When you’re planning a trip to Napa, the sheer number of wineries can be completely overwhelming. We are talking over 400 wineries and vineyards in the Napa Valley alone – not to mention neighboring Sonoma Valley.
Because I’m driving averse, and driving while wine tasting is just irresponsible, my friend and I stuck to Napa during our quick girl’s weekend in January. This allowed us to Uber everywhere on our itinerary for a reasonable price.
There is some competition between the two wine regions in Northern California – with Sonoma’s reputation being the cooler, more laid-back valley (think of Instagram-chic wineries like Scribe Winery complete with picnic lunches and string lights) and Napa being the more traditional, fancy ‘hood with claims to the better wines (this claim started with the 1976 “Judgement of Paris” when California wines were judged better than French wines – oh la la!)
These differences also tend to mean that Napa is more expensive than Sonoma, and not just where the wine is concerned. Lodging is more expensive and food is certainly more expensive – with seven Michelin-starred restaurants and four Thomas Keller restaurants in Napa Valley (spread out along the town like St. Helena, Yountville, Napa, Calistoga and Rutherford).
After scrolling through endless reviews and websites, I was able to narrow down our vineyard stops from a pool of 400 to 4. I picked each one for a specific reason, which is a tactic I would recommend to friends and readers planning trips of their own!
#1. The Food Pairing
What’s better than wine tasting? Wine tasting with food. I don’t think that requires much more of an explanation!
A lot of the food and wine pairings I read about were incredibly expensive, so when I found B Cellars’ Oakville Trek for $80 per person, it sounded like a very fair deal.
This was our first stop of the trip. The Oakville Trek included a tour, tasting and food pairing and was the perfect kick off to our Napa weekend.
First, we were greeted by extremely friendly staff and a bright, airy space with central open kitchen. We met the two people who would be joining us on the tour and they were friendly too – a trend that would continue throughout the trip.
We kicked things off with a tasting of the 2015 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and the first small bite – a polenta frite with walnut and sage pesto. Both were delicious! We then started our tour which brought us to the wine cellar. It was really cool to see the cave with exposed earth and all. We even got to do a barrel tasting – wine poured straight from the aging barrel! (This is something to note when you’re booking tours – some will include this little perk while others don’t).
The fun facts I remember from this tour were that the stripe around the center of the barrels are painted red because then if employees accidentally fill the barrel and it overflows, the mistake is harder to spot!
Each barrel contains about 300 glasses of wine and weighs 450 pounds.
After the tour it was time to start our food and wine pairing and we went back to the tasting room where we were greeted with personalized menus and pens for taking notes (this was super exciting to me!)
I loved that Erin and I were able to sit in a pretty room, at a comfortable table and have a real catch-up over fancy wine and delicious, fresh, seasonal food.
The pairings were:
2016 Dutton Ranch Chardonnay
Persimmon Flatbread with goat cheese and crispy serrano ham
2016 Calesa Vineyard Pinot Noir
Duck Confit with phyllo dough, apple butter and apple relish
2016 Blend 25 (Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah)
Goat Ravioli with charred fennel soubise, broccoli rabe and sage
2016 Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon
Smoked Brisket slider with onion bun, Kansas City barbecue sauce and pickle chips
(This was a $125 bottle of wine and I felt super fancy drinking it!)
Other things I loved about B Cellars – the awesome sculptures by Seward Johnson of realistic looking people lounging on the grounds. Johnson is the artist who was responsible for the giant “The Kiss” sculpture in Times Square. I also loved the fact that they had their own little fruit trees and garden that they use in their dishes.
One thing to know about B Cellars is that they create mainly blends using the grapes from various vineyards in the Napa region. They opened in 2003, so their own grapes are still fairly young.
#2. The Intellectual Experience
Going into this trip, I didn’t know a lot about wine and I was excited to learn! My friend told me that her favorite experience of her recent trip was the tour at Hendry – where she walked around with a pad and paper taking notes.
I wanted to get my nerd on too! I made sure Erin was OK with the time commitment and realized that this might not be the most exciting stop of our trip – but that we would walk away feeling more knowledgeable.
The 2.5 hour tour and tasting at Hendry was a bargain at $50 considering all you learn. And the best part – if you purchase $50 worth of wine at the end – your tour/tasting fee is waived. So basically, $50 gets you wine (I was able to get two bottles), tour and tasting. It’s a steal in this expensive Napa Valley!
Hendry is owned and operated by George Hendry – an engineer whose no nonsense, straightforward approach to wine making made things easy to understand as they were explained by our tour guide Therese.
You could tell she knew what she was talking about – and took it seriously!
The tour was really interesting, and even though it was a decent amount of time walking around and listening, I was never antsy for it to end.
Here are some things I learned –
· Chile is the only country that hasn’t gotten a grapevine-killing insect called Phylloxera (I think it sounds like a dinosaur!)
· Almost all of France’s grape vines are planted by grafting onto American rootstock
· A typical grapevine takes 3 years to produce a harvest and about 6-7 years until the harvest is used in wine. At the 30-year mark, the yield begins to drop
· They can harvest an acre of grapes in 4 hours
· The deeper in the ground the roots need to go to get nutrients, the harder they need to work and the better the fruit
· Red wine is red in color because there is longer contact time with the skin of the grape (more tannins). White wine is white because there is no contact with the seed. Rose has a seed contact time of about 4 hours – hence the pink!
We went back to the tasting room, which was inside a building that felt very homey, and sat down at a table as a group as we were led through a tasting. We had really great conversation and were encouraged to share our thoughts and questions as we tasted.
I loved that each wine was succinctly named after the numbered plot of land that the grapes came from (45 blocks total on 203 acres of land).
Hendry was the perfect stop to actually learn something about wine.
#3. The Bougie Bubbly Stop
I knew I wanted to get my sparkle on at least once in Napa, and where better to sip champagne than at a French-inspired chateau complete with gardens and fountains? Domaine Carneros was the perfect place.
I had the time wrong for our tour, and we ended up arriving about 20 minutes late. It wasn’t the nicest weather when we arrived, so walking around the grounds didn’t sound too great anyway, and we opted to take the refund and sit in the tasting room with flights instead.
On a nicer day, I’m sure the gardens and grounds of Domaine Carneros would have been beautiful!
The sparkling flight came served on a little laminated placemat that had some information on it since there wasn’t anyone to really talk us through each sample.
It seemed pricey when we ordered ($35 for four samples) but each “sample” came as a full flute. I certainly left feeling fancy and giggly. And like I would enjoy owning my own chateau.
#4. The Casual, Grammable Tasting Room
Here’s the thing – once you’ve done one or two vineyard tours – a lot of the information starts to get repetitive.
Once we had done tours and guided tastings at both B Cellars and Hendry, we were looking for a more casual sit and sip atmosphere.
I chose Artesa for its modern architecture and design (especially because I was traveling with my friend Erin who is an engineer and I knew she would appreciate it) and it was the perfect place to casually sample some wines at the bar.
I only wish we had walked around more to explore this gorgeous winery built into the hillside. There’s even a permanent art exhibit and museum on the grounds! We popped our heads outside for a few seconds – but it was windy and rainy and we quickly retreated to the bar where friendly servers helped us decide what to try and chatted about the differences between Napa and Sonoma.
I loved it here and think if I were ever back in Napa, this would be my repeat visit.
The Moral of the Story
To make the most of your time in Napa, plan on visiting vineyards for specific reasons. Researching is half the fun – but pick out a few key experiences you want to have and find the vineyards and wineries that bring those experiences to life. Otherwise, it can get overwhelming!
I knew I wanted to go on an educational tour to learn a thing or two, to experience a full-on food pairing and to drink some sparkling wine. Once we accomplished those three things, I loved sitting in a beautiful space like Artesa and casually sipping a few glasses of wine without having to worry about a reservation or scheduled tour or set flight.
Stay tuned for my eventual guide to the Napa food scene and Napa for Beer Lovers!