We did our 6 wine country trip this December. Overall we had a lovely time. We tried to incorporate all of our favorite things but with only 6 nights, we couldn't do it all. First off, we loved mid-December. The weather was exceptional warm during the day and crisp morning and night. A real pleasant surprise. The holiday decorations and lights were an added bonus. We found most areas light on crowds (not including Healdsburg) expect on the weekends and that is to be expected.
On our first visit many years ago we started with just Napa and then with each trip we incorporated more and more of the surrounding areas. Three years ago (trip #4) we had what we considered our "perfect" trip. 1 night in Point Reyes, 3 nights in Healdsburg, 2 nights in St. Helena, 2 nights SF. With Healdsburg being the highlight. This was an anniversary trip so we stayed a little longer than usual. This really gave us a wonderful mix of scenery and activities.
This year we did 2 nights Healdsburg (Vinters Inn, really midway between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg), 3 nights St. Helena (Harvest Inn) and 1 night in SF at the Fairmont.
On this trip we really noticed a difference in Sonoma County. The built up along the freeway has really boomed with strip malls and what appears to be maybe office buildings (right next to the performing arts center), parking in Healdsburg very difficult and restaurant reservations tight. Also, while visiting the new Coppola Winery (great place with lots of movie memoribilla) in the Alexander Valley, there was a very low flying commerial airplane. Traffic was also horrible one the freeway close to the town of Windsor each morning and afternoon. We also had an early morning "wakeup call" from an extremely noisy jet while staying at the Vintners Inn. These are all things that we had never noticed before. We were told by a waitress that they are expanding the Sonoma County airport allowing big jets to land there and we going to a more mass tourism model to bring in more people. Well, I think this is already showing. The area is really losing its appeal.
We then drove over the hill into the upper Napa Valley, what a difference! Calistoga was especially a high light. Very quiet and quaint (what Healdsburg was 20 years ago). St. Helena a little more distinguished with a nice downtown area (even though it is on the main drag) and shops. If you drive around the streets of St. Helena the old Victorian homes are beautiful. While there can be some traffic on the south end of town on the highway it is nothing close to what we encountered in Windsor.
The dining in both areas was equally excellent. We didn't have one bad meal in either area! Definitely top notch!
There was just such a difference between the two areas, so much more than we had ever encountered. It is like commercial industries and strip malls have moved into the agricultural areas of Sonoma County while the upper Napa Valley remains more countryside and quaint.
This will be our last trip staying in the Sonoma County wine country. We will still stay along the coast for a night or two but will then cut straight across through Guernville to Calistoga. It really isn't that long of drive and allow one to spend more time in higher quality areas.
My new recommendation would be land at SFO, cross Golden Gate, take Hwy 1 exit at Mill Valley, drive up the coast, stay 1 night in Bodega Bay or Point Reyes, cut across to Calistoga/St. Helena for 3 nights, then drive south to San Francisco and stay 1 night close to Union Square. This would give you the best of everything. If I had extra nights I would add them either on the coast or maybe a night in Yountville and hit one of their great restaurants.
Just my observations from several trips to each of the areas and now able to do some comparisons. Too bad about Sonoma County, it used to be an unknown backwater, they have over marketed it in my opinion. This mass tourism thing and growing commercial building has ruined the area.