Rows of grapes in a vineyard with the leaves turning golden.

Autumn is beautiful in California’s Napa Valley. Photo © Sherri Camp/123rf.

There are so many experiences to be had in California’s Wine Country. Start planning your trip with this introduction to Napa and Sonoma Valley. Learn a bit about each region including the best times of year to visit.

Where to Go in Napa & Sonoma

Napa Valley

This is California Wine Country, as far as many people are concerned—arguably the most important winemaking region in the state with a name that is recognized around the world. The 30-mile-long Napa Valley is a valley of contrasts. Some 16 distinct appellations are home to hundreds of wineries, ranging from the historic big names that make millions of cases of wine per year down to more modest wineries turning out some of California’s best cabernet sauvignons. It can be expensive and crowded in Napa, yet it’s not hard to find pockets of rural tranquility as you venture off the beaten path.

Southern Sonoma

Although it now lives in the cultural shadow of the Napa Valley, this is ground zero not only for California’s modern wine industry but for California itself. The notable town of Sonoma is thoroughly at peace with itself, as though worn out from the tumultuous series of events more than 150 years ago that gave birth to the state. Life is more laid-back (and cheaper) than in the larger, more famous neighboring valley, yet there are still plenty of cultural, culinary, and outdoor attractions alongside the first-class wines, from the sleepy town of Glen Ellen to the cool flatlands of Los Carneros.

Northern Sonoma

If any region epitomizes the diversity of California’s Wine Country, it is northern Sonoma, where scenery and wines from the multitude of hills and small valleys often have little in common other than their Sonoma County address. The cool, lush Russian River Valley has forests, rivers, small farms, and some of the best pinot noir and chardonnay in California. The warmer Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley are home to big red wines from small family-owned wineries. Bordering all three regions is the fascinating town of Healdsburg, itself a mix of the upscale and down-home.

When to Go

Summer and fall are the most popular seasons to visit, and for good reason. This is when the weather is at its best and the wineries are at their most active, laying out lavish food and wine events, preparing for harvest, and releasing new vintages. The problem is, everyone seems to be here at this time of year. Hotel prices surge, traffic clogs the roads, and getting a restaurant reservation is like a game of roulette. Weekends can be particularly bad, as day-trippers from San Francisco and other Bay Area cities swell the already bulging tourist traffic, potentially turning a weekend getaway into a weekend in purgatory.

Visiting midweek at this time of year can make a huge difference. St. Helena, Healdsburg, and Sonoma can feel positively deserted on an August or September weekday. After October, things quiet down a little bit, hotel rates drop, and the weather can still be fine as the vineyards turn glorious hues of red and gold.

Winter is the wettest but also the quietest period, when wineries can be blissfully devoid of visitors and enable plenty of one-on-one time with tasting-room staff. In spring the weather warms up and the valley and mountains are a fresh, vivid green after the winter rains, making this one of the best times to visit the Wine Country ahead of the worst summer crowds.

Color travel map of Napa & Sonoma, California

Napa & Sonoma

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Napa & Sonoma.