Most visitors to Napa and Sonoma counties—also known as California Wine Country—experience the landscape from ground-level. They sip in tasting rooms. They dine in restaurants. If they’re lucky, they walk the vineyards and see the vine rows up close.
I live in the area, and, over the years, I’ve discovered a handful of fun opportunities to “do” Wine Country with a bit of altitude. Here, in no particular order, are four of my faves.
Flightseeing the Dry Creek Valley
Mazzocco Winery, in the Dry Creek Valley near Healdsburg (in Sonoma County) offers two kinds of tastings—an old-fashioned experience inside the barn-like tasting room, and one that incorporates a private, 60-minute “flightseeing” tour of the entire region.
The “Air Tour,” as the latter option is known, takes visitors up, up and away in a four-seat private plane and whisks them off to look down upon Lake Sonoma, the Buddhist Temple at Cazadero, the Alexander Valley, and more. After the flight, because the winery sits right next to the Healdsburg Municipal Airport, visitors can head straight from the tarmac back to the winery for a private tasting.
For first-timers to the region, the flight tour is a great geography lesson; from up in the sky, you gain a newfound appreciation for differences in elevation, topography and climate.
For locals, like me, the trip is exhilarating for another reason: It offers a different perspective on home.
Viewfinder Tip: Wilson Wines, the parent company of Mazzocco, offers on-vineyard accommodations at many of its wineries. For more, click here.
Another way to look down on the rolling hills of Sonoma County is to head up in a hot-air balloon. There are a number of companies that serve the region, but Up & Away, based in Windsor, is the one about which I’ve heard the best things.
Tours begin at the Charles M. Schulz Airport; from there, guides escort passengers to the best launch field, inflate the balloon (which is a sight to behold), and take to the sky.
Depending on the altitude (which is dependent on the weather), guests may see the Pacific Ocean, the Napa Valley, the buildings in San Francisco 60 miles away. At lower altitudes, balloons fly just above the grapevines and you can see rabbits, deer and other wildlife. Throughout the flight, the pilot adds heat to the balloon to keep it aloft—a process that sounds eerily like the blow of a surfacing humpback whale.
Following most flights, guests are treated to a champagne brunch at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center. In addition to champagne, on most days the meal includes warm hand-crafted quiche, strawberries hand-dipped in chocolate, fresh fruit, local cheeses, and coffee cake.
Riding the cables to taste
Sterling Vineyards, in Calistoga (Napa Valley) is the only vineyard in all of California Wine Country to offer an aerial tram. This means visiting the expansive property provides an experience unlike any other.
The ride is short and sweet—from the lower winemaking facility, it’s about a five-minute journey up the 300 feet to the tasting room. Along the way, you can taste some of the property’s flagship wines while you drink up the stunning views up and down the Napa Valley.
At the top, take your time to explore the tasting facility, a building that was modeled after structures on the Greek island of Mykonos, where Sterling founder Peter Newton once lived. Newton has amassed an impressive art collection for the building, and guests can stroll through galleries, overlooks and elevated walkways as they explore.
If you’re lucky, you even get to look *down* on hawks surfing some wind currents. It doesn’t get much better than that.
The view from Mount St. Helena
Hiking Mount St. Helena
The most iconic way to look down on Wine Country is to hike up to the region’s highest point: the 4,341-foot summit of Mount St. Helena at the northern end of the Napa Valley. The strenuous hike is a favorite among locals: On any given day, you likely will run into at least one winemaker on your way up or down. Some Napa Valley residents treat the hike as a pilgrimage, and do it every year.
The journey is steep; at times, your legs will quiver from exhaustion. At the top, however, you are rewarded with a panoramic view of the entire valley. On cloudy mornings—which is to say, most mornings—you’re looking down on the clouds, and the hilltops poke through the sea of gray like islands.
Once the fog burns off, you can see clear down to the San Francisco Bay (and, if you’re lucky, you can spot the tops of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County and Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County).
This mountain is quite literally the centerpiece of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, a parcel of protected space named after the author and poet who lived (actually, he squatted in an old mining shack) in the area for a summer in the early part of last century.
When I go, I bring a bottle of wine and toast to Stevenson from the top.
What are your favorite ways to look down on a destination?