Road Tripping to Napa & Sonoma Wine Country in the Time of Covid-19


The resurgence of the road trip has been a pleasant consolation in an otherwise somber travel year. Cautious explorers are embracing the isolation of the open road and I’m all for it (when done safely). I recently took this road Renaissance as a golden opportunity to visit California’s mecca of refined indulgence, Napa Valley, Sonoma County, and Sonoma Valley. 

Northern California wine country during cabernet season is a sight to behold. The season starts in mid-fall, after the harvest, and stretches to early spring. The savvy traveler who takes advantage, can expect milder temperatures, a bounty of rich colors, lighter crowds, mustard flowers galore and discounted stays. However, these days the cabernet season has been sharing the marquee with fire season. The recent Glass Fire turned out to be the most destructive in Napa Valley history with disastrous effects to the region and an economy dependent on tourism. According to National Geographic, one estimate claimed fire and smoke may prevent as much as 80 percent of Napa’s 2020 cabernet grapes from being made into wine. As a friendly wine steward at Downtown Napa’s Vintners Collective casually broached, smoke may sound like it would add an interesting flavor note to wine, but it ultimately tastes like licking an ashtray. This catastrophe and the tragic fire season of 2017, compounded with reduced traffic to the region from the pandemic, has led to this being a crucial time to support recovery efforts. That’s where we Kind Travelers come in, Napa and Sonoma are open and there’s plenty of safe fun still to be had while doing our part to sustain the tourism economy. 

My travel companion and I were up at first light and set out for the long drive from Los Angeles with full bottles of hand sanitizer and a six-hour playlist. Usually, I’d be remiss not to take CA Highway 1, considered to be one of the most beautiful drives in the world -- but we wanted to get to Napa as soon as possible, so the boring drive up “the five” it is. Our goals for this trip were simple, stay safe and respectful of the safety of others, be kind, and support local commerce by enjoying as much food and wine as possible. 

First stop, Napa. 

We enjoyed a rain-soaked welcome (better late than never) and settled in to our basecamp, the River Terrace Inn. When booked through Kind Traveler, a $10 donation to the Napa Land Truswill not only help preserve Napa’s land for future generations, but you’ll also receive an exclusive rate and perks -- not a bad swap. The charming inn on the Napa River offered a masterclass in urban hospitality. Our check-in was efficient and distanced, and within no time we were toasting the verdant, and rather soggy, mountains from our balcony. We were also toasting that River Terrace is “Clean + Safe Certified” by the CA Hotel and Lodging Association. Cheers to that. 

River Terrace Inn is right in the heart of downtown Napa, making exploration ideal by hopping on one of the hotel’s cruiser bikes, or in our case, a piedi. A leisurely stroll through the Rail Arts District, an art movement transforming forgotten walls of a two-mile stretch in downtown Napa into inspiring visuals, had us full of inspirato (and hunger). Our next move was the nearby Oxbow District and the Oxbow Public Market, a sprawling 40,000 sq ft. catchall of eateries, cafes, wine merchants, artisan retailers and farm fresh produce with plenty of outdoor space. From there, we frolicked across the street to Walt Wines for a tasting on the bungalow’s charming patio, then we frolicked back across the street to Napa institution, Gott’s Roadside. We refueled with fried avocado tacos and sweet potato fries drizzled with local honey. The original Gott’s Roadside location is worth checking out, too. It’s in St. Helena and full of Americana shake shack charm. 

Most of our eating in Napa consisted of on-the-go sustenance (albeit it, refined sustenance), but we did secure a table at the Napa outpost of Brooklyn taqueria, Gran Electrica. Upon arrival our temperatures were checked, we passed with flying colors and were seated on the spacious outdoor patio to dine under the lights. We devoured the Setas Fundido, crimini mushrooms with poblano, epazote (dried Mexican tea leaf) baked with Oaxacan queso and followed with crispy al pastor style cauliflower tacos. A decision was made to break from wine and we washed it all down with refreshing mezcal cocktails. Other notable local recommendations are Bounty Hunter (still thinking of the French Dip) and Ca’Momi Osteria for to-die-for vegetarian gnudi, spinach + ricotta balls with sage brown butter (Ca’Momi was take-out and delivery only when we popped by).  

The next morning was full of sunshine and found us waiting outside in an orderly queue, drooling into our masks for the famed English muffin at Model Bakery. There are a few sprinkled throughout the valley, but this one is a five minute walk from the hotel in the Oxbow District. It could be predisposition from my old English heritage, but my muffin was the bee’s knees. We felt as nourished as monarchs as we headed up Hwy 29, which is the figurative spine of Napa Valley, for a day of sightseeing and wine tasting. The less-traveled Silverado Trail is also accessible from the hotel and perfect for an afternoon bike ride with tasting rooms and wineries littering this paved postcard. Getting around Napa shouldn’t be too hard, Uber is prevalent and highly recommended. If you’re in the mood for traveling back to an elegant age, the Napa Valley Wine Train winds through the valley and stops at select vineyards (guests of River Terrace get a 10% discount). Also exciting news, the Napa Valley Vine Trail is nearing completion, when finished it will be a 47-mile walking and biking trail stretching the entire valley from Calistoga to Vallejo and probably the world’s best way to get your steps in. 

The typical wine tasting experience has recently been a bit muted, but we found a hospitable community eager to show us a memorable time, regardless. Just some things to expect, mostly everywhere tastings are by appointment only and limited to small sized groups, so plan ahead. We were both successful and unsuccessful with pop-ins early in the week. Seating is all spaced and outdoors (Napa weather, no prob) and masks are mandatory unless seated at your table (since this blog post was written, indoor dining is also now available). Guests are expected to maintain six feet (one vineyard row) of distance and leave contact info for tracing purposes. A great guide to plan your day and a full list of health and safety protocols can be found at Visit Napa Valley.

Some of our favorite wine stops were V. Sattui, a charming Tuscan-style winery that perfects small batch wines using organic practices and sustainability (also, not too hard on the wallet for Napa). Clif Family Winery is in a charming bungalow in St. Helena that offers food and wine pairings on their patio. Don't miss its fabulous bruschetta truck parked outside is organically sourced from the family’s farm. On our way back we stocked up on provisions from Napa staple, Oakville Grocery. In existence since 1881, the store specializes in awesomeness, more specifically, gourmet sundries, packaged sandos, olive oils, fine cheeses, coffee, and an impeccably curated wine bottle selection. 

Related: 8 Eco-Friendly Wineries in Sonoma to Visit 

Across the open-air patio is the Oakville Valley Wine Merchant, where you can taste over 50 local varietals on the porch of a 150 year old Victorian House. Also home to the 1881 Napa Wine History Museum, the Oakville Wine Merchant features twelve Napa Technology Wine Stations loaded with wines grouped by Napa Valley sub-appellations. Help yourself to a taste or glass, and a richer knowledge of the region. A couple other recs are Hall Wines, the first LEED Gold Certified winery in CA, and Ashes & Diamonds, a mid-century designed winery close to Downtown that is Napa Green Certified. 

On to Sonoma 

The only thing that made leaving Napa Valley palatable, was that we were driving to heavenly Sonoma County and Sonoma Valley. Luckily the connecting highway took us right through the Carneros region, shared by both Napa and Sonoma counties, it’s also distinctive for its uniform landscape of golden rolling hills. Naturally, we felt obliged to stop at the Ram’s Gate Winery(Carneros is “rams” in Spanish) a model of thoughtful precision farming and sustainable wines in an absolutely stunning space. The expansive Sonoma County, a worthy wine destination all its own, is home to 18 American Viticultural Areas “AVA” and more than 425 wineries, a vast majority of which are family owned and operated. Most impressive, it's the world’s first 100% sustainable wine region. All that’s asked of you is to be a conscious traveler, to go your own way and roam responsibly. You can learn about taking the Sonoma County Safe Travel Pledge. Also, Sonoma County Tourism’s official site is chock full of everything you need to know to get the most out of your trip.

Related: 11 Sustainable Stays in Sonoma 

Nestled in the Sonoma Plaza in the town of Sonoma, we chose the quaint 27-room El Dorado Hotel & Kitchen for our sojourn. Housed in a landmark building from 1843, the hotel has been thoughtfully redesigned and modernized. An added bonus is when booked through Kind Traveler, you'll also help Sonoma Land Trust preserve the beautiful Sonoma land for future generations. Jaws were dropped as the French doors parted to our first glimpse of the huge private balcony overlooking historic Sonoma Plaza. Unapologetically, it’s where we spent most of our time. That decision was made easier with award-winning El Dorado Kitchen, showcasing a seasonal farm-forward menu and a robust wine list tilted towards local vineyards, just below us. You can choose to dine al fresco on its newly configured patio on the plaza, or under the stars on your balcony. We chose the latter, accompanied by a bottle of pinot noir, naturally. 

The crisp morning was perfectly suited for “breakfast á la balcony” with the yellow trees of the Sonoma Plaza as our foreground. We shared the coconut seed chia pudding with goji berries, date and nut energy balls and reishi mushroom powder, along with buttermilk biscuits from next door neighbor, Sunflower Caffé. Complimentary cruiser bikes are available from the hotel for after-breakfast laps around Sonoma Plaza, allowing further investigation of its renowned boutiques, art galleries, laid-back breweries and world-class wine tasting rooms. The nearby Sonoma Overlook Trail loop is another open-aired way to burn off some calories with a panoramic view of the town as your reward. 


A drive to the rugged coast under the canopy of towering redwoods was all I needed to start pre-imaging my next adventure back, where COVID protocols will hopefully be a thing of the past, but the community just as welcoming. Our last drink in Sonoma was of the salty ocean air before embarking on the long drive home down CA Highway 1. I can confirm, totally beautiful. 


Bio: Chad Crone is a writer and actor in Los Angeles. As a travel writer, he contributes to the Kind Traveler Blogzine, sharing his passion for traveling kindly.