There was a time when visiting Northern California’s wine country meant leaving your kids at home. It was a long time ago, but the bad reputation has been hard to kick. While wine country is certainly famous for wine, it’s important not to forget that many of those award-winning winemakers are also parents themselves. The key to success: picking and choosing the right wineries to visit with kids.
Northern California wine country enjoys mild weather year-round, so kids can spend time outside even in winter, exploring vineyards, playing backyard lawn games or simply running around in the grass — all of which have become standard amenities at many wineries. Between Napa Valley and Sonoma County, there are plenty to choose from, and your first trip to wine country won’t be your last.
Some of Francis Ford Coppola’s biggest fans couldn’t care less about wine. When the Hollywood icon created his winery, he included not one but two pools, complete with lifeguards. Surrounded by colorful lounge chairs, bocce ball courts and a book-filled tepee, it’s wine country’s version of family bliss. Francis Ford Coppola Winery‘s poolside service includes pizza, salads and sandwiches along with wine, cocktails and fruit smoothies.
The onsite movie gallery features memorabilia from Coppola’s filmmaking career. Although kids will have no idea why Don Corleone’s desk from The Godfather is impressive, the original bright red Tucker, spinning on a showroom turntable, has ageless appeal and can lead to an interesting history lesson.
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As you bump your way down Millerick Road, the homemade signs tacked to trees reassure you that you’re headed in the right direction. Families rarely make it into the Larson Family Winery barn-turned-tasting room without first spending some time visiting with the resident goats. Wine lovers are encouraged to bring their family (dogs included), spread out a picnic, and play bocce or whatever game is attracting a crowd on the grass. Families can make advance picnic table and wine tasting reservations.
Vineyards are just one of many things growing at Quivira in Healdsburg. Besides the organic and Biodynamic® winery, this estate is also home to a 1-acre garden with more than 100 raised vegetable beds, dozens of chickens and beehives. Families can explore on their own or make a reservation for one of the daily tours. Either way, don’t dress up: The fun while exploring can kick up dust. Take advantage of the picnic tables and bring goodies to enjoy with your wine.
Every year more than 4,000 grade-school students visit the California Missions Museum at Cline Cellars Winery. The display of all 21 California missions was originally built in 1939 for the California Pacific Exhibition. In addition, there are also two stained-glass panels on display from Mission Dolores, predating the 1906 earthquake. The winery offers a courtyard garden and picnic areas, or families can reserve a picnic table on the Cline Cellars Estate in order to pair their meal with a bottle of Cline wine.
Bubbles, Pinot Noir, sunshine and cornhole await at Inman Family Wines. Families can get comfy on the patio, just steps from the vineyard and a grassy space reserved for friendly games of cornhole. Kathleen Inman (mother of two) is a bit of a one-woman show — grape grower, winemaker and tasting room pourer — so there’s a good chance you’ll meet her during your visit. Tastings are by appointment only and are available Thursday through Monday.
Founded in 1857, Buena Vista is California’s first premium winery and a designated historic landmark, just a few minutes from Sonoma Plaza. On most days, a local historian and actor in full costume assumes the role of the winery’s founder, Count Buena Vista, and brings the story of the winery to life. The best way for families to meet the count (or any of his assorted, equally entertaining family members and friends) is to reserve the Historic Wine Tool Museum Tour and Tasting. Guests can request one of the characters to lead the tour. Along with tasting wine, the tour includes a 20-minute light and sound show at the Wine Tool Museum.
Home of the new Sunset Magazine Test Garden, Cornerstone Sonoma offers a little bit of everything for families in a single wine-country location. Wander the gardens, eat, shop and sip. Cornerstone is home to three wine tasting rooms: Keating Wines, Meadowcroft Wines and Poseidon Vineyard & Obsidian Ridge. Local distillery Prohibition Spirits also is getting ready to open its doors — think whiskey, rum, limoncello and more.
Sonoma Plaza is the perfect spot for the entire family to stretch their legs, whether running in the grass or hitting the playground. It’s a little-known fact that from 11:30a until sunset, alcoholic beverages are permitted in the park, a popular picnic area. Numerous shops, restaurants and tasting rooms, including Three Sticks Winery, surround the plaza. Simply being able to see the winery’s home, the colorfully restored Vallejo-Castenada Adobe, is worth the effort to make the required tasting appointment in advance. Families can do tastings in the beautiful garden, complete with water features and murals.
Sonoma County has pools, and Napa Valley has castles. At Castello di Amorosa, take the kids on a tour of a 13th century-inspired Tuscan-style castle, complete with must-haves like a torture chamber, a drawbridge and secret passageways. Of the 107 rooms, though, 95 are devoted to winemaking. Tastings take place after the tour, which lasts about an hour (reservations are recommended). Kids get castle coloring pages to work on while they sip the winery’s custom-bottled grape juice. Chocolate is known to appear magically as well. Oh, and did I mention the animals? The castle is home to critters such as emus, goats, peacocks, chickens and sheep. Look for resident felines Lancelot and Guinevere during the castle tour.
With large stretches of grass and plenty of picnic tables, Frank Family Vineyards makes a welcoming first impression on families. Parents know they’ll be able to stay and sip awhile once winery dogs Bristol and/or Riley appear tableside with a tennis ball looking for a playmate. This is the third-oldest winery in Napa, and the tasting room is located in the original yellow Craftsman house on the property. Be sure to try both their still and sparkling wines. Reservations are preferred; groups of six or more require an appointment.
It doesn’t matter how old you are — the cool factor of exploring vineyards increases dramatically when you do it buckled into an ATV. Somerston Estate is located 10 miles east of the Silverado Trail, a bit off the beaten path but without doubt worth the drive. The 1,600-plus-acre property ranges in elevation from 800 feet to 2,400 feet, ensuring that ATV ride is a smile-filled adventure. Keep your eyes peeled for resident ambassador and swan Sigfried. Tastings at Somerston Estate are by appointment only; the winery has a picnic-perfect patio and is happy to arrange a catered boxed lunch for folks to enjoy with their tasting.
It’s all about the gondola for the under-21 set at Sterling Vineyards, but the scenic ride up should make the entire family smile. Once you’re up top, the tour is designed to be self-guided with wine in hand, so families can move as slowly or as fast as they want. What goes up must come down, but hold off telling the kids that they get to climb aboard the aerial tram again for the trip back to the parking lot. Otherwise they might want to hit the road sooner as opposed to later.
Frame the perfect family photo in front of the vineyard, then sneak in a little learning on the sly at Raymond’s demonstration Biodynamic® garden. Families can take a self-guided tour of the two-acre Theater of Nature and learn about sustainable and Biodynamic® farming with each step. Along with the entertaining peacocks and chickens, the resident goats are a social bunch, especially when they think food might be involved. As you walk you’ll also discover Frenchie Winery, Napa’s first dog winery. Yep, it’s a tasting room, albeit with water instead of wine. Folks can leave their dogs at Frenchie instead of in the car when they head inside Raymond to taste. While parents sip on current releases in the tasting room, kids can watch their pampered pooches on the “Frenchie Cam.”
See wine country by rail aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train. The train offers daily lunch and dinner rides in restored 20th-century Pullman rail cars. Families should check the train schedule once they know the dates they’ll be in town. Special family-friendly events are offered around many holidays, including Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
It’s easy to get spoiled at many of Northern California’s family-friendly hotel properties. All of the guest studios at Solage Calistoga come with complimentary cruiser bicycles that families can take to the 130-foot landmark swimming pool and beyond. Set on 250 acres, Meadowood Napa Valley is a wine-country resort that truly feels as though you’ve escaped to the country. Luxury accommodations in a forest-like setting come with amenities such as tennis, golf, croquet and hiking.
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Editor’s Note: Photos by Dana Rebmann.
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