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How to Take a Food- and Wine-Centric Road Trip Along California’s Highway 128

By Jessie Beck

May 26, 2021

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Navarro Vineyards is just one of many places to taste wine along Highway 128.

Courtesy of Navarro Vineyards

Navarro Vineyards is just one of many places to taste wine along Highway 128.

Featuring a diverse range of landscapes, foods, and attractions, a road trip along this lesser-traveled route highlights the best of Northern California’s food and nature.

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Highway 128 may not be most travelers’ first choice for a road trip in the Golden State. However, this lesser-known, scenic drive is the best option for road-trippers who want to experience all of Northern California’s top attractions—world-class wine, farm-to-table food, majestic redwoods, dramatic coastlines—in a short time. 

Like a Northern California “sampler,” Highway 128 begins just east of Sacramento among its dry, rolling hills and canyons. From there, it meanders past Napa and Sonoma Valley vineyards, through charming, small towns like St. Helena, Calistoga, and Boonville, and Mendocino redwood groves, before finally tapering off at a foggy and windswept coast overlooking the Pacific. As the scenery shifts, so too does the food and drink (though, rest assured, a glass of local chardonnay or pinot noir is always nearby); you’ll pass by everything from apple orchards and goat farms to Michelin-star restaurants and world-famous wineries.

This road trip covers just 140 miles, easily driven over a long weekend. But with food and wine at the center of this trip, you’ll want at least three leisurely days to stop and taste everything along the way. Use this four-day Highway 128 itinerary to plan your food- and wine-fueled road trip through some of Northern California’s best.

Berryessa Gap Vineyards shares its outdoor space with Berryessa Brewing Co. just a few miles outside of Winters.

Thursday: Start in Winters

Begin in Winters, 30 minutes east of Sacramento and one to two hours north of San Francisco; you can easily arrive late in the day with plenty of time to explore this picturesque small town. Once the location of the Putato Indian village, it eventually became a bustling agricultural center in the 1800s—which it remains today. As you enter town,  keep an eye out for farm stands like Winters Fruit Tree to stock up on locally grown specialities for road trip snacks, like walnuts and almonds.

What not to miss

Spend your evening exploring Winters’ craft beer scene (don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time for wine later). Two miles outside of town, Berryessa Brewing Co., a craft brewery with a large, family-friendly outdoor patio (shared with Berryessa Gap Winery) is a lively spot to grab a pint in the evenings. After a round there, park your car back in town and walk to Green River Brewery and Taproom, where you can sip a wide variety of California beers in its creekside garden, before rounding out the night at Hooby’s Brewery just off the main square in Winters. 

If you haven’t already filled up on brewery snacks, wander across the square to Preserve Public House for well-made, homey classics like fried chicken, burgers, and shrimp and grits, featuring ingredients from nearby farms and ranches.

Where to say in Winters

Book now: Hotel Winters; from $169 per night, expedia.com

Updated in 2019, the centrally located Hotel Winters is your best option for a place to stay. Although the facade plays homage to the town’s centuries-old architecture, you’ll find a contemporarily designed rooftop lounge and courtyard pool, as well as comfortable rooms.

Lake Berryessa is one of the first natural beauties you will pass along Highway 128.

Friday: Winters to Calistoga

Start with breakfast at Putah Creek Cafe, which serves hearty breakfast classics like country fried steak, omelettes, waffles, and enormous pancakes. For something a little different, order the chilaquiles or tacos at El Pueblo, a Mexican restaurant that doubles as a meat market. Before leaving town, make sure you’re well stocked on snacks, water, and a couple of local beers—just in case.

Detour worth taking

After you leave Winters and head west on Highway 128, you’ll first pass Putah Creek, a popular area for fly-fishing, as well as two lakes, Lake Berryessa and Lake Hennessey. While many locals head to Berryessa for a day on the boat, take the 20-minute detour to Oak Shores Day Use Area instead for a relaxed day swimming, lounging, and sitting by the lake—a welcome reprieve on hot summer days.

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For a more active adventure, continue on another 10 miles to Lake Hennessey, around which are miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, as well as spectacular wildflower blooms in the spring.

What not to miss

Between Berryessa and Hennesey sits Nichelini Family Winery, the oldest continuously operated family winery in Napa. Founded in 1884 by Italian Swiss homesteaders, Anton and Caterina Nichelini, it’s now run by its seventh family winemaker, Aimée Sunseri, who continues to produce drinkable red blends, award-winning petite sirah, and refreshing sparkling wines. Yes, its small-batch wines are delicious, but the rustic charm, shady, creekside patio, and picnic area all make this a worthy spot to spend an hour (or three). Reservations are recommended, but walk-ins are welcome.

Afterwards, continue tasting wine at any number of Napa wineries, such as down-to-earth Spire or cult-favorite Quintessa, or refuel with a snack at the Model Bakery in St. Helena.

Where to eat dinner

End your day in Calistoga, where you’ll find no shortage of amazing food: Sam’s Social Club for craft cocktails and farm-fresh fare on its outdoor patio; Michelin-starred SolBar for a seasonally changing menu of California-inspired dishes; or Buster’s Barbecue for a low-key, BYOB dinner of tri-tip and ribs.

Where to stay in Calistoga

Book now: Solage, from $1,400 per night, expedia.com; Calistoga Motor Lodge, from $200 per night, expedia.com

For a five-star experience, book one of the luxurious, stand-alone suites at Solage in downtown Calistoga. As a midrange, boutique option, Calistoga Motor Lodge offers guests a quirky, roadside motel-inspired stay, featuring retro design details, as well as pools and a spa onsite.

Medlock Ames, sample olive oil and taste wine in their shady olive grove.

Saturday: Calistoga to Boonville

On your second full day, get ready for scenery changes as you leave the openness of Napa Valley and drive across Sonoma County, eventually ending at the edge of an ancient redwood forest. First fuel up with a firepit-side coffee and pastries at Sam’s General Store, or linger over brunch at French-Creole bistro, Evangeline (reservations recommended). Then pack up and get ready to go: You’ve got a full day ahead of you.

Detours worth taking

Just a few minutes after leaving Calistoga, you’ll officially enter Sonoma County—yet another distinct wine growing region. Oenophiles will want to make a detour to Stonestreet Winery, a peaceful estate with a tasting room at the end of a picturesque, tree-lined road. With 5,500 acres across a variety of Alexander Valley microclimates and altitudes, Stonestreet’s wine tastings artfully showcase the subtle differences that a few miles or hundred feet of elevation can make on a grape’s flavors. 

Next, make a pitstop at Medlock Ames where you could either book yet another tasting in the shade of its olive groves or simply pick up a bottle of its olive oil as a souvenir. For lunch, order a pie at Diavola Pizzeria in the old-western-esque town of Geyserville.

What not to miss

Your final destination of the day is Boonville, a quirky town in Anderson Valley surrounded by farms and ranches that was once so isolated, locals had their own elaborate jargon, known as Boontling. Although few speak it now, you’ll find traces of it around town. Once in Boonville, stretch your legs at Anderson Valley Brewing Company with a pint and a round of disc golf (yes, disc golf) on its expansive court (Frisbees available for rent or purchase). 

Five minutes west is the Madrones, a small compound featuring a hotel, shop, spa, restaurant, and several tasting rooms. Once here, choose your own adventure: taste Anderson Valley wines at Smith Story or Long Meadow Ranch; get a CBD facial at the Bohemian Chemist; or explore curiosity shop Sun & Cricket.

Where to eat dinner

If you’re in the mood for a happy hour, order tapas-style snacks, like piquillos stuffed with goat cheese, at Disco Ranch, a wine bar and shop in downtown Boonville.

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But the star of the dinner show is at Boonville Hotel, which serves four-course, prix-fixe dinners in its garden courtyard. Featuring locally sourced ingredients and a daily changing menu, this low-key and welcoming restaurant is the ideal spot for well-made food, without the fuss.

Where to stay in Boonville

Book now: from $175 per night, boonvillehotel.com

In addition to its restaurant, Boonville Hotel also has 15 rooms—both stand-alone cabins and private rooms in the main lodge—throughout the property. A stay at any of the cozy, uniquely designed rooms comes with a full breakfast, which you can enjoy in the gardens.

End your road trip in style with dinner and a stay at Harbor House Inn, whose Michelin-starred restaurant showcases the flavors of the Mendocino Coast.

Sunday: Boonville to the coast

Linger awhile with your morning coffee before you drive the last stretch of Highway 128. Today, you’ll leave the sunny apple orchards, ranches, and vineyards in Anderson Valley for the Mendocino coast. This part has the most dramatic scenery changes—as well as temperature drops—so keep a camera and jacket handy.

What not to miss

Before leaving Boonville, plan for an early lunch at Pennyroyal Farm, a goat farm, vineyard, and creamery that offers farm tours, as well as wine and cheese tastings on its airy back patio. Although farm tours have been temporarily suspended due to COVID, a staff member told us “we’ll run them again once we’re staffed” on our last visit.

Detour worth taking

West of Boonville is Hendy Woods State Park, where you’ll have at last reached California’s famed redwoods. Stop here to get out and wander among the giants on the 0.6-mile, wheelchair-accessible Discovery Trail, or Big Hendy’s 1.6-mile Upper Loop Trail, which starts on the Discovery Trail before winding through old-growth trees just beyond.

On your way out, swing by the farmstand at Philo Apple Farm, one of many apple farms in this region. Here, you can pick up jams, jellies, and—of course—apples from its orchards. Less than a mile further, make a stop at Navarro Vineyards and Winery, named after the river that runs parallel to the 128 for the rest of your drive. Here, you’ll find a slightly sweeter winetasting, as Navarro is best known for its gewürztraminers and rieslings, as well as pinot noirs, a common varietal in the Anderson Valley. 

Where to stay and eat dinner in Elk

Book now: from $349 per night; expedia.com

The last part of Highway 128 is perhaps the most magical, passing through an 11-mile redwood tree tunnel that ends where the Navarro River meets the Pacific Ocean. End your road trip decadently with dinner and a stay at Harbor House Inn in Elk. Overlooking a private, pebble beach cove, the nature-filled property features six rooms and five stand-alone cottages that mix rustic charm with luxury. 

However, it’s the food most visitors come here for. Headed by chef Matthew Kammerer (formerly executive sous chef at Saison in San Francisco), this Michelin-starred restaurant serves a tasting menu that highlights the hyperlocal flavors of the coastal terrain, made entirely from ingredients sourced within 50 miles. “As much as possible, we make everything in-house,” says Kammerer, “like our own sea salt from water that we collect from our private cove, and we dry the kelp we harvest gently under the sun so it retains as much of its flavor nuances.” The result? Dishes like California oysters with Douglas fir served on frozen pebbles from the beach below; abalone wrapped in kelp; and ice cream made with wakame, a type of seaweed.

Extend the trip

Highway 128 intersects the Pacific Coast Highway, so there are plenty of options for extending your road trip. Head south to pass through Jenner, Tomales Bay, and Point Reyes for oysters, kayaking, or hikes among the elks, before arriving in San Francisco. Or go north to the town of Mendocino, a beloved weekend getaway destination among Northern Californians, before circling back to Highway 101 and heading home.

>> Next: Local Getaways: Escape to the Mendocino Coast

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