It gives me great satisfaction, because I had the notion that we could make great wines in the Napa Valley, equal to the greatest wines in the world, and everybody said it was impossible.- Robert Mondavi
In several previous essays I have written about how drinking a particular varietal or style of wine together with local ethnic cuisine in the place of origin for both greatly enhances the flavors and experience as a whole. Well, the reverse is also true. Drinking a wine in the winery in which it was made, tasting a wine directly out of the barrel from where it has been aging, or having some wine and cheese while the winemaker talks about crafting the wine is a unique experience that heightens your affinity for that particular wine, especially if it is a well made wine. There are many areas in the U.S. and other countries that are great for visiting and touring. One of the best areas to visit with truly incredible wine, also happen to be the most accessible. That is the Napa Valley in California.
This is my own personal summary for visiting wineries in the Napa. I have limited this list to only places that I have visited and would return to visit again. There are many fine wineries and eating establishments that I have not been to, and I am always looking for a recommendation for some new or out of the way place to visit. For those who have never visited a winery’s tasting room, the experience can initially be daunting. It really doesn’t have to be. In most cases, the winery employee pouring the wines is happy to share his or her knowledge about the winery, the vineyards, the winemaker, and of course, the wines.
Usually there is a list, or “flight”, of 3 to 6 different varietals. Most wineries charge a nominal tasting fee. This will be a bit higher, usually $10 to $50 if you go for the tour as well, and often I will join a wine club for a specific winery before we travel to Napa or Sonoma because they will either waive the fee or upgrade you to their higher end wines or higher end tour. Make sure you call ahead for setting up the tours.
I have listed the wineries by location and the 6 towns they reside in within the Napa Valley (Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga). I have also highlighted my wife’s and my favorite tours and wineries.
Classic wine tours:
Robert Mondavi Winery (Oakville) If you are planning your first trip to Napa Valley, then there is no better place to start than with the Mondavi wine tour. Few wineries can challenge the lasting achievements attained by the Mondavi winery. The Winery itself, with its Spanish mission-style architecture, reflects the location and legacy of the Napa Valley.
Beringer Vineyards (St. Helena), Beringer is also a great place to start. The main Rhine-inspired house and grounds are beautiful, and even though you might feel shuffled around like cattle (unless you know someone and can get a private tour), their wines are excellent and well priced for the most part.
Opus One Winery
(Oakville) is a great place to experience top tier wine production. It is difficult to set up a private tour but it certainly can be done. Visiting Opus even without a formal tour is the best way to get a glimpse of cult wine production. Pine Ridge Winery (Stag’s Leap district) has many unique features to their tour, and, of course, excellent wines. Joseph Phelps Vineyards (St. Helena) Here there is a beautiful terrace and first rate wines, especially their flagship Insignia wine. Joseph Phelps employs a great deal of organic winemaking techniques.
Silver Oak Vineyards (my favorite- in Oakville) produces elegant Cabernet Sauvignon with fully developed flavors and seamless textures. Their winery has been completely rebuilt after a fire destroyed the old aging building a few years ago. I have more Silver Oak in my own cellar than of any other California vineyard.
Great Cave tours:
Del Dotto winery (Napa and their new winery in Rutherford) has the most unique cave tour and best barrel tasting experience in all of Napa. Their wines are fabulous! They have two sites to visit, and their new Rutherford winery is decked out in marble and is absolutely beautiful. Jarvis (along Hwy 121 east of Napa) this is really a great cave tour with streams in the caves and interesting fiber optic lighting within the huge cave halls.
Stag’s Leap Vineyards (Stag’s Leap district) is very difficult to find, and off the beaten path, but worth it. Call ahead for reservations and directions.
Excellent vineyard tours:
Hendry winery (Mayacamas Mountains west of Napa-call for directions) is a small estate winery that I have visited at least four separate times. George Hendry will take you on a personalized, several hour tour in the vineyard to teach about vine cloning, and fine detail about winemaking. The wine tasting is also a great education and George will frequently pull out library wines for tasting and discussion. Pine Ridge Winery (Stag’s Leap) has a great tour that takes you through a demonstration vineyard and excellent aging caves with barrel tastings, and wine and cheese pairings. Frank Family Vineyards (Calistoga) is a small, unpretentious winery that still offers complementary tastings. The Main winery building is more than 124 years old and is an historic landmark in the valley. They have a beautiful tasting room.
Great Champagne tours:
Schramsberg Vineyards (Calistoga), gives one of my all time favorite tours of any kind in Napa. They give a great tour and tasting, and it is an excellent lesson in making sparkling wine. Domaine Chandon (Yountville) is a nice tour and has beautiful grounds. Domaine Carneros (off Hwy 12 half way between Napa and Sonoma) is a sister winery to the great French Champagne house of Tattinger, and has a beautiful Chateau with excellent vistas over the Carneros valley. Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves (Sonoma) is not in Napa, but is included because the Spanish Chateau and caves are well worth visiting.
Unique Winery/tour experiences:
Far Niente Winery (Oakville) is a beautiful historic landmark winery, and contains an interesting unique classic car collection. They are closed to the public, so you have to join their wine club to get in. Sterling Vineyards (Calistoga-you take a gondola up to the winery), Artesa Winery (atop the Mayacamus mountains between Napa and Sonoma, beautiful views), Rubicon Vineyards (Rutherford) is owned by Francis Ford Coppola, and is located on the site of the original Inglenook winery. There is lots of interesting movie stuff, and they place a great deal of emphasis on wine education.
Prager Port Winery
(St Helena – great ports and late harvest wines), Prager is a very unpretentious place and fun to make a quick stop at. Chateau Montelena (Calistoga), winery is home to the famous Chardonnay that beat the French in the 1976 French blind wine tasting.
Merryvale Vineyards (Rutherford) has a great cask room, and holds excellent food/wine pairing and wine tasting classes).
Newton Vineyards (St. Helena) is a great mountain hillside vineyard, with a beautiful winery, fancy garden and caves, and very scenic vistas). They also make a great unfiltered, barrel fermented Chardonnay.
Darioush winery (Stag’s Leap district) is a new place that has excellent varietals and a very nice tasting bar. The winery is fashioned after a Persian palace with really incredible architecture to see, although it reminds me of Disneyland.
Wineries with good shopping/markets: V.Sattui Winery (St. Helena), I love their Madeira. There are nice picnic sites on the grounds for having lunch. They also have a unique private wine tasting room. Viancia Winery (on 121 south of Sonoma) is a great place to stop and have lunch at the end of your trip on the way back to the airport. Also Dean and Deluca (St. Helena) is a great place for lunch. All of these places are excellent for their artisan breads, meats and cheeses.
Good places to eat: Brix (Napa), Tra Vigne (St. Helena), Etoile at Domaine Chandon (Yountville) is really a first rate restaurant with incredible food. Mustards (Napa), French Laundry (Yountville, Michelin 3 star rated restaurant), Oakville Grocer (our favorite place for lunch), Greystone/Wine Spectator Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America (St. Helena), Bottega (Yountville). Rutherford Grill (Rutherford, No corkage fee if you bring in your own bottle). The French Laundry (Yountville) is a Michelin three star rated restaurant, and quite possibly the best restaurant in America. It is also next to impossible to get a reservation.
Places to stay: There are actually too many great Bed & Breakfast places to stay for me to list. If you want some specific names, email back to me and I can give you the names of the places we’ve been.
Our two favorites are the Napa River Inn in Napa and the Harvest Inn in St Helena. Call for reservations early – the B & B’s can fill up quickly.
Obviously there are many other quality wineries to visit, with more than 260 wineries and counting. There are so many great places to visit, and a great thing to do is to just stop by some winery off the main drag that looks interesting. It just might end up being the highlight of your trip and something completely unexpected. Sometimes the owners or winemakers come out and spend time with you just to introduce you to their wines, and it ends up being something special. You just never know, and it is a way to endear yourself to a wine or winery that you have never heard about, and create personal memories. If you are wondering about any specific place I did or did not mention, just let me know and I will tell you what I know about it in more detail. Of course, all of these places have web sites which will give you a wealth of information. As I have mentioned, one of the best ways to endear oneself to a wine or winery is to visit the place where the wine is made. It makes for a fun little vacation with your significant other or with friends, and for some reason; my wine cellar always seems to fill up quite a bit after a trip to Napa. That is all for now.