We spent two days in Sonoma and Napa with our three young children ages 4 and under. We found two wineries that were kid friendly, but my favorite things to do were not wineries, but more family centered activities and places. We are spending a year traveling around the US with our family, with California being our first big stop. Sonoma was the first thing we really did when we arrived in northern California. We stayed in a town called Santa Rosa, which I picked because I thought would be a good launching point for the rest of the places we were interested in seeing (San Francisco, Berkeley, Redwood National Park, Sonoma & Napa, etc.).
Our first stop in Sonoma was the Benziger Winery in Glen Ellen. They had a tractor tour of the winery and I thought that the boys would enjoy it. However, they did not have any tickets left for the tractor tour (it books weeks in advance). I thought we’d go anyway and wing it. The drive was really nice. The hillsides looked like mounds of red dirt sporadically covered in green bushes and trees. On one of the drives I thought, “the hills look like scoops of ice cream dropped on the earth.” Further into the canyons you can see sections with dead and regrowing hillsides scorched by wildfires.
When we arrived, the boys had a snack in the back of the car with the tailgate up. At the winery, Sebastian and I did a wine tasting out on the patio overlooking the vineyard. We bought a small charcuterie package with cheese and salami for the boys, and our two year old would ask for salami by saying, “Can I have some lami?.”
It turned out to be a really nice spot. We enjoyed the tasting outside with a view while the kids were entertained with a snack and milling about on the deck and admiring the parked tractor. Afterwards there was a short little walk with signage and information about the vineyard where we also wandered a bit. We learned that one of the vineyard family members grew up in Westchester, NY – same as me!
The next stop for the day was Cornerstone Sonoma. I could have spent the whole day here. It is a marketplace with dining and wine tasting options, curated gardens, and an entertainment venue all wrapped into one. There are even archways covered in pumpkin and squash vines. It’s really stunning and calm, and there were very few people. We did not eat at the restaurant, though it looked great, but the area was draped in olive trees. This sort of thing always warms my heart since there were olive trees everywhere when we lived in Barcelona.
We spent the whole-time meandering around the gardens, admiring the fruit trees and sculptures and sitting by the water features. The boys love to play in the grass and dirt so they were well entertained. We finished up with another snack in the back of the car. They do not allow picnics at Cornerstone. They have live music on the weekends, which we didn’t get to see, but it would have been fun to have timed it to see some live music. But who knows maybe having a crowd there would have taken away from the really calm meandering that we were able to do.
On a separate day we went to the Sonoma Botanical Garden. While the grounds were pretty and we had a nice relaxed picnic, it wasn’t quite what I expected. It was a natural garden, without much curating and included some mostly stroller friendly nature trail walks. The scenery didn’t blow me away quite the way that Cornerstone did, and there was a fee for entry at the Sonoma Botanical Garden, whereas there was none for Cornerstone. It felt a bit disappointing to me given the entry fee.
To switch gears, we went over to the Sonoma Train Town Railroad. This was the perfect bite-sized stop with little kids. It really rescued the day. It is well run, clean, and easy to navigate given that you can just pay for the activities you want to participate in. We arrived just in time for the last train ride, which is about 20 minutes long through the woods and included a brief stop at a miniature train town with a small row of kid sized houses for the kids to hop off and explore. It was really well done and put a smile on all of our faces.
The last thing we did in Sonoma/Napa (on a separate day) was to explore Napa Valley with a stop at Beringer Vineyards. When researching wineries to visit with kids many of them seemed not very welcoming of families with children. They required advanced reservations, the wine tasting options were really expensive, and many of them included language that either said children were not welcome or at the very least gave you that feeling.
Beringer had some more ambiguous language and we knew that they had a self-guided wine tasting walking tour. We figured we could manage it with the kids. In person, everyone was way friendlier and more welcoming of children at Beringer Vineyards than it appeared online. They had Capri-Sun’s for the kids at the first stop on the tour, which made us feel like they were, in fact, okay with kids joining the self-guided walking tour.
Beringer is apparently the oldest continuously operating winery in Napa, and the grounds are really well maintained. It is a beautiful place to just walk around. As part of the tour, you go into the wine caves, which our boys were excited to do.
One thing that really stood out was the small teaching vineyard. It was a few rows of different types of grape vines towards the end of the tour. You are welcome to explore the rows and taste the grapes right from the vine, another thing that our boys enjoyed. We went at the end of August so the timing was just right since the grapes were ripe and available for tasting. At the end of the tour there is a nice outdoor seating area shaded by trees and umbrellas and next to a bocce court with another tasting and a few small snacks available for purchase.
The last thing I’d recommend if you are in the area is a stop in Healdsburg. It is a really sweet town with a small town feel. There is a central town square lined with restaurants, shops, and an ice cream shop. It has some phenomenal dining options, including the three-star Michelin restaurant, Single Thread. When we were there, we ate at Valette, also a very well renowned restaurant as well as Bravas Bar de Tapas. We had ice cream at Noble Folk Ice Cream and Pie Bar, all of which I would highly recommend. At one point we did a food tour, just Sebastian and me, which was a lot of fun. But they also have events in the town square including concerts on Tuesday nights and farmers markets on Saturdays and Tuesdays.
All in all, there are definitely things you can do with young kids in Sonoma and Napa. However, we generally found trying to explore these things with kids to be thoroughly exhausting. This is probably partly due to having some wine during the tastings. Even though we had only a little bit of wine at each of the two tastings it totally wiped us out, left us feeling groggy, tired, and not at the top of our parenting game.
My general recommendation would be that if you’re looking to plan a trip to California with young kids, Napa and Sonoma should not be at the top of the list. It is beautiful and a unique part of the world to see, and we did have a good time. It’s just that the pace isn’t really the best match for kids. So in some sense the wineries with their off-putting language had it right, trying to steer you in the best direction to actually enjoy yourself. You can certainly do it, and if I was to do it again, my recommendation for myself would be to do the tours without the wine tasting and spend more time on the more family centric activities.
Sonoma and Napa:
What to Do:
- Benziger Winery: Low key winery with a deck for outdoor tasting and a mini walk on the grounds to learn more and take in the vineyard
- Cornerstone Sonoma: Incredibly well curated gardens with water features, fruit trees, a marketplace, a restaurant, and plenty of spaces to sit and relax and take in the surroundings
- Sonoma Train Town Railroad: Buy tickets for the 20 minute kids train ride through the woods to a replica of a small train town with areas for kids to explore.
- Beringer Vineyards: Self guided wine tasting tour of the winery and wine caves
- Healdsburg: Amazing small town with a central town square, lots of great restaurants and ice cream, and music and farmers markets in the square
Where to Eat:
- Valette: I recommend day boat scallops en croute, halibut, bread butter and jam
- Bravas Bar de Tapas: Order the croquetas, fried eggplant chips, and patatas bravas
- Nobel Folk Ice Cream and Pie Bar: I recommend pie a la mode
What I’d try Next Time:
- The Model Bakery: This bakery has English muffins that apparently people go crazy for and has made it onto Oprah’s favorite things. We tried both of their locations but they sold out of English muffins earlier in the day and closed before their stated closing times.
What I'd Skip:
- Sonoma Botanical Gardens