There are few things I get up early for when travelling – sunrises over beautiful tropical beaches, food (obviously) and wine – yes wine! Therefore, the early morning alarm whilst in San Francisco to join a wine tasting tour with Green Dream Tours in Sonoma and Napa Valley was absolutely fine with me. Our pick up was scheduled for 8.15am and we were waiting eagerly by 8.00am. The bus pulled round the corner to the front of our hotel with the driver/tour guide Dylan hanging out of the window shouting ‘yo Vicky, yo Chris – let’s have a great day!’ We knew from that second that we were in for an amazing experience.
I must admit, we are not wine aficionados and on this tour we didn’t need to be as everything was explained along the way and surely that’s the point of wine tasting – to find out what you do and what you don’t like. Having been on wine tours all over the world from Australia to France, you’d think by now we’d know, but the wine we like from one country can and normally does taste completely different in another. We were looking forward to trying Californian wines in California as we never really buy them at home. We were hoping to learn about the process of making the wine and the wines themselves but in a laid back and unpretentious way and we had high hopes for our tour.
As we made our way through San Francisco picking people up as we went, Dylan gave us the low down on the places we were passing through. As we took our tour on a Sunday, the roads were quite quiet. However, I imagine if we had done it mid-week, pick ups would have taken a lot longer as the rush hour traffic in San Francisco is beyond crazy. One great thing about Green Dream Tours is fact that they use small buses, making the tour more intimate. Once the 14 seater bus was full we headed to our first stop, the North Vista Point overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.
I personally, was so pleased that we made this first stop as it was a beautifully bright and clear day, meaning we could actually see the Golden Gate Bridge, not like the day before when we had headed to the vista point on our way to Sausalito. Even at 9.30am the area was already very busy, however Mr ESLT waited patiently to get our chance to snap the bridge in all its glory whilst other members of the group took a bathroom break. Once back on the bus Dylan ran through the itinerary for the day and also had us all introduce ourselves, stating who we were, where we were from and why we were on the wine tasting tour. On our bus there were people from Finland, New Zealand, Ireland, Russia, different US states and of course us, from good ole Blighty. A great icebreaker, however everyone was very reserved as we drove in almost silence to our first winery in the Sonoma Valley, with Dylan pointing out things of note along the way.
Larson Family Winery
As we pulled up at the first winery, the Larson Family Winery, we were greeted by a beautiful golden labrador, one of the three that live on the property. Dylan gave us a big of back story about the winery and what we would do whilst there as he lead us through the main building and out the back past the covered patio, where our wine tasting was to take place and to the vineyards, which stretched as far as the eye could see. Dylan explained further about the grapes and the perfect time to harvest them. He then gave us time to take a few snaps before leaving us on the patio to sample some of the wines made and sold on site.
The land has been owned by the Larson family for generations, originally a ranch, before becoming the site of the Sonoma Rodeo and finally as the winery is it now. We learnt about the history of the land, about the winemaking process and the back story of each of the five wines we tried. The motto of the winery is ‘Drink what we can, and sell the rest’ and we for one bought a bottle from the on site shop to enjoy at some later point during our California road trip. This winery seemed very chilled out and relaxed and was a great one to start our tastings at. We had plenty of time to wander around the property, use the loo and buy what we wanted, before we all jumped back on the bus and hit the road again and headed to our next stop.
By this point people were loosening up and chatting to each other, that’s wine for you! Little groups were forming on the bus and we found out that there were people celebrating birthdays and couples celebrating anniversaries on the bus – what a great way to spend your special day! Dylan did affectionately(?) call people where they were from, therefore we were of course ‘England’ and he explained that he loved music and proceeded to play us all a song based on where we were from. The couple from New Zealand got Lorde, the couple from Ireland got U2, we got Coldplay and the couple from Florida, of course got the Backstreet Boys!
The next winery on our travels was the Nicholson Ranch Winery, which felt a lot more commercialised than the previous one, which wasn’t an issue, it is a business after all. We were shown through the main building and out to the patio at the back were our first wine to be tasted was being poured, a 2011 Chardonnay. As a white wine drinker, this was the perfect start for me. As we drank, the process of making the wine was explained together with information about the grapes and the history of the region, before our second Chardonnay was poured and we were led to and through the vineyard. The June midday sun was beating down on us, therefore we didn’t last long and headed back to the shaded patio to try a couple of reds. Mr ESLT was in his element, as he is an avid red wine drinker.
With our last glass of wine in our hands, a 2010 Pinot, which was heavenly, we headed out to explore on our own, away from the group (no offence guys!). We headed back into the vineyard to take a closer look and also just to admire the beauty of it and the area in general. The property also had a massive veranda area, where we sat for a while and tried to take in the enormity of the property and land around it. With the rolling hills making the perfect backdrop, I could have stayed here for hours, however with our stomachs rumbling we headed back to the air-conditioned bus and on to our lunch stop.
By this point the fact that people had been morning drinking was evident and the conversation flowed freely and loudly. Luckily, Green Dream Tours offer bottle water on their buses, which I think we all needed, maybe some more than others! As we crossed over from Sonoma to Napa, Dylan explained where would be having lunch and what the plan was for the afternoon.
On a lot of organised tours lunch is included, you don’t get a choice and it’s usually rubbish. Not on this tour, on this tour we were dropped at Oxbow Public Market in Napa which offered a wide range of different food options. We chose burgers from Grott’s Roadside as we needed something stodgy to soak up the booze, they were amazing and we highly recommend them. With so many other options including everything from light bites to oysters, it really was a great place to stop as everyone could choose what they wanted and something within their budget. With our stomachs full, we were ready to hit the last winery of the day.
Jamieson Ranch Vineyards
Last but certainly not least was the Jamieson Ranch Vineyard, which was set in acres of beautiful vineyards. We were led up the stairs and to the large open bar area were we were welcomed to our wine tasting. Our guide explained what we were tasting and how it had been produced. We tried a couple of great whites which were right up my alley and one red that Mr ESLT could have drunk all day long given the chance.
We were then led down to the storage and production rooms and we were given a detailed tour, we were shown everything from the metal barrels that the grapes are stored in all the way through to the ‘crusher’ and the final product, all the while sipping a glass of red as we went. Following our tasting we were given time to buy wine to take with us, if we wanted and also to chill out and marvel at the fantastic surroundings. Upon leaving, we also met one of the extremely cute JRV mini horses that live on the ranch – Sweet Jane. I must admit I’m not much of a horse person but that little beauty really made my day!
So back on the bus, we thought our wine tasting was over, that was until Dylan presented us with the bus wine (yeah!!!). To celebrate the birthdays and anniversaries I mentioned earlier, a couple of bottles of red and some plastic cups appeared. We drank and chatted and laughed all the way back to San Francisco which made the time fly by, even when we were stuck in Sunday early evening traffic heading back into the city. Dylan answered all the questions anyone had but it was evident that the wine had taken hold and we were all more than happy entertaining ourselves at the back of the bus.
All in all, we had a brilliant day and one that I would recommend to everyone. The intimacy of the tour meant that we got to speak to everyone on the bus and left feeling like we had made new friends as well as tasting a number of fabulous wines. I cannot fault the laid back vibe and that was really down to Dylan, he is a big character, however also has a lot of knowledge about wine and knew exactly when to talk, crack jokes etc and when not to. We were dropped back off at our hotel around 5.30pm.
A few extras…
If you like a wine, or even if you don’t but you want more, simply ask if you can ‘revisit’ it and you will be given another taste of it. I think some people on our tour revisited all the wines we tried, around 12, if the slurred speech and volume was anything to go by.
If you buy a bottle or two don’t forget to ask for your name to be written on the bag. All the bottles people bought went in the back of the bus and ask people were getting off at the end it made it so much easier just being able to grabs the bags with your name on.
Don’t forget Green Dream tours offer a number of different tours and if they are even half as good as this one, then you are in for a treat!
- We took the tour on a complimentary basis in exchange for honest review