine. Our wine rep from Judd’s was great. He let us in on some insider information about the wine world. He informed us that majority of Cabs are not 100% Cab due to how expensive it is to produce, and that changing the words on a bottle can alter a buyer’s perception of the wine. I felt like I was in a marketing course, learning about consumer’s purchasing habits. We were sat back of the building where all the magic happens. We learned about their process, their wines, and the family behind the small winery. It was a nice change from standing in a tasting room. I felt like I was a part of the winemaking process, fruit flies included.
By this time, many of my tour mates were feeling the buzz of all that wine. I was used to going on winery tours in Australia where you hit at least five or six wineries, so I paced myself. I ended up feeling great without the end-of-the-day hangover. Mark quizzed us with a question pertaining to the fact sheet he gave out to us at the beginning of the tour, and I failed miserably. The winner ended up with a bottle of wine! So heads up, study that sheet if you go!
Our drive from Napa back to San Francisco was nice, passing by the exquisite and gorgeous vineyards sprouted around the valley. I drifted in and out of my own day dreams for the hour ride back, until Mark put on Journey’s “City By the Bay'” song where we all belted out the chorus as we drove over the Bay Bridge and into the beautiful city.
I was dropped off with some others and was given a CD filled with songs of SF-based bands. That was a perfect gift! If he would have given me a coffee for an afternoon pick-me-up, he would’ve been playing God at this point.
Mark was a fantastic guide, full of interesting information and facts, but equally funny and easy to get along with. You could tell he was comfortable with everyone and thoroughly enjoyed his job.
If you’re wanting to visit both Napa and Sonoma, I highly suggest going out there with Green Dream Tours. They offer a personalized experience and highlight the smaller boutique wineries that produce beautiful wines. And their ‘green’ too, hence the name. They are eco-friendly and are 100% carbon-neutral.
Now who doesn’t love that?
About the author:
Jen Heuett is the creator of Travel + Trust & Wanderlust, an online community to educate, empower and inspire women to travel solo. Her words can also be found on Huffington Post, Mind Body Green, and Travel Hooligan, her first travel company that inspires young adults to utilize the Working Holiday Visa in Australia and New Zealand. When she’s not traveling the world, she’s enjoying the Pacific Northwest and her mom’s tacos.