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Saturday, November 3, 2012

Wine Country Traveler: The Tourist's Guide to Wine Tasting in Napa Valley

20101020 Villagio Vineyard

I visited Napa Valley many times as an outsider, but for the last 2+ years I have lived here and had the wonderful opportunity to explore it in depth, and I want to share some of my insights with people who can use them.

First off, let's note that I have titled this blog entry, "The Tourist's Guide." This is not a guide for wealthy wine connoisseurs and collectors. This is more for casual wine drinkers who are visiting the Napa Valley as a vacation experience--so other factors come into play when choosing a winery to visit other than just the quality of the wine. Visiting wineries in a scenic valley and tossing back tasty alcohol ought to be fun. There's no reason to feel intimidated when visiting wineries, even if you taste a few wines that you could never afford to buy, and part of that fun can be laughing at the pretentiousness of others you may encounter.

When to Visit

August through October is an exciting time in the Napa Valley, as the grapes are harvested, and then the smell of the crush delights winery visitors (or sometimes just driving past). With all the varietals and the different microclimates in which they are grown, the harvest goes on for most of these three months.  But as enjoyable as these months are, they are the time of the most tourist activity in the valley, which means not only annoying traffic slow downs up and down the valley, but prices at hotels and bed and breakfasts that can be more than twice as high as in the off-season.

And really, anytime of year is good to come and enjoy the mild climate of the Napa Valley. Thanks to cool morning fog coming in from San Pablo Bay, it rarely gets scorching hot in the summer, as it does regularly a short distance away in Fairfield and Vacaville. And while locals will complain about the cold in winter, snow is a once-a-decade or less rarity--although it can be seen on the slopes of Mount St. Helena.

But perhaps the best time of year to visit is February.  This time of year you will get much better rates at places to stay and much less traffic on the highways. The countryside and the hills will be green, rather than the golden brown of summer and fall. And there's the mustard. Lots and lots of glorious bright yellow mustard blooming all over the place--among the grape vines, along the side of the road, in open fields. It's quite the sight to behold.

20100328 Mustard on Mustard


There are two ways up and down the valley, California Highway 29, and the Silverado Trail. There are plenty of services, none cheap, to give you a ride via limo or bus, which will let you drink your fill without worrying about it. But most people drive. It's good to have a designated driver who really limits themselves to a TASTE of each wine, and skips some of the tastings.

Highway 29 will deliver you quickly from Napa to Yountville, and then you hit the most famous stretch of wineries up to and through St. Helena. But you also hit the slow traffic as the freeway ends and 29 becomes a two-lane road. On a weekend in the prime season--August through October--the crawl going into St. Helena will likely raise your blood pressure dangerously. On the Silverado Trail, on the other hand, you might find yourself stuck behind someone going 15 mph below the speed limit for many miles without any chance to pass, but going only 40 mph is still better than being stuck in stop-and-go traffic on 29.

My advice is to head up the Silverado Trail on the way out, and come back via 29. Of if you take 29 both ways, hit the wineries you plan to visit on the east side on the way up valley, and the west side wineries on the way back. That way you will always exit the winery onto 29 with a right turn. Having to make a left turn on that road in heavy traffic could ruin your vacation!

Wineries to Visit

There are hundreds, and they vary enormously. First off, how many wineries are you going to visit? There are so many densely packed that many people imagine they will be able to visit several per day, but I've never found that to be the case. Two or three is typical, and you may have to find one that is open later to accomplish that. Almost all are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., most are open until 5 p.m., and a few are open until 5:30 or 6:00 p.m.

Second, know that there are wineries open by appointment only, and ones open to all comers. Don't be intimidated by the appointment-only wineries! They do that just to control the number of visitors at a given time, which means they are the smaller wineries with more intimate tasting rooms, which you may prefer. If you're staying at a boutique motel or a bed and breakfast, they will likely be happy to suggest some appointment-only wineries and call and make the appointment for you.

But don't let the snooty types stop you from having fun at the big tourist mill wineries. These places have gone to a lot of effort to attract people to visit them, and often times they've done well. The Castello di Amorosa is perhaps the most extreme example, a fake 13th-century Italian castle. Comparisons to Disneyland are inevitable and  frequent. But the place is a lot of fun, especially if you're dragging children along on your boozy getaway.

The big attraction wineries are much easier to list than the numerous smaller ones:

Sterling Vineyards

At Sterling, the big attraction is the aerial tram ride up to the winery on a hill. From there you take a self-guided tour of the facility with stops along the way to taste wines. There is a lovely outdoor deck with views southward over the valley--definitely a great winery to linger at on a nice day. The charge is for the aerial tram and includes the wine tasting whether you use it or not, which means that those who are not imbibing have to pay just as much as those who are.

20101204 Banquet Hall
Castello di Amorosa

As mentioned above, this is the most Disney of the wineries in Napa Valley. The employees talk of it as though it actually were a 13th-century construction, and you've got to admire some of the lengths they went to--like having brick outlines that look like where former doors and windows were that were later filled in. They dug caves for wine storage and put in a dungeon with replica and historic torture devices too, which you can see on the tour. You might want to call ahead and reserve a tour if you are going on a weekend.


Beringer is an historic winery just off the tunnel of elm trees on Highway 29 on the north edge of St. Helena. It features an historic mansion with elegant woodwork and lovely stained glass. A secondary attraction is the cave some of the wine is stored in, featured in the tour.

Chateau Montelena

This winery played a key role in the development of the Napa Valley wine industry as we know it today because their Chardonnay topped the ratings of the judges in the Judgment of Paris in 1976, which helped American wine achieve greater cachet. You can learn more about it in the tasting room.  But behind the historic winery building, which is best viewed from the loading dock area, is the best reason for visiting: a large Asian garden and pond with views of Mount St. Helena. You can reserve either of the two picnic tables on islands in the pond.

20100901 Domaine Carneros
Domaine Carneros

As you drive along Highway 12 through the Carneros region on the way to Sonoma from just south of the city of Napa, you'd have to have knocked back several bottles of white zinfandel to escape noticing the enormous French chateau dominating the hillside to your left. There's nothing subtle about the appeal this place makes to lovers of the good life. They offer gourmet food items with tastings and just straight glasses of the still wines and bubbly they produce on their spacious patio with expansive views (especially nice of the di Rosa across the road). They also offer tours. None of it is cheap.


A little off the beaten path--not right off one of the main highways--in the Carneros Region are the impressive grounds of the Artesa winery.  You drive up a hill to the winery's parking lot, then climb steps from there. Atop the hill lies a pool with a big Gordon Huether sculpture, and magnificent views of the surrounding countryside.  You can even see San Pablo Bay to the south. Inside is a lot more of Huether's art.

Hess Collection

Drive west along suburban Trancas Street, over the freeway as it becomes Redwood Road, keep going past the tract housing, and soon it gets interesting.  The road passes an old farm building, and curves up into the hills along Redwood Creek.  You have to take a left turn to keep going on Redwood Road (otherwise you're on Mount Veeder Road), then immediately after the Christian Brothers retreat you will find Hess. It's the site of an historic winery named Sequoia Vineyard, and the original gate posts from 1903 remain at the far edge of the parking lot, along the drive that runs between Hess and the Christian Brothers.  The two old stone buildings Theodore Gier built for the original winery have been fully enveloped and incorporated into the new winery, which also contains an extensive modern art gallery. No photography is permitted in the gallery portion, unfortunately, but you can buy a postcard of my favorite piece, a flaming typewriter.

There are plenty more interesting wineries of course, and I hope to add to this blog entry as we make it to more of them.

Wine Tasting Etiquette

Do I have to buy something? Should I tip? Fair questions.

You never have to buy a bottle of wine when tasting anywhere. If you don't like the wine, or think it is terribly overpriced, then you shouldn't even think about spending your money on it. But the rest of the time . . . there is some social pressure to spend some money there. There are several factors that go into it:

How much did you pay for the tasting? The less you paid, the more pressure on you to spend some money on wine to take home. There are still free tastings, at off-the-beaten-path wineries (mostly outside of Napa Valley), via coupons, or the Napa Neighbors discount (for those of us who live here and have the ID to prove it). But some wineries will charge $25 for a basic tasting, and more for reserve wines.

20100523 Tasting Flight

How much of their time did you take? If you visited a winery heavily visited by tourists and the person assisting you spent little time with you, then there is less pressure to buy wine. They are dealing in volume, and enough people will drop money that they don't have to worry about those who don't. But if you are visiting an appointment-only winery and the person helping you was very knowledgeable and helpful, then there's a lot more reason to reward their effort. And if that appointment was set up for you by you by a concierge or a bed and breakfast host, there is even more pressure to buy something, as it reflects back on the person referring you.

But again, don't think of buying a wine you didn't really enjoy. There are too many good wines available for anyone to do that.

If, on the other hand, you are definitely planning on buying wine on your trip, and maybe lots of it, know that this will open doors for you. Make it obvious you are planning on buying wine, and what wines you really liked when tasting and want to buy. And then if they don't offer you a tasting of some of the wines not listed on your basic tasting, ask if you can taste others they have that sound appealing to you.

As for tipping--I'd advise buying a bottle if you wish to reward to your server, as it will reflect well on them and they may even get a commission, rather than leaving a tip.

Where to Eat Along the Way

Well unfortunately, the restaurants are all located along Highway 29, whereas I've advised you to drive up valley on the Silverado Trail.  You can either hit the restaurants on the way back coming down 29, or take a cross road over from the Silverado Trail. There are plenty of upscale options for the visiting gourmand, as you might expect, since food and wine go hand in hand. But here are a few tasty options that are affordable:

20110821 Buttermilk Fried Chicken

(Use Yountville Crossroad to get over from the Silverado Trail.) You can't really talk about food in the Napa Valley without talking about Thomas Keller. His Yountville institution, The French Laundry, is one of the top restaurants in the world. Or so I have read--haven't had any chance to verify that personally, and I probably never will eat there. Way out of my league. Maybe I'll make it to Bouchon or Ad Hoc, two other restaurants of his in Yountville that are more reasonably priced, yet still expensive. But in the meantime, I've eaten at, and will continue to enjoy, Addendum, and Bouchon Bakery (described below). Addendum is behind Ad Hoc.  There are outdoor picnic tables to eat your very limited selection of barbecue items available at very limited hours.

20101207 Macaroons
Bouchon Bakery

(Use Yountville Crossroad to get over from the Silverado Trail.) There can be long lines of tourists at this place, which unlike Addendum, you are likely to find open (much more extensive hours).  They have a few sandwiches to go (there are some tables between the bakery and the main restaurant Bouchon, but you might have to wait for a seat), and extensive pastry selections and fine espresso. We stop here a lot, but skip it when the line looks too long.

20110120 Highway 29 Pitstop
Oakville Grocery

(Use Oakville Crossroad to get there from the Silverado Trail.) The old Coca-Cola sign on the side of the building is a definite eye-catcher not long after Highway 29 dwindles from a 4-lane freeway to a more leisurely 2-lane road in the heart of the best vineyard region. While more affordable than a sit-down restaurant, this deli is a little pricey, but it offers high quality food and picnic tables out back with great views.

20101229 The Deli @ V. Sattui
V. Sattui

(Use Zinfandel Lane to cross over from the Silverado Trail.) V. Sattui is one of the most visited wineries in all of the valley, although it appears at lunch time that most of the crowd is there for the deli. If it's busy, make sure to grab a number when you come in. Many times people wait around for a while before realizing they need to do that. They have picnic grounds on which to enjoy your food there, and they sell packets of paper plates, napkins, and plastic utensils to make taking it elsewhere to picnic easy.

20100811 Double Cheeseburger
Gott's Roadside

(Use Pope Street to cross over from the Silverado Trail.) Originally known as Taylor's Automatic Refresher--the sign for that is still up at the original St. Helena location--this restaurant has been featured on Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and the Gott brothers have opened additional locations in the Oxbow Public Market in Napa and the Ferry Building in San Francisco. They have gardens behind the St. Helena location and feature produce from those gardens on the menu in late summer and fall. Burgers and fries are the basic fare, but they other options too, like the ahi tuna tacos, not to mention a full selection of beers and wines.

Pizzeria Tra Vigne

(Use Pope Street to cross over from the Silverado Trail.) The more elegant and more expensive Tra Vigne is right off 29 as you enter St. Helena. This more casual and affordable alternative is tucked away soon afterwards.  Take a right just past the Merryvale Winery building and before Southbridge Hotel, and right across the road from Gott's Roadside.  Drive back a little aways and you will find a family-friendly restaurant with top-notch food and reasonable prices.