In the Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon rules. The king of Bordeaux grapes and its blending partners (Merlot and Cabernet Franc, for the most part) grow extremely well on Napa’s warm, flat valley floor, as does Chardonnay. Merlot, Chardonnay, and Cabernet and its cousins will be what you’ll find the most of in the valley, and if anybody tells you a good Pinot Noir is made here, he’s lying.
You’re probably in Napa to go wine tasting, as are those bachelorettes behind you in the Hummer limousine. Luckily, you can avoid them, the additional hordes of drunken tourists, and the snooty attitude of many tasting-room employees by planning ahead.
Make reservations: If possible, visit wineries with a group of four to six friends, and before arriving arrange a private tasting. This is exactly as it sounds: a tasting, often including a tour of the vineyards and winemaking facilities, for just you and your friends, at a—usually reasonable—additional cost. Why do this? Well, it will ensure you the complete attention of the tasting-room employee seeing you around, you will learn something, and oftentimes you’ll get to taste better wines. In fact, we recommend that for the best experience, taste mainly at places that require reservations.
The deal with tasting fees: Most wineries have them, whether you’re doing a private tour or queuing up in the tasting rooms open to the public. This fee can be anywhere from $10 to $50, depending on the ritziness of the winery, the number and quality of wines tasted, and the depth of the tour, if there is one. The fee will be deducted from the cost of your wine, if you choose to purchase some. But don’t feel guilty if you forgo buying any. Tasting is a way to learn about wine, and find out what you like. After all, they’re not called buying rooms, they’re called tasting rooms.
How to survive a day of wine tasting: Drink more water than you think necessary. Spit wine out in the bucket provided if you don’t like it. There will be enough wine later that you will like. Don’t worry—you’ll get your buzz on! Plus, you’ll be better able to remember the good wines if you’re a little bit sober.
And please, designate a driver. Keep in mind that five tastes each at five wineries with roughly two ounces per taste equals two bottles of wine! Hire a car, get a limo, ask your grandma—but don’t drive after drinking.
Below are your best winery bets. The first few we recommend because they have beautiful surroundings, though not necessarily amazing wines. (Think picnic.) Then we give you a few “old-school” picks that we think embody Napa the way it used to be. The last offer a truly decadent experience you can find few places in the world. We suggest doing private tastings at both the old-school wineries and the splurges.
COME FOR THE SCENERY, NOT THE WINE
1060 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga
The wine is fair to middling, but Clos Pegase’s sculpture gardens have won international awards. Swallows dive through neatly groomed rows of oak trees, and a surreal, giant iron thumb pops up for an “A-OK” amongst the nearby vines. Picnic tables abound. No reservations required.
8466 St. Helena Highway, Rutherford
Dr. Seuss–y sycamore trees line the driveway, and a big “NO BUS” sign ensures the tasting rooms (which don’t require reservations) will be free of large drunken groups, though the wine’s not great. Better are the expansive grounds, which include a patio, rolling green lawns, a koi pond, and a whimsical sculpture collection. Come now before Peju blows up, because it’s primed for a huge commercial launch. No picnic tables, but visitors are welcome to eat on the grass.
6126 Silverado Trail, Napa
Picnics aren’t allowed and reservations are a must, but you have to see this place. After founding the successful Stags Leap Winery, owner Carl Doumani wanted to downsize and emphasize fun, so he commissioned the legendary Austrian artist, architect, and nudist (!) Friedensreich Hundertwasser to design Quixote (the only American building he designed). The strange, eclectic winery has no flat surfaces, no straight lines, and lots of wild colors. The grounds are as eccentric as the architecture, and are filled with mosaics in unexpected places. Original Hundertwasser paintings grace the walls alongside a collection of black-and-white photographs, and the wine’s not bad either; Quixote specializes in Petite Sirah, a varietal as unexpected as the setting. Three tours daily: 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 2:30 p.m.
Drop-ins welcome, but it’s polite to call ahead at these teeny places.
3451 Silverado Trail, St. Helena
In the little farmhouse that is Casa Nuestra’s barrel room, tasting room, and visitors’ center rolled into one, a staff of six produces rare wines of special interest not affected by marketing trends (as the peace signs and Elvis memorabilia that decorate the tasting room attest). For instance, they make arguably the best Chenin Blanc in the country, an odd varietal to specialize in, since it’s not very popular outside France’s Loire Valley. Wines range from $16 to $55 for current releases.
987 St. Helena Highway, St. Helena
Longtime winemaker Cathy Corison (one of the first female cellar workers in the Napa Valley) creates beautifully balanced, elegant wines (especially her Gewürztraminer). The Cabernets are lower-alcohol (below 14 percent) and food-friendly (which means they’re not going to blow your palate with a lot of oak and fruit up front). That is, they’re the way wines in Napa used to be, before Robert Parker and his ilk decided high-oak, high-alcohol, and high-fruit vino was the best. There are only two wines with the Corison label (the Kronos Cabernet Sauvignon is the flagship wine), but two others are made on the premises, Corazon and Helios (the former is the tasty Gewürztraminer). Corison also makes a tiny batch of “home wine” with her kids from time to time, bottled under the Acappella label. Wines range from $18 to $48 for the current releases; library wines cost more. Reservations required.
Vincent Arroyo Winery
2361 Greenwood Avenue, Calistoga
Rich, earthy wines and an unpretentious setting make this driveway a great place to taste wine. That’s right—a gravel driveway, a board laid over two standing wine barrels, you, the wine, and someone to tell you about it. Also, dogs that climb up a tower of the current year’s wines, stacked 10 barrels high. Specializing in reds (Cabernet, Petite Sirah, Merlot, Sangiovese, and a couple of blends), Vincent Arroyo makes 6,000 cases a year that are wonderfully expressive of the warm northern-Napa climate. All the wines sell out, so if you like them, buy them on-site (few cost more than $40).
1350 Acacia Drive, Oakville
Far Niente has a big estate and the oldest wine caves in the valley, which are the length of three football fields end to end. At the close of the tour you get to look at the owner’s collection of mint, vintage racecars—he used to be a driver! After that, there’s a side-by-side tasting of some of Far Niente’s library wines and new releases (a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Chardonnay, and a sweet wine based on Château d’Yquem’s Sauternes made on the premises under a different label). You taste inside a sort of Tara-esque mansion, while the incredibly friendly and knowledgeable staff serves you tiny tapas. Reservations absolutely required; tour and tasting is $50.
Pride Mountain Vineyards
4026 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena
Stunning views and verdant vineyards reward you for the 20-minute drive up the mountain from St. Helena. Everyone should include a mountain winery in his or her tour of the Napa Valley for (at least) two reasons: The View (duh)—the whole valley spread in front of you. The Wines—hillside vineyards are thought to be the best growing conditions for several kinds of grapes, as the climate is more stressful, causing the vines to root deeper, drawing more character from the soil and creating the (by now overused term) terroir. French wanna-be-ism aside, Pride’s got prime fruit up there on top of Spring Mountain. The spectacular new facility is one of the largest and most beautiful in Napa, with a 360-degree view of the valley, and the wines are truly amazing: three varietals of red and two of white. Tours and tastings are in the morning, tastings only in the afternoon; appointments required; call for times and prices.
1601 Silverado Trail, Rutherford
Tastefully opulent Quintessa is owned by the former CEO of Chilean wine conglomerate Concha y Toro. Visitors are greeted by prim personnel wearing classy suits in a modern gray-stone-and-dark-wood building that recently won a national architectural award. You taste at little bistro tables here (not at the bar—the staff is very proper). The wines, or rather wine, as Quintessa produces only one fabulous Bordeaux-style blend a year, are made 100 percent biodynamically. That’s a method of farming that goes beyond organic to be kind to the earth. The hourlong tour includes the vineyard (weather permitting), production facility, and wine caves. Afterward you taste two vintages. By appointment only; $35.
500 Oakville Crossroad, Oakville
If you only visit one fancy winery, go here. There are two tours daily, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The early one is a “comprehensive estate tour” ($60) that shows you the vines, gardens, caves, and winemaking facility. Then you get to taste all of the current releases (usually four wines), with a four-course meal paired to the wine prepared by the executive chef of Dean & DeLuca (which Leslie Rudd owns; he also just purchased Oakville Grocery). The 2 p.m. tour, just a wine tasting, costs $35. Both are limited to eight people, and should be booked three to four weeks in advance.