This was our second trip to the wine country. This time we decided to spend the whole trip in Napa. We were there for 4 nights/5 days in early August. The weather was pretty similar to what I remember it being in May – cool mornings, warm to hot afternoons. It may be a little warmer in the afternoons than May…Still very comfortable compared to Southern Louisiana. The grapes were pretty well grown at this time, but it was still too early to try to taste any.
Our first trip we really planned around food/dining – wineries were secondary. This time it was the opposite, wine was the primary focus and the dining was much more quick and casual. Also, we concentrated on some of the more off the beaten path wineries/areas this time.
I planned to bring back much more wine than the first trip…but we still came back with (or are getting shipped) more wine than I anticipated. I still believe that the best and most economical way to come back with wine is to buy a shipping box and check it on the plane.
Our flight was the only non-stop flight from New Orleans to San Francisco – the United flight that leaves MSY early in the morning and returns late at night. This was really nice because we had almost a full day in Napa the day we arrived and all morning the day we left. Unless there is a significantly cheaper alternative, I highly recommend the non-stop flight. You can also look in to credit cards that offer free companion passes to save a lot of money; that is what we used.
For transportation, we again rented a car. I highly recommend this for a wine country trip. At no point during the trip did I even feel close to not being able to drive. We did 3 to 4 tours/tastings a day; you could do a lot more tastings a day but then driving would be difficult. Plus, you would probably get tired of tasting wine and the tours are generally more interesting than tasting only stops. The drive from San Francisco to Napa was about an hour.
On the whole, we had another great trip. We really enjoy the wine country and will likely return for long weekends many times in the future. Next time, we’ll probably spend a couple nights in Sonoma.
We stayed at The Embassy Suites in Napa on a points booking. The hotel was very nice. Every room has a separate sitting/living area, which was nice. The hotel offered complimentary happy hour every day from 5:30 to 7:30 with a decent selection of alcohol and some snacks. Breakfast is also included and was surprisingly well done. They have omelets/eggs/pancakes being cooked to order…bacon, hash brown, and sausage…and all sorts of breads/cereals. It was never that crowded, which was something I was concerned about going in to it. Though, we were usually down there eating before 8:00 a.m. – which is not as early as it sounds because that is like 10:00 a.m. central time.
On the whole, we did not spend much time in the room, so I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on the hotel unless you are planning to stay for a longer trip and spend some days just hanging around/relaxing. Also, it would be nice to stay in St. Helena or Yountville, but many of the hotels in those places are very expensive…I guess it is a personal preference as to whether it is worth it to stay in those towns.
The first day we stopped on our way to our first tasting at The Oxbow Market in downtown Napa for lunch. This was a really cool spot that we returned to several times. It is a little market place with plenty of options for food to eat, we got BBQ and Pastrami sandwiches at one of the shops. We also picked up a coffee for the road.
That night we returned to downtown Napa to eat at the Napa Gott’s location (which is right next to the Oxbow Market). We were going to eat at the St. Helena location, but there was some sort of festival going on, so we went back to the Napa spot. Nothing new to report here…The hamburgers were delicious. This is a must visit if you are in Napa.
The first full day, we got “picnic” stuff from The Fatted Calf, The Oxbow Cheese Market, and Model Bakery. All three of these are located in or around the Oxbow Market. We had lots of meats, cheeses, breads, etc. It was really good. I highly recommend these places if looking for a picnic type lunch (which sometimes are necessary because there is not enough time between tours to stop somewhere). Most of these places have picnic type trays/boxes with assorted stuff. At the Fatted Calf, we just told him we needed some food for lunch and that we were pretty open to trying most stuff, and the guy just picked out a bunch of different things for us.
That night, we ate at Pizzeria Tra Vigne in St. Helena. The pizza was good – nothing to rave about, but a solid effort. We also had gelato there for dessert. Side Note: if you are worried about driving after tasting, eating dinner somewhere near your last tasting gives you a couple hours and some food to sober you up….Though again, I didn’t really think it was absolutely necessary any day – but it didn’t hurt.
The second full day, we returned to Palisades Deli. We each got a Pastrami Sandwich, which was very good. No real surprises here…I consider this a must stop if you are looking for lunch in the Calistoga area.
That night we ate at Fume Bistro. The food was very good and very reasonably priced here. I definitely recommend it for a nice, reasonably priced meal. I have also heard that the brunch here is supposed to be very good.
The third full day, we did another picnic lunch. This time we got our food from Dean and DeLuca in St. Helena. They had a lot of options and the food was good, but we probably preferred the fatted calf/oxbow market options. That said, Dean and DeLuca opens at 7:00 a.m. and many other places don’t open until 9:00 a.m., so this is a place to stop if you need an early arrival (which we did).
Our last dinner was at Farmstead in St. Helena. This was a little more expensive than Fume, but the food was very good here too. Their big thing is fresh/locally farmed ingredients. I would certainly have no problems recommending this place to anybody.
This trip was a little different than the first in that my goal was to find places that not only offered a fun/interesting experience but also produced good wine. The first trip I found most places on trip advisor/yelp/similar forums, whereas this trip I found most places from wine people/forums.
My other goal was to visit places that waived the tour/tasting fee with an equivalent purchase…I also signed up for the Chappellet wine club that got me a couple free tours through the Gems of Napa Valley program.
Our first day was spent in the Howell Mountain area. We had a tasting appointment at Dunn Vineyards for 1:00 and made it there on time. The daughter of the owner (Kristina) met us and showed us around the caves and the winery facilities. After that, she took us up to their office/tasting area and poured 3 wines, which were all very good. I don’t think there was a tasting fee here…There is definitely not one if you buy wine.
The second stop was at Herb Lamb. They are a small winery that used to just sell their grapes to some very high end places (Colgin). Now they make some of their own wine. We tasted at the Lamb’s house with Jennifer (Herb’s wife). She poured all of their current release wines and had some cheeses for us to munch on. The wine was very good, and it was a fun experience overall.
A note on Howell Mountain – if you are in this area, a place I would try to get to is Outpost. They are supposed to make very, very good wine and have a really cool tasting location. We just could not fit it in this trip.
The next day we concentrated on wineries in the Pritchard Hill area. Our first stop was at Hall – Rutherford. This was more of a standard group tour…Hall has a really cool facility. The place has art all over and a nice cave/tasting room set-up. They also make good wine – you can buy their standard Cab locally. Some of the higher end wines were very good. This is definitely a place I’d recommend to most people for a tour. I think they do charge a tour fee, but it was waived as part of the gems program I mentioned earlier. Note: Hall – St. Helena and Hall – Rutherford are two different places.
The next stop was at Chappellet Winery. We used one of their picnic tables to eat lunch prior to our tour; it worked out well. This is another place that does group tours. The tour was good and they poured plenty of wine, which was all good. You can find several of their basic level wines locally. Some of the more interesting options were the wines that can only be purchased at the winery.
We finished the day at David Arthur Vineyards. They poured some of the best wine we drank all trip and also gave us some barrel samples of their future releases. This tasting has a $50 fee but is waived with the purchase of 3 bottles.
The third day, we concentrated on Calistoga and St. Helena. We started the day off at Schramsberg, which is the only winery that still uses the traditional method of making Champagne in California (and possibly the US – I can’t remember). This place has a lot of history and the tour is really neat. I’d highly recommend it for the tour alone. The sparkling wine seemed good – though we are not huge champagne fans. I wasn’t too impressed with their red wine offering. They do charge a $45 tour fee that is not waived with purchase…but it is probably worth it. If you like sparkling wine, it may be worthwhile to join their club for a shipment or two to get the fee waived.
After Schramsberg, we headed off to Vincent Arroyo. This was the only repeat visit from our first trip because it was a very fun/informative tasting and they have very reasonably priced wine. This time around they are still extremely friendly and will pour whatever they have available for you, but we caught them prior to their new release and most of the old release was sold out. So we were “only” able to taste 5 or 6 wines (as opposed to the 12-15 we tasted the first time). I still highly recommend it here; there is no tasting fee.
To finish the day we tasted Karl Lawrence wines at their tasting room in St. Helena. Karl Lawrence does not grow any grapes, they just source their grapes from several highly regarded vineyards. This is the project of a guy who makes wine for several other vineyards and a couple other people. They poured a couple wines at the tasting; they had some very good reasonably priced wines. The vineyard rep. some retired guy in his early 60’s who does this a couple times a week to get industry discounts…It was interesting to get his (completely unfiltered) take on many things in Napa while tasting – though he did mention several times that we should bring some snacks the next time we taste.
Our last full day was spent in Spring Mountain and St. Helena. We started off at Pride Mountain Vineyards, which has a great tour and makes very good wine. Definitely a good spot for everyone. They do have a small tour fee, but it is waived with purchase.
After Pride we went to Behrens Family Winery, whose tasting room is also located on Spring Mountain. This winery was formerly known as Erna Schein; they are just a wine producer and do not grow grapes. This was definitely one of our favorite tasting experiences of the trip. They poured about 10 very good wines, which were reasonably priced considering the quality. The fact that we bought more wine here than anywhere else should tell you what we thought of the wine. All of the wines have their own unique label (generally some piece of artwork), which was pretty cool.
Following Behrens, we headed back down to the Valley floor to taste at Lewelling. Lewelling is mostly a farmer that sells most of his grapes, but he saves some to make his own wine. At the tasting, they poured one of their wines and had a couple cheeses for us to snack on. This place was different in that there was no tasting fee, and you could not purchase any wine…They completely sell out within hours of the release and there is a waiting list to even be able to purchase (I’ve been on it for two years with no luck). The reason for that is that they consistently produce Cabernets rated in the upper 90’s for under $80 and $50. Anyway, the wine was good and it was a fun tasting.
We finished off the day at Swanson Vineyards. We did a salon tasting that my parents set up for us because they are club members here. They paired several of their wines with different foods. It was a fun experience…I don’t know that I was as thrilled with the wine as I was at some of the other places, but it was still good. I think the fee there is $65 a person, I don’t think I would have paid that myself if it is not waived with purchase (which I don’t think is the case)…If it is waived, it is a spot I’d have on my radar for the pairing experience.
The morning of our flight, we went to Hendry Ranch. This place is a trip advisor/yelp superstar – and for good reason. All tours are led by old man Hendry (who still works his day job prior to heading to the winery) and are very informative. After the tour, you go back to the tasting room and taste 12 wines, including some comparisons and pairings. This would not be a bad place to start off your first trip to Napa.
On the whole, we enjoyed all the places we went to and would recommend any of them…But I offer some cautions if anyone ever considers visiting some of the places we went this trip.
Outside of Hendry, most of the places kind of skipped over (or went over quickly) some of the beginner stuff – which is fine if you are already aware of it or don’t care. Some of the places we toured on the first trip like Mondavi or Pine Ridge in Napa or Quivira in Sonoma were extremely informative tours. I would highly recommend some tours along those lines on your first trip.
Another consideration is that some of the smaller/off the beaten path operations I listed are generally one on one tastings, which can be the most fun/interesting…But it is different than the group experience. Also, while I was not once pressured to buy wine, you kind of feel like you should buy wine at these small places as they take a couple hours of their day and open a couple bottles of nice wine just for you. I was planning on buying wine at all these places, but I would have bought some anyway even if I hadn’t been planning on it because it is the right thing to do, IMO.
There are still many, many place we’d like to go to in the Valley. I think our length was good. We could have maybe done another day, but any longer and you’d definitely have to take a break from tasting wine all day.