12 Unique Winery Experiences in Sonoma and Napa Wine Country

Medieval fortresses and parterre gardens, swimming pools and outdoor art galleries, riding horses and trolleys — there’s plenty of reason to venture outside the tasting room in Wine Country.

Weary, somewhat bleary of the spin-sniff-sip-swallow-or-spit wine tasting experience? These Sonoma and Napa wineries offer a little something extra to pair with your cabernet.

Medieval fortresses and parterre gardens, swimming pools and outdoor art galleries, riding horses and trolleys — there’s plenty of reason to venture outside the tasting room on your next Wine Country trip.

A trip to Germany at Schug Carneros Estate Winery

French, Italian and Spanish accents abound at Sonoma and Napa wineries, so a visit to Walter Schug’s German-styled winery in Carneros is as refreshing as a trocken riesling.

Schug, who died in 2015 at age 80, grew up at Staatsweingut Assmannshausen in Germany’s Rhine Valley. Bit by the winegrowing bug, he eventually made his way to Napa Valley, as winemaker for Joseph Phelps Winery. In 1983, he founded his own winery estate yard in Sonoma Carneros, the production facility and tasting room designed with the peaked roof and timber framing typical in the Rhine. All the original winemaking equipment came from Germany and some of it remains, most strikingly the 669-gallon wood oval aging casks, some of them elaborately carved.

Riesling is no longer in the Schug repertoire, the grape not ideally suited to Sonoma’s sunny climate. Instead, Schug took the pinot noir (spatburgunder) route, adding chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and other varietals to the mix. His children continue the business, with German-American Johannes Scheid the winemaker.

The Cave Tour & Tasting Experience ($75) includes a walk around the property and through the production area and caves, followed by a seated tasting of current-release and Heritage Reserve wines, served with snacks.

602 Bonneau Road, Sonoma, 707-939-9363, schugwinery.com

Outdoor art gallery at The Donum Estate

Wineries have long been places for visitors to view art and photography on the walls of tasting rooms. Sculptures welcome guests at estate entrances and within sight of tasters.

Now, Donum has taken artistic displays well beyond the usual, dotting its 200-acre Carneros estate with 50-some large-scale, open-air sculptures from artists including Ai Weiwei, Keith Haring, Subodh Gupta and Doug Aitken. Adding to the high-end artistry: the tasting area designed by Danish architect David Thulstrup, known for his interior design of world-class Noma restaurant in Copenhagen.

The basic way to enjoy Donum is to book its Carneros Experience ($95), which includes a walking tour of the estate and tastes of its rosé, chardonnay and pinot noir. The Explore Experience ($175) is a two-hour, all-terrain-vehicle tour of the estate and tasting of wines served with seasonal bites and, of course, views of the artwork.

24500 Ramal Road, Sonoma, 707-732-2200, thedonumestate.com

Living history at Buena Vista Winery

Founded in 1857 by Agoston Haraszthy, Buena Vista is the second-oldest winery in California and is often referred to as the oldest premium winery in the state. (The oldest winery in California is D’Agostini Winery, which was founded in 1856.)

Haraszthy, a vivacious and eccentric pioneer, immigrated from Europe in 1840 in search of the good life. Following in the footsteps of the forty-niners, he found the perfect terroir for “purple gold” and, as the self-proclaimed “Count of Buena Vista,” he established a reputation as an experimental vintner, a shrewd businessman and a flamboyant evangelist. (He died as he had lived — dramatically — in an alligator-infested river in the jungles of Nicaragua.)

The legend of Haraszthy and his winery is now recreated by Buena Vista owner Jean-Charles Boisset, a modern-day version of the eccentric count. The best way to get a taste of the winery’s history (and some wine) is to reserve the Barrel Tasting & Winery Tour ($50), which takes visitors on a stroll through the winery grounds and into the Champagne Cellar for a taste of current release wines. Next, the tour continues into the wine caves where guests can sample wine from the barrel.

18000 Old Winery Road, Sonoma, 800-926-1266, buenavistawinery.com

Horsing around among the vines at Jack London State Park

They say, “don’t drink and drive,” but can you drink and ride?

At Triple Creek Horse Outfit in Glen Ellen, the riding is sensibly taken care of before the drinking. And what a ride it is. Triple Creek offers guided horseback tours at Jack London State Historic Park in the magical Valley of the Moon. The park features fine riding trails through Jack and Charmian London’s Beauty Ranch, which wind around acres of vineyards, through open oak woodlands and under shady groves of majestic redwoods.

All Triple Creek Horse Outfit rides include a complimentary wine tasting at nearby VJB Cellars in Kenwood. The winery also has a gourmet Italian deli and sells wood-fired pizza, gelato and more. Private rides (one hour to two hours) are $145 to $225 per rider. Questions are best addressed via email at triplecrik@gmail.com. Bookings can be made online.

2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, 707-888-0034, triplecreekhorseoutfit.com

Humming bees and lavender fields at Matanzas Creek Winery

Matanzas Creek Winery in Bennett Valley has been a haven for wine enthusiasts and lavender-lovers since 1991. Guests to the winery can sip sauvignon blanc on a terrace overlooking fields of lilac and amethyst; the soothingly seductive perfumes wafting in the breeze to the hum of bees shifting busily among the blossoms.

The end of June/beginning of July is prime lavender season at Matanzas Creek Winery. The fields are organically farmed and are cut, bundled and hung to barn dry after reaching full bloom. Then the dried blossoms are used in culinary, bath, body and home products sold in the winery’s lavender market.

Tastings (from $35) are by appointment. Picnic tables (with bottle service) can be reserved for two hours ($25 on weekdays; $50 on weekends). Bocce courts can be rented for two hours daily ($20 per person).

6097 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa, 707-528-6464, matanzascreek.com

An all-terrain adventure at Chenoweth Wines

Of the more than 400 wineries that call Sonoma County home, the grand estates have a knack for getting all the attention. But when you make the turn onto the retired tractor-lined driveway at Chenoweth Wines, it’s the unpretentious setting that makes you happy you’ve arrived.

With 800 acres of land, from redwoods to vineyards, the Chenoweth estate offers plenty to see. But it’s how you get to see it — buckled into an all-terrain vehicle — that adds even more bragging rights to a busy day of wine tasting.

ATV tours ($125 per person) take about 1 1/2 hours and traverse the Chenoweth ranch, redwood grove and vineyards and make stops for wine tasting outdoors. At tour’s end, guests can stay and enjoy their own picnic in the redwood grove. Tours are limited to eight guests and can be booked by calling 707-829-3367 or emailing joinus@chenowethwines.com.

5550 Harrison Grade Road, Sebastopol, 707-331-2734, chenowethwines.com

A taste of history at Three Sticks Wines

The historic Vallejo-Casteñada Adobe is the longest occupied residence in Sonoma and one of the town’s few remaining buildings from California’s Mexican period.

Constructed in 1842 by Captain Salvador Vallejo (the infamous brother of General Mariano Vallejo), the adobe has been carefully restored by Three Sticks owners Bill and Eva Price, who now house a private tasting room for their Three Sticks wine label in the historic building.

Visitors can tour the adobe and take in its history while tasting a flight of pinots and chardonnays ($65) or finish the experience with a food and wine pairing prepared in partnership with the celebrated chefs at El Dorado Kitchen.

New this season is the Oysters & Chardonnay pairing ($95) that includes a flight of three single vineyard chardonnays and half a dozen oysters on the half shell (three types of oysters). Guests get to learn about terroir (how environmental factors like soil, topography and climate impact the wine) and merroir (how the bivalves’ marine surroundings influence their flavor).

143 W. Spain St., Sonoma, 707-996-3328, threestickswines.com

Cabernet on a cable car, Sonoma Valley Wine Trolley

Lack a designated driver? Think limousine tours are for tourists? Biking and wining a precarious pair? The Sonoma Valley Wine Trolley might just be what you’re looking for.

Built from the blueprints of an 1890s San Francisco cable car, the trolley safely trundles wine enthusiasts on a six-hour ride through Sonoma Valley.

The journey begins at Sonoma Plaza and then makes three stops at local wineries for private tasting experiences (the stops change with the seasons and include wineries such as Ravenswood, Imagery Estate, Paradise Ridge, Gloria Ferrer and B.R. Cohn).

Included in the package is a guide, a boxed lunch, views of the bucolic Wine Country landscape and plenty of bottled water. Daily Sonoma tours begin at 10:15 a.m. and end at 4:30 p.m. The tour is $125 and reservations can be made online. Tasting fees at the wineries range from $30 to $40 per person.


Wine wonderland at Francis Ford Coppola Winery

Bringing the kids on a wine tasting trip may not seem the best of ideas, that is unless you are destined for Francis Ford Coppola’s winery.

The famous filmmaker’s Geyserville estate is a wonderland with wine: film memorabilia (including Don Corleone’s desk from “The Godfather”) and Oscars are on display; its two swimming pools (3,600 square feet in total) are surrounded by chaise lounges, cabanas and bocce courts; and there is always plenty of wine for the adults.

Seated tastings on the terrace are $40. Bocce courts can be reserved 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Thursday-Monday. ($50 per person, plus tax; available for parties of eight to 24 guests).

Cabana reservations, which is the only way to access the pool, become available on the winery’s website in late spring. (The pool is typically open from mid-June to early October.) It is a popular place to be during summer in Wine Country, so make sure to make your cabana reservations early.

300 Via Archimedes, Geyserville, 707-857-1400, thefamilycoppola.com

Tulips and trees at Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery

Ever experienced a tulip emergency? Healdsburg’s Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery has a tulip hotline set up in the late winter/early spring months for fans eager not to miss the winery’s 10,000 tulips in bloom.

The five-acre winery gardens also feature over 2,000 species of trees and shrubs, a variety of perennials and annuals (the tulips and daffodils take center stage in the spring), waterfalls that flow into fish-filled ponds and bronze sculptures from renowned artists Dennis Smith, Douglas Van Howd and Jane DeDecker.

The Italian/French parterre gardens accentuate classic geometric shapes. The enclosed garden at the front of Villa Fiore (the estate winery) has a parklike setting, its design more relaxed and its emphasis on color and texture.

Take in views of the gardens and surrounding vineyards from the winery’s Sycamore Grove terrace during the Wine & Brunch experience (10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays; $85 per person).

The brunch includes a flight of reserve wines paired with a seasonal, Italian-inspired menu with dishes such as Prosciutto Benedict with roasted potato and estate garden greens; Yannis Sausage & Farm Fresh Egg Strata topped with Valley Ford Estero Gold Cheese; and TCHO Dark Chocolate Panna Cotta for dessert. Advance reservations and prepayments are required (reservations are refundable up to 72 hours prior to visit).

8761 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 707-433-6700, ferrari-carano.com

Portal to the middle ages at Castello di Amorosa

It’s no surprise that some refer to Dario Sattui, a fourth generation vintner and the man behind Castello di Amorosa, as a modern-day Don Quixote.

Some 20 years ago, Sattui began a 15-year quest to build a medieval-style Tuscan castle in Napa Valley as a place to showcase his wines. The result: a 107-room, eight-level, 121,000-square-foot castle complete with drawbridge, secret passageways, torture chamber and tasting rooms.

Seated and standing tastings ($60 and $50) give visitors access to the two main levels of the castle via a self-guided tour (strategically posted QR codes make it easy to learn about the winery at your own pace).

The Diamond Estate Tour & Reserve Wine Tasting ($70) and the Cheese & Charcuterie Wine Pairing Tour ($85) include guided tours that take visitors through the two main levels and also into the production area, underground cellars, torture chamber and armory. Reservations required for all tastings.

4045 St Helena Highway, Calistoga, 707-967-6272, castellodiamorosa.com

Gondola glides to the tune of old English bells at Sterling Vineyards

A one-of-a-kind aerial tram glides you on a 360-degree scenic ride up a tree-covered hill to the winery. Debarking at the summit, visitors can then begin to explore the chalk-white stuccoed, many-verandaed winery. Its architectural inspiration? The Greek villages on the island of Mykonos where Sterling founder, Peter Newton, once lived.

High in the towers at Sterling Vineyards are eight bells that once hung in London’s Church of St. Dunstan’s-in-the-East. When the Anglican church, founded in the Saxon 10th century, was badly damaged by the Great Fire of 1666, it was repaired and a Christopher Wren steeple added. (St. Dunstan’s was much later mortally damaged during the London Blitz in 1941.)

The bells found their way to Calistoga in the 1970s and soon visitors can continue to enjoy the timelessness of their reverberations at Sterling Vineyards.

1111 W. Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga, 800-726-6136, sterlingvineyards.com

Linda Murphy and Dana Rebmann contributed to this article.