One of our favorite things to do in wine country is to enjoy a picnic lunch at a winery. In the Napa Valley there are far too few wineries that have picnic areas when compared to Sonoma, Paso Robles, and other California wine regions. Napa County ordinances have been tough on the newer wineries, not allowing them to offer this wonderful experience to the wine traveler. Sadly, on our trip to the Napa Valley this past week, we discovered that one of our favorite wine picnic areas had been fenced off and the winery was now charging a $35 table fee to use the picnic area. Hard to believe but true!
This is the final article on our recent visit to three very different mountain wineries in the Napa Valley. Our first visit was to the Stony Hill Vineyard on Spring Mountain, then on to Ladera Winery on Howell Mountain. Our final winery visit took us south of Howell Mountain to Chiles Valley and to one of Napa Valley’s oldest wineries, Nichelini Winery, atop Sage Canyon Road.
This little hidden winery in the Napa Valley may perhaps be best described as the “The Little Winery That Could.” Through the prohibition era this winery kept chugging and chugging, making wines. Prohibition forced many wineries out of business and a few others survived by making sacramental wines. The Nichelini Winery kept making wines and rumors say that none of it was for the Church. Rumors abound regarding who the Nichelini clients were, and how the family managed to elude the law. Whatever this means, the winery has had 121 consecutive harvests and the family has proclaimed that they are the oldest continuous winery in the Napa Valley.
On Monday, May 17, the Amgen Tour of California will take the cyclists through perhaps what is the most stunning and spectacular portion of the entire eight-day tour. Too bad these world-class professional cyclists will have little chance to enjoy the view of wine country. Up Howell Mountain and the Oakville Grade, cyclists will use every ounce of energy to make their way to the summit of these steep grades. Down these two mountains, the cyclists’ skills will be put to the test as they maneuver not only hairpin turns but also attempt to avoid numerous potholes that seem to be around each corner.
For spectators, the news is much better. There are plenty of places to take in the tour in the Valley. This past week we used our car to scout some of the better locations for viewing the cyclists. Ideally, you want a spot where you can sit higher than the cyclists. The view should be unobstructed as there will be parked cars on both sides of the road. A view of a long stretch of road in both directions is also a plus. If you can’t get to higher ground, try and avoid crowded areas. Each person leans in to catch a glimpse of the riders as they approach and that has the same affect as it does in a stadium when the fan in front stands up at a key play.
Last week we spent one night in downtown Napa. That is not much time to explore Napa but enough for us to discover some wonderful delights and a few things not so appealing for tourists.
The new Avia Hotel is where we lodged for one night. It is certainly a very beautiful venue but so new that a few kinks need to be ironed out. The price for our room was listed at $900 a night on the door. We received an alert from the Travel Zoo and paid $119 for our room. I can’t imagine anyone paying the full price in this economy.
Most winery picnic areas are beautiful and serene but if you looking for a fantastic view of the Napa Valley, we have four recommendations.
Diamond Oaks Winery
This is off the beaten path but the word is out and it has become a popular picnic spot among wine groups. The Diamond Oaks Wineryis located about a mile up the Oakville Grade. As you approach the Oakville Grocery you can spot the signs for the Oakville Grade. This picnic area also has a Bocce court. The best views are at the very end of the picnic area and often visitors don’t even see this area because it is a little lower than the main picnic area. This area affords a beautiful view of the Napa Valley. Best picnic wines here: The Chardonnay from Carneros with very little oak and the Carneros Pinot Noir.
In July of 2008, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill calling for a special picnic license for wineries. This picnic law would grant a picnic license allowing wineries to designate a picnic area and sell visitors a full glass of wine or bottles of wine to be consumed on the premise. I was excited about this news because I was hoping that it would increase the number of picnic wineries in the Napa Valley. As it is, the Napa Valley compared to all other wine regions in California has the lowest percentage of wineries with picnic facilities. By my count, I only find 20 Napa wineries conveniently located that have a picnic area. Secondly, I thought the new law would bring about some innovative tasting ideas. Why not be able to order one single glass of one wine, instead of sampling an array of one-ounce portions of wines? Or, purchase two glasses of 3 oz each and do a side-by-side comparison. The law went into effect on January 1 and now, well into the year, I have yet to see any effects of this so-called picnic license.
Mike Chelini began making wine at Stony Hill Vineyard in 1972 and has never looked back. Mike is one of Napa’s old guard, a member of the G.O.N.A.D.S.,* and a throwback to another time and era in the Napa Valley’s wine history. I visited Mike Chelini with my friend Mike Beltran, who was working retail for a San Francisco wine shop many years ago when he’d first met Mike Chelini. If you want stories about the Napa Valley, then Mike Chelini is the man. I heard at least a dozen good ones as Mike and Mike reminisced about the old days of the Napa Valley.
In a sense, things at Stony Hill are about the old days. There is nothing fancy here that smacks of modern innovation in the wine world. In the winemaking room, you won’t find a cutting-edge crush machine or jacketed, temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks or rows of brand new barrels. Quite the contrary, everywhere you turn, the winery has that old-fashioned look. Mike Chelini keeps track of all his winemaking data in a notebook. Why use the computer when a notebook has worked just fine over the past 36 years?
One thing that is new at Stony Hill is Cabernet Sauvignon. Three years ago, the winery ripped out an old vineyard and replanted the plot with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The Cabernet Vines on the sunniest location of the Spring Mountain property. It won’t be a while until the vines are ready for a robust harvest, but you can expect the Cabernet to be in the style that has given Stony Hill wines its reputation for producing food friendly and easy drinking wines.
Chardonnay has long been the flagship wine for Stony Hill. The wine is aged in neutral oak and without malolactic fermentation. These wines are quite the opposite of much of the Chardonnay favored these days, buttery and creamy on the mouth and full of oak. The winery has a huge following for this Chardonnay and their other white wines, a dry Riesling, and a Gewurztraminer. Their mailing list has grown so sufficiently over the years that they are able to sell much of their wines to those on the list.
The winery is one of Napa Valley’s hidden gems and certainly one where you can avoid the crowds that are typical along Highway 29. To visit Stony Hill make an appointment and then travel on Highway 29 north past St. Helena. Turn left at Bale Grist Historic State Park entrance. Continue on the road that leads up the mountain. The road is narrow and the signs quite small, so pay careful attention. Bring a camera for some beautiful views of the Valley and the Stony Hill Vineyards. The wine tasting is in the home of Peter and Wellinda McCrea. Peter is son of the founders of Stony Hill, Fred and Eleanor McCrea. On your way out ask about taking a look at the winery, and you will likely meet up with winemaker Mike Chelini, a legend in his own time.
* G.O.N.A.D.S. stands for the Gastronomical Order for Nonsensical and Dissipatory Society. The GONADS are a somewhat exclusive group of Napa Valley vintners who have been getting together monthly for lunch since the early 1980’s. Reportedly there are 12 members, including Mike Chelini, Bob Trinchero, Koerner Rombauer, Stu Smith (Smith-Madrone), Dan Duckhorn and Carl Doumani (Quixote Winery). According to sources, these lunches can be a rather ruckus affair. To become a member of the G.O.N.A.D.S., you have to be invited to one of the lunches. Being invited back means you’re in.
The William Hill Estate Winery is by definition a family-owned winery. It is owned and operated by a family, the Gallo Family. But nothing at William Hill presents itself as one of those old and small family-owned wineries run by generations of family members. We are not saying this is bad thing, but when visitors come to the wine country and are looking for a family winery, my guess is that William Hill Estate winery is not what the tourist has in mind. The Gallo Family purchased this winery in 2007 from wine conglomerate, Beam Wine Estates. It looks, feels, and acts like a winery run by a giant corporation. It is the polar opposite of our previously reviewed family-owed winery, Hopper Creek Winery.
The William Hill tasting room is very impressive with beautiful displays of wine bottles, an exquisite tasting area, and a picture window view of their barrel room, containing 3500 sixty-gallon barrels. The grounds are equally impressive, with a spectacular view of the vineyards below. The garden and picnic area are groomed to perfection. The tasting staff is well trained and informed. When we asked about the 140 acres of estate vineyards, our server immediately showed us a poster board displaying a layout of where each varietal is grown on the estate.
With the gloom of the economy casting a pall on just about everything these days, a trip to the Napa Valley just might be the perfect escape. Harvest is over but fermenting tanks are going strong and there is that delicious smell in the air of wine being made. The vines are turning various shades and Fall is a wonderful time to be in the Napa wine country.
There is some economic relief in sight in the Valley because as the harvest ends, many of Napa Valley’s finest lodging establishments begin their Fall and Winter rate specials. Our guess is that because of the economy there will be more specials and packages as lodging establishments and other businesses try to lure visitors to the area. Now is the time to plan a budget trip to the Napa Valley.
Here are some tips on how to save some cash visiting the Napa Valley.
A winery asked us to remove their name from our list of best picnic spots in the Napa Valley and Carneros because they no longer are allowing visitors to picnic at their beautiful winery. We asked why and they intimated they had run out of patience with guests abusing the privilege of using their facilities.