Drinking fine wine is an important part of many of our travels (especially if you’re a Napa and Sonoma junkie like I am), but how about sipping your favorite varietal as a way to make the actual planning of the trip easier to swallow? And no, I’m not talking about pouring yourself some cheap Pinot Grigio while you sit on kayak.com. Leave it to enterprising Austin to open the first ever travel agency / bar hybrid — and I just happened to be in town for its grand opening. The bar was fun enough (and the treats tasty enough) to hang out at even if your Next Big Trip isn’t around the corner, and I love the idea of attracting like-minded travel folk to one locale, regardless of actual trip-planning needs. But while you’re there, why not flip through some guidebooks to see what luxury travel might entice you?
One of my favorite parts about visiting wine country is getting to hear how important the art of winemaking is to some very special families, including some of my recent intros to Robert Mondavi, Benziger, and Trinchero. In fact, Napa and Sonoma are some of the only places in the world where I’ve gotten to visit one family business after another. And they are often of Italian lineage like mine to boot. The Buoncristiani brothers were the grand finale to my most recent trip, one final stop on my way to the airport. Matt, Jay, Aaron and Nate are several generations into winemaking, but they decided that the family actually needed a (not-just-a-hobby) winery — and so the young whippersnappers created one. Their next step? Build wine caves like Napa has never seen.
They invited us for a sneak peak.
After spending a lot of time in Napa, like in any other tourist destination, sometimes the most special experiences happen when you get off the proverbial “beaten path.” I could spend weeks in wine country and never become tired of the planned tours and tastings (such as Trinchero, and Robert Mondavi) — you learn so much and become enthralled by the local personalities. Still, on my most recent trip, I was dragged against my will (haha) to a private lunch at the home of Garrett Ahnfeldt, one of the most gorgeous private Napa vineyards. Upon arrival, local ingredients were being pounded into the most delicious of dishes. As everything was being prepared, we were served wine (when isn’t there wine being served in that neck of the woods?) and took in the views.
With delicious wine comes sumptuous food, and Northern California wine country certainly doesn’t disappoint. The best part of the food offerings: the wide array of choices. My favorite eateries range from casual pull-up-a-chair joints to a five-star hot spot by a world-famous chef. At the risk of boring my more loyal readers who have heard this before, Oxbow Market is my absolute favorite hangout in the area. I can’t think of a single trip to the wineries in Napa that didn’t kick off with a stop at Oxbow’s Hog Island Oysters. Who can blame me? Gorgeous oysters and a heavy pour of local Domaine Carneros champage — it’s perfect!
My last name ends in a vowel, and I am a bona fide sucker for stories of Italian immigrants like those in my family, arriving in New York City in search of their dreams. In the case of the Trincheros, that journey took them through the glamourous Grand Central Station and then out west, to the rolling hills of Napa to capitalize on their strong wine-making skills from back home. The estate now owns Folie a Duex, Napa Cellars, Sutter Home (where for better or worse, one of the Trinchero sons is credited for creating White Zinfandel, still a huge seller), and Trinchero Napa Valley, where we visited on this trip having an amazing time at Benziger and Robert Mondavi. Sutter Home was the family’s original, which they purchased in 1948. At first, they sold wines to their neighbors, who would drop by with their own barrels, bottles, jugs (or whatever else was lying around). But after Prohibition, everything really took off. These days, there is a much different scene at the more mass market Sutter Home and the brand-new hospitality center and tasting room at the Estate’s highest-level winery, Trinchero Napa Valley in St. Helena. The 22-acre site is an ode to the family’s history, down to the loads of personal photos, mementos and letters — and the men’s and women’s room labeled only “Mario” and “Mary,” after the late patriarchs.
The winery is still family-owned, with Mario and Mary’s sons, Bob (the very son who invented White Zinfandel) and Roger, serving as chairman and CEO.
When you live in the desert, you develop a certain appreciation for endless rolling green hills like these, at Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma. Seven siblings, one winery — what’s not to love? As if that wasn’t enough, Benziger is Demeter-certified Biodynamic, the highest level of organic farming. My friend Tiffany and I had an amazing time during our visit, riding around on a golf cart with the youngest sibling, Kathy. Each grasping a glass of crisp chardonnay, we toured the gorgeous property, basking in the sun (it had been a little cloudy in at the wineries in Napa that morning). We had such a great time at our official tasting back at the main house and purchased several delicious bottles of cabernet and pinot noir, as well as some snacks for our ride back to Napa.