One thing is certain when it comes to the Napa Valley — it is unusual to find “bad” wine. There are some wines that taste better to you than others; there are some wineries that are snobby, pretentious and overpriced; there are some that are only open by appointment; but, by and large, you can stop at just about any one of the Napa wineries and have a great time!
We are not wine connoisseurs by any stretch of the imagination, but we enjoy trying the different productions. During our month in Napa, we visit over 30 wineries, focusing mostly on the more boutique-type establishments and those that some unique characteristics that make them fun for all members of the four-generation family that we are.
These are our top 10 Napa wineries:
1. CASTELLO DI AMOROSA: This is hands-down our favorite winery, with its 100-room, 13th-century castle, complete with towers and moat (see our earlier posting on the Castello). In addition to award-winning Cabernet Sauvignons, try the Chardonnay Sangiovese Rose or Vermentino. There are also flavorful non-alcoholic grape juices for those who do not drink alcohol. The wines are available at the winery or online. When the production is sold out, you will need to wait for next year’s bottles.
2. V. SATTUI WINERY: The wines here are award winners; in fact, in 2012 V. Sattui was named winery of the year for the second year running. Inside, next to the tasting room is a delicatessen with several hundred cheeses from around the world as well as hot and cold entrees and salads to create your own picnic, sitting under a massive oak tree. On weekends during the summer and fall, try some of their grilled prawns from the outside barbecue, the thin-crusted pizza from their wood-fired oven or hand-pulled mozzarella served with heirloom tomatoes. There are about 40 different wines for sale at any given time, as well as non-alcoholic grape juice. Try the Sauvignon Blanc or Semillon. The wines are only available at the winery or online.
3. ALPHA OMEGA: This is one of the newest boutique wineries in the Valley. Sit outside the rustic structure under the trees near the multi-fountain pool and enjoy Sauvignon Blanc, or Late Harvest wine, made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon in the Sauternes style. If you are an ABC person (Anything But Chardonnay), try it here. You may surprise yourself. What we liked best about Alpha Omega was that Lindsay, our knowledgeable wine advisor, actually sat down and explained the characteristics of each wine and how it is made instead of just pouring and leaving.
4. CHATEAU MONTELENA: In 1976 a Chardonnay bottled at the Chateau won a blind tasting at the Judgement of Paris Tasting. They even made a movie (“Bottle Shock”) about this earth-shattering event in the wine world. Take a self-guided walk around the winery, stopping at Jade Lake where islands with red Chinese pagodas are reflected in the water, connected to the mainland by twisting red footbridges. You can reserve a wine pairing meal in one of them and enjoy the sight of swans sailing past under the weeping willow trees. Best wines to try — the Chardonnay or Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel.
5. SIGNORELLO VINEYARDS: Ask for a tasting outside where you can sit by the edge of the infinity pool and look out over the valley as hummingbirds flit around you. Signorello has a wood-burning pizza oven so you can order a Pizza Margherita for two as you try their Seta (a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon), Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah or Zinfandel. If this is a special occasion, you can reserve a “Picnic for Two” that includes sandwiches, salad, dessert and a bottle of wine.
6. ST. SUPERY: A picturesque tree-lined driveway takes you to a grassy area where a table is set for a private tasting under the giant oak tree. Don’t miss the Smell-a-Vision interactive display where you can test your nose for wine-sniffing — can you smell the trace of vanilla or blackberry in your wine? St. Supery is known for its Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Elu (a Bordeaux blend).
7. JUDD’S HILL WINERY: Have you ever wanted to blend your own wine? Then you have come to the right place. You are provided with four barrel samples to choose from — two Cabernet Sauvignons from different vineyards, a Merlot and a Cabernet Franc. Once you have mixed your cuvée, you go through hand bottling, labeling and sealing your own private bottles of wine which you take with you. You can even design your own label! Amongst the wines you can sometimes purchase is Burke’s Blazing Barbecue Old Vine Zinfandel, specially created to complement grilled meat.
8. ROUND POND ESTATE: In addition to sitting on the second story terrace and enjoying the best views of the Napa Valley, you can try three wines and three appetizers. Round Pond also produces extra virgin olive oil (pressed either the Italian or Spanish way), flavored olive oil (try the rosemary), red wine vinegar and a lip-smacking Meyer Lemon syrup. We really enjoyed this tasting! In the fall, during the grape-picking season, Round Pond offers a “Day in the Life Experience” where you spend several hours helping to pick the grapes and to press them before having a gourmet lunch (with wine, of course!).
9. PEJU: What makes our visit to Peju memorable, apart from the wine-tasting, is our host Alan, who serenades us with his guitar, while extolling the virtues of the Cabernet Sauvignon in an elegant tasting room with a large stained glass window and beamed tower. Outside, unique sculptures are hidden here and there amongst the trees whilst across the road, the organic vineyard is surrounded by rows of giant sunflowers and pumpkin plants to attract the insects away from the grapes.
10. STERLING VINEYARD: You can only reach this vineyard by riding an aerial tram up through the trees to where a Greek-influenced structure sits high above the valley. For the cost of the tram ride ($25), you can wander through the winery at will, stopping to taste the five wines offered at various stations. Besides the Chardonnay, you can try Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots. Take your glass to the south terrace and spend as long as you like gazing over the valley where you can see the Castello di Amorosa in the distance. The view will certainly remind you of Tuscany! Be sure to go early because the lines for the tram can get quite long later in the day.
These are just a handful of the many wineries we could have visited. We haven’t even begun to explore those in Sonoma Country — an excellent reason to return! In the words of William Shakespeare, “Good company, good wine, good welcome, can make good people.” So what are you waiting for?
The wineries on the west side of both roads are perfect for morning shots, while those on the east side are bathed in afternoon and evening light. The wine train travels along Hwy 29 between Napa and St Helena and provides excellent photographic opportunities for a number of wineries along the way (see our blog on the Wine Train).
IF YOU GO
Visiting the wineries on a week-day will give you a much more pleasant experience as they tend to become very crowded on weekends, especially in the summer. If you are concerned about drinking and driving, you can either join a wine tour organized by California Wine Tours (www.californiawinetours.com; tel 800-294-6386) or else hire a driver from Wine Country Driver (www.winecountrydriver.com; tel. 888-354-6660) to drive you around in your own car or a rental car.
There are two parallel roads through Napa Valley from Napa to Calistoga, along which you will find the majority of wineries. The first, the St. Helena Highway (also known as Hwy 29), is the main thoroughfare and is often crowded, especially in the summer. To the east is the Silverado Trail. The two are connected by a half dozen crossroads making it easy to travel back and forth.
Castello di AmorosaWinery is located at 4045 St. Helena Highway (Hwy 29), Calistoga, CA 94515; Tel. 707-967-6272; open daily 0930-1630.
V Sattui Winery is located at 1111 White Lane,St. Helena, CA 94574; Tel 707-963-7774; open 0900-1800.
Alpha Omega Winery is at 1155 Mee Lane, Rutherford, CA 94574; Tel 707-963-9999. Open 100 – 1800
Chateau Montelena is at 1429 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga, CA 94515 Tel 707-942-5105.
Signorello Vineyards is at 4500 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94559; tel 707-255-5990; www.signorellovineyards.com Open daily 1000-1700
Judd’s Winery is located at 2332 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558; Tel 707-255-2332; www.juddshill.com; Open 1000 to 1400
St. Supery Vineyards is at 8440 St. Helena Hwy; Rutherford, CA 94573; Tel 707-963-4507. Open 1000-1700
Round Pond Estate Winery is at 886 Rutherford Road, Rutherford, CA 94573; Tel 888-302-2575.
Peju is at 8466 St Helena Highway, Rutherford, CA 94573; Tel 707-963-3600. Open 1000 to 1800
Sterling Vineyards are at 1111 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga, CA 94515; Tel 800-726-6136; Open Monday to Friday 1030-1700; Sat and Sun 1000-1700.