While every state now has a winery, when one hears the term “wine country,” I’d bet the farm that California is the first thought that comes to mind. Each of California’s wine regions has its charms, and you really can’t go wrong in visiting any of them.
Nonetheless, for most easterners, the “wine country” and Napa are synonymous, and it remains the destination of choice for wine enthusiasts, despite the high price of its wines. Most visitors also spend a day or two in The City on one end of a trip to the wine country, since San Francisco International is the main point of entry to those flying into Northern California.
But a brief perusal of Trip Advisor will tell you it doesn’t come cheap. The better hotels in Napa range from $450 to $1,800 a night. Yes, you can stay at the very southern end of the valley in Vallejo and find cheaper accommodations, but you’ll add the cost of a rental car to your trip, and when you visit San Francisco you’ll have to fight the traffic down the east bay corridor to the Bay Bridge, and pay exorbitant parking fees during your stay in the city. Or…
Might I offer a creative alternative? — Diablo Valley.
Where, you say? Diablo Valley, beneath Mt. Diablo — east of the Berkeley hills. The city of Concord is a hub, 30 miles from San Francisco, 35 miles from Napa, and 35 miles from the heart of the Livermore Valley, home of Wente, Concannon, Fenestra and dozens of other wineries (for that matter, there are seven small wineries within ten miles of Concord).
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume you’re a Foodie and wine enthusiast coming from east of the Rockies and that you’re on a tight budget, but still want to visit San Francisco and spend a day in the wine country. It’s possible to do all of that without ever renting a car.
Of the nine hotels in Concord, the top two rated in TripAdvisor are the Hilton and the Crown Plaza (for other options see diablovalleyca.com). You could stay, for example, at the Hilton for about $100 a night (Thursday through Sunday), and still have access to the wine country, a plethora of restaurants, a few microbreweries, as well as the natural beauty of Mt. Diablo State Park and its 150 miles of hiking and biking trails.
Most people (47 million a year) fly into San Francisco. Another alternative is Oakland (which services about 10 million passengers a year) on the east side of San Francisco Bay. Flying from Chicago to Oakland, instead of San Francisco, will save you about $50. Taking the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train to Concord will take just under an hour. Both of the hotels mentioned offer shuttle service from the Concord BART station.
Concord itself is worth exploring. The area around Todos Santos Plaza is known for its shops and restaurants, as well as a farmers market and free summer concerts. If you’re interested in microbrews, you can visit Hop Grenade Tap Room, which features 41 brews on tap. A hop, skip and a jump down the street will bring you to The Pig & the Pickle, featuring BioEnergy Brewed beers made in Oakland by Ale Industries, using no fossil fuels in either the brewing or delivery of their beers. How do they do it? When they deliver their beer to restaurant accounts, they pick up used vegetable oil, which is then filtered and used to power their delivery vehicles and to run the boiler in the brewery. The Pig & the Pickle is the brewery’s first stand-alone pub, where you can taste their
beers on tap, along with a few guest brews, and 40 different bottled beers. They also serve homemade pickles and pub food. If you’re of a mind to visit the brewery itself, you can take a half hour BART trip to the Fruitvale station (the brewery is next door). There you can taste the beer in the brewery’s tasting room, the “Jingletown Jazz Room.”
There are over 40 restaurants in Concord. For those on a budget, I recommend Tortilleria El Molino for Mexican food, and Momoyama Sushi, both on Monument Boulevard, and both easy on the wallet.
Assuming you’ve set aside a few dollars for a memorable meal, I suggest you take a five-minute BART ride to Walnut Creek, where you’ll find two of my favorite restaurants in the area, Lark Creek (seasonal California cuisine), and Opa! (Authentic Greek cuisine). Neither will break the bank, and you’ll have a good time at either.
If you’re looking for entertainment, you might want to check out the aforementioned free summer concerts, or consult the schedule for The Concord Pavilion (http://www.theconcordpavilion.com/events/), an outdoor music amphitheatre that books big-name acts from May through September.
To get a taste of the wine country without a car, you can take the Napa Valley Wine Train (winetrain.com), which provides a shuttle service from the Concord BART station to Napa, half an hour away.
If you have time to spare before boarding the train, I suggest you take a walk next door to the Oxbow Public Market, Napa’s answer to San Francisco’s Ferry Building, which houses an array of gourmet food purveyors.
The Wine Train offers several different itineraries, most of which include a motorcoach segment with a winery stop or two. By contrast, the Grgich Hills venue is a 36-mile roundtripper on the train. The 83-feet long, 100-year-old cars have been elegantly restored to their original grandeur, with velvet curtains, burnished wood and brass fixtures.
The train trundles slowly up and down the valley, giving passengers ample time to eat a sumptuous three-course lunch or four-course dinner, for the Wine Train is more about the food than the wine or the train. Executive Chef Kelly MacDonald has been with the Train for more than two decades. His meals, cooked to order by a staff of 30 in three kitchen cars, rival what you’ll find elsewhere in a valley known for its fine restaurants. The menu suggests wines that pair well with each course (beverages are extra).
On the Grgich Hills route you’ll eat your first course and entrée in the dining car on the way to the winery. After a guided tour of the winery and cellars, along with wine tasting, you’ll reboard the train in the lounge car, with its swivel plush seats, for dessert, coffee or tea (or wine, if you’re not yet satiated).
One advantage of the train is that you don’t have to worry about ruining your vacation with a DUI, which can be a real problem for wine enthusiasts who cannot bring themselves to use the spit bucket. On the other hand, in a car you can stop at half a dozen wineries in a day, and you’re not limited to the rail route. Remember, if you’re intent on wider exploration and you’re on a budget, you can limit your rental to just a day or two. If you do rent a car, you can reach the southern end of Napa Valley in 35 minutes, or Sonoma in 50 minutes. Though there are a handful of wineries within a dozen miles of Concord, they are tiny and spread out. More accommodating to the wine tourist is Livermore Valley, half an hour south of Concord, where you can visit dozens of wineries. The largest, such as Wente Vineyards, have dedicated tasting rooms and tours, while the smaller wineries may require calling ahead for an appointment. Though Livermore has been producing wine for more than 130 years, it’s an area often overlooked by tourists, which makes for a quieter and more intimate visit.
A car also makes it easier to explore Mt. Diablo. I suggest a drive to the 3,849 foot summit for its remarkable 360 degree view which, on a clear day, encompasses the Sacramento Delta, Mt. St. Helena at the top of Napa Valley, the Farallon Islands off the Golden Gate, the whole of the Santa Cruz Mountains from San Francisco to San Jose, and the Sierra Nevada range to the east.
If you’re an equestrian, you could rent a horse at Castle Rock Arabian Ranch at the foot of the mountain. If you’re into hiking, there are 150 miles of hiking trails in Mt. Diablo State Park.
At the tail end of your visit, ditch the car (if you rented one), and BART to San Francisco. Lest you entertain the notion of keeping the car, be informed that driving is a chore in the city. The streets are not laid out in a standard grid; there has been ongoing construction on the streets for 150 years (the photographs bear this out); there are very few streets where you can turn left; parking is difficult and expensive; and perhaps more to the point, hotels charge for parking. Save yourself the hassle and take BART to the city and to your choice of airport.
There are more restaurants per capita in San Francisco than in any metropolitan area in the United States, so recommending one over another is a matter of personal preference, and it depends on your budget and where you are in the city. San Francisco is a mosaic of neighborhoods, and each has its own flavor and restaurants to discover (email me if you’re stumped: firstname.lastname@example.org). Foodies would have no trouble spending blissful weeks exploring San Francisco’s neighborhood restaurants. By all means indulge yourself, but don’t miss the Ferry Building at the end of Market Street. When the building was refurbished in 2002, it was transformed into an epicurean’s heaven. The entire 660-foot long lower floor of the building is devoted to gourmet food, restaurants, and wine. You’ll find artisan chocolate, cheese, bread, olive oil, ice cream, wine, herbs, coffee, tea, fruits, nuts, meat, fish, sausage, pastry, oysters, and cookware.
Just outside the building a farmers’ market offers its fresh produce on Tuesdays, Thursdays and (by far the largest) Saturdays.
If you put off the Wine Train experience in Concord, you can still buy a package that includes a ferry ride to Vallejo with a shuttle to the Napa Valley Wine Train terminal in Napa.
So plan ahead. You don’t have to wait until you’re wealthy to enjoy the best of what the Bay Area and the wine country have to offer. You just have to travel smart.
WHEN TO VISIT:
For those of us who live in the Bay Area, the East Bay, of which Concord is a part, has the warmest temperatures (we’re talking 90 to 100 degrees in the summer). So if I were to recommend a time for my hypothetical easterner to visit, I’d say come between January and the end of April, when weather in the east is miserable and weather in California is mild. Another advantage of visiting in the late winter/early spring are the green hills, which turn a dry yellow from June through November.
WHERE TO STAY:
1970 Diamond Blvd, Concord, CA 94520-5718
45 John Glenn Dr, Concord, CA 94520
For tips and special deals, check out this website before you start planning your trip:
WHERE TO EAT:
1500 Monument Blvd. Ste. F1, Concord, CA 94520
1800 Monument Blvd Concord, CA 94520
1532 N. Main St Walnut Creek, CA 94597
1360 Locust St, Walnut Creek, CA 94596
2151 Salvio St, Suite J-K (East Street), Concord, CA 94520
1960 Concord Ave., Concord, CA 94520
3096 E. 10th St., Oakland, CA 94601
Castle Rock Arabian Ranch
1350 Castle Rock Road, Walnut Creek, CA 94598