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Northern California Wine Country Is Open, but Travelers Should Take Precautions

By Sara Button

Jul 10, 2020

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Like many other businesses in Sonoma County, La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard reopened recently with a new outdoor experience for visitors.

Photo by Crystal Lynn Collins/Courtesy of La Crema

Like many other businesses in Sonoma County, La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard reopened recently with a new outdoor experience for visitors.

Not long after Napa Valley and Sonoma County reopened to visitors in June, both counties had to scale back some of their reopening measures due to an increase in coronavirus cases. Travelers to the region should be aware of the health and safety protocols that are in place.

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On June 5, Napa Valley became California’s first region to welcome back travelers. On June 19, neighbor Sonoma County followed suit. In 2019, travel-related spending in both Sonoma and Napa Counties totaled more than $4 billion, according to an economic report from Visit California. Given the importance of the hospitality industry—and the fact that the sunny summer days are perfect for sipping wine, enjoying an outdoor meal, and hiking among redwoods or kayaking along the Napa River—plenty of folks were excited about the prospect of returning to the region. 

However, on July 7, Napa County joined the statewide list of California counties being monitored for increasing cases of coronavirus, as did Sonoma County on July 12. For the three weeks following each of those dates, all bars and pubs are closed in the relevant counties, and the following activities are off limits, per guidance:

  • Indoor restaurants
  • Indoor wineries and tasting rooms
  • Indoor family entertainment centers
  • Indoor movie theaters
  • Indoor zoos and museums
  • Indoor cardrooms 

For the most up-to-date information for your trip, always check Napa or Sonoma County official websites. 

Here are some other things to keep in mind if you’re traveling to Northern California wine country this summer and beyond.

What’s the deal with winetasting?

First things first: Yes, many wineries are open. (Note that currently only outdoor experiences at wineries and tasting rooms are available to patrons.) 

Otherwise, there are extensive cleaning protocols and staff precautions in place per guidance by local health authorities, and wineries require appointments to allow for more physical space between guests. Some wineries, like Quintessa, have returned to offering private tastings on the estate, while also continuing their virtual tastings online for those who aren’t able to come in person. (In fact, if you can’t make it to your favorite winery no matter where it is, you should still check its website; many wineries have been offering virtual tastings that are just as educational and delicious as an in-person one.)

Luckily, Northern California’s wide open spaces mean a number of wineries already have lovely outdoor settings where it’s easier to follow social-distancing guidelines and still enjoy the views and wine. Ceja Vineyards recently began welcoming guests back to its Sonoma tasting room (but if you can’t make it there and you’re looking for some good recipes to pair with a Ceja bottle, tune in to Amelia and Dalia Ceja’s Taco Tuesday, Vino y Más livestream.)

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In St. Helena, Louis M. Martini allows guests to sip outdoors in the recently renovated Martini Park; at Charles Krug, also in St. Helena, a new private cabana tasting experience has been added to the available experiences.

“Guests are so happy to be out of the house they appreciate the great lengths we are going to make sure their visit is safe,” says Jim Morris, vice president of estate management and guest relations at Charles Krug, of its recent reopening. “We have not had any issues accommodating all guests who would like to participate in an expert-led tasting.” 

“The response we’ve received so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Our guests are enjoying being outside and tasting some of their favorite wines in a setting that is both familiar and a little new,” says Lindsey Auchter, director of consumer experience for Louis M. Martini.

Guests can reserve a private cabana area for their tasting at Charles Krug, established in 1861.

The brand-new Bricoleur Vineyards, located on 40 acres in Windsor, Sonoma County, was originally slated to open publicly in May. With its multiple gardens, a barn, and a pavilion, the team was able to pivot its opening, and guests can choose from a number of scenic locations on the property for a tasting.

And for wineries whose tasting rooms haven’t fully reopened, like Brown Estate’s, visitors can still call ahead and partake in curbside pickup to grab a bottle. 

Are restaurants open in Napa and Sonoma Counties?

While many outdoor dining options are available, a number of restaurants are still focusing on takeout; the three-Michelin-starred restaurant at SingleThread is running a takeaway menu service from Mondays through Wednesdays.

Expect masks, limited seating capacity, and increased cleaning procedures at restaurants, too (buffets and communal finger foods are also off the menu). Some spots encourage reservations, while others are first-come, first-served. At the rooftop bar at Sky & Vine in the city of Napa, which opened on June 19, diners can spread out and still enjoy the bar’s famous lobster corn dogs, drinks, and specials—including live music on Thursdays at 5 p.m. 

A rose garden at the new Bricoleur Vineyards in Sonoma County, where guests can enjoy wine and food pairings onsite.

Are hotels open in Napa and Sonoma Counties?

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For out-of-towners or those simply wanting a staycation, lots of hotels are accepting reservations for leisure travelers. Already meticulous cleaning practices have been further strengthened to ensure guests’ comfort and safety. At the Francis House, an upscale bed-and-breakfast in Calistoga, owner Dina Dwyer began welcoming travelers the weekend of June 12—most are from nearby, but some are coming from as far away as Seattle and Las Vegas, Dwyer says. She was already using Tersano Stabilized Aqueous Ozone, a highly effective, sustainable cleaner, before reopening. But now, cleaning staff adds it to laundry, and additional measures are in place, such as prohibiting access to the sauna, changing shoe covers between cleaning guest rooms, and closing the communal tea and coffee station to limit contact (guests can still order beverages between 7:30 a.m. and 6 p.m.). 

Travelers should keep their eyes peeled for new contactless experiences at hotels, too. Carneros Resort and Spa recently installed new in-room Plum wine dispensers. At any time of day, guests can enjoy a local wine, preserved and served in their room, and tune into the hotel’s TV channel for an in-room guided tasting led by local winemakers.

For nature lovers, camping at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park reopened on June 17, and campgrounds at Sonoma County Regional Parks reopened on July 1. 

Visit Napa Valley has a very helpful self-reported list of business openings and more on what to expect there, but you should always check your destination’s website or call ahead to confirm its status.

A few more tips for your next wine country trip

Businesses and local leaders have gotten creative to find solutions to the current health crisis. It’s important for travelers to do their part to keep infections low, too. Napa Valley and Sonoma County websites have great guidelines on the health and safety protocols in their counties, including Sonoma’s Safe Travels Promise, but some of these tips are worth repeating to ensure the best and safest trip possible not only for you but also for the hospitality workers and residents you’ll meet.

Wear a mask

On June 18, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an updated order for face coverings statewide, which requests people to wear face coverings if they are in high-risk scenarios such as being inside public spaces or outdoors when maintaining six feet of social distancing is not possible. But beyond that, travelers should heed locally posted signs in hotels or restaurants regarding the institution’s health policies.

Plan ahead

Remember, reservations in wine country—especially for winetasting—are critical for most activities. Be sure to check the website, social media accounts, or call businesses you are hoping to patronize.

Read your email

Businesses are communicating new procedures via email much more frequently, especially hotels, so guests can arrive fully informed and prepared. Take the time to read these messages carefully, and call the business if you have questions.

This story was originally published on June 24, 2020; it was updated on July 13, 2020, with current information.

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