This is an article written by our friend Julie. She is a former student of mine and the daughter of a good friend and wine tasting buddy. Julie loves to travel and has a great perspective on how to have fun in wine country and enjoy wine tasting. Here is Julie’s Napa Valley Getaway and some of her advice on planning a Napa Valley getaway.
The Napa Valley wine country sits ninety minutes northeast of San Francisco. It is a great location for a weekend getaway or a long day trip with fantastic options for wine tasting. If you are a Cabernet Sauvignon fan, this is your region. Wineries in Napa range from small, family-owned to the bigger, more corporate labels. It is worth it to do some research before you go to both plan your wine route and decide where to stay.
When visiting the Napa Valley for wine tasting, consider the following places: Downtown Napa, Yountville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga. Downtown Napa is the first wine town that you hit when travelling down Highway 29. As you travel further into the valley, you will drive through each town. The towns become progressively cuter and progressively more expensive in terms of accommodations. Here is a brief description of each town:
This section of Napa is along the Napa River. Cute family-owned businesses line the streets with many bed and breakfast inns leading up to the downtown area. Just over the bridge from the downtown is the Oxbow Market. It is similar to the San Francisco Ferry Building with several restaurants, bakeries, wine stores, produce stands and cookware stores. Oxbow was my personal favorite on this trip due to the number of gluten free options at the market. Every restaurant and bakery in the market had good gluten free options. Cate & Co. Bakery even had a gluten free sourdough baguette. I was in heaven. Stop by the Oxbow Market before your day of wine tasting to pick up lunch or have a leisurely breakfast.
Yountville is the pricier, trendier town of the group. Accommodations are high end and there is a mix of hotels and B&Bs. Everything in downtown Yountville is within walking distance and everything is beautiful. Yountville also boasts some fabulous restaurants. Redd and Michael Chiarello’s Bottega are both on the main strip. Reservations are helpful; however, seating is often available at the bar as well. This is also a good way to chat up the bartender for food and travel tips. Bouchon, located just across the street from Bottega, serves baked goods all day. You will know when you have arrived at Bouchon as there is a line out the door all day long. There are also tasting rooms and spas downtown.
St. Helena and Calistoga
St. Helena and Calistoga are towns up north of the Valley. They can be best explained as a cross between Yountville and Downtown Napa. Accommodations are pricey, but the atmosphere is more laid back. You will see a lot of family-owned businesses on the road through both St. Helena and Calistoga. There are more spas in St. Helena and Calistoga and some of the wineries are off the main road.
Napa Travel Tips
Napa Valley is one of the more expensive and sophisticated wine regions. However, do not let that intimidate you. Here are some travel tips to keep you on budget and in tune with your wine experience:
- When wine tasting, always have a designated driver. A wine tour is a great way to plan your day and have a safe driver for your group.
- For proximity to the wine country, I recommend staying between Downtown Napa and Calistoga. Most wineries are around twenty minutes (or closer) from those locations. Anything outside of that area will be a long haul to and from wineries and spas.
- There are few, if any, budget accommodations in Napa Valley. Sites like Groupon and Expedia post deals from time to time. You can also call Napa Valley Reservations (707) 252-1985. One trick is to call the day before you leave or the day of your departure. I found reasonably priced ($167/night), super cute, no frills accommodations in a good location at the Chablis Inn ten minutes from Yountville and ten minutes from Downtown Napa by calling the last minute. There was even a Starbucks and a grocery store across the street.
- Know your limit on the number of wineries you can visit in one day. Mine is three. By the time I go to a fourth winery, I can’t taste the wine anymore because my palate is shot.
- Napa tends to be pricier in terms of tasting fees. Plan to spend between $15 – $30 for each tasting. Most wineries will allow you to split a tasting with another person. Even though a taste is a one ounce pour, keep in mind that you will taste about the equivalent of a glass of wine at each winery.
- Drink lots of water between wineries, especially on hot days.
- You don’t have to be a sommelier to know what wines you like. Read the profiles on the tasting lists and listen to the wine education from the servers at the tasting rooms. You will start to notice which flavor profiles suit you. For example, if a wine is described as having anise or licorice notes, I know that I will love it. This is also my strategy for choosing a tasting list.
- If you would like some more of a wine that you tasted, ask to “revisit” that particular wine. You’ll sound like a wine pro! However, most wineries will ask you, “Would you like to revisit anything?”, at the end of the tasting.
- Keep in mind that wine is personal. What you love, another person will not. What you taste in a wine, another person might not. It’s all part of the experience.
- And, most importantly, have fun and chat up those tasting room hosts!
All Aboard the Wine Bus!
A wine tour is the best way to spend a day wine tasting. They provide a designated driver, lunch and a selection of wineries to visit. On this wine excursion, I booked with Platypus Tours. All of the wine tour operators offer similar services, so I enact…the attitude test. Platypus passed with flying colors. They are about the wine experience – having fun and learning about wine in an approachable environment. They value humor (just read their website!) They visit quality, family-owned, boutique wineries in different parts of the valley. Since most of the wineries are family owned, our group got access to barrel rooms, winemakers, and wine caves that bigger wineries just don’t have the time to do. Led by our fearless guide, Greg, we visited four fantastic family-owned wineries: Rutherford Grove, David Fulton, Bennett Lane and Dutch Henry. My favorites were:
Rutherford Grove: Rutherford Grove is off of Highway 29 just past Yountville. There are two tastings to choose from – a reds only, Estate Reserve tasting, and a white and red, Rutherford Estate tasting. The Estate Reserve tasting has two Cabs and two Merlots on it. I chose the Rutherford Estate tasting and tasted the following:
- The crisp and grapefruity 2013 Estate Sauvignon Blanc
- The light and smooth 2009 Quackenbush Mountain Zinfandel from Lake County (This is a very well-priced, quality Mountain Zin at $18 per bottle. It tasted more expensive.)
- The delicious 2010 Estate Sangiovese with my favorite hint of licorice
- The 2008 Petite Syrah, a light and fruity wine from the St. Helena property
Roger, our host, also educated us about the region, the winery’s history and each wine. In fact, his grapes are in the delicious 2008 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon on the Estate Reserve tasting menu. He made us feel like we were drinking wine on his back deck. Rutherford Grove is a must visit!
David Fulton: David Fulton winery is up the road and off the beaten path in St. Helena. This is the oldest, continuously family-owned winery in the region. The tasting room feels like a cozy, hunting cabin, and Jason Elkin, our host, balanced our education with wine humor. Winemaker, Richard Mather, also paid us a visit during the tasting. My favorites of the day were:
- The caramely and crisp 2011 Chardonnay. As someone who was never a fan of Chardonnay in the past, this is a huge statement on my part. I wish I had bought a case!
- The 2010 Vintner Red Blend #Bromance. This wine was developed by our host, Jason Elkin, and winemaker, Richard Mather, for their label, ME Wines. A portion of the proceeds are donated to the families of fallen soldiers. This wine, with hints of lavender and Bakers chocolate, is a true tribute.
- The refined 2011 Old Vine Sweet Petite “Port Style”. All I can say is, “Wow!”. If you like port, you will love the Old Vine Sweet Petite.
This winery was also our lunch stop for the day. The group enjoyed sandwiches and salad with glasses of wine on the back deck overlooking the vineyard. Delicious in so many ways!
Bennett Lane: Next stop was the Bennett Lane winery in Calistoga. We started our tasting with a bright, crisp glass of their 2011 Reserve Chardonnay. Our host toured us through their fermentation room and then it was back to the tasting room. In addition to the 2011 Reserve Chardonnay, we also tasted the 2009 Maximus, 2007 Syrah and the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. Once again, my favorite had anise notes: the 2009 Cab. And, once again, a crisp Chardonnay won me over!
Dutch Henry: Dutch Henry was our final stop for the day. The winery has wine caves on the property. In between tasting different wines and playing with Maybelline, the winery cat, Greg gave us a tour of the wine caves on the property. The winery uses the caves to both age wine in barrels and host events. The caves were dug into the mountain and are reinforced. This property boasts a great location for a picnic in addition to their high-end wines. A tasting at Dutch Henry costs $25 and includes six new release wines. I highly recommend the Argos.
In addition to being our designated driver, our guide, Greg, was also our personal chef, tour comedian, and resident wine expert. Throughout the tour, he taught us about the region and its wines – a real Wine 101 course! Platypus definitely provides a quality wine experience with excellent choices in wineries and a comprehensive overview of the Napa Valley wine region. For a fun day with excellent wine, book with Platypus!
Wine tours are also a great way for solo travellers, like myself, to meet people while travelling.
Salud to you and your Napa Valley wine experience!