There are basically two main winery arteries in Napa Valley, Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Highway 29 is the main road and home to the big names. You know these guys, Robert Mondavi, Beringer, Beaulieu. We'll visit the famous Castello di Amorosa castle, and smaller boutique wineries as well. With so many wineries, you'll see why it's sometimes called "Disneyland of Wine Country". Happiest place on Earth? Why yes, it is!
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With limited time in Napa, most people want to start their day early. The only problem is that to most people, a big bold glass of Cabernet Sauvignon is the last thing you want right after breakfast.
That's why I always start my day in Napa at Domaine Chandon, makers of sparkling wine (aka champagne). The grounds leading up to the tasting room are stunning, from the whimsical mushroom garden made of stones to the lush landscaping. Inside, the tasting room is large with views of the rolling hills beyond.
Also at the winery is étoile, Napa's first fine dining restaurant and the backdrop for a horrid Real Housewives of the OC episode that's best forgotten. Come for morning wine tasting, stay for lunch. In fact, if you're going this far you should probably join the club and get a free glass of champagne when you enter the tasting room, free tastings, another free glass at lunch, a special amuse bouche to start your meal, and 20% off when you're done, all for the price of one shipment. Wait - maybe this is why the Housewives behaved so badly!
Domaine Chandon (website) (map)
1 California Dr, Yountville, CA 94558 (707) 944-2280
Cost: Tasting's from $18 to $25
Local Wally Tip: Come early to avoid the crowds as the scene changes from serene to party zone when it gets busy.
A lot of wine "experts" back home might tell you to skip Mondavi. It's too touristy, and too crowded. And besides, they'll tell you as they sip their Woodbridge, the wine's just not that good.
That would be a good time to use those interpersonal skills your mom taught you and say "thank you for your tip" and turn back to me for the real scoop. Because unlike the wine snobs, I like Mondavi and if you've never been, you're going to like it too!
A quick bit of history - the Mon-day-vi (that's right) family wine owned Charles Krug, Napa's first winery, but a fight with brother Peter got Robert fired in the mid-'60's. Robert was the feistier of the two and didn't take this laying down - no, instead he opened his own winery, changed the pronunciation of his last name to Mon-dah-vi, and arguably changed the course of Napa by making fine wines that were among some of the best in the world. Over time the winery added less expensive wines like Woodbridge or Coastal, thus watering down their image as a fine wine producer, but that doesn't take away from the experience you'll have when you visit one of the iconic wineries in Napa.
Robert Mondavi Winery (website) (map)
7801 St. Helena Highway, Oakville, CA(707) 226-1395
Cost: Signature tour and tasting, $25
Local Wally Tip: If you haven't been on a tour before, this is a good one as it takes you from vines to wine.
Blending different wines to smooth out the edges and add complexities has been going on for a long time, but not at Nickel & Nickel, an "appointment only" winery that produces only single vineyard wines. That's right. One vineyard, one wine. No messing around.
Founded by the partners of Far Niente, a visit here lets you experience the differences the land imparts on the same grapes. Focused mainly on reds, there's not a Meritage or blend in sight. Don't even ask!
The winery is a true appointment only, no dropping in. Those with reservations are treated to a tour the restored 1884 Queen Anne-style house, the beautiful grounds and 18th century barn, even the underground barrel cellar. And of course, the tasting's are as unique as the tour, typically with one type of wine but sourced from different vineyards.
Nickel & Nickel (website) (map)
8164 Saint Helena Hwy, Rutherford, CA (707) 967-9600
Cost: $50, appointment only
Local Wally Tip: One of the more serious tours and tastings, best for true wine lovers.
Unlike some wineries that scream for attention like crying babies with their giant facades or Persian columns (you know who you are), Cakebread Cellars is elegantly understated. The name on the mailbox is your only indicator that you're at the right place. And boy, is this the right place.
Don't let the "appointment only" scare you into thinking this is a stuffy, uptight winery. It's really more for crowd control. While other wineries are as busy as TGI Fridays at happy hour, only those with reservations are allowed into the back tasting room. A bit of history and then its time to sip. Stunning wines, the chardonnay is a standout but everything here is superb, including the friendly staff who seem delighted to work here. This is the way Napa wine tasting used to be, before the big crowds, and I like it!
There are a number of different tasting tours, from whites only to wine and food pairings, and make sure you take some of their free recipes to pair with your wine when you get home. A wonderful winery, essential stop, one of my favorites.
Cakebread Cellars (website) (map)
8300 Saint Helena Highway, Napa, California - (707) 963-5221
Cost: $15 for basic tasting's and short tour
Local Wally Tip: While I sometimes share tasting's, don't do this at Cakebread as you get to keep the logo'd wine glass, a keeper!
Don't let the outside facade scare you. I know it looks more like a corporate office than a romantic winery, but step inside and you'll see why St. Supery is a favorite.
The friendly tasting room is off to one side and the staff is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their wines. But go upstairs for a self guided tour, an art exhibit, and a bit of wine education, including a sensory exhibit where you push a button to get a scent from a wine with a description of what you're smelling. If you ever were confused when people would say things like "a touch of grassiness" or "ahh, the faint taste of tobacco", you need this exhibit!
Outside there are bistro tables under the trees and a large grassy area, both perfect for an impromptu picnic snack. Wine Club members taste for free, of course, but also get a private tour with barrel tastings and blending for themselves and their guests, a nice touch and great experience.
St. Supery Vineyards (website) (map)
8440 Saint Helena Hwy, Napa, CA (707) 963-2946
Local Wally Tip: Join the club before you arrive and you'll see your name on the Welcome Marquee when you arrive for your private tour!
This guy is crazy. I'm talking about Alan, the wine pourer that sings and raps about wines. Tthis guy clearly loves wine and, well, life. And isn't wine supposed to be fun? Isn't that why we started drinking it in the first place?
Wine tasting is done in groups. No pushing to the counter, no jockeying for position, you wait around the gift shop area until it's your turn. Anyone who has been to Napa on a busy weekend will appreciate this. Wine pours are generous and typically waived if you buy a bottle, a pretty good plan.
Those who want to talk about terrior and have serious conversations about serious wines might not appreciate Peju, but for the average guy who likes good wine but, more importantly, is on vacation and looking for a fun experience you'll not be disappointed. A fun winery, possibly one of the most fun stops on Highway 29.
The story of Inglenook, until recently known as Rubicon Estates (and before that Coppola) could make a great Hollywood movie. The long history of Inglenook wines, once considered one of the top wines in the world, and the tragic story of what happened when they sold out to a huge corporation who turned them into a jug wine producer was heartbreaking.
But like any good story, there's the happy ending when Francis Ford Coppola, rolling in dough after The Godfather movies, buys the winery with the goal of returning it to its former glory. Today, Inglenook is as passionate about its wines as it is in protecting the reputation of the original Inglenook legacy.
A visit here might remind you of visiting a European village with the quaint bistro tables, the miniature sailboats in the fountain, the impressive stone architecture. Each visitor gets a 30-45 minute tour of the Estate, followed by a seated tasting of four Estate wines with small pairings selected by our Estate Chef, Alex Lovick. The entire experience lasts 75-90 minutes, is limited to 10 guests, and costs $50 per person. Reservations are highly recommended as there arevaried and limited times available each day.
After the tour, order a glass of wine and have a seat at the bistro tables to watch the afternoon float by. It might be the best afternoon you'll spend in Napa.
The story goes that Georges de Latour bought the winery for his wife in 1900 who exclaims "“Quel beau lieu!” ("beautiful place") thus giving it their name. But soon a vine killing disease takes over Napa Valley and nearly wipes out all the vines. "Thanks for the dead vineyard, Georges," I'm guessing his wife said as she stormed out of the winery.
Georges solves the problem by traveling to France and bringing back millions of resistant rootstock, thus saving the day and the California wine industry - what a guy! And nearly as important, he brought back famed winemaker André Tchelistcheff, an icon in Napa Valley whose influence is felt at every winery today.
But Wally, isn't Beaulieu the winery that makes that inexpensive wine I get at Longs Drugs?
OK smarty pants, it's true that Beaulieu makes the low-end BV Coastal, a good if unexceptional wine. But just like you can't judge Mondavi by his Woodbridge label, you need to experience just how good Beaulieu wines made in Napa Valley, the real Beaulieu wines, actually are. I think you'll be impressed.
Beaulieu Vineyards (website) (map)
1960 Saint Helena Hwy, St Helena, CA (707) 963-2411
Local Wally Tip: Grab a bite next door at Rutherford Grill, a great local casual eatery, then head over for some wine across the parking lot.
From the looks of this small, unassuming winery, you wouldn't know that were a big part of putting Napa wines on the map but in 1976, a chardonnay made by winemaker Mike Grgich at Chateau Montelena beat the French in the famous blind tasting's
Mike soon struck out on his own, teaming with the Hills Coffee family and together created Grgich (pronounced Ger Gitch) Hills, focusing on producing just 6 wines of extraordinary quality. Love chardonnay? This is your stop.
Unlike many of Napa Valley's wineries with huge facades and flat screen TV's, Grgich Hills remains a small, intimate winery. Come on a Friday from 2 to 4 (except during harvest) and your tasting fee includes barrel tasting. That's right, normal Joe's like you and me get to taste upcoming wines straight from the barrel, an experience usually reserved for wine club members or high priced tours at other wineries. The entire experience here is so old school Napa Valley that it's ultra cool, and it doesn't hurt that they produce some of the best wines in the valley.
Grgich Hills (website) (map)
1829 Saint Helena Hwy, Rutherford, CA (707) 963-2784
Local Wally Tip: During harvest you can stomp grapes just like the episode in I Love Lucy for $10, then print your stained footprint on a keepsake T-shirt for $18. Come on, you know you want to do it!
I discovered this winery years ago when a small sign pointed down a dirt road to an unfinished winery. It didn't matter that their tasting room was unfinished and the sound of tractors and jack hammers echoed on the cement walls, their hospitality shined. And the wines? Oh yeah, the wines!
Today, Alpha Omega has quickly established itself as a top winery destination with the gorgeous fountains and seating area on the patio, perfect for breaking out your picnic lunch as you enjoy a bottle of their wines. It's a dog friendly winery as well so don't be surprised to see a pooch sitting on the patio next to you or even inside the tasting room. And while the new tasting room is a beautiful addition, what hasn't changed is their friendly hospitality, making this one of the best winery stops in Napa Valley.
Alpha Omega (website) (map)
1155 Mee Ln, St Helena, CA (707) 963-9999
Local Wally Tip: Stop by Oakville Grocery for a baguette and some cheese, grab one of those comfy chairs on the patio and sit back with a glass of wine, a perfect lunch destination.
I go to some wineries because of the history. Others get me with the ambiance or the architecture. But I love Hall Napa Valley for it's Two-fer-One coupon. What?
Look, times are tough so when a Napa winery offers discounts, I'm IN! And thankfully, Hall Napa Valley is a great stop even without the coupon.
Inside the winery is a great photo op, the glass bubbles hanging from the ceiling looking a bit like red wine droplets. The staff is friendly and helpful, the wines, especially the cabs, very nice. Outside is a great picnic area under the oak trees, a perfect spot for opening a bottle and breaking out a casual lunch. So OK, Hall doesn't have the old world ambiance of the iconic wineries, nor the flashy contemporary look of the newer wineries, but as a family run (albeit a wealthy family) boutique, it's a worthy stop. Especially with the coupon!
Forget everything you think you know about Beringer wines and get in here. Sure, Beringer makes some pretty average low end wines these days, but as one of Napa's pioneers, it's an essential stop.
The first winery to offer public tours in Napa, their history dates back to 1875 when 2 German immigrants bought 215 acres and crushed their first grapes. Soon they planted the "Tunnel of Trees" that's still on Highway 29, built the elegant Rhine House where they lived, built the impressive stone winery building, and hired the Chinese to dig the wine caves. And you're complaining about having to paint your house?
First timers should opt for the basic 30 minute "Family" tour which give you some history, a tour of the stone winery and a trip through the aging tunnels. At $15, including tasting's, it's a "best buy", especially since the tasting's alone cost the same. The "Taste of Beringer" tour is $5 more but adds a vineyard visit, wine tasting 101, and a glass of wine to sip as your tour. Don't miss checking out the Rhine House where you can taste their premium wines for $25, and give yourself plenty of time to tour the grounds and just take in the beauty of this iconic winery.
Beringer (website) (map)
2000 Main St, St Helena, CA (707) 967-4412
Cost: $15 tasting, $15 tour with tasting (call ahead)
Local Wally Tip: Don't be disappointed if you don't see wine production as that happens across the street and is closed to the public.
Old timers will remember when all wine tastings in Napa were free. A few years ago Frank Family was one of the last to offer free tastings, but with their move to the new tasting room this tradition has sadly bit the dust.
Those who remember the old tasting room - the one in the crummy old house - will recall zany and outrageous wine pourer's, doing things like drinking leftover wine straight from the bottle. Ahhh, the good old days.
Today the tasting's are in a refurbished classy Craftsman house, the dusty grounds now landscaped and manicured, and the staff less likely to drop F-bombs. But catch them on the right day and their old class clown personality still comes out and it's pretty hard not to have a good time here. Tasting's start with sparkling wines and move on to some seriously good reds, their Zin is a standout. Great picnic spot, this is a nice stop worth the detour off Highway 29.
Frank Family (website) (map)
1091 Larkmead Ln, Calistoga, CA(707) 942-0859
Local Wally Tip: Tasting's might cost ten bucks now but buy a bottle and the fee is waived, making this still a great deal.
You've seen it on TV, you've read about it in tour books, and now you're wondering if Castello di Amorosa, aka the Napa Castle, is a real castle... or a cheesy faux Disneyland Las Vegas fake.
Let me assure you, it's incredible.
With 107 rooms and 121,000 square feet, it looks more like something out of The Lord of the Rings than a Napa winery. Taking 13 years to build using only Old World construction techniques, the attention to detail will leave you in awe.
The ironwork was hand forged, there's a dungeon with real torture equipment, the stone construction was done without modern cement, there's hand painted floor to ceiling frescos, there is no way you'll be able to distinguish this from a real Tuscany castle - well, maybe the modern winemaking equipment, but that's about it. They even used different construction in different parts of the castle to simulate how a real castle is built over time, with better fit and materials during prosperous time and rubble and leftovers during hard times. Of course, this is Napa so does the wine live up to the setting? Oh yeah, you're going to like this stuff.
Those on a tight schedule can get entrance to the castle and tasting room for $16. You'll get a feel its scope as you walk to the tasting room but won't get to see the bulk of the castle. For that you'll want to take the one and a half hour walking tour ($31) where they'll take you down dark hallways, into grand ballrooms and down secret passageways until you end up in the caves where you'll have a private tasting experience. The tour focuses on the castle, not on winemaking, and at least one in your party should upgrade to their premium wines to taste La Castellena, a reserve "super Tuscan", and the Reserve Cabernet, the one with the hand dipped wax over the cork. All in all, an enjoyable experience with delicious wines.
Castello di Amorosa (website) (map)
4045 N. St. Helena Highway, Calistoga, CA (707) 967-6272
Cost: $16 taste, $31 tour
Local Wally Tip: Located on top of a hill and hard to see from the road, it's across from Sterling Vineyards.
You're looking out the window with the same excitement as a kid at Disneyland. "The tram, the tram!" you shout with glee as you approach Sterling Vineyards. That's right, Sterling features a tram ride to the tasting room on top of the mountain.
Once you arrive, there's a self guided tour of how they make their wines, then it's off to taste in the indoor room or outdoor patio. Either way, the view is outstanding. But at $25 for standard tastings, is it worth it? It depends.
Since they pour the wines at your table, there's no jockeying for position at the bar. But there's also no wine education or banter. In fact, the pourer's are almost relegated to waiters, pouring wine and repeating descriptions with about as much enthusiasm as a waiter at Applebee's. But there's no denying that people are having fun and the view is inspiring, looking more like Lake Tahoe than Napa Valley. Wine lovers looking for a wine-centric experience should avoid Sterling, but those looking for a place with a killer view to sip some wine will find it hard to beat.
Back in the 60's, a young couple looking for a simpler family life bought a deserted winery. Thinking Napa was already saturated with wineries - after all, there were 22 at the time - they decided to make sparkling wine in the French tradition.
By the end of the decade, none other than President Nixon (Tricky Dick) used their wine to toast to peace in China, not only putting Schramsberg on the map but making the wine of choice for every president thereafter. Hey, that Dick is alright!
If your experience with sparkling wines is limited to obligatory toasts at weddings (and the obligatory headache later), you're in for a treat. Schramsberg isn't kidding when they say they make their sparkling's the old way. Bottles are lined up in the caves and turned by hand, not machine. You get a real appreciation for what it takes to make a great bottle of sparkling wine. As for visiting Schramsberg, their tour is one of the best, taking you deep into the caves (real caves!) that open up to a candlelit tasting area, looking like the final scene in The Phantom of the Opera. With great wines, a friendly staff and great tour, Schramsberg is highly recommended.
Schramsberg Vineyards (website) (map) (YouTube of caves)
1400 Schramsberg Rd., Calistoga, CA (707) 942-4558
Cost: $40 (tours only, no drop in tasting's)
Local Wally Tip: Schramsberg is hard to find so give yourself plenty of time or you'll miss your tour time.
Up until recently, most casual Napa visitors had never heard of Chateau Montelena - and fewer had made the trek north of Calistoga to visit. That all changed when the movie Bottle Shock was released in 2008, telling the story of how a little Napa winery beat the French in the famous blind tasting's.
It was Chateau Montelena's chardonnay, along with Stag's Leaps Wine Cellars' cabernet, that turned the wine world on its end and changed Napa forever, turning it from a sleepy agricultural town to the wine mecca of the world.
You'll feel like you walked into the movie once you see the castle building. And look, there's the house where the bad mood Dad worked and where's that hippie kid of his? More importantly, where's his hot girlfriend? What's that you say, the movie wasn't accurate? Oh well, at least visiting the winery is as cool as you might imagine. With the impressive stone chateau, the nutty Chinese lake in back, the lush landscaping and the elegant if small tasting room, it's certainly delivers what the movie promised. The picnic grounds are reserved for Wine Club members, but everyone can walk around and gawk, and who can resist a photo of yourself in front of the famous chateau? You sure that hot chick isn't around here somewhere?
Chateau Montelena (website) (map)
1429 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga, CA (707) 942-5105
Local Wally Tip: If you really loved the movie, take the tour where they show you where the film was shot and discuss fact versus fiction, all while sipping a glass of their famous chardonnay.
WHERE TO NEXT?
MORE WINERIES ON THE SILVERADO TRAIL!
SPRING 2014: Planning a trip to Napa Valley in Spring is a great idea. While the vines are just starting to bud the mustard plants are in full bloom, a beautiful technicolor experience. Plus there are fewer crowds. When there make sure you check out V Marketplace in Yountville, cool place.
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