Thanks to all the hounds who weighed in on my request for wineries to visit. This was our first trip to wine country, and we had a fantastic time.
General observations: People warned me against visiting in February because there would be no leaves on the trees or the vines, and the weather could be nasty. We did get some rain, but most of the things to visit were indoors anyway. And the bare vines have a certain majesty and the bare oaks were gorgeous. And it was less crowded, so we really had a chance to chat with a lot of the people at the wineries.
Wineries/Tasting Rooms visited: Cline, Benziger, Landmark, Ledson, Arrowood, Korbel, Davis Bynum, Alderbrook, Trentadue and J Wineries
Best Experiences: Benziger had a really fantastic tour. They have a "display vineyard" which has detailed descriptions of all the vine trellising techniques and rootstock/vine grafting, which was enormously enlightening. We did the full tour of the vineyards, the wine presses and the caves as well. The wines were a little disappointing, but the tour was very informative, and I'm glad we did it relatively early.
J Wineries had a food and wine pairing. The food was good, if not stellar (little hors d'oeuvres that had been paired well in advance) but the pairings were very good, and it set that tasting apart. They paired sparkling wine with buckwheat blinis w/ caviar, chardonnay with a crab appetizer, pinot noir with wild mushroom bread pudding, and zinfandel with duck liver mousse. The pairings weren't astonishingly creative, but the wines were good, and it was a nice exercise in wine and food pairings.
The best wine: We had some really fantastic wines at Arrowood, and Davis Bynum and Alderbrook were also standouts. We adopted the M.O. of paying whatever extra to taste the reserve wines, but we usually split a tasting.
The Chow: We ate an excellent breakfast at the hotel (the Inn at Sonoma) each morning, then lunch wherever (the first day a picnic, the second day at the Bear Republic Brewery in Healdsburg, where we had perfectly good burgers, but not special). We had dinner the first night at the General's Daughter, and the second at the Girl and the Fig. The General's Daughter was amazing. You can order a la carte off the menu, or make your own tasting menu -- 3 courses, 4 courses or 5 courses. What I liked about their approach was that you weren't limited to a selection from the appetizers, a selection from the mains and dessert for a three course menu. I was attracted to one of the fish main courses, and I could incorporate that into a 3 course tasting menu, and they just adjusted the proportions accordingly. You could get three desserts if you wanted to (though at $45 for the three courses, that might be a bit stiff). We also elected to do wine pairings (at a very reasonable $5 per course, for a slightly less than full pour). This format allowed me to try a dish of shrimp with chorizo and grits, which was incredibly rich but excellent, and married perfectly with the Chardonnay they matched. My husband had a pasta starter that he enjoyed, also paired with the same Chardonnay, also an excellent pairing. We moved on -- I had duck breast with an orange chili glaze and confit risotto, which they matched well with a blended red. Husband had the special ribeye, and I don't remember much about the preparation, but he enjoyed it. They paired this with a Cab, as they should of. For dessert, husband had a fantastic classic creme brulee, paired with late harvest riesling (the caramels complemented each other nicely) and I had a Meyer Lemon Loaf cake matched with a sparkling dessert wine that tasted as if it had been made specifically to go with the lemon basil syrup on the cake. The room was lovely and service was attentive. I'd definitely go back.
By the time we got to the Girl and the Fig, we were both a bit wined out. I had an offering from their cheese bar of very good fromage blanc stuffed dates, and a bowl of split pea soup, and an admittedly excellent grilled cheese sandwich. Husband had a really good endive salad, an OK preparation of Black Cod, and we both shared the fig crumble for dessert. It was good, and a lot of locals were clearly there, but it didn't touch the General's Daughter for a special meal. I would go back and eat casually though -- grilled cheese, croque monsieur, burgers, cheese plates.