By Matt Villano, on May 23, 2014

Gambling in Wine Country

For many visitors to Napa and Sonoma, in California, the biggest gambles usually come in the area of tasting rooms and with overnight accommodations. Chardonnay lovers might—gasp!—gulp down some Zinfandel. Boutique hotel fans might try a luxury resort and like it.

There are, however, other gambling options in Wine Country—ones that involve glitzy casinos and card rooms known for lively cash and tournament poker. Many of these Napa and Sonoma county facilities enable you to bet like a whale at some of the very same table games you might find in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. And because the gambling establishments are in one of the top foodie destinations in the state, most of them have stellar nightlife and restaurants, too.

I’ve lived in Sonoma County since 2007 and have written a weekly gambling column for the San Francisco Chronicle the entire time. The gig has enabled me to get to know the market pretty well. Here are some of the best.

Graton Resort & Casino

When this sleek and shiny casino opened in Rohnert Park (in Sonoma County) in late 2013, it quickly established itself as a favorite. The $800-million complex is managed by Station Casinos, the same company that operates Red Rock Casino Resort & Spa and Green Valley Ranch Resort, Spa & Casino in Las Vegas. Which means this casino feels like it’s straight out of Sin City.

On the casino floor, that means more than 140 table games, including popular iterations such as Blackjack Switch and Ultimate Texas Hold ‘Em; thousands of slot machines at just about every denomination, high-limit gaming with private salons, and a poker room that rivals the best rooms on the Las Vegas Strip. It also means phenomenal food options, including MY China, a Chinese restaurant from Chef Martin Yan; and a sizable outpost of Tony’s Pizza, from San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.

“Graton” (as we locals call it) also has a legitimately cool bar scene; drinks at Sky are creative, while G Bar serves as a great place to watch a big game (except California law prohibits betting on sports.)

I also like that members of the casino’s Graton Rewards players’ club can redeem points from the Sonoma casino for credits at any of the other casinos Station operates. This means a big run in Wine Country could actually get you to Las Vegas for pennies on the dollar—or free.

Local card rooms

A loophole in California law allows card-based gambling at smaller, privately owned establishments, so long as these places don’t take more than a consistent percentage of every hand. These outfits, dubbed “card rooms” commonly spread all sorts of poker games, as well as a handful of table games (which are backed by third-party gambling corporations, but that’s another story).

Especially if you like poker—or if you like to play in poker tournaments—these smaller casinos are worth a peek.

Personally, my favorite Wine Country rooms include The 101 Casino, in Petaluma (central Sonoma County), and Napa Valley Casino, in American Canyon (which is the southernmost town in Napa County). Both are intimate, and both draw a healthy group of locals who have been playing cards for years. The 101 also has a great restaurant (named City Limits) that offers discounts to players who log more than two hours of time at the felt.

Viewfinder Tip: Most Northern California casinos have great restaurants, so go hungry or plan to stay through a meal.

Gambling farther afield

In a story about gambling in Wine Country, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention some of the other worthwhile gambling establishments in Northern California—after all, the region is home to more than 50 casinos and card rooms overall.

The biggest winners in this bunch are four of the full-service Native-American casinos north and east of Napa County: Cache Creek Casino Resort in Brooks; Thunder Valley Casino Resort in Lincoln (outside Sacramento); Red Hawk Casino in Placerville (on the way to Lake Tahoe); and Black Oak Casino in Tuolumne (on the way to Yosemite National Park). There also is River Rock Casino, a slot-heavy tent casino in Geyserville, on the northern edge of Sonoma County.

In terms of regional card rooms worth visiting, don’t miss Casino M8trix in San Jose. This hotspot, which opened in 2012, has some of the liveliest poker action north of Hearst Castle. Another to consider: Bay 101, also in San Jose, which hosts (a variety of professional poker players at) a number of World Poker tour events every year.

What gambling amenities do you seek when you travel to a casino?