Cab is king in Napa. The American equivalent of bordeaux, cabernet sauvignon thrives in Napa’s long, hot summers. Other varietals, such as sangiovese and cabernet franc, also do well here, but they don’t fetch the same high price in the marketplace, and they have none of the mystique and lore of cabernet: cash and cachet go hand in hand in Napa.
If you like big, complex wines that linger l-o-n-g on the palette, you’ll love Napa. Over 230 wineries sit side by side in the 30-mile-long valley, but many require you make an appointment. If you have a favorite label, call ahead before you drop by. Don’t wait till the last minute! Book as long in advance as you can; three to four weeks is ideal.
Napa wineries charge excessive tasting fees; budget $20 per person, but don’t be surprised if a particular winery charges $50. (Ask before you taste, and never be embarrassed to scoff and walk out; the wineries should be ashamed, not you.) Picnicking is rarely allowed, but you can do so at Hall, Casa Nuestra, or Vincent Arroyo (see below). Call ahead, and remember to buy a bottle of your host’s wine.
Small is good. Whenever possible, choose an itty-bitty, family-run operation over a giant corporate winery like Mondavi, or have a good reason for going big (e.g., a killer view). Think of it this way: You’re invited to two dinner parties, one for 100 people and one for 10 people. Which one will have the better food?
Attempt to visit no more than three wineries in a day. Otherwise your palette will burn out, especially if you swallow. If you’re serious about tasting, use the spit buckets on the bar: even a slight buzz will dull your sense of taste.
The following are laid out in south-to-north order. If you’re tight on time, stick to the valley’s southern end.
Start or finish the day with a glass of pinot or chardonnay at Artesa, in the Carneros District, famous for its stunning contemporary architecture and drop-dead vistas. The tasting room is built into a hillside, its roof is covered with grass. Thousands of acres of vineyards unfurl below, and the San Francisco skyline looms on the horizon. Gorgeous. Formerly Cordoníu, Artesa has transitioned away from sparkling to still wines; go for the chard and pinot. The winemaker strives to get as much fruit out of the wine is possible; balance is his watchword. Bottles cost $16 to $70, tastings $10 to $15. Free tours.
Italian varietals are the specialty at Luna Vineyards, where the signature pinot grigio and sangiovese have an earthy, understated quality. There’s also a terrific white blend, called ‘Freakout Reserve’ (because wine fetishists freak out when they learn it’s fermented with the skins). The tile-and-wood tasting room’s simple Tuscan-inspired design reads more like Spanish-Californian, but there’s no disagreement about the winery’s architectural romance, to wit, the tower, a lookout cupola like you’d find at an abbey. The views from on high are stellar: when your tasting flight is complete, do not turn down the invitation to finish your last glass upstairs. Bottles cost $18 to $80, tastings $12 to $30.
The brash, contemporary design at Darioush packs a punch: the Iran-quarried travertine walls, real Persian rugs, and Le Corbusier furniture make it look more like the Shah’s California palace than a winery tasting room. Fortunately the wines live up to the architecture. Best known for its big, thrillingly complex cabernet blends, Darioush also makes good chardonnay, merlot, and shiraz, all with 100% of the respective varietal. Some of the cabs run hot, leading some to believe that they’re released too early, but this is buy-and-hold wine; it’ll be fine by the time you get around to drinking it. Call ahead about wine-and-cheese pairings. Wear nice shoes; this ain’t Mondavi. Bottles cost $35 to $70, tastings $20.
For food-friendly wines, it’s hard to beat Robert Sinskey. The tasting room was designed by a cathedral architect, and its high, arched wooden ceiling lends the room a subtle drama, befitting the devotees who flock here in droves. Though pinot, merlot, and cabernet are among the most famous wines here, I prefer the more unusual Alsatian vairetals, vin gris, dry rosé, and cab franc—you just don’t find these everywhere, and Sinskey does them right. Food is always on hand to sample with the wines, and atypical of most Napa wineries, the $15 tasting fee is refunded with purchase. Bottles cost $18 to $45, tastings $15 to $20.
I love Plumpjack. The tasting room’s whimsical design mirrors the insouciance of the winery’s founder, bon vivant Gavin Newsom. Breaking ranks with Napa’s fussy old guard, Plumpjack uses screw tops on its bottles to ensure quality control. Best of all, tastings cost a mere $5, a bargain in pricy Napa. Cabernet is the stellar standout; there’s also a good reserve chardonnay and a rich, carmel-y syrah, sold only at the winery. Don’t miss Plumpjack. Bottles cost $26 to $72.
I’m appalled that Niebaum-Coppola (aka Rubicon Estate) now charges $25 merely to set foot on the grounds of its estate. Sure, the château (formerly the Inglenook Estate) is gorgeous, and there’s a cool movie museum displaying Copolla’s Godfather Oscars and a 1948 Tucker automobile, but the wine—the thing that matters most—just ain’t that great (the flagship Rubicon label excepted). I say, Francis: Re-open the grounds of this historic estate to the people of Northern California, or go back to Los Angeles, and take your mediocre wine with you. Bottles cost $10 to $115, tastings (including 30-minute tour) $25.
For single-vineyard, single-varietal tastings (aka terroir tastings), you won’t find better than at Nickel and Nickel. Offshoot of the famous Far Niente, this is some of the best cabernet in the valley. And the winery occupies a beautifully preserved 1884 farmhouse and red wooden barn that provide a lovely slice of Americana. The catch: tastings are only available as part of a $40 tour (call well ahead). Yes, it’s expensive, but if you’re really into cabs and have the money to spend building a proper cellar, you’ll be glad you ponied up. Bottles cost $40 to $135, tour and tasting $40 (reservations mandatory).
To ditch the wine snobs, head directly to Frog’s Leap, where you can wander through fruit orchards and meandering gardens on a 120-year-old farm. Sauvignon blanc is the famous wine here, but there’s also a good merlot; all are made with organically grown grapes. But the vibe—relaxed and fun—is what’s especially wonderful here. How refreshing to find such a down-to-earth winery. Bottles cost $15 to $50, tour and tastings free (reservations mandatory; book one to two weeks ahead).
Art is a big deal at Hall, which specializes in bordeaux varietals—cab franc, sauvignon blanc, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. Check out the sculpture garden behind the tasting room. In 2006, Hall broke ground on a new Frank Gehry-designed tasting room, slated for completion in 2009; keep your eye on this place. Picnic outside in the shade of mulberry trees. Oh, and the wine is good too. Really good. Call ahead for barrel tastings ($20). Bottles cost $20 to $45, tastings $10.
Merlot is the star attraction at Duckhorn, a favorite stopover of the skirt-and-sweater crowd. The tasting room is a bit stuffy, like a fancy suburban house, but I love the depth of the wines. And you can sit down while you taste, a rarity in Napa, where most wineries require you stand at the bar. If you’re interested sharpening your palette and wine-pairing skills, call ahead and ask about wine-and-food pairings ($30), led by expert educators. Bottles cost $25 to $100, tastings $10 to $20 (reservations essential).
Unfurl your dreadlocks at folksy-fun Casa Nuestra, one of Napa’s only remaining hippie-era wineries, where a peace flag and Elvis portrait decorate the tasting room. Blends and unusual varietals are the specialty here—don’t expect to find chardonnay. Best of all, you can picnic outside beneath a weeping willow (call ahead) and giggle at the goats grazing next to you. Bottles cost $19 to $45, tastings $5 (refundable with purchase).
Only the cognoscenti know Ladera, a 19th-century gravity-fed winery high on the flanks of Howell Mountain, where you can escape the valley’s throngs. The cabernet sauvignon is exceptional, and fewer than 5000 cases are produced annually. Call ahead: the winery receives only one group at a time—yours. Bottles cost $35 to $65, tour and tasting free (reservations mandatory).
The bubbly is superb at Schramsberg, known for its creamy, toasty champagne-style wines. Schramsberg was the first domestic wine every served at the White House, way back in 1972, and for once I agree with Nixon: Of all the sparkling wines produced outside of France, this is my favorite. Tastings are part of the tour, and it’s worth taking the time for a proper visit. Unlike at other sparkling-wine cellars, you taste the entire line, including the coveted têtes de cuvées, not just the low-end wines. Bring a sweater; the caves are chilly, even in July. Bottles cost $35 to $90, tour and tasting $25 (reservations essential; book three weeks ahead for peak periods).
The art collection is astounding at Clos Pegase, where you can spot works by Alexander Calder, Jean Dubuffet, and Henry Moore among others. The wines are pretty good, but the best reason to visit is the art. Alas, some of it could be displayed better: in the gift shop, don’t be surprised to see a rack of frumpy sweatshirts blocking the Francis Bacon. Bottles cost $20 to $90, tastings $10 to $25, sculpture garden free (tours at 11am and 2pm).
The all-estate-grown wines at Vincent Arroyo have a reputation so good that 75% of the 8000-case production is sold before it’s even bottled. And you can only buy them here. So what if you taste in a garage? Afterward picnic at one of several wooden tables outside—something you can’t do at most Napa wineries. Bottles cost $17 to $65, tastings free (reservations mandatory).
Though I know exactly where it is, don’t ask me for directions to the elusive Screaming Eagle Winery, the favorite label of New York hedge-fund managers. Even if you do sleuth your way to the front door, they’ll chase you away. You’ll just have to join the other poor slobs on the winery’s waiting list. But don’t bother. Many of the connoisseurs I know tell me the wine is overrated, like Silver Oak. Besides, the owner is one of the heirs to the Walmart fortune. Blech.
Move over, Francis: For sheer grandiosity, nothing – not even Niebaum-Coppola – beats Castello di Amorosa, an over-the-top recreation of a 12th-century southern European castle. Built entirely by hand over the course of 14 years, every detail is perfect, from the stunning secco-fresco murals painted by imported Italian artisans, to the Roman-style cross-vault brickwork of the catacombs. There’s even a torture chamber with actual period equipment, including an impaler and an iron maiden.
Owner Daryl Sattui sketched an Italian castle so extensively that he was thrown off the grounds, and as the story goes, he raised a fist and said, I’ll show you! I’m gonna build this in America! Such a New World thing to say, but he actually did it. The only modern details are plumbing and fire sprinklers. The place is damp and cold: Bring a sweater. Oh, and the wine? Quite respectable. The red Super Tuscan Blend (74% cab, 14% sangiovese, 12% merlot) is velvety soft and very drinkable. The house red, Il Brigante, a merlot blend, is big and tannic, and goes great with pizza. The top white is a chardonnay made with fruit from the venerated Bien Nacido vineyards in Santa Barbara County. Bottles cost $20 to $40. NB: Reservations essential. Tours and tastings cost $25, a worthy investment.
I’ll add to this list in coming months, but this ought to get you started. Have anything to add? Post a comment at the bottom of the main Napa page. See you on the road!