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Travelblog Gone with the Wine

Travelblog and lifestyleblog. Life under the Californian sun - Gone with the Wine. Trips, food and wine from all over the world. Solo and family adventures.

Filtering by Tag: Napa Valley

Ride a Gondola to a Wine Tasting at Sterling Vineyards in Napa Valley

Paula Gaston

Two weeks ago we did a trip to Napa Valley which I already told about you on my last post. We went to view wineries, ate well and enjoyed the mineral pools at our hotel spa. The first winery we visited was Sterling Vineyardsille which right by the city of Calistoga. While driving over the sun came out and the spring day could have not been more prettier.



Sterling Vineyards was started in 1964 by an Englishman Peter Newton. He visited California and fell in love with the beauty and wines of Napa Valley and decided to invest in his own vineyard. Later he purchased more land from close by and built a winery building at the top of the mountain hill at the premises. The building got its inspiration from a Greek island Mykonos where Newton used to also live. Winery was first opened to public in 1972.

At some point Newton bought an old church bell from England and brought it with him to the vineyard. The bells originally belonged to St. Dunstan Church which got destroyed in the World War II and was located in London. Today the bells are in use, and they ring in every 15 minutes. At this point I have to admit though, that while our visit to Sterling I didn’t hear or notice the bells, so they must not be very loud.

Sterling Vineyards produces Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Shiraz. One of the biggest achievements for Sterling must of been the win at Ottawa Wine Tasting in 1981. Their wines were also used at 2016 Annual Emmy Awards and 2017 Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles. The vineyard have changed owners multiple times in the past, and one of the most interesting owners is the Coca-Cola Company. Today it is owned by a big alcohol company.



From this winery I remember more the experience than their wines. Up to the winery you take a gondola that fits four people at the time. The views up at the mountain and from the gondola are of course great. Right after getting out of the gondola they have the first tasting spot and then you can start the self guided tour. You will walk through the winery tasting different wines in different rooms, and looking at the wine making videos from huge tv screens.


The tour ended to a sun deck which had a beautiful view to the vineyard. Of course it would have been even more beautiful at summer or fall time since now the vines didn’t have any leaves. They also had a restaurant at the deck which you access by making a reservation.


I have to say that the tour was really well organised and they had thought of everything when planning this. But it somehow was lacking some personal contact. Of course, if you pay more you can get a host for your group and better quality wines, but I thought that $35 for a wine tasting was already enough. They sure know how to commercialise everything in Napa Valley. After the tour you get to keep the wine glass as a souvenir. Just like other wineries, this too had all kinds of souvenir shops and other things. But for the first time I saw that some place is selling boxes of wines at the parking lot with discounted prices.

After Sterling we continued to other wineries. This was truly an interesting start for our day at Napa Valley.

A Perfect Weekend Getaway to Napa Valley

Paula Gaston

It has been a long time since I have been Napa Valley, the most famous wine growing region of the United States. There are so many wine areas in California, and Napa Valley out of all of them, is by far the most expensive to visit. That might be why we don’t often go there even though it is only a couple hours drive from our home. This time we decided to do a little getaway weekend with my girlfriends, and combine a wine trip with a little spa retreat. And it was so worth it! It was great to have some time off from home and being a mom, and just be with friends enjoying the springtime sun.


We left the San Francisco Bay Area in my friend’s van, and we had booked a driver for our group for a whole day in Napa Valley. She was already waiting for us when we arrived to our hotel in the town of Calistoga. She’d made us some reservations to four different wineries and so we headed to our wine tour. My favourite places in Napa Valley are absolutely both Calistoga and St Helen where they have many nice wineries and spas. Since it is a volcanically active area, many spa hotels use the mineral water from the hot springs at their pools. They usually also offer many kind of treatments like mud baths.


We started our tour from Sterling Vineyards. I actually wasn’t so excited after seeing their website, since it seemed to be showing only millenials partying in their night club clothes rather than the wine. But our driver assured me that this would be a nice place to visit…and it was. The wines didn’t really strike me well, but people are taken up the hill to the winery in a gondola and the views are great of course. Like so many other wineries in Napa Valley, you are paying for the experience rather than the tasting itself. The tasting included a self guided tour at the winery, gondola ride and a wine glass to take home.


At our next winery, Frank Family Vineyards, we had planned a picnic lunch. Before leaving on the tour, we stopped at a little market in downtown Calistoga and got some salads and sandwiches. Our driver Linda was well prepared for this too; she had brought a picnic basket with plates and everything. From the winery we bought a couple bottles of bubbly for the lunch and enjoyed their picnic area outside. So we didn’t actually try their tasting menu, but the wines we chose for the lunch were excellent.


After our picnic lunch we headed to the third winery which actually has a long history in Napa Valley. There are two reasons why this vineyard is important to Napa. Some of you might have heard of the so-called Judgement of Paris in 1976. It was a wine tasting contest organised in France and done blind folded. To everyone’s surprise, a wine from Napa Valley won. Normally the French were kind of laughing at Americans and their wines, but now they had to admit that there was something better than French wines. The winning wine was from a winery called Chateau Montalena which still exists in Calistoga, and where we have visited earlier. In that same competition, fourth place went to another wine from Napa Valley called Spring Mountain Vineyards. And that is where we headed next.

Another reason why this winery is known, is a television show from the 80’s called Falcon Crest. It was filmed here and even the main house from the show is at the vineyard. Spring Mountain is a very private and calm place, and they only take a handful of visitors who have made a reservation beforehand. And the wines? Amazing! But also very pricey. Many of them can only be bought straight from the winery.


Mumm Napa, the last place we visited, ended up being a waste of time. Not because it was bad, but because we were late from our schedule and they had given our table away. Wineries in Napa close early—around 4 or 5 pm—and we wanted to get to the hotel anyway before our dinner reservation, so even though we could have waited to get another table, we decided to head out. I didn’t mind so much, because I have visited it many times. Mumm Napa is very popular among the visitors and I recommend making a reservation if you plan to go there.

I will tell you about all these wineries more later.


There are many small, nice restaurants in downtown Calistoga. We actually voted about where to go, and a French restaurant “Veraison” won. It was a great choice. Nothing extra special, but the food was good and they paired everything with wine of course. I went with the chef’s menu which had Osso Bucco as a main course. The next day before heading home we also had a brunch at Sam’s Social Club which had a great outside patio. After bathing and swimming, the avocado toast with mimosa was to die for.


If you are staying the night in Calistoga, you should absolutely choose one of the spa hotels, so you can try out the warm mineral pools. This time our hotel had two saunas: a dry sauna and a steaming one. From the sauna, we ran to the pool area, where the water comes from the warm springs in Calistoga. The hot tub was way too hot for me in the sun, but I did enjoy the actual mineral water pool. The water looks a little different from the regular pool water, but they do say that it can be a different color at different times of the year. Some hotels also offer mud baths with volcanic mud or other treatments. Last time we did try the mud bath and it was a fun experience.


When we left back home, we stopped in the city of Napa to visit the Oxbow Public Market. It’s a market place where local producers sell their products, food and wines. It was a great place to buy something to take home with you.


This kind of weekend more please! What is your best getaway weekend activity?

Mayday Mayday - Wine Country is burning

Paula Gaston

Are you traveling to San Francisco, Napa Valley or Sonoma - Read this!

On Monday morning I walked my first born to school again. Looking out from the window the weather look nice, but when we started walking the cold breeze made us turn back to grab our jackets. I could clearly smell some smoke in the air and I could barely see the Californian golden hills which are close to our house. What is going on? Clearly I had not been following the news that day. I had heard that there is a wild fire somewhere up north, but fires are part of our everyday life in California. In reality, because of the wind, this fire had spread to multiple places fast, and both Napa Valley and Sonoma were burning.

The situation got worse really fast. New fires started and there just wasn't enough fire fighters to battle them all. In Santa Rosa two neighborhoods burned down. Many people literally had only a few minutes time to run from their homes so they had to leave everything behind; furniture, clothes, cars, pets, even their shoes. So far as many as 29 people have died and the amount continues to rise. There is 0% contained of most of these fires. Over 3000 homes have been lost, and two hotels were left to burn since there were not enough fire fighters to extinguish them. Their main task has been evacuating people from their homes. The fire has been said to spread faster than people can run. 

Yesterday we saw news pictures of people who returned to the ruins of their houses. A daughter who was looking for her old mother, a man searching for his cat, a young man trying to find his grandfather's dog tags and a lady crying in happiness after finding her wedding ring in the ashes. Many lost all of their possessions; some lost their loved ones or pets. The pictures were heart breaking. The whole place looks like a war zone. People are looking for their friends and family in evacuation centers and hospitals. A lonely mail truck was driving around in a destroyed area still delivering mail to those whose mail box was still up. There has been news of vineyards that were destroyed, and no one really knows how many vines have been lost. Some of the grapes were still not harvested since it is the harvest month. Some say that the heat or smoke can damage the vines, but some of the grapes might survive and take on a  smoke flavour. But a sure thing is, that this will hit both the wine and travel industry hard.

Some of the devastation in Santa Rosa:

Photo credit: María A. Mejía

Photo credit: María A. Mejía

Photo credit: María A. Mejía

Photo credit: María A. Mejía

Yesterday here in the San Francisco East Bay, it was really grey. Somewhere in the smoky sky you could see the sun peak out. Some of my friends told me that is was raining ash where they live. Some cities have closed the schools due to bad air quality. In our city, schools are still open, but the kids are staying inside for recess. People have been advised to stay inside and keep the windows closed. Especially exercising outside is not a good idea. Also San Francisco has unhealthy air quality. This morning I was happy that the sun was visible and I could see the hills again. My throat has started to hurt and my husband is coughing. It is time to plan a weekend trip somewhere. 


Today they have ordered new areas for a mandatory evacuation, and no one knows when this will end. The forecast for the weekend predict gusty winds which will be a problem. Winds can change direction quickly and that will affect the fires as well as the air quality. The situation is horrible for everyone here! And the worst is saved of course for those up in wine country. People are collecting donations for the evacuees; food, clothes, diapers, pet food and everything else possible. They also need volunteers to help with the rescued animals.

At this moment there are 22 fires around California. A drought which has lasted years has made a match box. If you have planned a trip to these areas, you should consider a plan B. Most of the businesses at wine areas are closed, destroyed or evacuated, some are without power. In San Francisco, Silicon Valley and other areas near by the air quality is unhealthy or dangerous. Some said that it is same as in Beijing on their normal day. You can check the list of closed wineries in Napa from here, and in Sonoma from here. A list of damaged or destroyed wineries can be found from here. 

We are expecting some light rain for next Thursday. Right now, that might be the salvation for California. 


A Day in California's Livermore Wine Country

Paula Gaston

A couple weeks ago I visited Livermore Wine country with some of my friends. Livermore Valley is about half an hour drive from where we live, and a little over an hour from San Francisco. In recent years, the wine region has grown rapidly, and it has become better known among wine lovers. There is no better time to visit wine country than harvest time!

The most known wine area in California is of course Napa Valley. However, in the 1960's there was actually as much grapes growing in Livermore Valley as in Napa Valley. When Napa suddenly become famous, all the other wine regions in California were overshadowed by it, and wine tourism did not develop in these areas. Livermore has produced wine for a long time already. The oldest wine families are Wente and Concannon, which both started their vineyards in 1883. Many younger wineries have been established since then, but Wente has still remained the biggest wine producer of Livermore Wine Country. 


We met in downtown Livermore and hopped onto a Wine Trolley. Livermore Wine Trolley is a great way to get around Livermore Wine Country if you don't have a designated driver. It has four different stops and it stops in each every 20 minutes. From most of the stops, you will have access to multiple different vineyards. The Wine Trolley operates weekends between 11 am to 5 pm, and the daily pass is $5 dollars cheaper if you purchase it in advantage. Otherwise it will be $25 per person. 

Livermore Wine Trolley

Livermore Wine Country is a dramatically cheaper place to visit than internationally famous Napa Valley, or Sonoma. Where a flight of wine costs at least $20 and more in Napa, here you will get it for $10. And most of the places will compensate it if you purchase some wine after tasting. Even buying some wine is going to be cheaper in Livermore. One flight usually has about 5 or 6 pours, and you can choose from a couple different menus. What I like the most about visiting Livermore, is that the tasting room staff still has time to talk to guests and tell you about the wines, and that the wineries are usually not too crowded. Even though every wine lover should experience Napa Valley once in a lifetime, unfortunately the huge number of tourists there means constant rushing and mass production. 

We started our tour from Nottingham Cellar which for some reason, didn't convince us. We moved on with a trolley ride to Wente Vineyards, which have written about before as we used to be wine club members. Wines at Wente have never disappointed me, and it seemed like the whole crew loved them. Wente has two tasting rooms, and we stopped at the one on Tesla Road. They have a nice little picnic area where they sell pizza. We ordered some for lunch as well as some sparkling wine, while we got to enjoy the comfy coaches at the wine club lounge. 

I was hoping to visit Concannon Vineyard, since I have never been there. That came true only partly on this trip. We did visit the vineyard but the tasting room had just closed when we got there. Wineries in California close at 5 pm, so if you are planning to do a tour, start early. We reserved a table from the restaurant at Concannon, the Underdog Wine Bar, so we were able to taste some Concannon wines. The restaurant was actually built into an old barrel room of the winery. Food in this place was delicious, but they mostly serve lighter fare like salads, cheese plates and such. We ended up ordering multiple portions to share. As I am a big fan of dessert wines, I also ordered a flight of sweet wines which were excellent. 

Apricot & Bacon Sliders

Apricot & Bacon Sliders



Dessert flight: Concannon, Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon, Livermore Valley 2013 & Pfeiffer, Rutherglen Topaque, Victoria, Australia NV & Concannon, Petite Sirah Port, Livermore Valley 2012.

Dessert flight: Concannon, Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon, Livermore Valley 2013 & Pfeiffer, Rutherglen Topaque, Victoria, Australia NV & Concannon, Petite Sirah Port, Livermore Valley 2012.

When the bar closed in the early evening, we hopped in an Uber and drove back to my home town. We ended our fun wine day with some line dancing and beer. Try this if you dare!