Wine country of Northern California has been abuzz with the grape harvest, following an unusually long growing season that has winemakers anticipating an exceptional vintage. Recent visits to Sonoma and Napa prompted us to share some special destinations we found for vegan-friendly dining and wining, or just sightseeing. From Calistoga’s Petrified Forest to the hottest new vegan restaurant in the Wine Country, you will have a lot to keep you busy during your next visit.
Vegan Dining in Wine Country
Wine country is by its nature full of lush vegetation, and restaurants in the region take advantage of the produce grown here. We found a few places offering great plant-based dining options without sacrificing quality.
Little Saint, Healdsburg
Located in the bustling village of Healdsburg, Little Saint is one of the newest additions to Sonoma’s vegan scene. The restaurant, co-owned by animal rights activist Laurie Ubben, is nestled among eucalyptus trees and features a restaurant, bar and café. Among its accolades are inclusion on The New York Times’ “Best 50 Restaurants” and Vegetarian Times’ “Best New Restaurants” lists. An all-star culinary team leads the restaurant. Wine tastings are offered frequently in the bar and top live musicians appear at Little Saint throughout the year.
Little Saint's menu benefits from produce grown at its own farm. (Photo courtesy Little Saint)
A coffee bar greets you upon entry. The main area offers casual eating and conversation, and a display case with baked goods and more. And, oh yeah, a wine display.
Little Saint’s vegan meals are diverse and delicious, from a grilled cheese sandwich to opera cake. Entrees include the Grilled Cheese Sandwich, served on sourdough bread with cashew-based cheddar cheese and topped with whole grain mustard. The Grain Bowl includes a “forbidden” rice, miso sauce, marinated mushrooms and tofu. Brunch includes a fabulous plant-based French Toast with fresh blueberries, as well as Overnight Oats and a Tofu Scramble. Little Saint’s dessert menu includes affogato — espresso poured over vegan ice cream — the opera cake and the two cupcakes we tried: carrot cake and salted caramel.
Little Saint cupcakes: carrot cake and salted caramel
The ingredients served at Little Saint come directly from their own farm, which uses sustainable practices to grow the restaurants’ produce. Indeed, Little Saint’s website notes the restaurant is “dedicated to climate justice, animal welfare, and kindness for all beings with a mindfulness of sustainable practices and support for emerging makers and musicians.”
“Our 100% plant-based menu features producers who seek to lessen their impact on the earth," said Jenny Hess, director at Little Saint. "They use a combination of old-school, sustainable farming practices and new, innovative solutions. We go through a rigorous selection process and make a concerted effort to feature and highlight marginalized groups in each sector.”
25 North St, Healdsburg, Calif. | (707) 433-8207 | littlesainthealdsburg.com
At the southeast corner of Lincoln Avenue and Cedar Street in Calistoga is a sign that spells out “Great Food” in neon lettering. If you have spent much time driving America’s highways you might have encountered similar signs saying “Eats” or something nearly as eloquent. So you might understand why we did not expect much when we saw that sign. We were wrong. Not only did Lovina’s menu include plant-based items, they were GREAT plant-based items.
“I'm an omnivore, but my mother raised me vegetarian, and I've always been frustrated by vegetarian/vegan options at restaurants,” said Jennifer Bennett, Lovina’s owner. “I think it's important to put as much research and effort into your vegan offerings as you do everything else on your menu -- perhaps even more, without the crutch of meat & dairy! I'm extremely proud of our Almost Bolognese.”
Lovina specializes in California cuisine and seeks to offer great local options in Napa Valley for vegan and gluten-free dining. Not all entrees are vegan, but a diner preferring plant-based fare has plenty of options. The Impossible Sausage Lasagna is made with gluten-free noodles, "mozzarella," charred tomato sauce, bloomsdale spinach and wild mushrooms. Another vegan entrée is the aforementioned Almost Bolognese, made with fresh fettuccine, mirepoix, calabrian chili and chickpea "parmesan." And for something sweet? Plant-based desserts include Almost Cheesecake, featuring whipped coconut cream, passionfruit caramel, cashew "cream cheese," toasted macadamias and lime zest. There’s also the "Snickers" Bar, a great item made with medool dates, house-made peanut butter and dark chocolate.
Lovina's Impossible Sausage Lasagna
The food here is fantastic, but there’s more to Lovina than the menu: Lovina provides full benefits to its employees, including health insurance and a 401k with employer match. Rather than expecting tips to deliver a full wage to their team, Lovina pays out 30% of every menu item directly to staff as revenue share, and diners are not expected to leave gratuities (but we did – the service was great!). Their effort to support hourly workers' rights to a living wage is just one more reason we can recommend Lovina.
1107 Cedar Street, Calistoga, Calif. | (707) 942-6500 | lovinacalistoga.com
When you think of Calistoga you might think of hot springs and mud baths. With good reason, as the spas in town offer experiences featuring both. The Solage offers a luxury stay in individual studios, delivering what it calls “a fresh and modern take on wine country sophistication.” We had heard the restaurant, Solbar, was a destination for vegan dining and we were not disappointed.
The restaurant is comfortable and features natural light, with a full bar at the end of the room. Weather leant itself to outdoor dining for our visit and we took advantage of it. Plant-based items on the menu include California Asparagus and Caesar Salad, along with a few additional selections which can be made vegan friendly. On this day we opted for the Solbar presentation of the Impossible Burger, which was fabulous. Oh yes, and wine.
755 Silverado Trail, Calistoga, Calif. | (707) 226-0860 | aubergeresorts.com/solage/dine/solbar/
And Fine Wining
If you thought wine is by its nature plant based, you would not be alone. But some winemaking techniques use egg white or other animal-based proteins as what are called fining agents, used to remove sediment particles that form during fermentation. Fish bladders are also sometimes used in winemaking. Vegan techniques deliver wine that can be considered healthier compared to non-vegan wines – it has fewer chemicals and is better for the environment – and is of course cruelty-free.
A few resources are available to help you find wines that are vegan. BeVeg and V-Label are among the organizations that offer certification of vegan wines, but such certifications are not regulated by the USDA or FDA. Also important to remember is that even if a wine is not certified as vegan, it might still in fact be vegan – not all wineries have bothered to pursue certification yet.
Here are 6 wineries we like that adhere to vegan winemaking.
Auteur Wines, Sonoma
If you have not been wine tasting in this area for a while, you might expect to pull into a winery parking lot and pop into the tasting room. But for most wineries, those days ended when the pandemic forced them to require reservations so as to manage social distancing. Auteur Wines in Sonoma is one of the wineries where you should book in advance. We did not, but happily we were able to purchase a bottle and enjoy it on the front porch while hearing some tales about the wine business.
Laura Juhasz of Auteur Wines. (Photo courtesy Auteur Wines)
Zach Wright, a hospitality & sales ambassador at Auteur, offered a few wine suggestions, and we selected the 2021 Manchester Ridge Chardonnay. It proved a good choice, very “fruit forward.” Zach added to the experience with personal stories of working in the wine business, tasting as many as 100 cabernets in a day — and so finishing that day with purple lips.
“We stick to vegan winemaking protocols and steer clear of animal-based fining agents such as gelatin and egg whites,” said Laura Juhasz, Chief Operating Officer and Owner at Auteur Wines, which also embraces a range of environment-friendly practices. “We are planting and replanting with drought-resistant clones to reinforce our commitment to conserving and protecting our water table impact. The soils of our vineyards are left undisturbed by adopting no-till farming practices.”
Other environment-friendly practices include scaling down Auteur’s carbon footprint by adopting locally made lightweight wine bottles and forgoing foils on its appellation wines.
Auteur’s wines are available primarily via its wine club, which affords its members priority access to vineyard allocations. And wines are of course available at the Auteur tasting room in Sonoma. Worth the trip.
373 First Street West, Sonoma, Calif. | (707) 938-9211 | auteurwines.com
Cakebread Cellars, Rutherford
Wine tasting at Cakebread involves more than just tasting. It is a storytelling experience about the wine business and how one family came to be in it a half century ago. But yes, there’s wine.
The experience starts in the eco-friendly visitor center, built just 4 years ago. There you receive the day’s first glass, for our visit a sauvignon blanc. Visitors then wait in the adjacent and nicely appointed lounge for the tour’s onset.
On our visit we were guided by Dean Ruggiero. His title is “Guest Experience Host” but Dean has worked multiple jobs in his years in the wine industry, including serving as a cooper – coopers make the wooden barrels used in winemaking – so Dean knows a thing or two about grapes. He tells the tale of how Jack and Dolores Cakebread came to buy, sort of by accident, a ranch that would become their namesake winery. As the tour progresses so do the stories, and the pours, which worked their way through the varietals and wrapped up with a very nice cabernet sauvignon. We were partial to the sauvignon blanc and the chardonnay, but all were delicious.
Cakebread's wine fermentation with its egg-shaped tanks. (Photo courtesy Cakebread Cellars)
Cakebread wines are vegan, and the winery takes pride in its environment-friendly practices. “The Cakebread family has been committed to being stewards of the land and protecting our valuable and limited resources for the last 50 years," said Laura Webb, vice president of Sales and Marketing at Cakebread. “From our winemaking and land conservation practices to our aggressive sustainability goals related to water and energy conservation, waste reduction and carbon neutrality, we are constantly asking ourselves, ‘How can we make our wine even better while also making it better for our earth and future generations?’”
8300 St Helena Hwy, Rutherford, Calif. | (800) 588-0298 | cakebread.com
Domaine Carneros, Napa
Approaching Domaine Carneros might feel like you are in European countryside or on the set of a James Bond film. The chateau is a notable piece of architecture surrounded by lush gardens and grape vines, and is a relaxing setting for wine tasting. Known for its sparkling wines, the selection also includes chardonnays, pinot noirs and roses. And a vegan cheese pairing is available as part of the wine tasting.
Domaine Carneros chateau and grapevines. (Photo courtesy Domaine Carneros)
In addition to delivering wine that is vegan, Domaine Carneros is focused on sustainability. "We will never stop striving to make better wines with a lighter, more sustainable footprint," as T.J. Evans, pinot noir winemaker, is quoted on the winery’s website. Recognition for its sustainability practices includes being a Napa Green Certified Winery and Napa Green Certified Vineyard. And through its company-wide composting, Domaine Carneros has eliminated more than 4,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
1240 Duhig Road, Napa, Calif. | (800) 716-2788 | domainecarneros.com
Moose Mountain Vineyards, San Martin
While not in what is typically thought of as wine country, Moose Mountain Vineyards nonetheless produces outstanding wines. Moose Mountain Vineyards has nearly 20 different varietals, all grown organically in efforts to “leave the land better than how we found it.”
Moose Mountain Vineyards was founded by Rich Schmidt, who is “passionate about the environment, animals and health. These values are exemplified at Moose Mountain with practices like regenerative farming and providing educational events about the benefits of food, alongside a delicious plant-based meal paired with MMV wine.”
Moose Mountain Vineyards founder Richard Schmidt with winery namesake Moose. (Photo courtesy MMV)
We were introduced to Moose Mountain Vineyards when it hosted an event for Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, where PCRM founder Dr. Neal Barnard provided an update on the organization’s programs and recent successes. It was a great event, and we were introduced to the One Ear Up One Ear Down 2019 red blend and the Misty Magic 2022 white wine – we really enjoyed both.
3210 Paseo Vista, San Martin, Calif. | (541) 668-9463 | moosemountainvineyards.com
Petrichor Vineyards, Sonoma County
The Petrichor name means “the scent of rain on dry earth.” The term is taken from two Greek words: “petra,” meaning stone, and “ichor,” referring to the golden fluid that flows in the veins of the immortals. Founders Jim and Margaret Foley chose this term for their wine because it defines their passion for terroir-driven wines.
Petrichor’s wines are handcrafted from organically farmed estate fruit. Favorites of ours include the Les Trois and the Carma.
(707) 291-5105 | petrichorvineyards.com
Rockmere, Saint Helena
A small producing vineyard that plans to stay that way, Rockmere takes pride in the quality of its wine. "We believe a great product starts with what we put in the ground," said Chet Pinckernell, founder of Rockmere. "We start with bringing the best nutrients to the vines, avoiding animal-based agents. And we apply minimal farming, and no additives."
Rockmere’s quality has not gone unnoticed, as its wines have been rated highly by The Wine Advocate. Its first vintage, the 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon, received a 92+ rating – we have tried it and can vouch that it is a great choice. Two 2019 vintages, the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Barrel Select 728, received scores of 93 and 95, respectively.
Rockmere Vineyards Founder Chet Pinckernell works among rows of vines. (Photo courtesy Rockmere Vineyards)
Rockmere wines can be sampled in the tasting room at Hunnicutt Custom Crush in Saint Helena, where Rockmere conducts its winemaking. The tasting experience, led by Chet or his daughter Bailey Pinckernell, is inside the caves, and enables visitors to see the winemaking process in action, sample wines directly from the barrel, and finish with a tasting of current vintages.
3524 Silverado Trail North, Saint Helena, Calif. | (707) 732-8415 | rockmerewines.com
Anyone who has visited the wine country of Northern California knows there is much more to it than the wineries. It is a region of lush vegetation and other beauties, the result of both nature and artists. Here are a few places to check out.
Neither Wine nor Food: Other Sights of Wine Country
Villa Ca’Toga, Calistoga
The residence/studio/retreat of Carlo Marchiori, an artist born in Rossano near Venice in 1937. Carlos is internationally known for his period-style murals in various hotels and casinos. In Calistoga he has created a villa reminiscent of Palladio, Veronese and Venetian Culture. One tour is held each week, Saturdays at 11 a.m., from May through October.
707-942-3900 | email@example.com | catoga.com
Petrified Forest, Calistoga
The Petrified Forest, in Sonoma County, is the only petrified forest in California from the Pliocene era. It was created following a violent volcanic explosion 3.4 million years ago and is 7 miles from the now-extinct volcano Mt. St. Helena. It has the largest petrified trees in the world.
4100 Petrified Forest Rd., Calistoga, Calif. | 707-942-6667 | petrifiedforest.org
Fort Ross, Jenner
Fort Ross State Historic Park is on the California coast, in the northern part of Sonoma County. It preserves the story of Fort Ross, a former Russian establishment that was the hub of the southernmost Russian settlements in North America from 1812 to 1841. The park’s visitor center includes a thorough history of that part of California’s past.
19005 Coast Hwy, Jenner, Calif. | 707-847-3437 | fortross.org
We could not get to all the great destinations the region offers, and you likely have some to suggest. Please share your ideas in the comments to help others planning a trip to wine country.