Hosting a meeting in one of California's wine regions is a guarantee that your group will be surrounded by vistas of grapevines, rolling hills and sunny skies.
So, yes, a gorgeous luncheon or dinner among the vines is certainly one way to make any group feel special. But there’s even more to these destinations than beautiful landscapes, lovely resorts and winery visits. Think wellness opportunities (from yoga to spas to mindful living seminars); hot air ballooning, biking explorations, golfing, hiking; music, arts and film festivals; and hands-on winemaking adventures. We’ve rounded up news on the latest additions across the Golden State’s varied wine areas, including a few lesser-known regions to consider visiting.
Home of California’s best-known wine valleys, the Northern Coast areas are constantly evolving, with new hotels popping up, massive renovations happening to existing properties and world-class chefs opening new hot spots. There are even new AVAs, short for American Viticultural Areas, federally designated winegrowing regions proven to have distinctive growing conditions that are unique to that area. Here are some notable updates to the offerings in Napa and Sonoma.
Napa’s venerable Meadowood Napa Valley in St. Helena has always been an ideal spot for a luxurious stay, combining elegant meeting spaces, world-class dining (The Restaurant at Meadowood currently has three Michelin stars), golf and even croquet into a memorable experience. Now, after a $60 million renovation to the guest rooms and golf course and the construction of a completely new spa, this resort is better than ever.
The all-suite spa, a rustic wooden structure centered around a massive oak tree, is nestled in one of the secluded wooded glades that characterize Meadowood. With eight treatment suites and two relaxation gardens, one for women and one for men, the spa truly is a Zen-like retreat. The wellness services or “journeys” are available to resort guests and Meadowood Members, with special attention given to groups. “Regardless of the group size, our spa manager is able to work with us in Conference Services to plan and create a spreadsheet catering to the group’s specific timing needs,” says Conference Services Manager Sonnie Minick. “Each guest has a 90-minute time frame to be treated to a true bespoke, wellness experience. It’s an offering that allows the planner’s guests to walk away with the ‘wow’ factor and perhaps a wellness tip or trick to take home with them.”
Farther south in the Napa Valley, on the Silverado Trail, Judd’s Hill Winery offers groups the experience of Bottle Blending Day Camp. Here, wine education and team-building make a perfect cuvee. Staged on the winery crush pad (or even at remote locations such as San Francisco hotels), the two-hour exercise led by hospitality staff is a hands-on experience with a tangible reward at the end. Off-site blendings range in size from 24 to 300, but groups as small as two can be accommodated at the winery.
Camp attendees are divided into small groups, seated at team tables and presented with barrel samples of four red wine varietals, a graduated cylinder and an array of beakers for blending. There’s about 45 minutes on the clock for experimenting with three or four recipes. Then the team picks a favorite, gives it a name and submits it to the panel of judges. A winner is announced, labels are produced on-site and the group assists with blending the wine. Each participant fills, labels, corks and spins a foil capsule over the neck of a bottle to take home. “People have a lot of fun with this, and they learn a lot too,” says winery owner Judd Finkelstein.
Hot air ballooning is another exciting team-building possibility in the Napa Valley, especially for first-time passengers. The experience of floating high above the ground in an open basket is at once novel, thrilling and surprisingly mellow. In order to give people that unique experience, Bob Barbarick founded Balloons Above the Valley 40 years ago and has been elevating visitors ever since.
“It’s an out-of-box experience for those who have never done it before, and it’s especially unique when you have members of a group doing it for the first time,” says Thomas Chesus, the company’s director of sales and marketing. “You’re outdoors, you’re in an aircraft and you rise like in an elevator, just float up and keep going. Most people have never experienced anything like it.”
Balloons Above the Valley flies the biggest balloons (a fleet of eight) in the air, 12 stories high and with baskets holding up to 22 passengers. Departures are from the Napa Valley Marriott, with a Champagne brunch staged post-flight with two options for planners. Planners should be forewarned: This is a sunrise experience for early risers only; meeting time anywhere from 5:30 a.m. to 7 a.m., depending on the time of year. In the event of fog, which cloaks the valley 25-35 percent of the time in summer, operations are relocated to the towns of Winters or Woodland, about 45 minutes away.
And right in the heart of the city of Napa is a terrific new space for celebrating a job well done with music and wine. JaM Cellars tasting room and event space on First Street is a cool spot, complete with comfy booths and lounge areas, a state-of-the-art sound system ready for a live band or piped-in tunes (from their extensive vinyl LP collection), light bites from next-door Tarla Mediterranean Bar & Grill and plenty of JaM’s signature wines including their luscious Butter Chardonnay, JaM Cabernet Sauvignon and Toast Sparkling Wine. “We’re ready to welcome groups that would like to take over our whole space and bring in a local band to play,” says Sarah Montague, the winery’s chief marketing officer. “We’re happy to help with arrangements—we’ve even got a disco ball ready for action!”
The Sonoma Coast and the 27,500-acre Fort Ross-Seaview AVAs don’t get nearly as much attention as the well-known valleys like Dry Creek, Alexander, Russian River and Sonoma. These overlooked areas are well worth considering because, perched right up against the Pacific Ocean, they are gorgeous places to gather, with cool temperatures and up-andcoming wineries that have plenty of room for group visits.
Consider Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery, whose vineyard and tasting room is the closest to the Pacific in all of California, located north of the seaside town of Jenner, and can accommodate groups up to 10 people. Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards Guest Center focuses on its Joseph Phelps Pinot Noir and Chardonnay estate bottlings. Its Sonoma Coast estate vineyards are located near the guest center in the town of Freestone, with 80 acres of pinot noir and 20 acres of chardonnay. There are four educational seated tastings offered, such as the Insignia Blending for $100 per person for up to four people.
Groups will love the completely renovated Timber Cove Resort, which sits on a bluff over the water in the little town of Jenner. Closed since January 2016, the iconic Northern Cal hotel reopened in August with the final round of renovations completed in the fall. Timber Cove boasts 46 guest rooms and meeting spaces (including two decks and an events lawn) that can accommodate up to 120 guests. Group wellness activities can be coordinated by the VIP experiences manager and include surfing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, coastline hikes and—of course—wine tasting.
California’s Central Valley is the nation’s breadbasket, producing everything from almonds to zinfandel. Table grapes and wine grapes have been grown here for more than a century (the Mondavi dynasty got its start in Lodi), but the past two decades have seen a huge leap in boutique wine production, most of it centered in Yolo and San Joaquin counties. While the Lodi AVA now boasts 85 wineries and counting, Yolo, with five AVAs of its own (Yolo County, Dunnigan Hills, Capay Valley, Clarksburg, Merritt Island) is coming on strong.
Stretching south along the Sacramento River and north - west into the gorgeous Capay Valley (just over the Vaca range from Napa), Yolo County is turning heads with award-winning vintages and gorgeous tasting rooms that double as event venues.
In the Clarksburg area, Miner’s Leap Winery start - ed out five years ago with a pouring bar and a patio out - side a rustic, century-old barn. The manicured grounds expanded over the years, and in 2016 an indoor tasting room was added along with a U-shaped, sail-shaded amphitheater with lawn and chair seating for up to 400. While its primary purpose is staging concerts, wineclub events and the occasional wedding, owner Loyal Miner is targeting corporate events, as well. “It’s a great location just 20 minutes from downtown,” he notes.
In Western Yolo County, Roots to Wine, a market - ing consortium of eight wineries, is attracting daytrippers to numerous new venues, including the striking Matchbook Winery tasting room with indoor and outdoor gathering spaces on a hilltop in the Dunnigan Hills AVA, a half-hour northwest of Sacramento.
Because visitors can park their car here and walk around wine tasting, Winters—a once-sleepy farm com - munity turned hipster magnet on weekends—has proven to be one of Yolo County’s wine hubs. Berryessa Gap Winery, another Roots to Wine member, has a tasting room in town and a wildly popular brewery/winery com - plex with indoor and outdoor event space 2 miles outside town. Turkovich Wines is a three-generation farm with a handsome in-town tasting room that can be rented for events during the week, while nearby RootStock showcases local wine and food products and has a large back room that doubles as an art gallery and event venue. Around the corner, Preserve Public House, a leading restaurant and private event venue with a sustainable theme, has instituted a new whiskey-bourbon program offering private lockers and bottle service for small groups in a former private dining room rechristened The Library. “It’s a very exciting venue for everything from small meetings to card games,” says General Manager Avery Struthers. The restaurant’s patio can accommo - date 30-40 guests.
SIERRA NEVADA FOOTHILLS
Some of the first wine grapes in California were planted in the Sierra Nevada Foothills during the Gold-Rush era. A few original vineyards survived, and hundreds more have sprung up over an eight-county region stretching from Yuba County in the north to Mariposa in the south. While El Dorado County is most dominant on the foothills wine scene, Placer and Amador, both within quick striking distance of Sacramento, are coming on strong.
Straddling the Interstate 80 corridor, Placer County counts 35 establishments on its newly forged Wine & Ale Trail. It includes 21 wineries and 13 breweries that have sprung up in surprisingly rural locations. “Placer County has gone from about seven craft breweries to almost 15 in less than two years, and more are on the way,” says Jocelyn Maddux, co-owner of Fork ‘N Road Productions, which promotes and markets the Wine & Ale Trail through collaborative partnerships. “The commonality with our wineries is that they are passiondriven family businesses run by people with a passion for the region, too.”
Meeting planners who’d like to treat their attendees to a taste of both passions could start at the new and stunning Wise Villa Winery outside Lincoln, which hosts private events featuring wine and tapas or full-course meals for up to 50 at indoor and outdoor venues with sweeping hilltop views. Just down the road, Goat House Brewing is a combination boutique farm/nano-brewery that grows its own hops and serves acclaimed handcrafted ales in a delightful converted barn.
Maddux grew up in the wine business— her family owns Lone Buffalo Vineyards near Auburn and her father has been making wine since the 1970s when it was just starting in California. Fork ‘N Road Productions is a marketing and event planning business specializing in curating local food, wine and craft brew experiences in the region. Growing in popularity, she says, are “hops ‘n vine” dinners that incorporate food pairings with both beer and wine.
For sit-down meetings and overnight accommodations, the Holiday Inn Auburn shines after a recent remodel that updated guest rooms, meeting spaces, lobby and restaurant.
If there’s one part of California wine country getting an exceptional amount of buzz this year, it’s Amador County. The spotlight is on the Shenandoah Valley AVA, best known for its robust zinfandels.
The town of Plymouth, at the heart of the wine-producing region, makes a great day-trip destination for groups meeting in Sacramento or the Bay Area. Possibilities include paired bites and flights at Taste, the region’s James Beard-acclaimed restaurant; or gatherings for groups of up to 50 on the patio at Rest, a new 16-room boutique hotel in the same block and under the same management. Both establishments work in concert with Amador Vintage Market, an across-the-street deli/tasting room/caterer with meeting space in the back.
“A suggested visit might involve organizing a progressive event where you learn and do at the patio restaurant then walk across the street and meet at the Vintage Market. It’s all very charming,” says Melissa Lavin, executive director of the Amador Vintners Association.
Aside from Rest, small groups can find unique accommodations at historic hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns elsewhere in town and in the nearby communities of Sutter Creek, Amador City and Jackson. Largest in the area is the 86-room Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort, which offers 9,000 square feet of meeting and event space.
The Central Coast is known for its vast reach, over 300 miles of grape growing areas extending from the Golden Gate to the shores of Santa Barbara’s beaches. There’s always a lot going on across this fertile part of the state that is filled with plenty of top-notch resorts that welcome meetings both large and small, offering a plethora of interesting possibilities for keeping groups engaged and excited.
One of Monterey’s largest hotel venues is the Hyatt Regency Monterey, which is located just minutes from the bay, the aquarium and the scenic 17-Mile Drive in Carmel. The hotel has 550 comfortable rooms (including 30 suites) overlooking the Del Monte Golf Course. After a 2013 renovation of its meeting space, it offers two large ballrooms with state-of-the-art electronic infrastructure, 26 meeting rooms, and extensive outdoor patios (40,000 square feet in all), making for a property where groups large and small can find an ideally sized meeting place.
Sports-minded groups will find a very welcoming place in the hotel’s popular Knuckles Sports Bar, with plenty of convivial space that boasts 24 HDTVs, pool tables, 20 beers on tap and more, including a revered Old Bay Calamari on the menu. Voted Monterey’s favorite sports bar for the last 12 years, Knuckles is a place where team-building can morph into team cheering.
Those cheers will turn into blissful sighs as members of the group who are more inclined toward wellness and beauty treatments enjoy the pretty 12,000-square-foot Marilyn Monroe Spa on the property. Other nearby possibilities for group activities include a taking an all-inclusive personalized wine tour with Tommy John’s Wine & Brewery Tours, a Los Gatos-based company that custom tailors the experience and goes far off the beaten winery-visiting path into areas like Gilroy, Morgan Hill, Saratoga, Los Gatos, Coralitos, Carmel, Monterey and Santa Cruz. Round-trip transport (with pick-up and dropoff at clients’ choice of location), tasting fees, food at a couple stops, as well as snacks and water along the way, are all included in the company’s offering.
Tuscany has come to Paso Robles, in the gorgeous form of the new Allegretto Vineyard Resort, a destination that’s just a mile and a half off the 101 Freeway. It looks and feels like a massive Mediterranean villa as you arrive, right down to the fountain bubbling at the entrance, the massive 12,000-square-foot Piazza Magica in the center and the lovely Abbey chapel tucked into a back corner of the 20-acre property.
Inside, the 171 guest rooms and suites are all fully modern, yet they exude an old-world charm and elegance. There’s a similar feeling in the Veneto Ballroom, which seats 260 for dinner or 350 reception- or theater-style. The large outdoor piazza seats 610 attendees (or 800 standing), and, for large events, there is 40,000 square feet of outdoor space in the resort’s Mediterranean Gardens which can be tented. Smaller group rooms include the Dylan boardroom, seating 20, and the Murano private dining room, for up to 22 guests. There’s a large modern spa on the property as well.
Everywhere you look at Allegretto, there is beauty. Owner Douglas Ayres has placed much of his personal art, antiques and artifact collections throughout the resort. So while it’s a Tuscan-inspired palace, don’t be surprised to encounter a huge Siddhartha statue from India down one hall, some extremely modern art pieces strategically placed throughout and even a huge cross section of a Sequoia tree that dates back thousands of years. There are fascinating things to discover at every turn.
The resort is geared up for groups, says Marcelle Moje, Allegretto’s national sales manager. “We offer meeting planners a new destination resort that provides unique settings within a working vineyard and an array of activities in Paso Robles wine country. And for meetings and events that can book during the week, we have flexibility on pricing.”
Be sure to include an incredible meal for your group in the resort’s fine dining Cello Ristorante at the hands of Executive Chef Eric Olson, whose locally sourced dishes are swooningly delicious and perfectly paired with local wines from the Paso Robles area, including the Allegretto wine brand. He and Food & Beverage Manager Thomas Humphrey oversee the banquet menus as well, so your group will always be in excellent hands.
The resort’s event planning team offers a wide range of team-building activities and group adventures around the area, from bespoke winery tours to zip-lining experiences, horseback riding, Hearst Castle tours and more.