California’s Napa Valley is a Holy Grail for wine lovers yet it can be hard to figure out how to enjoy the best wine touring. Here is the low down on ten wineries with great visitor experiences as well a guerilla guide to making the most of a Napa visit with tips on how to avoid the crowds and engage with the locals.
A guerilla guide to understanding Napa
Just over an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, Napa is tiny…just eight kilometers wide and 48 kilometers long….yet it is home to more than 450 wineries.
Napa is Cabernet country. All the experts agree that it produces the world’s best big, elegant, full-bodied Cabernets with plenty of structure and age-ability. Chardonnay is the second most planted variety, especially in the Los Carneros region. Other grapes include Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc (the classic Bordeaux blending varieties) as well as Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and even the occasional Pinot Noir.
The Napa produces some of America’s most expensive wine (think $2000 a bottle for Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon) yet it is also the second most visited destination in California after the Magic Kingdom. The result: the exclusive and expensive sits cheek by jowl alongside the overcrowded and touristy. This post will help you find authentic winery experiences that are neither too commercial nor too expensive!
Napa has near perfect grape growing conditions. Viticulturists can experiment with 33 different soil types in a classic Mediterranean climate with warm summer days, cool nights and long mellow autumns. The Napa River meanders between The Vaca Mountains in the east, which shield Napa from the scorching heat of the Central Valley, and the Mayacamas Mountains in the west, which separate the valley from the cooler marine influences of the Pacific Ocean.
George Yount (after which Yountville was named) was the first to grow grapes commercially in the 1830s and Charles Krug established the first commercial winery in 1861. There was a huge hiatus when many vines were pulled due to phylloxera insect infestation at the end of the 19th century and Prohibition in the 1920s but after World War II a new breed of visionaries like Robert Mondavi, Georges de la Tour, and Joe Heitz, laid the foundations of the thriving Napa Valley wine industry today.
Napa first got on the world wine map in 1976 when its wines dominated a blind tasting in Paris. Soon afterwards it became the first American Viticultural Area (AVA) and today there are 16 sub AVAs, such as Oakville, St. Helena, Stag’s Leap, and Rutherford, each with distinctive terroirs. It’s all about quality over quantity as Napa produces just 4% of California’s grape harvest.
There are four main towns along the north south valley, whose highway 29 is often clogged with traffic. In the south is Napa, the commercial center, worth visiting for its Oxbow Public Market and many wine bars. Yountville is the gourmet (and tourist) focus of the valley. Next is St. Helena, a small working wine town with a slightly hipper feel, and Calistoga in the north blends vineyards with hot springs and farmland. For a mellower wine touring experience take the quieter two-lane Silverado Trail that meanders alongside the eastern side of the valley.
How to decide where to taste:
First off, make a list of wineries you would like to visit. In many cases, you’ll have to make appointments for tasting.
You may have to pay tasting fees of up to $60 a person.
Decide on what sort of winery experiences you would like. Many of the famous Napa wineries, like Mondavi, Opus One, Beringer, and Beaulieu Vineyards, are now run by huge corporations so they are, by definition, more commercial and more crowded.
If you are a serious wine lover, plan to visit a range of cutting-edge boutique properties where you might have a chance to meet the winemakers.
If you are more of a regular punter, choose wineries that produce great wines as well as offering something extra like terrific architecture, world-class art, sculpture gardens, food and wine pairings or even walks in the vineyards.
Ten wineries that offer something special:
1. PlumpJack Winery, jointly owned by Getty oil heir, philanthropist and composer Gordon Getty and former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome, offers a quirky whimsical room with first-class and relatively affordable wines. Also check out their eco-minded CADE Winery on Howell Mountain.
Frog’s Leap Winery was the first solar-powered Napa winery with certified organically grown grapes. Take a tour to learn about their sustainable vineyards and enjoy a range of tastings in the Red Barn Ranch or in their organic gardens.
Cliff Lede Vineyards offers Cabernet tastings in a classy California bungalow and you can also explore the modern art gallery and sculpture gardens. They also own the luxury Poetry Inn in the Mayacamas Mountains.
Ma(i)sonry offers an all-inclusive experience in an historic stone building right in Yountville. Taste the Merlot-blend Blackbird wines and a rotating list of other boutique labels as well as checking out a beautifully curated collection of paintings, sustainable wooden furniture, antiques and ephemera. There’s also a lovely garden where you can relax with wine around an open fire pit.
The Quixote Winery looks a little like a cross between Hobbiton and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Designed by iconoclastic Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, it is all about organic shapes, bright colors and a whimsical spirit. Taste powerful Petit Syrahs and check out the art collection.
Hess Collection offers a fabulous multifaceted experience where you can taste its terrific Cabernet and Chardonnay in the historic stone winery, enjoy food and wine pairing tutorials, and tour the remarkable free private art museum featuring works by Robert Motherwell, Frank Stella, Anselm Kiefer and Andy Goldsworthy.
Chappellet Vineyard & Winery offers stunning views of Lake Hennessy from atop Pritchard Hill and tours include a walk through the vineyards and information about their sustainable initiatives.
Spring Mountain Vineyard is one of the prettiest vineyards in Napa with its historic Villa Miravalle, gorgeous gardens and greenhouses.
Schramsberg is widely considered to make the best sparkling wine in the United States. Visit this registered historic landmark at Diamond Mountain, south of Calistoga, where Jacob Schram first planted vines in 1862 and where Chinese laborers dug Napa’s first underground caves. Today the Davis family offers tours, tastings of their sparkling wines and Cabernet Sauvignon and spring and fall camps for hands-on, behind-the-scenes tutorials on making sparkling wine.
Domaine Chandon, within walking or cycling distance of Yountville, offers a fascinating tour to explain champagne production as well as sparkling and still wine tasting. There is a delightful sculpture-dotted terrace and their Etoile restaurant has an excellent young chef.
Where to stay and eat:
I suggest staying in Yountville in the physical and emotional heart of Napa and has more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than anywhere else in America. This easily walkable pretty village has a wide variety of luxury inns and a host of gourmet hotspots headed by Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry. After a busy day of wine tasting you can refresh at your hotel, have a spa perhaps, then stroll down the street to sample some of the finest food in California.
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