6 questions to help you plan a top-flight visit to Northern California wine country

Autumn in California means wine harvest and the release of previous year’s new vintages.

Wonderful weather also means it’s a great time to visit the northern part of the state for wine tastings and vineyard tours.

Newbies and dedicated wine lovers will find long lists of wineries to visit, so I won’t duplicate that here.

When choosing where you want to visit, ask yourself these questions:

  • What type of wine do you want to taste? Red, white, rose or sparkling wine. Some wineries also offer port wine or other spirits made by affiliates.
  • Do you have a particular wine region you want to explore? Northern California alone has several, including dozens of designated appellations, in Alexander Valley, Napa Valley and Russian River Valley in Lake, Napa, Sonoma and other counties. I wrote an article on one of the region’s newest wine appellations, the Petaluma Gap, in April for The Dallas Morning News.
  • Do you want to visit a winery at its vineyard or a tasting room? Many wineries offer tastings and tours of their vineyards on site. Others only have tasting rooms, which also can be at the vineyard or in a town. The town of Healdsburg, which is about 70 miles north of San Francisco, boasts more than two dozen winery tasting rooms, including Hartford Family Winery, La Crema, Seghesio and Portalupi Wines. Tastings and tours can range from $10 to over $100. (See the last bullet item.) During fall harvest, you may be enveloped by the heady aroma of grapes at vineyards.

Joe and Margaret Valenzuela outsource much of the work for their young Rubia Wines label, including their wine aging in barrels at their winemaker Julien Fayard’s property in Napa. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

  • Do you want to visit a large or small winery? A new label or a well-established brand? Family owned? Napa Valley alone has more than 500 wineries. In July, I wrote an article about how a Texas couple started a boutique Rubia Wines in Napa Valley. Its tasting room is at the industrial park office of its winemaker. It offers small bites with tastings. I also wrote an article last year about Hall Wines in Napa Valley, which offers tours and tastings (from $30 to $250 a person) at three locations: vineyards in St. Helena and Rutherford in Napa Valley and a tasting room in the nearby historic town of Sonoma.

Visitors to Hall Wines in St. Helena, Calif., enjoy the view of the Mayacamas Mountains from one of the outdoor seating areas. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

  • Do you want to eat as you taste wine? Nowadays, a winery experience is almost as much about food pairings as it is wine. Some tastings come with small bites or palate cleansers, but more often a winery will charge extra for a “culinary experience” that’s often with fruit and vegetables grown on site and noshes or meals prepared by a well-known chef. That also drives up the cost of a visit, usually starting around $35 and rising into triple figures. Some wineries also feature restaurants where you can order a la carte from a limited menu.
  • Do you want a winery visit with a touch of the unusual At Hall Wines, for example, visitors can wander through 38 large pieces of artwork. At the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, you can reserve a spot at its large pool, which quite the scene when weather permits. Several wineries, including Schramsberg Vineyards in Calistoga and Bella Vineyards in Healdsburg, boast historic caves that visitors can tour. You can play a game of croquet at Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards in Windsor.
This 35-foot-long, stainless-steel leaping rabbit by artist Lawrence Argent greets visitors as they enter Hall Wines’ showcase winery in Napa Valley. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)