Disclaimer: These tasting experiences were provided to me free of cost as a member of the media.
There is no shortage of articles/blog posts related to the Napa Valley. BUT, I wanted to share a tested and approved Napa Valley wine itinerary that I’d recommend to the wine novice and the wine geek alike. This itinerary has something for everyone. I visited the region in early Spring with my friends Neal and Alyse of Winery Wanderings and found this itinerary to be relaxed and easy to follow.
As an aside, may I recommend that when you plan your wine country getaway, remember that the goal is to have fun, enjoy yourself, and perhaps learn something new about wine. Because of this, I recommend you take a somewhat leisurely approach to things and not try to squeeze in too many winery visits in one day. Generally, 2-3 wineries per day is the max for most people to be able to enjoy the wines, not feel rushed, and not get too drunk! I only recommend 4 wineries in one day for professionals or if you are going to spit out all tastes. Even then, it is still an ambitious schedule.
Here is my suggestion for a full, fun day in the Napa Valley.
10:30am-11:30am Charles Krug
Noon-1:30pm Long Meadow Ranch
1:30pm-2:30pm Gott’s Roadside
5:30pm-7:30pm Oxbow Public Market
Charles Krug in St. Helena is a great place to start. Come here for Napa Valley history, as they are a winery of firsts being situated in St. Helena AVA, one of Napa Valley’s first AVAs. Charles Krug is the oldest bonded winery in Napa (since 1861) and also is the first tasting room open in California in 1882. In 1963 they became the first Napa winery to import French Oak barrels and were also one of the first California wineries to varietally label wines. Since 1943 the Mondavi family operates Charles Krug with a respect and understanding of how important they are to Napa Valley’s history. Today they produce 90,000 cases annually and it is all sold on-site.
Upon visiting Charles Krug, you have two choices for your visit. They offer a $45 tasting flight and a $75 tasting flight that also includes a tour of the property. The tasting room is open daily from 10:30 am-5 pm. And a gorgeous tasting room it is. Up until 2006, it was the old barrel room. The space is expansive and stunning. Such a classy, upscale, yet not stuffy atmosphere.
Thank you to Tash for pouring! My highlight from the tasting was their 2016 Malbec at $65 a bottle. The wine showed characters of plum (red and black), vanilla, and spice box. It’s a velvety, smooth wine that you can really melt into. Would be a fantastic BBQ wine.
Two miles SE of Charles Krug and you land at Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch. You come here for a culinary and wine sensory experience. We participated in the Chef’s Food & Wine Tasting (regularly priced at $70) and it was impeccable. A really elevated, yet comfortable experience. True wine country hospitality. We enjoyed 5 mini-food courses paired with wines. They also have a regular wine flight for $30 and a library wine flight for $40. The general store/tasting room is open from 11 am-6 pm.
Colin (who was a delight) lead us through our tasting. Anyone who says that Pinot Noir is their spirit grape is good people in my book! Long Meadow Ranch employs a full-circle organic farming system. Each part of the ranch contributes to the health of the whole, including vineyards, olive groves, Highland cattle, heirloom vegetables, and livestock. They have three properties: 650-acre Mayacamas Estate (home ranch located in the Mayacamas Mountains above Rutherford), 90-acre Rutherford Estate (located on the Rutherford Bench), and 145-acre Anderson Valley Estate (Mendocino County). Everything we ate that day was local to the Rutherford Estate and all their wines are estate.
Pairing: Sauvignon Blanc, Rutherford, 2017 ($22)
This is clearly not the ubiquitous New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Cooler climates here. I get green fruit (apples), citrus, and some tropical notes.
Pairing: Chardonnay, Anderson Valley, 2016 ($40)
This pairing sang. This wine starts in French oak, then moves to stainless steel. I got an initial waft of a stick of butter on the nose, but it blew off as I swirled and make my way through the tasting. Quite a balanced and structured Chardonnay.
Pairing: Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, 2015 ($40)
This has to be the silkiest soup I have ever tried. Delicious!
Pairing: Merlot, Napa Valley, 2014 ($35)
This wine has everything I want in a Merlot: a plumminess plus silky smooth tannins. A bit velvety overall. Really nice.
Pairing: Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2014 ($55)
A big boy red that really worked well with this dish. The wine benefits from a bit of Petit Verdot and Petit Syrah.
After the food and wine pairings at Long Meadow Ranch, it’s time for LUNCH. And what better lunch than a roadside burger stand. I recommend Gott’s Roadside for some “sticking food” to sop up all the wine.
After lunch, it’s a 40-minute drive down south to Artesa Vineyards & Winery. If you saw the movie Wine Country, then you’ve seen Artesa, as it was the winery tasting room featured. I had met head winemaker Ana Diogo-Draper at a tasting in Los Angeles. I fell in love with Artesa’s wines, so when the opportunity to visit presented itself, I jumped at the chance. With Artesa, you come for the exceptional wines and stunning, modern tasting room.
Our tasting was a superb experience. The tasting room is bright, inviting, and quite a sight. It is open from 10 am-5 pm and there are various wine flight options, starting at $35. Anne expertly leads us through the flight, which was exceptional. A highlight for me was tasting their sparkling. We tried the 2014 Codorníu Napa Grand Reserve Brut, Estate Vineyard, Los Carneros ($45).
Other wines tasted:
Stone fruit, tropical fruit, and delicate little white flowers. Medium + acid.
This is their largest production wine that is distributed widely. A fresh and primary Chardonnay. Valley floor fruit that has been through malo and saw some oak treatment.
Made in the Burgundian style. All hillside fruit. Toasty, nutty, and warming.
Beautiful, bright red fruit on the nose. More floral and spice on the palate. A lovely entry-level Pinot and at an unbeatable price.
Compared to the above, this wine goes deeper and has more intensity of fruit. Quality with a capital Q.
Deep, deep, deep purple in color. Hellooooooooo tannins, but don’t worry, they’re integrated AF. A deep and expressive wine. Definitely a standout among the flight.
Medium ruby color. Tannins dominate.
After your day of wine tasting, a visit to Oxbow Public Market is a great option for a casual dinner. This is Napa Valley’s version of a food hall and there are options to please every palate. And more wine, should you need that! The general hours range form 7:30 am-9:30 pm (each merchant may have slightly different hours).
Confession: Napa Valley has never been my “go to” California wine region to visit. The wines are quite pricey and there can be an air of pretension at some of the larger tasting rooms. However, my experiences in Napa over the last year have helped me see that there is a whole lot more to Napa than egos and flashiness. Just like any wine region, it is hard to peg the region in one broad stroke (which I have been guilty of doing). Yes, there are plenty of stuck up tasting rooms, chateau after chateau that look like McMansions, and overpriced cult wines. But there is also plenty of honest, regional wine made in Napa. Wine made by individuals. Wines that are restrained. Good juice.
This old adage rings true: How do you make a million dollars in Napa? You start with a million. The cost of land and grapes is sky high, and with such a high barrier to entry, not all have what it takes to survive . For this reason, as a general rule, you’re not going to see cheapy $8-12 grocery store wine from “Napa”. The math just doesn’t add up. But not all wines from Napa are out of reach. Below is a summary of my visit to three wineries where you can expect to try some great wines with no pretense!
Corison is a small, family-owned winery by Cathy Corison and her husband William Martin. Corison was founded in 1987 and their estate vineyard, Kronos, was purchased in 1995.
The tasting room is open by appointment only and is a “no frills” type of place. Here you are sure to try impeccable wines, with high prices to match, as their Cabs start at $100/bottle. However, this is a place that I would highly recommend. There is no attitude here. The wine is good. The people are great. And you will leave this tasting room, having learned things about Napa Cab that you might not have known before you came. That is the beauty of tasting room appointments. You get personal attention and the person leading your tasting (should) speak to you and walk you through the tasting at whatever level of wine knowledge you have. No need to feel embarrassed or inadequate.
There are two different tasting options. We went with the Library Experience which is generally $55/person (tasting fee waived with the purchase of 3 bottles of Cabernet or wine club enrollment). Though this tasting was waived for me as a member of the media. This tasting showcases their current releases and highlights a selection from their library. They also have a Collector’s Vertical Experience, which is designed for serious Cabernet collectors interested in a deeper understanding of how Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon can speak eloquently of time and place. This flight features four decades of Cabernet, including two of their single vineyard estate wines. This tasting is $150/person ($100 for wine club members).
Grapes from Mendocino. No RS (residual sugar). Loved this guy….even took a bottle home. Great aromatics, good acidity, goes down easy.
This was a special wine to taste as it came from Cathy’s library and has 15 years in bottle. The wine has a lovely garnet color. On the nose I got faint black fruit (blackberry), black pepper, plus cigar and smoke. The palate had beautiful muted fruit plus cigar, smoke, tobacco, and leather. Firm tannins. This wine is showing its age, but it is holding up. It’s a masculine and dusty wine for sitting down with and really digging into.
This wine is a true Cabernet with Cab markers such as blackberry, black pepper and cassis. On the nose I also get bramble, and on the palate we also see plums. This is an outstanding wine with an Old World feel.
This is the only wine I tried from their estate vineyard, Kronos. This is a powerful wine with bright acid and fruit. On the palate we have juicy red and black fruit, including plum, cherry, and blackberry.
On the nose we have baked black fruit, like a coulis. Great acid, firm tannins, and medium + flavor intensity. This is a big boy that’s showing off at this point in its life.
The tasting room of Ehlers Estate is located inside a gorgeous stone barn dating back to 1886. When I visited, the place was bustling with guests and energy. The vineyards are planted to Bordeaux varietals and by 2008, 100% of the Ehlers vineyards were certified organic. The tasting room is open daily and offers portfolio tastings for $35 (complimentary for wine club members). This is a great place to go for that picturesque vineyard feel with a warm and cozy tasting room.
A round and supple Napa Cab. I usually describe Napa Cabs as masculine, but this one has a soft femininity. Black fruit (blackberries), blueberries, black pepper on nose. On palate: blackberries, vegetal/bamble, chocolate/mocha/coffee.
Perfumed and pleasing on the nose. Would love a simple grilled skirt steak with this. Red fruit (cranberry, cherry, pomegranate), floral (violets), vegetal, and vanilla notes. Espresso beans on palate.
Red/black fruit (plum, cherry, raspberry, blackberry). Spice (vanilla, black pepper, cloves). Cedar/cigar box. Leather. This wine dances on my tongue and I get dark chocolate and a smokiness on the palate.
Aged 6 months sur lie (which adds significant body and weight). Slightly restrained on the nose, but I can detect citrus (lemon), yellow apple, wet stone/minerality. On the palate I also get citrus (lemon), plus stone fruit (peach/apricot), salinity/brininess. This is a textured….almost chewy, which is not a descriptor I usually use for whites.
Trione Winery & Vineyard is actually located in Sonoma County, but I felt it could be included in this wrap up, as they are very close to Napa. The Trione family has been deeply rooted in the Sonoma County wine industry for three generations, with the Trione Winery and brand starting in 2005. The grounds her are lovely with an equally comfortable tasting room (we even got a visit from the winery dog!).
A great wine and a great value! Stone fruit (apricot/white peach), minerality/wet stone, and smokiness.
Citrus (lime), red fruit (strawberry, raspberry), and floral (rose).
This wine has gone through full malolactic fermentation (which is where the tart malic acid has been converted to a smoother lactic acid (which is found in milk!). The MLF gives the wine a creamy and buttery feel. The wine also shows bruised yellow apples, pear, and vanilla.
Red cherry, black pepper, gaminess, and forest floor, with an aging potential of 7-10 years.
A traditional Bordeaux blend, showing red + black fruit (plum, blackberry), pyrazines, and black pepper. This wine gives me Cab on the nose, but more Merlot on the palate (a velvet silkiness). Also lovely tertiary notes of smoke and cigar.
What a wine! Baked/stewed black fruit such as blackberry compote and cassis, plus baking spices. Smooth, round tannins and 10-15 years aging potential.
Stewed red fruit (plum, cherry), plus black fruit (blackberries and currants) and vanilla. French oak gives a nice cigar box feel.
This one is aged in American oak. I get juicy black fruit (plums and blackberries). This wine is velvety, supple, rich.