THE 10 BEST NAPA VALLEY WINERIES TO VISIT By Igor Sill, along with insights from thousands of Wine lover reviewers, March 2016
No other wine region on the planet draws as much attention or visitors as Napa Valley. Its visited by some five million people every year, making it the second most visited tourist destination in California (Disneyland is # 1). Perfect for a day or weekend trip from San Francisco, Napa Valley awards one with beautiful scenery, exceptional wineries and world-renowned wines.
For many San Francisco Bay Area tourists, the opportunity of tasting exceptional quality wines is an absolute must. Napa's soil, gentle climate and growing conditions (terroir) make for ideal grapes, coveted by wine enthusiasts everywhere.
Napa Valley contains well over 400 wineries, with most welcoming guests with tours, wine education and tasting rooms. While enticing, the sheer number of winery options can be overwhelming. In this article I've focused on wineries that offer excellent wines, rich history, an informative and entertaining adventure.
Wine is not to be feared, though at first it can seem daunting. A knowledgeable wine tender can erase those fears while guiding your pallet to an enjoyable and memorable experience on your very first visit. If you are a first time visitor, you may wish to consider picking the right time of year to visit. The best times to visit Napa is during the Spring and Fall seasons, meaning April to early June and the September to October timeframes. Early fall is our "crush" period, when wineries are harvesting their grapes. If you want to experience a winery in action, come in the Fall. The other optimal time is early Spring (late February to March) when the Valley's mustard plants are all in full, brilliant yellow bloom.
Since acquiring my own Napa Valley vineyard some 28 years ago, I've taken the opportunity to get acquainted with and tour most of the popular wineries, with numerous repeat visits amongst my favorites. My recommendations, supported by researching 3,000+ yelp.com reviews, for the best, as well as the hidden gems, are from my own first-hand experience of their hospitality, exceptional wines, the facility's ambiance, history & beauty, the wine tasting experience and the memories that linger long after the visit is over.
Excellent wines are certainly appreciated, however, the entire experience a winery and its staff provides leaves its guests wanting to return. Wineries achieve first class status when their staff enjoys greeting people, are extraordinary experts in their fields and capable of conveying their knowledge in a friendly, fun and understandable fashion. Life is way too short for lousy wine and a mediocre time. And so, with the help of yelp.com reviews, here are 10 of my favorite wineries with tastings and tours that are open to the public.
Of course, this list only scratches the surface. Napa has dozens of other wineries worth noting, such as Beaulieu, Cakebread, Clos Pegase, Ehlers, Mondavi, Pine Ridge, Shrader, Silver Oak and many more.
The smaller wineries will often receive guests on an appointment only basis, so always call ahead, or visit their website for availability. Also, note that Napa zoning restrictions preclude picnic eating at all but a couple of Napa estates, so hold off on that picnic basket.
Most wineries will charge a fee for the tour or tasting, but given the amount of information garnered and the quality of wines poured, along with the beautiful and stylish settings, these visits are an incredible bargain.
1) V.Sattui Winery, St Helena, Napa (www.vsattui.com): This is the most popular and most visited winery in all of Napa. Hours are 9-5 in the winter and 9-6 in the summer months with no appointment required, 7 days a week. It's a top favorite because they offer old world charm, 80 different varietals of wines, champagne and ports, vast picnic grounds, personalized winery and barrel tasting tours, a legendary Italian deli with fresh foods, cheeses and a friendly, well trained staff. It's one of the few wineries that consistently wins top awards for all of their wines. Winemaker, Brooks Painter received the Winemaker of the Year award, 2015. The main tasting room is as close to a party as you’ll get in the often seriously snobby Napa. For those who want to learn and talk about terroir while indulging in aficionado conversations about serious wines should go to their Vittorio tasting room (Tower). There's always a party going on at this winery because it's always packed with visitors, frequent BBQs, special events, entertainment and Spring weddings. This winery has a full time executive food pairing chef, Marc Golic, who combines phenomenal wine and food pairing tasting events. It's also a great spot to relax with their wines while enjoying a family lunch on their picnic grounds. V. Sattui is a family, dog friendly winery where you'll see children having a great time as well. This is truly a wonderful and gorgeous place to spend your day.
2) Chateau Montelena, Calistoga, Napa (www.montelena.com): Chateau Montelena thrust itself onto the world's stage in 1976 as its 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, crafted by winemaker Mike Grgich, took first place at the famed "Paris Tasting” beating France’s best white Burgundies. While their Chardonnay continues to be one of the most age worthy Chardonnays produced in California, their Bordeaux style Cabernet Sauvignon now occupies the winery's focus these days. With its impressive old world stone chateau, the unusual Chinese grounds with lake and the enchanting, if not small, greeting room, it certainly delivers a memorable wine tasting experience. Though the picnic grounds are reserved for Wine Club members only, visitors are welcome to meander around and take in the sites.
3) Beringer Vineyards, St Helena, Napa (www.beringer.com): Another historic Napa winery dating back to 1875 when brothers Jacob and Frederick, German immigrants, established this winery. Once there, they planted the beautiful "Tunnel of Trees" (1885) that still adores Highway 29 in front of their winery. They built the elegant Rhine House where they once lived as well as the grand stone winery building, and hand dug the wine caves. The lush landscaping surrounding the ornate Rhine House gives you a sense for what Napa used to be like in those days. Last year, Mark Beringer, great-great grandson of founder Jacob Beringer joined the winery as its Chief Winemaker. Beringer offers a 30-minute tour that guides one through the Old Winery and historic tunnels, winding up in the iconic Rhine House mansion with a wine tasting that includes a selection of three wines. Absolutely magical.
4) Inglenook Winery, Rutherford, Napa (www.inglenook.com): As one of the original Napa wineries, the elegant, ivy-covered Inglenook was founded by Finnish sea captain and Wine Connoisseur, Gustave Niebaum in 1879. Gustave was passionate about making fine wines in small quantities. In 1975, Francis Ford Coppola acquired the winery from the Niebaum family and spent considerable time, money and energy restoring it back to its magnificent original splendor. It has since been known by several names, ala Niebaum-Coppola, Coppola and Rubicon until 2011, when Francis Ford Coppola acquired the Inglenook trademark, paying more, he said, than he had paid for the entire estate. He has since, restored the historic name Inglenook to the estate so that it remains a true crown jewel of Napa Valley. Tours are by appointment and definitely worthwhile so that you can appreciate these amazing grounds.
5) Luna Vineyards, Napa, CA (lunavineyards.com): Co-founders Michael Moone and George Vare launched Luna Vineyards in 1995. Wonderful, magically modern and an absolutely amazing small estate vineyard close by to downtown Napa and a short distance from Silverado Resort. You can leave your car parked at your Napa B&B and easily get there via bike. Luna, located on Silverado Trail is the largest producer of Pinot Grigio in Napa. They offer a sunny patio area with ample comfy chairs to relax in while tasting their wines. Luna is more like a wine bar than a working winery, with music playing and a relaxed comfortable setting. You can also catch the beautiful scenic views of the historic Silverado Trail overlooking the vineyards from their rooftop tower. Reservations are recommended.
6) Opus One, Oakville, Napa (www.opusonewinery.com) This winery originated as the joint venture between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe Rothschild who teamed up to create this magnificent winery focused on producing a Bordeaux styled blend based on Napa Valley floor Cabernet Sauvignon. Opus One Winery delivers a luxurious wine experience. The estate is impressive, especially when driving down the center driveway to the winery entrance. Looking out across Opus One's vineyards from the upstairs terrace, you immediately sense the beauty of Napa Valley. This is a winery to just sit back, relax and absorb a wonderful glass of wine with the company of good friends. It doesn’t get any more luxuriously sophisticated than this, so take plenty of pictures while there. Constellation Brands acquired Robert Mondavi winery in 2004 and entered into a management agreement with Baron Rothschild to manage Opus One. The Winery tours are by appointment only, so be sure to call in advance to secure your reservation.
7) Peju Province, Rutherford, Napa (www.peju.com): Peju offers more than 30 sustainably-farmed wines (some of which are exclusive to wine club members) in their landmark tasting room tower. They offer an amazing art collection gallery upstairs, pristine gardens, unique culinary events, reserve and barrel tastings. Their culinary wine experiences include hands-on cooking classes, chef's table lunches, as well as wine and food pairing education classes. As you enter their grounds, you'll note a collection of carefully placed sculptures while roaming the manicured gardens. Wonderful family deserving of their great yelp reviews.
8) Spottswoode, St Helena, Napa (www.spottswoode.com): Spottswoode is a true family owned historic winery in the west side of St Helena in the Napa Valley. Established in 1882 by George Schonewald, the estate is distinguished by the historic Victorian home portrayed on their wine labels. Owner Mary Novak established the winery in 1982, and it is managed by her daughters Beth Novak Milliken, its President & CEO and Lindy Novak, who runs the winery's wholesale marketing program. The family produces a small portfolio of 3 delicious varietals, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and a miniscule amount of Syrah. Their hospitality and tasting room is in a quaint Victorian farmhouse nestled amongst the vines. Tours are available on Monday through Fridays at 10AM with no more than 10 people allowed, so call in advance as this is a popular site. Phone (707) 963-0134 or email email@example.com to make a reservation.
9) Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Oakville, Napa (www.cask23.com): Founded in 1970 by Warren Winiarski, this winery brought international acclaim to Napa Valley winemaking when their 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon won the famous 1976 "Judgment of Paris" tasting. A bottle of 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon was inducted into the Smithsonian National Museum in 1996 as a result of being awarded first in this competition and to reflect the impact that the achievement had on the US wine industry. The winery's newly remodeled facilities provides floor-to-ceiling views of its vineyards as its centerpiece. The winery's cave "is the moral center of the universe" according to founder Warren Winiarski. He installed an amazing floor-to-ceiling Foucault pendulum at the center of the vaulted caves. It's an awesome sight to behold as it swings methodically. The winery was sold to a joint venture by Chateau Ste Michelle and Marchesi Antinori in the summer of 2007. Reservations are accepted Monday through Friday from 10AM to 4:30PM at firstname.lastname@example.org or (707) 261-6410
10) Castello di Amorosa, Calistoga, Napa (www.castellodiamorosa.com): Castello di Amorosa knows how to make a huge first impression. Set on a Calistoga knoll, this authentically styled, 13th Century Tuscan castle winery is unlike any other you'll visit. It took some 15 years for owner Dario Sattui (founder of V.Sattui Winery) to construct it and has all the elements you'd expect from an authentic Italian castle, such as a moat with drawbridge, high stone walls, gargoyles, a church and fully equipped torture chamber. The castle winery produces hand-crafted Italian styled wines including Cabernet, Merlot, Primitivo and Sangiovese. A number of guided tours and tastings are available. The castle hits all the marks: delicious wines that you can only get from here, unforgettably gorgeous grounds, delectable foods and cheeses, and a friendly, knowledgeable staff. $25 gets you into the castle along with 5 tastings.
The author Igor Sill farms a terraced cabernet sauvignon vineyard in St Helena, Napa, California. He's a passionate wine lover; writer; certified Court of Master Sommeliers; attended UC Davis' winemaking program; Member, Napa Valley Wine Technical Group; Judge, International Wine Challenge, London UK and holds his Masters from Oxford University.