It’s been a quiet summer for my family when it comes to travel. My girls’ schedules have dictated more stay-cation type summer adventures, but I live in the Northern California Wine Country, so I have no reason to complain.
The Napa and Sonoma Valleys has a reputation for being adult-only destinations. ‘Leave the kids with the grandparents and go’ type places. Once upon a time that may have been true.
Reputations are Hard to Shake
The Francis Ford Coppola Winery got many families attention (and plenty of press) this summer, when it added inviting options like a pool and bocce ball courts to its winery tasting menu. It’s a long overdue option, but it’s not the only winery extending the welcome mat to families.
Wine Country Trail Rides
Wine Country Trail Rides is located about an hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge at world-class Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards & Winery. When you arrive at the winery you’ll head straight to the tasting room for some Sauvignon Blanc before being lead to the Estate Stables.
“One of the favorite parts of my job, I get a real kick out of watching people have fun,” says Rafael Hernandez, owner of Wine Country Trail Rides.
Hernandez loves what he does and it shows. Carrying a box under his arm when my daughter and I met him, he was quick to explain his new polo helmet had just arrived. And like a kid at Christmas he couldn’t wait to open it.
“Let’s check it out,” he said as he cut though shipping tape and proceeded to model it.
The flashy red helmet got my teen’s stamp of approval. He also showed her some of his polo mallets, explaining how they vary depending on players’ likes and abilities. Hernandez discovered his love for horses and polo as a teenager when he worked at the Santa Barbara Polo Club cleaning the stables.
Helmets On, Ready to Go
Adults can choose, but all children are required to wear helmets. Once everyone’s helmets are fitted and secure it’s time to meet the horse that will be your best friend for the next 90 minutes. Hernandez has more than a dozen horses and matches riders to just the right horse.
My daughter was paired with mellow, dependable and sweet as can be 32-year-old JT. He’s easing into retirement and only goes into the vineyards a couple times a week, but as a parent, I couldn’t have asked for a better horse choice for my daughter. At 4-years-old, my horse Tiger didn’t have nearly as much experience as JT, but knew exactly what to do.
The Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards & Winery is a 1400 plus acre estate. It doesn’t matter which direction you look, a view is waiting. Don’t be surprised if your family learns a little bit about Sonoma County geography during your ride, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Hernandez makes a point to have his guides and himself spend time with Chalk Hill’s vineyard manager Mark Lingenfelder and winemaker Lisa Bishop Forbes. Trail guides know their horses and the grapes they ride through. If you’re really curious, you can ask at the hospitality center to see a map of the Estate and the 60 different small vineyards.
In addition to vineyards, the Chalk Hill Estate has many other features to watch out for during your trail ride. The winery and hospitality center are poised amidst meadows and native oaks along with guest houses, a chapel, ponds and lakes, sporting fields and wilderness preserves. The winery was founded in 1972 and though young, has a history all its own.
You don’t have to be an experienced rider to love this horseback tour. There’s nothing fancy like trotting and cantering, just simple walking. Vacation riders young and old should find this ride easy and relaxing.
“Finally there was something to do for the children and adults as well. When I pioneered the concept (of vineyard trail riding) that was definitely something that was at the forefront of my thoughts,” and Hernandez says touring the vineyards on horseback has made for happy kids and parents since he started in 1998.
Parents will also be happy to know Wine Country Trail Rides has a perfect safety record. My daughter’s horse, JT liked being out in front, and it never concerned me. I figured he enjoys the views too.
Children must be 7 or older and accompanied by an adult. The maximum weight limit is 260 pounds. Shoes must have a closed toe and a heel is preferred, but it’s not unheard of for kids and adults to ride in a pair of sneakers.
If you are a serious rider Wine Country Trail Rides also offers sport horses and Hernandez will customize an adventure suited to your ability.
Don’t Rush to Leave
Included in the price of your trail ride is a tasting at the Chalk Hill hospitality center. Kids are welcome, so don’t feel awkward about bringing the family. Just like at the stables, pourers are known to have organic fruit juices on hand and kids are invited to make themselves at home.
The tasting room is flanked by a large, sunny deck that gives kids a good spot to hang out. Depending of the time of day of your ride, consider packing a picnic or at least some good snacks.
If your itinerary and kids will go for it, consider adding the culinary tour to your ride. After exploring on horseback, you get to explore Chalk Hill’s 1-acre organic culinary garden.
After being inspired to start planting the second you get home, you’ll head to the Pavilion, an almost all glass conservatory that sits at the end of one of the largest equestrian arenas in North America, and enjoy a selection of Chalk Hill’s award winning wines paired with several small plates from the kitchen of Chalk Hill’s executive chef Didier Ageorges. My advice, don’t eat lunch before you go.
The Sport of Kings
With 25 years of experience in the professional polo world, Hernandez personally trains world-class ponies to use when he hits the field and for private polo lessons. You couldn’t ask for a better place to learn. The state of the art, enclosed arena attracts some of the best players from around the world. And polo games that are open to the public may be in the cards at Chalk Hill.
Sounds like another great way for a family to spend an afternoon in wine country and a great excuse to pick up a favorite bottle of red wine.
Ciao Bambino Reader Perk: Families that mention that they read about Wine Country Trail Rides on Ciao Bambino will receive a 10% discount!
Editorial Note: Dana and her daughter had a complimentary ride from Wine Country Trail Rides. She was not asked to present any particular point of view in her coverage of the experience. Photo credit Dana Rebmann.
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