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The Five Best Wineries You’ve Never Heard of in Carneros

On the border between Napa and Sonoma Valleys, Carneros is the place to go for standout—and often underpriced—pinot noir and chardonnay. 


One of the outsize metal sculptures at the Donum Estate.

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Bouchaine Vineyards.

Photo: Bouchaine Vineyards

A spot for private tastings at the Donum Estate.

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Straddling Sonoma and Napa Valleys, Carneros is less than 60 miles by Zipcar from San Francisco, but its country vibe feels a world away. Come for the rolling hills and sweeping views of farmland and vineyards; stay for the private tastings and often underpriced pinot noirs and chardonnays. The cooler climate makes this region ideal for those that favor more acidic and crisp wines. Here, five of the best wineries in this too often skipped AVA. 

Wine to try: Estate Pinot Noir, $45 
What makes this place great: Etude bottles nine different pinot noirs—even some made from out-of-state grapes—making this one of the best stops in Napa Valley for pinot lovers. The pinots tend be elegant and full bodied, but each is a bit different, so it’s fun to find the perfect fit for your palate. The winery offers a class called “The Study of Pinot Noir,” where you can explore the whole roster of pinots and learn everything you ever wanted to know about this grape ($50). But on a sunny day, the best option is the patio tasting ($35), where you’ll get to try the current releases of chardonnay, pinot blanc, pinot gris, pinot noir, and cabernet sauvignon while you stare out at the vineyards. Reservations are not required, but it’s a good idea if you want to secure one of the aforementioned options. 

The Donum Estate 
Wine to try: Carneros Estate Pinot Noir, $70
What makes this place great: Donum’s your crowd pleaser. The pinot here tends to be on the full, rich side of the spectrum, and the tasting list is full of serious wines that are often heralded by sommeliers. Plus, there’s plenty to gawk at among the winery’s impressive collection of geometric sculptures—including a full-size wire rhinoceros, a bull, and a circle of massive laughing masks. Like Etude, Donum offers nine different pinot noirs, but here the grapes are from Carneros, Russian River, and Anderson Valley (all Sonoma County, whereas Etude is Napa). Tastings ($50 per person) are by appointment and easy to shape to your whim: Sip and wander, sit down and geek out, or just take it as it comes… (FYI: The maximum group size is “about eight.”)

Wine to try: Estate Chardonnay, $26
What makes this places great: A contemporary glass and wood building that blends into the landscape of Napa Valley, Cuvaison has expansive views and a mellow vibe. As with all wineries in Carneros, pinot noir and chardonnay are king  here, but Cuvaison also makes a meaty and flavorful malbec, spicy syrah, and some fun red blends. The modern yet and earthy architecture makes for a relaxing vibe, as does the warm manner of the staff—it’s the kind of place you’ll likely want to stay a while. Reservations for tastings ($25) are required.  

Bouchaine Vineyards 
Wine to try: Rockin’ H Vineyards Rose of Syrah, $23
What makes this place great: This boutique winery is known for having a wide array of tasty wines and an adventurous attitude. Tastings in Dee’s Garden make you feel like you’re in the middle of the country (which, yeah, you actually are). Try some of the lighthearted and fun wines like Rockin’ H Rose, which tastes of peach and cherry but isn’t overly sweet, and the powerful and spicy cabernet sauvignon. Despite its Napa location, Bouchaine is the most approachable of any of these wineries. These folks don’t require reservations, and if you buy three or more bottles, they’ll waive the $25 per-person fee. 

Liana Estates
Wine to try: Orange Muscat, $34
What makes this place great: Besides being the hot new thing on the block, Liana Estates (which opened in October) has views all the way to the bay and a fresh, modern vibe that is clearly designed to attract a younger crowd—but not so much that it will make the more, um, “refined” wine drinker feel awkward. (Full disclosure: I’m married to one of the Liana Estates founders. I’d include the winery here regardless of my wife’s involvement, but now you know my bias.) Bocce courts, top-floor tasting rooms with 180-degree views, and 4x4 tours through the vineyard make this a fun stop on a sunny day. Tastings are either $35 or $45 per person depending on which flight of wines you choose; reservations are required. 


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