Napa Valley has become so popular that visiting wineries can be an ordeal. It needn’t be, says Stephen Brook, who has uncovered an easier way…
Until the 1980s, the Napa Valley was something of a backwater, with a few old wineries single traffic light along the trail and driving is swift. Although there are almost 40 wineries along this route too, they are easier to visit: fewer cars, fewer people. Not all the wineries are open to the public and some require appointments. On the other hand, there is a wide selection offering a warm welcome and high quality wines. You need to understand local etiquette to get the most out of a day on the trail. Almost all wineries charge a tasting fee, as it would be uneconomical to pour wines for free to 100 or more visitors. But in many cases, the fee is refunded if you buy a bottle or two. It is perfectly acceptable to ‘share’: thus two people could order a single flight and sip from the same glass. Some high tasting fees are justified by the provision of food and wine pairings (as at Sinskey, where snacks accompany most wines), or include winery tours or the ever-popular ‘wine caves’ – cellars burrowed into the hillside.
At other tastings, such as those at Duckhorn and Mumm Napa, you are seated and the wines are brought to you, often with explanations and sometimes with snacks. American wine tourists see no reason to spit out a wine for which they may well have paid up to $5 to taste (giving the wineries a handsome profit to boot), so you will have to ask for a ‘spit bucket’ if you wish to limit your alcohol intake. At some wineries it is acceptable to bring a sandwich, buy a bottle and enjoy it at a picnic table beneath the shade of a tree in the winery grounds. This practice is subject to licence, meaning that, in some cases, the winery can sell you the wine but not open the bottle. So, if you’re planning on a picnic, remember to take your own corkscrew and glasses. I’ve rated the trail’s wineries from one to three stars to indicate the quality you are likely to taste. If I don’t know the wines well, the winery is not rated. Some are open only by appointment but on a quiet weekday you may be able to taste without waiting. I’ve marked this more flexible approach with an asterisk.
It would probably take three days of dedicated tasting to visit every winery along the trail and, given the vagaries of opening hours, this is not really a practical possibility. But here are some highlights that serious wine tourists should consider. Just north of Napa is the fashionable Luna winery. I find the wines too alcoholic, but they have a following.
Hagafen is a kosher winery and the wines are serious and well made. Darioush was created by Iranian-born retail tycoon Darioush Khaledi, and the winery pays homage to the ancient capital of Persepolis. It may be a touch vulgar, but the tasting staff are professional, and the wines, though pricey, are good. Clos du Val is a Napa classic, with red wines that show restraint and a strong French influence. Regusci may not offer worldclass wines, but it’s a delightful place, with an old stone winery and welcoming staff. Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is one of Napa’s great properties, and a tasting allows you to taste its different Cabernets side by side. Dick Steltzner is another Napa veteran and his wines seem better than they used to be – well worth a stop. Silverado makes reliable Sauvignon Blanc and exceptional Cabernet. Shafer insists on bookings and, although the tastings are expensive, you are well looked after and the wines are superb. Most of Sinskey’s wines come from Carneros where manyvineyards are biodynamic. Try its lively Alsatian-style wines.
Cliff Lede, just off the trail, is a new winery with its own art collection. Mumm Napa serves the wines at table, so it’s more of a Champagne bar than a tasting room. But the wines are good and it’s perfect for refreshing the palate at the end of a day. William Harrison sells almost everything from the tasting room and the wines, if little known, are of high quality.
Duckhorn is best known for its rich Merlots but the Cabernets are equally fine. Rombauer is famous in the US (more for The Joy of Cooking than for its wines), and offers valet parking. August Briggs is little known outside Napa but the wines are serious and tastings are free. This is at the northern end of the trail, near the spa town of Calistoga, where hot mud is the potion of choice.
Written by Stephen Brook