With more than 500 wineries in the Napa and Sonoma valleys, the nation’s most visited wine growing regions are chock-full of options for memorable group gatherings.
Although many of the wineries are household names and have long hosted a steady stream of events, there is a growing number of wineries that are getting into the event act for the first time. Meanwhile, others have improved facilities to host larger events or to be able to do more for group functions. Following are eight great options.
1. Hans Fahden Winery, Calistoga
Perched on a ridge above Calistoga with views of Mt. St. Helena, Hans Fahden Winery produces 2,500 cases of cabernet sauvignon annually and entered the meetings venue business in a serious way when it began wine cave dinners last year.
Hans Fahden’s cave can accommodate between 12 and 120 guests, according to Mary Pierce, the winery’s event manager. The place is special not only because of its beautiful location, but because it’s a third-generation, family-owned working winery, Pierce says. It is set among gardens with ponds graced by lily pads, cattails, koi and a wisteria-covered tea house.
2. St. Francis Winery, Santa Rosa
With its mission-style architecture, St. Francis Winery pays homage to St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and ecology and the founder of the Franciscan order, credited with bringing grapes to the New World.
The winery completed a remodeling of its dining room in June, making the venue more attractive for meetings and as an off-site venue. The space can handle up to 75 people for lunches or dinners, and the entire winery can host up to 200 for receptions. The winery is also often used for meetings, which usually include continental breakfast and lunch and occasionally a wine reception afterward.
What sets it apart, however, is its food and wine pairings, done for groups of up to 14 by Executive Chef David Bush.
“He does an outstanding job at wine and food pairings,” says Monique Buchmann, the winery’s event captain. And then there’s the wine, which includes a variety of cabernets and chardonnays, along with a merlot, a claret and a cabernet franc.
3. Ram’s Gate Winery, Sonoma
The newest winery in the region, Ram’s Gate Winery opened in mid-September next to Infineon Raceway in Sonoma and specializes in chardonnay and pinot noir. Inspired by the old barns of the Carneros region of southern Sonoma, where the winery is located, the architect designed an indoor-outdoor space using wood from old Wyoming fences in the building’s construction.
The winery’s chef, Jason Rose, creates small plates from locally sourced ingredients that are paired with wine and expected to be popular with groups. He can also do lunches on Tuesdays and Wednesdays when the winery is closed and dinners any evening. The winery can accommodate eight to 40 people for dinner or 80 to 180 for receptions. The chef can also do cooking classes in the facility’s exhibition kitchen. An afternoon with the chef or winemaker is also expected to be a popular option, offering groups a chance to ask questions about the wine or the food.
“We lend ourselves to groups coming from the city because we’re only 35 minutes from San Francisco,” says Sonia Tarbox, the winery’s director of sales and marketing. “This is the only place you can try our wine, if you’re into the newest thing, and we’ve created these special rooms, so people can spend a lot of time here. Come and find your little nook.”
4. Lynmar Winery, Sebastopol
Lynmar Estate completed an on-site retreat it calls Bliss House in summer 2010. With three bedrooms and an open floor plan, it can host groups of up to 30 people for an event or be used as an after-meeting retreat.
The ultra-modern winery, which was designed by a feng shui specialist, opened in 2005 on a 100-acre site.
Venues include the front lawn, which can accommodate tented events of up to 300 people. The building housing the tasting room has a conference room that accommodates up to 25 for meetings, and the venue itself can hold 80. Including the adjacent courtyard, the winery can accommodate up to 200 people. A redwood grove with a pizza oven is perfect for breakout sessions in which the resident chef teaches groups of up to 60 people how to make pizza.
The chef can prepare three-course meals for up to 60 people, but if the group is larger, an outside caterer will be brought in.
“This is a great place for people who want to learn more about Sonoma County or wine in general. The owners live on the property, and they’re always available to talk about the business,” says Andrea Kaplan, assistant director of marketing. “We have a full-time gardener who grows the produce we use for our events. We’re known for our Five-Sisters Pinot Noir that is named after the owners’ five daughters and is made with the five best barrels from every harvest, so it’s a very limited production. “
5. Schweiger Vineyards, St. Helena
Schweiger Vineyards opened its new tasting room in April, improving what it can offer both individual visitors and groups. The room sits 2,000 feet above the Napa Valley floor, overlooking the vineyards that produce grapes for the cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay varietals the winery specializes in, along with a bit of cabernet franc, malbec, merlot and petite sirah.
Group options include sit-down wine-and-food-paired tastings, estate tours and lunches or dinners prepared by a choice of local caterers. The winery can handle up to 100 people either inside its tasting room or on an adjacent lawn area.
Schweiger Vineyards has a unique ambience, according to Diana Schweiger Isdahl, the company’s sales director.
“It’s a whole different feel,” she says. “It’s a very welcoming type of atmosphere. It’s family run, and there’s always a family member on site.”
6. Somerston Wine Co., St. Helena and Yountville
Somerston Wine Co. celebrated the grand opening of its winery and tasting room on its 1,628-acre estate in the hills above Napa Valley in June. The company also operates a tasting room in Yountville, which opened in June 2010 and can host groups at both places for wine tastings, food and wine pairings, lunches, dinners and meetings.
Venues at the estate include the winery and the winery terrace and garden, which can accommodate 150-plus attendees; the rustic party barn, which can handle 150 people; and the back meadow, which can host up to 500 people seated for an outdoor event. In Yountville, the entire tasting room can hold more than 50 people in a variety of rooms and its rooftop terrace.
The company also started 30-minute buggy tours of the vineyard. Two buggies carry five passengers each and can be an option for smaller groups with staggered schedules.
Besides the buggy tours, the winery is unique because it’s a breathtaking property, according to Lamar Engel, tasting room manager and wine specialist. “It’s 1,628 acres, of which 220 are planted vineyards, with 1,600 vertical feet between the highest and lowest vineyard and two valleys and three ridgelines.”
7. B Cellars Winery, Calistoga
B Cellars Winery opened its Tasting Salon at its Silverado Trail winery in Calistoga last year. The winery now has three main facilities to host events of up to 50 people: the rustic Tasting Salon, the adjacent Cellar and a patio that wraps around the Tasting Salon overlooking a small pond and the Silverado Trail. A separate conference room can accommodate approximately 20 people for meetings.
With a certified wine educator and a chef on staff, B Cellars can create a variety of hosted group events, including enhanced wine tasting, vineyard tours, lunches and dinners. The enhanced wine-tasting options offer a chance for groups to get to know wine better. The Chef’s Perspective tasting, for example, enlightens participants on how chefs taste wine and what they consider in food pairings. B Cellars also offers tastings from its library and reserve collection.
8. Staglin Family Vineyard, Rutherford
Staglin Family Vineyard in Rutherford completed renovations last year on its Steckter House, which was originally built in 1868. The historic home now serves as the winery’s hospitality center and is available for very exclusive small events.
The winery, which produces upscale cabernet, chardonnay and sangiovese wines, can accommodate a maximum of 34 people indoors or 60 outdoors for sit-down dinners or lunches for high-end groups.
“It’s all about the experience,” says Shannon Staglin, the winery’s general manager. “There is always a family member to host and provide each visitor with an intimate and educational experience—an insight into our family and our business. Guests always enjoy our award-winning wines and a beautiful dining experience on our historic Rutherford estate.”
Judy Jacobs is a Northern California-based freelance writer who has been writing about the travel industry for more than 25 years.