This month our resident wine expert, Elizabeth Schneider, reports in from her current visit to the Napa Valley.
Planning a vacay to the Napa wineries
I’m excited to tell you that, as I write, I’m actually sitting in a hotel room in Napa after a long day of exploring wineries up and down this Valley. And yes, I’ve got a glass of wine by my side!
For this month’s column, I’m taking inspiration from my trip and sharing the 411 on Napa so you can plan your next great wine adventure.
Napa in a nutshell
Napa is located about an hour’s drive (with no traffic, that is) from San Francisco, over the Golden Gate Bridge and then northeast. The site of lots of volcanoes and plate movement (which has created ideal soil for grapes), Napa Valley lies between the Vaca Mountains in the east and the Mayacamas Mountains in the West, which flank Sonoma’s eastern borders.
On the drive to Napa you’ll pass cows, farms, and vineyards, vineyards, and more vineyards. The route is pretty and it makes you appreciate that wine is nothing more than agriculture. It’s such a funny notion when you see all the wine snobs with their pinkies in the air, swirling, spitting and spewing crazy descriptions that make no sense to you, me or any other normal person.
Make no mistake; unlike Sonoma, which is more low-key, Napa is adult Disneyland. This is the place with the big names and fancy properties. They are not shy about their Valley-pride, if you catch my drift.
The Valley hosts about 6 million visitors a year, which is a lot for an area that extends 28 miles long and 4 miles wide. It makes a terrific day trip from San Francisco or a nice three- to four-day excursion on its own.
Napa is known primarily for its Cabernet Sauvignon. Since it’s warm here and Cabernet flourishes with heat, the grape has found a home away from its native home of Bordeaux. Most of the producers proudly make fruity, high-alcohol, luscious Cabernet.
You’ll find lots of other wine varieties here, like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay in white, and Merlot with some Syrah, Zinfandel and Petit Sirah (Syrah’s distant relative, this wine is more rustic, simpler and has very strong mouth-drying tannins). But very few don’t produce a Cabernet Sauvignon. If you’re not a Cabernet person, you may want to skip the trip to Napa and go over the mountains to Sonoma. The reputation of a Napa winery is mainly staked upon its Cab and each one will boast its selling points to you proudly.
There are more than 400 wineries here, so it’s smart to think ahead. What kind of day do you want? Are you going to hit the big names, or do you want to go off the beaten track? Will you visit established wineries – some have been around since the 1800s – or newer ones? There are benefits to each.
The big guys are great. Their properties are beautiful and they have the hospitality gig down to a science. You’ve probably had their wines and know what they’re about. If you visit these places, expect a full marketing spiel and a view of some of the most grandiose properties in Napa. Not a bad deal.
My favorite is far and away Chateau Montelena in Calistoga. It is beautiful, the wines are outstanding and the hospitality can’t be beat. Robert Mondavi on Napa 29 is quite striking, and Darioush on the Silverado Trail is so different that it’s a must see. I love Frog’s Leap too. It’s 100 percent organically farmed and the setting is stunning. Pride Mountain on top of Spring Mountain has the most amazing view in all of Napa valley.
The smaller, lesser-known wineries are terrific as well. Most of these require you to make an appointment and they book up quickly, so call at least a week in advance to secure a spot.
For this type of experience, try Tres Sabores in St. Helena or Frank Family in Calistoga. Lava Vines is a new, tiny operation in Calistoga and it has amazing wines and great people. The Valley’s wineries have a reputation for being a bit uppity, but Lava is the most un-Napa winery I’ve ever been to. Robert Biale does wonderful Zinfandel and they are in Napa proper.
Remember, all this fancy hospitality doesn’t come cheap. Tasting fees range from $10 to $25 and can be as much as $45. The fee is often waived if you buy wine, but if not, it’s a sunk cost you need to factor in.
Leave at least two hours for a tasting at each place and factor in driving time to make sure you get to each appointment punctually. At smaller places, sometimes the owner or winemaker takes time out of his or her day to host you, so be sure to arrive on time.
Regardless of what you decide, remember that the properties can be very far away from each other (20 miles is a long way in Napa). You don’t want to waste time driving around, so pick an area or two and explore there. I always seem to get crunched for time when I’m visiting, but when I plan for four wineries per day and make sure they’re near each other, things have a funny way of going smoothly!
If you decide to stay in wine country, the options range dramatically. From five-star hotels like Auberge du Soleil to the Hawthorne Suites in Napa, there’s accommodation for every budget. I’m staying at the Best Western Premier Ivy off Napa 29, the main drag through the Valley. The rooms are great and the location can’t be beat.
For food, you’ve got everything from The French Laundry and Auberge to Denny’s. The good news is that over the last few years the dining options have really multiplied, so there are more choices in the mid-tier and less polarization between fast food and high-end places. For lunch, if you’re in St. Helena try Gott’s Roadside (a.k.a., Taylor’s Refresher), a local fast-food institution. Dean & Deluca, the outpost of the NYC store, also in St. Helena, provides excellent sandwiches. Oakville Grocer in Oakville is quaint and delicious, albeit a little over priced.
For dinner, if you’re not going super upscale ($400 per person and a reservation a year in advance are required at French Laundry!), a local favorite is Bistro Don Giovanni on 29 in Napa. I saw Robert Mondavi there before he died a few years ago and lots of the locals love that place. It’s got great pizza and fresh ingredients. In Napa, ZuZu is great for tapas and Ubuntu, a vegetarian place, has one Michelin star – no small feat.
I’ve got a few important tips on etiquette to share about visiting Wine Country. After seeing people in spike heels, fur vests and short shorts today, I’ve got to speak out on this topic.
- Don’t go overboard by getting dressed up. Jeans and a nice shirt are fine. Lots of makeup, heels and fancy dresses don’t really fit in with the whole agricultural thing. Plus, your heels may get muddy in the vineyards or caught in the drain grates, so save them for dinner.
- Never wear perfume. You won’t be able to smell the wines and it could bother other people around you. Put some wine behind your ears if you feel you must, but resist the urge to put on anything else.
- Don’t get drunk. Spit if you have to, but the point is to taste the wine not to drink it! It’s a little disrespectful to the wineries to stumble into tasting rooms at the end of the day totally hammered and asking for more. They are there to showcase their wines and if you show no interest, it’s kind of rude.
- Be nice to the tasting room staff. They can give you great information and offer you tastes of things that aren’t on the menu, if you’re kind.
- For larger and medium-sized wineries, don’t feel obligated to buy their product, especially if you can get it at home. If you go to a really small winery (say, under 3000 cases), it’s just right to buy something. They don’t have the resources of the big guys and each person they see means a lot to them and their brand.
To wrap it all up, the key to a fun, great trip in Napa is planning ahead. Unlike Sonoma, which has tons of tasting rooms that are open to the public and encourage you to stop by, to do Napa right, you’ve got to schedule your day and make appointments to hit the best of the best. So get to it and happy tasting!
For planning a girfriend getaway to Napa you may also want to read Girls’ Getaway: Destination Napa Valley
Photo via seligmanwaite on flickr