We used to live in San Francisco. As huge wine geeks, we took ample advantage of our proximity to Napa and Sonoma (and Anderson Valley) by making frequent day trips to “wine country.” It was so easy to hop in the car, drive the hour plus up Highway 101, drop into a winery or two, have lunch in between, then hop back in the car and drive home.
After our daughter was born we continued to make these occasional trips “up the road” to check out new wineries and visit old favorites. One day, when our daughter was two years old we overheard her say to her doll as she walked down the hall of our apartment, “We’re going to wine country, Babydoll. We’re going to wine country.”
Were we making the trek to wine country too often? Maybe. But that’s not the point. The point is that even seemingly adult travel adventures can be fun for kids. You can visit wine country with kids. You just need to know how to plan.
1. As in all travel with kids, come armed. Bring crayons/markers and something to color on, stickers, a travel game, an ipad/iphone and any other portable activities that will keep your kids entertained. Also bring along snacks and drinks to keep bellies full and blood sugar up.
2. Research the wineries ahead of time. Look up their websites or check some reviews to see what each winery is like. A winery located on a farm is likely to be much more fun for a kid than a winery tasting room located in a commercial office park (yes, they do exist and, yes, we have dragged our daughter to them).
Think outside the box to see what the wineries might offer in addition to wine. For example:
• Is it family run and do they have children? If so, there is a good chance there will be a few random toys laying around or a swing set to play on. Or at a minimum, the owners may have a few tricks up their sleeves to keep the little ones entertained.
• Does the winery have a working farm? They may have some animals to visit – probably a dog, maybe a horse and if you’re really lucky, some sheep or pigs.
• What time of year is it? If you are going in the spring, wineries that operate as organic or biodynamic will likely have wildflowers growing among the vines. Ask if you can pick some with your child.
• Does the winery have a picnic area? Kids love picnics. Bring a blanket and a picnic basket and maybe a ball to play catch or a Frisbee to toss.
• Is the winery hosting any events? Some wineries will host wine tasting events that include activities for kids
3. Try to plan your trip for off-season. Summertime, fall harvest and February and March (when wineries release their most recent vintages) are very popular and tasting rooms can get crowded. Tasting room staff may be less accommodating of kids during these times. The tasting rooms themselves may also be too crowded for kids to find a place to sit with their activities.
4. Don’t rush your tasting. Most places will let you taste at your own pace (provided it’s not high season and the tasting room isn’t jammed – see above). Start with one or two pours then do something else on-site with the kids (pick flowers, pet the resident dog, stroll through the vines). Kids refreshed, you can come back for another couple of pours.
5. Level your expectations. We were lucky in that we lived so close to such an amazing wine region we were able to visit over and over. It was easy for us to limit ourselves to one winery per trip because we could return again soon.
For most people, however, wine country is a vacation destination. It’s reasonable to want to check out as many wineries as your palate can handle. With kids in tow, you realistically should shoot for two or a maximum of three per day if your vacation is short (4-5 days).
If you visit more than two or three wineries in a day you risk a meltdown at the final winery or resistance to further visits on subsequent days. If your vacation is longer (a week or more), it’s wise to limit your visits to one or two per day and/or take a day off here and there.
6. Plan an activity between winery visits to break up the day. For example, there’s a small little amusement park called Sonoma TrainTown Railroad in the town of Sonoma. You can go to a winery in the morning, eat lunch in Sonoma town square, spend an hour or two at TrainTown then visit a second winery before the day is over. Win-win!
The most adult-seeming vacations can be tailored to make them fun for kids as well. You just need to plan in advance and keep fidgety bodies and short attention spans in mind. Even your kids can be excited about a trip to “wine country, Babydoll!”
OWV Recommendations for kid-friendly wineries in Northern California– these are not necessarily our favorite wines, but they do offer an enjoyable experience for families:
Sterling Vineyards (gondola ride to the top of the mountain plus an on-site art collection)
Frog’s Leap Winery (veggie gardens, a fall pumpkin patch – with carving events, and a pond)
Alpha Omega Winery (large wrap-around porch with lots of chairs and sofas for comfy sitting)
Robert Sinskey Winery (koi pond and flight of wines paired with small bites)
Francis Ford Coppola Winery (day use pool for a fee, bocce courts and games for free, movie memorabilia throughout the property and in a gallery)
Lynmar Estate (beautiful patio with tables and chairs and veggie/herb gardens to wander)
Benziger Family Winery (tour of property is aboard a tram attached to a tractor. This winery is also organic and biodynamic, which we love!)
Preston Family Vineyards (another organic winery, it’s also a working farm that produces more than just wine)
Golden Eye Winery (beautiful back patio with tables and umbrellas, a fountain and a large grassy area for running around)
Toulouse Vineyards (lovable dog named Tess who greets each visitor)
Lazy Creek Vineyards (farm with animals, including some big, friendly pigs, gardens and special heritage roses)
Navarro Vineyards (picnic tables and a grassy area for playing)
Keep an eye out for future posts on Sonoma, Napa and Anderson Valley in our “A Weekend In…” series.