Yes, it can be done.
I know that there are loads of readers saying, “Just go to Sonoma.” Yes, there are tons of laid-back wineries in Sonoma Valley (and elsewhere in northern California) where the employees couldn’t give a hoot if you’re accompanied by your tea cup puppy or your two-year-old in full Bob the Builder gear. But don’t rule out the (step) sister valley to the east so easily (trust me, I taste with an eleven-month-old and a two-year-old in tow).
Here are four suggestions for Napa Valley wineries where you can enjoy your wine without any whining:
Your kids will race you to the tasting room of this winery though they may not actually want to go inside! To reach Sterling’s tasting room, you have the very fun option of riding a gondola 300 feet up to the hilltop winery. Tram tickets are included in the tasting fee. Once you successfully extract them from the aerial tram, the whole family can enjoy the self-guided tour at their own pace. Brush up on the basics of winemaking, taste a few of Sterling’s wines along the way and enjoy the panoramic vistas.
Sterling Vineyards: 1111 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga, California 94515; 1 800 726-6136
Castello di Amorosa
Just across the street from Sterling sits Castello di Amorosa, an authentically-styled Tuscan castle and winery. The castle, completed in 2007, was painstakingly designed to mirror what would have been built on the Italian countryside one thousand years ago. The tour and tasting lasts about two hours, taking you to the depths of 900+ linear feet of wine caves, past the torture chamber and through the Grand Barrel Room. All tours include both barrel and glass wine tastings for those over 21. Juice is served to those ages 5 to 20 (children under 5 are not permitted on the tours).
Castello di Amorosa: 4045 North St. Helena Highway, Calistoga, California 94515; (707) 967-6272; open 9:30 AM to 5 PM. November through February.
Inglenook (formerly Rubicon)
The Niebaum Estate was founded in 1880 and, after switching hands several times, was purchased by Hollywood filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola in 1995. Visitors can taste without appointment or select from one of eight packages (requiring reservations) that pair tasting with a tour of the chateau or a food pairing.
If you have little ones, there are other options too. The Bistro offers a more informal tasting experience reminiscent of a European café with indoor and outdoor seating. During the summer months, wooden sailboats are available for kids to sail in the grand courtyard fountains. Reservations at The Bistro are only required for parties of nine or more.
Inglenook: 1991 St. Helena Highway, Rutherford, California 94573; 1 800 782-4266. Open daily from 10 AM to 5 PM.
Francis Ford Coppola Winery
If you find yourself at the northern tip of Napa Valley, you may want to keep heading north on highway 128 to visit the filmmaker’s Alexander Valley winery. This isn’t in Napa, I know. But, the Francis Ford Coppola Winery was designed for just for families and could be a great addition to a Napa itinerary. There are four bocce courts, a series of game tables (backgammon, chess, and checkers), a museum of movie memorabilia and two swimming pools totaling 3,600 square feet.
Sympathizing with the children who always wanted to swim in the fountains at Inglenook (nope, not an option), Coppola created a place for our two-legged fish to play. The two pools are connected by a swim-through corridor with small, arcing water jets. When you get a chance to take a break from swimming, you can relax on a poolside lounge chair (there are tons of umbrellas to give you and your little ones a respite from the sun). And you don’t have to worry about keeping watch over your valuables. Right next to the pool are twenty-eight European-style personal changing rooms called cabines (pronounced “kah-beens”). Each cabine has a private shower, a changing area and space to store personal items. Cabine reservations include access to the pool for four guests, use of four lounge chairs, pool towels and two passes for wine tasting (just remember to change out of your swimwear before heading inside).
Francis Ford Coppola Winery: 300 Via Archimedes, Geyserville, California 95441; (707) 857-1400. Wine tasting is open daily from 11 AM to 6 PM, while the Pools and the Park hours vary throughout the year.
There are dozens of beautiful and interesting places scattered throughout Napa Valley’s spectacular scenery. So if you find yourself in a slightly stuffy (and not so kid-friendly) situation then take a break before the next tasting stop. My family particularly enjoys the Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park (working 36-foot water wheel), the Old Faithful Geyser (one of three geysers in the world named “old faithful” because it performs at regular intervals) and—a personal favorite—the Calistoga hot springs (with pools appropriate for every age).