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, Charles Krug, Cakebread, the list goes on and on. You'll find small boutique wineries and large scale historic wineries. You'll even find an authentic castle that you can tour and drink wine at.
Of course, with so many great places to stop you'll need to do a bit of planning ahead to make sure you have time to visit the ones on your top list. I suggest you pick a big name winery, a small boutique, and book one tour each day. OK, go ahead, try to squeeze one more in. With so many wineries on Highway 29 it's often called the Disneyland of Wine Country, making it truly the Happiest Place on Earth! Don't forget your coupons and Wine Pass (use promo code "localwally" to get a discount).
Don't get lost! Follow along in Google Maps!
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, $30
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: $65, 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 rustic, chic tasting room is light and airy with a welcoming staff who are more than happy to walk you through your tastings. There's also a great spot on the patio just waiting for you and your friends should you want to sip and savor on your own. For an unforgettable wine experience check out their many tasting options, including an Aromatherapy tasting where you'll get to exercise your sense of smell and learn how to identify those aromas in the wines. If you've ever found yourself nodding in confused agreement when the person next to you is identifying all sorts of flavors you need this experience!
Outside the winery 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, some bread and cheese and have a seat at one of 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 $30, then print your stained footprint on a keepsake T-shirt. Come on, you know you want to do it!
Every time I winetaste in Napa I have to make the same decisions you do as a visitor - which wineries make the cut and which ones are left for the next visit. But one of them makes the cut every time and that's Alpha Omega. Why do I love you so?
It starts with being a dog friendly winery. This instantly sends that vibe that this is also a people friendly winery, one where you don't have to worry too much about what you know (or don't know) about wines. The servers are friendly and eager to help and the tasting room is large yet not too large, modern but not too modern. Outside there's a wonderful fountain and deeply cozy chairs that are just begging you to stop and smell the grapes. And the wines! Oh my, these are some of the finest wines in Napa from their complex whites to their brilliant reds. Did I just call their wines brilliant? Why yes I did! $30 gets you their standard tastings which gives you a mix of whites and reds or upgrade to their "Reds Only Reserve" tastings for $50. If you see a bottle of their Proprietary Red on the counter make your saddest dog eyes expression and beg for a tiny little sip. Please, please, please! It's life changing.
Alpha Omega also offers private tastings for only a few bucks more, highly recommended if you are visiting during the busy Summer months as you get to taste in a private room away from the crowds. Or go big time with their Exclusive Single Vineyard Tasting where you'll taste in the Barrel Loft and hosted by a wine educator. Reservations required for the upgraded tastings but walk-in's are fine for standards. Put this one on your short list of essential wineries to visit. I do. Every time.
Alpha Omega (website) (map)
1155 Mee Ln, St Helena, CA (707) 963-9999
Local Wally Tip: On Monday through Friday you can nab one of the top picnic spots along Highway 29 but you'll need a reservation. Wine club members get dibs on the weekends, a good reason to join.
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 if you forget the coupon, especially now that they've expanded the tasting room into a brand new facility.
Though I miss the quaintness of the old tasting room, let's face it - it was often busy and cramped. The new tasting room fixes all that. Large and expansive, contemporary and cool, it might be the biggest tasting room in the valley and is certainly one of the prettiest with the walls of windows over looking the vineyards and a lively atmosphere inside. There's an outside patio as well, perfect for sipping a nice glass of Hall wine while taking in the scenery. This isn't the place for a quiet discussion on tannins or malolatic fermentation - no, this is the place to come to with your friends, to hang out while sipping some great wines, to have a laugh or two and a good time. Of course, those looking for a more intimate setting will opt for the tour where you'll see some of the grounds and then head into the private tasting area where some of the best Hall has to offer are poured. Both are good experiences depending on what you are looking for.
Make sure you check out the grounds as well for some of the Hall's art and sculptures. Look, I don't know much about art but the giant head sculpture and weird straw houses make great photo op's and the bistro tables are perfect setting for a casual picnic. They also rent out a super cool space in one of the historic buildings which has a private upstairs area that would be perfect for a celebration or wedding reception.
If you like your wineries big and impressive, if you're looking for a non-intimidating wine experience, if you just want a good glass of wine to sip while enjoying the company of friends, make sure you stop in at Hall Wines.
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: $20 tasting, tour and tasting, $25 (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.
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. The basic tasting features four of the wines, the zin being a standout. Upgrade to the premium and they add a sparkling wine as well as pour the reserves. A bit off the beaten path, it's a perfect stop on a busy day when the other wineries are packed.
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: $20 taste, $35 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: $60 (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 2015: In just a few months the vines will be budding but for now take advantage of the small crowds and personal attention you'll find in the wineries and restaurants. Remember, if you're stuck just send me an email and I'll help you out... for free!
Need a driver? Lately I've been getting a lot of requests for tours or personal drivers, which is smart if you want to drink lots of wine and not risk getting pulled over. I have a few friends in Napa who can really show you the local spots so reach out to me and I'll connect you to them.
And this is way off topic but if you love Maui you should check out my latest guide, Local Wally's Guide to Maui.