You have to visit Napa Valley at least once before you die to enjoy the beautiful scenery, word-class wine and delicious food. In order to truly enjoy your experience in Napa Valley, a little planning is helpful to maximize your experience. This post will provide you some guidance on selecting wineries to fit your schedule and your tastes. Lets face it, you will not have time to try every winery in the valley and I guarantee you miss many wineries on your bucket list Planning ahead makes a big difference, especially since some wineries require reservations.
If you have no idea where to sample wine, this blog post will help plan your trip. This series of posts on Napa Valley will be split into three posts
First a primer on Napa valley geography. Napa valley is commonly referred to as an appellation, which is a protected region where wine grapes are grown. Napa Valley is a dry Mediterranean climate, which helps to create great consistency from vintage to vintage of wine. Napa has 14 distinct micro climates known as sub-appellations, which create distinct characteristics on the wine grapes grown there. I am covering the main areas that most tourists will visit along highway 29 and some points south.
Los Carneros is the southernmost region in Napa Valley is cool from the marine winds with temperatures rarely exceeding 80 degrees F. This region is unusual for Napa due to its cool climate, resulting in some nice Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Chardonnay. An interesting fact is that both Napa and Sonoma share the Los Carneros growing region. The winery that I really liked in this region is Artesa because of their Pinot Noirs and stunning views.
Yountville is a great region for wines, a short distance from Downtown Napa. This region has a moderate climate and a cool marine influence that keeps summer temperatures in check. Yountville is known for their superior Cabernet Sauvignon, although they produce many different types of wines because of the favorable conditions. Notable wineries in this area include Domaine Chandon and Goose Cross Cellars. Goose Cross is on the Silverado trail, which has a a slightly different temperature. You will find many Cabernet based blends in this region, Goosecross makes my favorite.
Oakville is the Hollywood of Napa Valley, with big name producers. Located just north of Yountville, this region has a moderately warm climate, with temperatures in the mid-90s in the summer. The morning and night fog in Oakville keep the temperatures from getting too hot. This region is known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. Wineries in this region include rockstars like Robert Mondavi and Opus One. The Cabernets in this region are impressive and are known for sharing a scent of mint and cedar in the wines. At Robert Mondavi, go for the reserve tasting, so that you can taste their best wines not available in stores. Tasting at Opus One require reservations and a single pour of a vintage will cost you $40. If you do this you will be living the rock star lifestyle.
Rutherford is a moderately warm region and the grapes are influenced by cool morning fog. Temperatures swing from day to night. This region is known for Cabernet, Merlot, Cab Franc, and Zinfandel. Wineries in this region include Cakebread Cellars on the southern side and Grigich Hills to the North. Rutherford is my second favorite growing region due to the balanced flavor profiles of their wines. If Oakville is the Hollywood of wine regions, then Rutherford is home of the “Cult Wineries.” Loyal wine lovers come from all over the world to experience Cake Bread and Grgich Hills at the mother ship.
St. Helena is a warm micro-climate because it is protected by western hills and thus prevent fog from rolling in and the narrowing valley floor reflects more heat onto the hillside. Food and Wine magazine said that this region is still, “Struggling to find its identity, but Cabernet is the district’s most important grape.” Although hot temperatures can create strong tannins, the valley is producing elegant Cabernet Sauvignon and other wines like Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel and Viogner. This region is home to Duckhorn, Spottswoode and Flora Springs. This is my favorite wine growing region because I love Cabernet based blends. I have never had a bad glass of wine from St.Helena.
If you have time, Sonoma is located on the other side of the Mayacamas Mountains and is a separate appellation. We dipped into the Sonoma side of the Los Carneros region to try out Gundlach Bundscchu. This winery is at the cross-roads of Sonoma Valley, Los Caneros and Napa valley agricultural regions. Since Gundlach Bundschu is relatively close to Downtown Napa, it makes a great side trip.
Tips for Selecting Wineries in Napa If you are planning on driving yourself from Winery to Winery, consider visiting no more than 3-4 in one day. There is always the urge to visit as many wineries as possible, although your palate will be destroyed and you run the risk of drunk driving. CHP is known for monitoring these roads, so use common sense. I also recommend visiting one region per day. For example, make a day out of visiting St.Helena Wineries so that they are close to each other. Plan on having lunch between tastings. Also pack some food, snacks and water for impromptu picnics. Consider making dinner reservations in the region where you will be wine tasting.
If you don’t want to drive around Napa, you can either join a wine bus tour or hire a private driver. I have mixed thoughts on the wine bus tours because of the no stress experience, picnic lunches and positive energy from fellow tourists. What I don’t like is that the tours will often take you to a mix bag of wineries, including “not yet ready for prime time” wineries. The other option is private or semi-private tours. These small business operators will provide a custom wine tasting itinerary. The best private tour operators will go into the tasting room with you and create opportunities with the winery staff.