Where to stay in the Napa Valley

We always like to stay within walking distance of fine restaurants and shopping. We like to enjoy our wine with dinner so we either walk or take a cab. We don’t drink and drive. The centers of the towns of Napa, Yountville, and Calistoga are giving the traveler many choices for lodging within a short distance of many restaurants.

Napa Valley winter trip

Napa valley in winter. Trip to tasting roomShould you consider a Napa Valley winter trip in December or January? Napa Valley during these two months is undoubtedly the quietest time in this spectacular wine country. As one long-time Napa Valley resident once mentioned to me, “Winter is how the Valley used to be during the entire year long ago.” If you really want to get away, this is the time to be in the Napa Valley. It’s beautiful, serene, and most of all relaxing. Here are a few things to do in December and January in the Napa Valley.

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San Francisco Prep High School churns out Winery Owners and Winemakers

St. Ignatius graduates who are winery owners or winemakers
In center Whitehall Lane G.M. Mike McLoughlin Class of 1979
St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco has produced a very impressive list of alums working in the world of wine. The Alumni Department at S.I. forwarded me this list of graduates affiliated with wineries in the Napa Valley, Sonoma and beyond. I find it fascinating that so many grads from S.I. are owners of wineries and/or winemakers. My guess is if you looked at other high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area you would not find anything close to matching that of the St. Ignatius group. Perhaps in the Napa Valley, where wine folks live and send their kids to high schools such as St. Helena High, you would expect a large connection from its graduates to wineries, but from a San Francisco City school, it is totally unexpected.

My friend Bob (a fellow alum and retired S.I. teacher and coach) and I paid a visit to Whitehall Lane Winery in St. Helena, owned by S.I. alum Tom Leonardini. We discussed the guys we each knew from S.I. who owned wineries and that prompted us to get a complete list from the Alumni Department at St. Ignatius High School. The list below shows the name of the winery, the individual, their graduation year, and their affiliation with the winery.

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Whitehall Lane Winery in St. Helena – The Sauvignon Blanc is outstanding

Amid the rain and wind this past Wednesday, we managed to squeeze in a tour and tasting at the Whitehall Lane Winery in St. Helena. Tom Leonardini and Family have owned the Whitehall Lane winery since 1993. Whitehall Lane is one of the Napa Valley’s earliest wineries with a start date of 1979. The winery is one our favorites, and we’d selected the winery for our Boutique Wine Trail back in 2003.

This was our first visit since the winery did a remodel and an addition a couple of years ago. Although the building structure has changed, the personnel remains very much the same, anchored by winemaker Dean Sylvester now in his eighteenth year at Whitehall. Our tour leader was Mike McLoughlin, the General Manger who joined the winery shortly after the Leonardini Family purchased the winery. Consistency is good in this case; the Whitehall Lane wines have been highly regarded throughout its history, highlighted many times by the Wine Spectator for its reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

Dean Sylvester the winemaker at Whitehall Lane
Dean Sylvester is his lab checks the Sauvignon Blanc blend

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Napa Valley bashing at the Wine Bloggers Conference

The Napa Valley is recognized as one of the top wine regions in the world. When you are top dog, expect to take some shots from your rivals. Napa Valley wineries had their share of good-natured bashing from Oregon wineries at the 5th Annual Wine Bloggers Conference held in Portland, Oregon, this past weekend.

Oregon wineries needle Napa Valley
Willamette Valley winemaker

What we heard along the way

“In Willamette Valley the weather cools rapidly from afternoon winds from the Van Duzer Corridor. Night time temperatures drop dramatically. In the Napa Valley it is hot all the time.”

“The Napa Valley Pinot Noirs from Carneros are too big.”

“Here in the Willamette Valley the winemakers and owners share their knowledge and help one another. In the Napa Valley, it is all corporate.”

“One thing that differentiates the Willamette Valley from the Napa Valley is that each year the growing season in the Willamette is very different. The climate varies significantly year to year. Napa does not have that fluctuation so their wines are always the same.”

“Here in the Willamette Valley you are likely to find a winemaker or family member working the tasting room. That is something you won’t find in the Napa Valley.”

What Oregon wineries should be saying to Napa Valley

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Wine Adventures in Yountville

Sometimes you just need a quick getaway to cure the doldrums of the winter months. And that is what we just did with a one-night getaway to Yountville in the Napa Valley. We booked a room at the Napa Valley Lodge for $149 at their special winter rate. The Lodge is very comfortable and within walking distance of the restaurants, tasting rooms, and lots of boutique shops. Although on this day it was grey and damp, it was a delight to drive along the Napa Valley floor and take in the beautiful scenery of the mountains and vineyards.

We arrived just in time for our 12:30 lunch restaurant at Redd Wood, the newest restaurant in town, owned by Richard Reddington of Redd Michelin fame in Yountville. The restaurant is located in the North Block Hotel, formerly the Hotel Piero. Redd Wood is a pizzeria with causal dining in a pleasant and relaxing atmosphere. The specialties, of course, are pizzas but there are many other menu items. There were four of us for lunch. Two shared a pizza and a salad and thought they were both just okay, nothing spectacular. Janelle and I shared a pear and wintergreens salad and a sandwich with rosemary foccacia, prosciutto cotto, and crucolo cheese. They were both excellent. The Sommelier was very cool, answering my questions about a few wine choices on his wine list, and recommended a Docellto/Barbera from Piedmonte in Italy that was very tasty, medium bodied, and perfect with our meals. The Wine list is good with a wine selection at $38 and above.

Redd Wood Pizzeria

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Napa Valley wine trip down memory lane

There are some 400 wineries in the Napa Valley that one can visit. The majority of those wineries were established after 1990. Why not take a trip down memory lane by visiting one or more of the handful of wineries that have been in existence in the Napa Valley for 100 years or more? Most of these wineries have tours and memorabilia that will give you a glimpse of what life in the Napa Valley was like way back when. Here are a few suggestions with a map below should you need it.

Nichelini Winery
Well off the radar of most travelers is the Nichelini Winery. This winery has had 121 consecutive harvests and is in the 5th generation of ownership. It is said to be the oldest continuous family-run winery in the Valley. The winery began making wine in 1890 and weathered prohibition by making sacramental wines, and perhaps a little more, under the table for various “important” clients. The winery is up on Sage Canyon Road about 10 minutes from the Valley floor. The winery is open Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 5 pm or Monday through Friday by appointment.

Nichelini on Sage Canyon Road - Highway 128 East

Beaulieu Vineyards
Beaulieu Vineyards began in 1900 and was founded by George de Latour. The winery was able to continue to operate during Prohibition, making sacramental wines. In 1938 George de Latour traveled to France and hired winemaker André Techelistcheff. Andre died in 1994, but his legacy lives on and he remains today the most influential winemaker in the Napa Valley. The winery is owned by Diageo Wines. The Tasting room is open daily 10 am to 5 pm.

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ZAP Changes Venue for Grand Tasting – We Have Two Tickets to Give Away

Get ready for the huge ZAP Grand Tasting on Saturday, January 28, 2012, from 2 pm to 5 pm. This is your chance to taste Zinfandel wines from 400 different wineries and producers. What a bonanza for anyone who likes wine and especially Zinfandel. This is the 21st Annual Grand Tasting and this year the tasting will be at The Concourse in the South of Market area of San Francisco. What happened to Fort Mason and the Herbst Pavilion? In 2012 Fort Mason begins renovations in preparation for the America’s Cup yacht race. The Concourse in the South of Market of San Francisco is classy and modern, and public transportation is much more available. It will be a very exciting location with several nearby restaurants and other attractions.

We have a pair of tickets to give away for the main event, the Grand Tasting, and a pair of tickets to give away for the Epicuria Food & Zin Pairings event on Thursday, January 26 from 6 to 9 pm. We will take submissions on the comment section below. This contest will run through December 31. On January 3 we will announce our winners. First place winner has a choice of either two tickets for the Grand Tasting on Saturday, January 28 ($138 value) or two tickets for the Epicuria Food & Zin Pairings event on Thursday, January 26 ($250 value). Second place winner will receive two tickets to whichever event the first-placed winner doesn’t choose.

How to enter

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Napa Valley Travelers Beware – Harvest is near

The most exciting and rewarding time of the year in the Napa Valley wine country, and for that matter all of wine country, is harvest time, “the crush” as it is called. This is what every winemaker, vineyard manager, and winery owner awaits throughout the vineyard year. Everything at a winery is at a fever pitch and excitement fills the air. If you want to be part of this wonderful experience, plan for your “Harvest” wine country getaway now. This is the peak season for visitors in the Napa Valley, so book your reservations early.

Harvest begins in late August. We have not heard of any grapes being picked as yet, but very soon the sparkling wine grapes of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay will be ready for harvest. Mumm Napa is always one of the first to harvest and celebrate. In September, the harvest picks up pace and will most likely extend into late October. This year has seen another very mild summer, and unless there are several warm days ahead this should be a later than average harvest year.

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First Impressions of Virginia Wine – Wine Bloggers Conference

When the venue for the 4th Annual Wine Bloggers Conference was announced, many in the audience gasped. Virginia was chosen over Paso Robles and the Finger Lakes region of New York. How could that be, many cried? I heard one blogger shout out “Virginia wine is not that good.” We attended the wine bloggers pre-conference on Wednesday and Thursday of this week and had the opportunity to visit four wineries in the Loudoun County in Northern Virginia. I have to conclude that after tasting wines at these four wineries, the wine is very good in this part of Virginia, and a few of their varietals are stellar. I’m not about to suggest the wines are overall as good as California wines or those of the Napa Valley, but several I tried certainly measure up to our standards. I know these wineries were hand picked by the local tourist office, but this did gives us an eye opener into the quality and potential for Virginia wines.

We visited Tarara Winery, Breaux Vineyards, Chrysalis Winery, and Boxwood Winery. At each winery the winemaker and owner presented their wines, and much like at any winery in California spoke glowingly about their wines.

We loved all the Viognier we tried, and we can easily see why this wine is so popular in Virginia. I wish I’d had some California Viognier on the spot for comparison. These Viognier wines have excellent floral and tropical characteristics and a great mouth feel. I was less impressed with the Chardonnay wines and maybe that is because I just don’t drink that much Chardonnay to begin with. At Breaux Vineyards I rated their Meritage and the Nebbiolo at 90 points. I had not tasted as delicious a Nebbiolo in some time.

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