What It's Really Like to Do Wine Country With an Infant, According to a New Mom
Everyone says traveling with an infant is easy — until they learn to walk. So with restrictions lifting in California and our portable new baby in tow, I wanted to seize that brief window and take a road trip I'd craved since before pregnancy: wine tasting through Sonoma, the laid-back county beside Napa.
Cut to three-month-old Indah laying on a minimalist walnut table, gazing up in joyful wonder at a Louis Poulson artichoke pendant as her dad and I slide fantastically fragile wine glasses out of her reach. They hold a trio of single-vineyard pinot noirs and a chardonnay from famed 20-year-old Sonoma winery The Donum Estate, where we're sitting in a newly reimagined private tasting room designed by David Thulstrup. We push ceviche and braised pork belly bites away from her curious fingers as gauzy light filters in through wide windows, catching Indah's faint velvet of blonde hair. Outside are glowing vineyards and Donum's world-class contemporary sculpture collection, which we'd just toured via ATV, our sleeping babe snuggled on my chest in her Baby Bjorn.
Across rolling green topography we appreciated Doug Aitken's monumental wind chime and got lost in Gao Weigang's linear brass maze. I felt a particular kinship with Richard Hudson's "Big Moma," the black marble fountain in the shape of four breasts spouting water. As a breastfeeding first-time mom there wasn't a better piece of art for this precise moment in my life. As we'd arrived at the sleek white Donum House after a six-hour drive from Los Angeles, I'd learned my first lesson of navigating wine country with a nursing infant: Baby wearing is the best way to cover embarrassing leaks. (Or take a cue from my mistake and wear nursing pads.)
I fed Indah in our lovely private space before the carefully orchestrated tasting — an activity I'd run by our lactation consultant and pediatrician. According to the first, it's OK to nurse two to three hours after a standard glass of wine (five ounces). Our pediatrician was a bit more lax: one drink per hour should metabolize fine, she'd said, while warning against buying alcohol test strips. "They say there's alcohol in your milk after using mouthwash!"
I was equal parts stoked and anxious about my first post-baby wine tasting. I sipped only half of each estate wine out of an overabundance of caution, and reluctantly let my husband finish the rest. Throughout the next six days in Sonoma at special biodynamic wineries like DaVero Farms & Winery, Truett Hurst and Donum, along with Lambert Bridge (where Indah perfected her milk-drunk baby face), I learned that savoring every last drop is critical. So is self control. As one-half the team responsible for Indah, wine country was no longer about excess but about exercising restraint.
For most of the trip we explored Healdsburg, the cute town in northern Sonoma that sidles up to the Russian River and boasts incredible chefs alongside talented winemakers using precise alchemy to create exceptional pinot noirs and chardonnays. I yo-yoed between wanting to gulp down glasses of these perfectly aged nectars and feeling satisfied by surprisingly abundant non-alcoholic options. Dining outside at Barndiva one night, as Indah stretched her neck to watch the lace-like leaf canopy sway above her, I was perfectly content pairing my honey- and lavender-topped molten fried goat cheese balls with jewel-toned pinot noir juice, grown just up north.
Visiting wine country with an infant is also about knowing your limits, as in not lining up too many tastings or activities in a day. (Post-breakfast, pre-tasting vinyasa flow? As if.) Take it from a notoriously ambitious scheduler: stick with one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Also, make advance reservations at wineries and mention baby for the best experience. I came to think of it not as missing out on something, but having more unhurried time to notice nuance and beauty through Indah's fresh eyes. Plan windows to pump; having a full bottle of milk on hand gave me peace of mind that baby would survive if I sipped too much. We failed, however, to stock the car with enough water for ourselves, a major fail since it's easy to get dehydrated while wine tasting, even more so when you add nursing to the mix.
Our first few nights we slumbered sweetly at the sustainable, bamboo-fringed boutique hotel Harmon Guest House, just off Healdsburg's redwood- and Bradford pear–canopied square. As it turned out, our spacious ADA-accessible suite was perfectly suited for strollers, bassinets, and baby bathing. It's also a wonderful home base, literally minutes by foot from tasting rooms (Marine Layer's can't be missed) and meals (see foodie meccas The Matheson and Little Saint). This was especially helpful during an outdoor dinner at Spoonbar — where I've never tasted veggies more vibrant or chicken juicier — when the wind kicked up and my husband ran a freezing, crying Indah back to our room to warm up while I waited on a fluffy lemon cheesecake to go.
In my wine country mama fantasies, I wore a straw hat and boho dress and nursed Indah between verdant vines bursting with grapes. That didn't happen, but many times I found myself feeding her in the car in the 15 minutes before a tasting appointment, wild, Edenic vineyard in view — like at DaVero, where we sampled little-known Italian varietals such as Sagrantino in a wonderland of golden willow trees. Hot tip: Pack your nursing pillow along with the diaper bag in the car each day for a comfier situation, and plan on getting everywhere 30 minutes early. (This was particularly exciting for my chronically early, hyper-organized husband.)
At Bricoleur Vineyards, a family-owned winery with a massive reclaimed wood barn, ponds and giant white ducks to feed, I spotted two other moms with even tinier babes also sampling delectable plant-to-plate bites alongside aromatic viognier and cherry cola–spiced pinot noir. Families could happily spend an entire day, playing bocce, noshing on wood-fired pizzas, tasting rosé, and having picnics. Another afternoon, in a breezy cabana in the terraced gardens outside Flowers' new tasting room, we drooled over the stunning Moon Select chardonnay as Indah plain drooled, our host offering to hold her while painting romantic pictures of feathery tannic finishes and oregano aromas.
The natural, mellow vibe of Sonoma was also evident at our next stop: Montage Healdsburg, a new elegant, earthy resort that's not the least bit snooty. I learned that for a fact when Indah had a third-degree blowout while I enjoyed a glass of big, bold Sonoma zinfandel with my lovely host, Jenn. I'd made a rookie mistake leaving the diaper bag in our forest-facing suite way up the hill when I carried Indah down to Scout Field Bar. If this was a test, the five-star Montage passed, and I got to see how they handle very messy situations: with a stack of (thankfully) slate grey cloth napkins, sparkling water (for my soiled dress) and a lightning-fast golf cart getaway. Seriously, never go anywhere without a diaper and wipes — and maybe a change of clothes for you both.
On our long balcony, Indah discovered the thrill of dancing flames thanks to a chic fire pit as mom and dad relished our divine in-room dinner (an outrageously good grilled avocado, Journeymen charcuterie and truffle jus–drenched roasted chicken). When she fell asleep early, we melted into what felt like the most luxurious bath of our lives in the sculpted white tub, complete with bath salts and bubbly rosé. Over a couple days, we balanced decadence (a 32-ounce Flannery Beef côte de boeuf at Hazel Hill) with easy activity in the form of hiking, swimming in the deserted family pool — another perk of parenthood in wine country — and even an exciting beehive visit, with Indah tucked safely under my protective mesh hood. I even snuck into the toasted rosemary–scented spa for a massage with Kit, who applauded me for taking an hour to myself while kneading out my shoulder knots.
To conclude, we checked into Farmhouse Inn, a beloved Sonoma destination that oozes pastoral elegance and welcomed us with fudgy cream cheese brownies I'm still dreaming of. The family-owned boutique hotel is known best for its many years running a Michelin–starred restaurant. Up until now, 5:30 or 6 p.m. dinner reservations — bonus: typically easier to snag! — had been key to successful evenings, with Indah drawing praise for being so darn chill while watching us eat, rapt. Of course, you can guess what came next.
The evening began in a promising fashion, with Indah leaf gazing from her stroller as Keith savored incredibly tender octopus and I soaked up the sumptuous lemon-parmesan cream sauce from my spring pea cappelletti with our remaining bread. As my potato-crusted halibut arrived, though, Indah's good mood reversed course, and I attempted to juggle her and my fork (who wants cold halibut?). It helped that we were seated outside amid Edison bulbs and maples, but everyone was incredibly kind. And, finding a silver lining (a new parent skill, I think), I got to chat more with our server and sommelier about farming and the provenance of the produce while my better half patiently strolled Indah around flower-studded grounds. I managed to roast a s'more at the fire pit — the silky sweet marshmallows are house-made, after all — before returning to our cozy white room for a makeshift spa night using handmade soaps and scrubs.
The next day, I tasted but didn't swallow fascinating old world–meets–new California wines with foreign sounding names like Trousseau Gris, Charbono and Freisa at PAX Wines in Sebastopol's sprawling, family-friendly The Barlow. And then I nursed Indah discreetly under a cloud blanket while smelling and sipping strong single-vineyard Syrahs that I pictured planning dinners around. I'd been told drinking wine is safe while nursing, since it takes some time for alcohol to get into the milk. If this was wine tasting as a mom, I thought, I'm in.
It's not only new mamas spitting these precious Sonoma vinos, I found out when we met sixth-generation vintner Katie Bundschu — and her growing baby bump — at her beautiful new Abbot's Passage Winery & Mercantile. (After, I should add, the messiest explosion of the week, during another one of those parking-lot feeds, which brings me to another point: get ready to change diapers in the car!) "I spit," she laughed when I asked how she's handled being a pregnant winemaker. "My sense of smell is really acute, but once I get it on my palate it tastes blah."
There was nothing blah about her co-fermented Rhone blends, the product of regenerative farming — I wrote notes like velvety, plush, fun, and bubblegum as we grazed on cheese, hummus, and prosciutto, our sweet babe napping on her own cushioned chair. We sipped among gnarled, ancient zinfandel vines under robin's egg blue skies with a light breeze and no agenda or place to be. In that hyper-saturated and iconic wine country landscape I came closest to my fantasy when Indah eventually blinked her green eyes open, switching from her baby dream world to reality, and looked up at us happily. Her infectious smile in that idyllic environment told me one thing: that wine tasting with a baby is in fact a really good idea.