Love the Wine Country bed-and-breakfast experience? Already planning your next wine tasting? Here are some places that combine the two, a handful of B&Bs run by wine-savvy owners who pamper the palate, luring the wine connoisseur with a direct connection to their own boutique winery operations.
The Hope-Merrill House in Geyserville is perhaps the most hands-on, offering a winemaking package deal that includes a stay in the fall to harvest the grapes and one in the spring to bottle the fermented juice. But the Silver Rose Inn in Calistoga also has its appeal, with a winery on the premises you can visit for tastings. And then there's Healdsburg's Camellia Inn, the bed-and breakfast that spawned Camellia Cellars, a boutique winery and tasting room across town from the inn.
These inns make guests the ultimate insiders, privy to the best tours at wineries with access through the hoteliers' connections to topnotch winemakers. And they also allow the opportunity to mingle with like minded souls, people more apt to talk about great Cabernet over breakfast than they are politics.
The Hope-Merrill House
Mary Townsend of Amarillo, Texas, decided to give her husband an adventuresome present in 2000: A working vacation at the Hope-Merrill House in Geyserville.
"Wine is sort of our hobby," says Townsend. "To see how you really make something from the Earth and then go back and bottle it is a riot."
The bed-and-breakfast offers something rare among inns - a two-day stay to harvest grapes in the fall and a two-day follow-up stay in the spring to bottle wine. Guests are guided through virtually every step of winemaking by Graham Parnell, a former instructor in the enology department at Santa Rosa Junior College.
"Pick and Press Winemaking 101" costs $1,200 per couple, and it covers bragging rights - two cases of wine to take home, as well as the chance to stay in a historic treasure. Once a stagecoach stop in the 1870s, the 12-room inn is listed on the Sonoma County Landmarks Register and is a striking example of the Eastlake Stick style of Victorian architecture, built almost entirely out of redwood. History buffs will appreciate the authentic handscreened wallpaper.
Of course, wine buffs will turn their attention to the quarter-acre of planted vines behind the inn and the old barn that has been fashioned into a winery, replete with steel tanks, a press and barrels. Owners Ron and Cosette Scheiber say they're benefiting from a trend toward "experiential vacations."
"We describe this as a working vacation and always encourage guests to bring their grubbies because they get grape juice and wine all over them," Ron says.
Townsend and her husband, Mike Guttenplan, no doubt still have their share of stains to show for the winemaking they enjoyed in the fall of 2001 and the spring of 2002. But they didn't mind the rigors of this type of vacation. On the contrary, it inspired the couple to buy a house when they returned home that has 13 acres - and they plan to plant grapes.
The Sonoma County escapade also inspired them to return to the inn with a flock of friends. The couple invited their entire "supper club," a group of couples who are food and wine lovers, to join them when they went back for their second winemaking mission in the fall of 2002.
"With all of our friends, when we did it together, you kind of made a game of it," says Townsend, a pathologist. "Life is short. You've got to play."