Did you know that Napa Valley has more than 400 wineries? Fact.
So when you’re planning a first trip to the area, where do you start? Apparently I start by making a ridiculous spreadsheet filled with suggestions from friends and wineries on the Lot 18 Wine Country pass. Both were great resources. The Wine Country pass included a free tasting and 20% off our purchase at each winery.
Then I applied a very complex, patent pending rating system looked at each winery’s web site to get info and a feel for the place to rank them. The schedule started to come together when I grouped the wineries by area and started making appointments where necessary (wineries marked in yellow).
If you need help planning your trip to Napa, I freelance for a very affordable fee (which can also be paid in wine).
We chose to hit several wineries each day to maximize our time there. Only once (the first full day) did we feel really fatigued from the daytime drinking. If you have low tolerance or want to hit a number of wineries in one day, I highly recommend using the dump bucket freely.
Day 1 (half day)
Why we went: We’ve loved the SpellCab for awhile
Experience: This was a great start to our wine country trip. We sat down with the owner and sampled all of the Spell wines (her daughter’s line). She was incredibly interesting and very passionate about her product.
Notable: The entire lineup is the best bang for the buck. The 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon rocks… but I think we cleaned them out of their remaining stock. Opt for the 2008 and you’ll still be happy.
Brought home: A mixed case of Spell wines, 8 Cabernet Sauvignon and 4 Zinfandel
The Fig Café
The Fig Café was one of the restaurants we could stroll to from our hotel. I’m so glad we chose this for our first meal. It was outstanding. Go there, and when you do, get the plat du jour. For $25 they’ll present you with the perfect three course meal. This night we dined on a little gem Caesar salad, confit duck leg with faro and chorizo, and a banana cake. It was divine, especially the duck and faro mixed with the romesco sauce. It’s still making me salivate and I’m itching to make some romesco and add in a little chipotle.
Why we went: They’re known for the chardonnay that put Napa on the map so to speak.
Experience: We opted for the early “buy one get one free” tasting and enjoyed chatting with the staff. The winery is one of three castles in Napa Valley so it’s a pretty place to visit
Notable: The 2008 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was awesome, but at $142 a bottle it was a little rich for us. Maybe next time…
Brought home: A bottle of 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay (naturally)
Why we went: We heard they had the best views in Napa
Experience: The $25 fee includes a basic tasting and a ride to the winery in an aerial tram. That alone made the winery stand out, but we kind of felt like we were on a ride at Disney World. The basic tasting is actually part of a self-guided tour. You wander from station to station and sample along the way. We completely confounded the staff by skipping the basic tasting. Sterling is a pretty common brand and we already knew we didn’t enjoy their basic table wines. So we figured why waste the calories and the BAC on wine we knew we wouldn’t buy. They offered us an extra pour at our reserve tasting once they got over the shock. The reserve tasting was an extra $10 per person but totally worth it. We were impressed with several of their offerings and were doing the “do we join their club” math to figure out what we wanted to buy. We eventually came to our senses and chose one bottle to enjoy while on the trip.
Notable: I know we enjoyed more than the Rutherford Cab but I took really bad notes here :(
Brought home: A bottle of 2008 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon (technically this didn’t make it home. We enjoyed it the last evening with dinner.)
Tip: Visit their site to print a $5 off coupon for each person in your party.
Buster’s Southern BBQ
We totally screwed up when we ordered at Buster’s. We both opted for the hot bbq sauce… even going so far as to chuckle at the ‘Hot means hot’ sign. They’re not lying. If anything they’re underselling the heat. I’d like them to change it to ‘Hot means mouth inferno’… and I like hot things. Definitely go to Buster’s. The meat was a fantastic and it’s reasonable (something that’s hard to find in the area). Just don’t get the hot sauce.
Why we went: This winery was on my “extra” list because nothing really stood out on their site. They specialize in blends, which are wines to pair with food. We added it to the list when lunch was quicker than expected (see hot sauce above).
Experience: I’m so glad we stopped here. We had a fantastic time chatting with our wine host, Robert, who turned out to be from Kansas City and a fellow photographer.
Notable: I starred their 2010 Blend 23 and 2008 Blend 24, both Cabernet based wines
Brought home: Nothing… yet. We had such a great time chatting and Robert just kept pouring and pouring and then we literally ran out of there in order to make our appointment at Madrigal.
Why we went: We’ve had a few bottles of their Cabernet Sauvignon squirreled away and we wanted to try the rest of the offerings.
Experience: They have an intimate, appointment only tasting that was really relaxed and fun.
Notable: No notes were taken (see lots of pours at B Cellars above)
Brought home: 3 bottles of the 2006 Napa Valley Petite Sirah
Why we went: Permanent Ansel Adams exhibit (need I say more?)
Experience: We didn’t actually taste here as we were more interested in the art and riding a little high thanks to the back-to-back B Cellars and Madrigal pours
Brought home: Nada
Hog Island Oyster Company at Oxbow Market
Post tastings we really needed a little snack to set us right. The crab mac and cheese here totally rocked! It was perfectly creamy and had great chunks of crab.
We opted to pick up Mexican food and grabbed some tacos from Taqueria la Hacienda. It was good overall, but the salsa (how I measure any Mexican restaurant) was lacking.
Why we went: Recommended by Christina from Desserts for Two for having fantastic reds
Experience: This was Hubster’s favorite overall winery. Their portfolio was great from start to finish. We enjoyed their reds, and we were also blown away by the Silhouette Chardonnay. It’s literally the best Chard we’ve ever tasted. Honestly if we would have visited here first, we would have bought two bottles of that and not purchased the Chateau Montelena Chard.
Notable: Besides the Chard and Cab we took home, we also liked the 2010 Juliana Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc.
Brought home: A 2009 Silhouette Chardonnay and a 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Prager Winery and Port Works
Why we went: After the schedule was set, I kept adding more suggestions to the spreadsheet as they came. I stumbled on Two Guys From Napa and added Prager based on their recommendation. When Hubster asked if we would sample any port on this trip, I looked for a way to add this stop.
Experience: This spot is the exact opposite of a pretentious winery – in the very best way. The tasting room is literally covered in signed currency and the wines are set out on a simple kitchen counter. We shared as tasting after I walked in and declared that I don’t like port. They had me eating my words after the first sip and I’m deeply in love with the white port we brought home. We also developed a crush on their late harvest Riesling. I’ll be a bit of a wine nerd here and point out that two robust red wine lovers never come into contact with a Riesling worth much. Well, never say never when you’re at Prager. They make great stuff!
Notable: I seriously can’t say enough about the White Port. It’s amazing!!
Brought home: A 2007 Aria White Port and a 2008 Sweet Claire Late Harvest Riesling
This was a great spot for lunch. Hubster opted for a cheeseburger and garlic fries. I noshed on a grilled cheese and spicy tomato soup. The burger and soup were the stand outs. The garlic fries (way too garlicy) and grilled cheese (plain to the point of being boring) were not our favorites. I would definitely go back and recommend it for anyone looking to fill up before imbibing more wine.
Why we went: Hubster’s parents love this place and it seemed like a quintessential place to go
Experience: I think this is a great place for novice or even moderate wine drinkers, but I found it to be a little to commercial (no, I don’t need a selection of hats or t-shirts with your winery’s name on them). It didn’t help that I was super stuffed from Gott’s and not feeling our wine host. Still, I would recommend it to the right people and it does have extensive picnic grounds.
Notable: The Mount Veeder Cabernet was nice.
Brought home: Nothing
Why we went: Recommended by several people for great reds
Experience: Start to finish this was my favorite tasting. I seriously loved their red wine line up, so kudos to anyone who told us to stop here. It was totally our jam. The wine hosts were super warm, and when Hubster brought up this little blog, they dug up a small recipe book for me to take home. Next time we go I’ll look to schedule a wine and food pairing tasting here.
Notable: The 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is an awesome bottle of cab. The 2003 Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon was awesome – the perfect bottle for a special occasion.
Brought home: A 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Why we went: We scored a half off “Bordeaux mixing class” on Lot 18
Experience: The class turned out to be just the two of us, which was awesome. It was really interesting to taste the pure wines individually and then try to mix a blend we liked. Not surprisingly Hubster’s turned out better than mine. I guess we each have our role. We also split a Mount Veeder “Wines with Altitude Vertical Climb” red tasting at the bar following the class.
Notable: The Mount Veeder lineup was strong.
Brought home: Nothing
Della Santina’s Trattoria
I was told by several people that you can’t go wrong with a restaurant in wine country. Sadly, after our experience at Della Santina’s Trattoria, I have to disagree. After our wine hose at Franciscan mentioned Italian food, we were set on what to eat. I picked the trattoria based on reviews on Yelp and Urban Spoon. Things started poorly when it felt like the waiter was harassing us for not ordering wine, even after we told him we had been drinking all day. We split a Caesar salad, which was good, but had us regretting the decision when we saw the $7.50 price tag on the receipt. That probably wouldn’t have bothered us, but the main dishes were a complete disappointment. The red sauce on my lasagna tasted like it was from a can. Seriously, it’s hard to screw up red sauce. Hubster’s ravioli were bland and the ‘wine sauce’ was just odd.
Stags’ Leap Winery
Why we went: Christina from Desserts for Two gave this winery (and the appellation) rave reviews for reds. I love this girl’s taste in wine!
Experience: We booked a tour and tasting and ended up alongside another Midwestern couple and 5 guys from Sweden. The tour was very informative and included pours throughout, culminating with a sit down tasting at the end. I never caught what the profession of leader of the Swedish pack, but he was clearly high up in the wine world. After our tasting he instructed the tour guide to give each couple a free bottle of Rosé. Score!
Notable: The Petite Sirah had us at hello. It’s made from a single lot of 110 year old vines that has become a natural blend over the years. It’s killer! We also enjoyed the 2011 Viognier.
Brought home: A 2009 Ne Cede Malis Estate Petite Sirah and a 2011 Amparo Rosé (comped)
There aren’t many frugal options for lunch in Yountville. We opted for the deli. It was ok.
Reynolds Family Winery
Why we went: Part of the Lot 18 pass (yay free tasting) and I thought it was part of the Stag’s Leap appelation. Turns out it’s not, but it was still worth the stop.
Experience: The wine host was super friendly and even tossed in a few extra pours for us.
Notable: All of their wines are very affordable, which was nice to see.
Brought home: 2 bottles of the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and 2 bottles of the 2008 Cabernet Franc
Judd’s Hill Winery
Why we went: Right down the road from Reynolds and it was part of the Lot 18 pass
Experience: This was another unpretentious winery… the winemaker is also a famous ukulele player… and the wine host looked like he belonged in NYC rather than Napa and his title at the winery is “director of fabulocity”… None of this is meant in a bad way… it was just a little… odd. The sit down tasting was nice and the wines were ok, but not really our style.
Brought home: Nothing
Clos Du Val
Why we went: Part of the Stag’s Leap area (for real this time) and on the Lot 18 pass
Experience: We really enjoyed the (staggeringly attractive… seriously he could have been a model) wine host. The wines were all great but nothing blew us away. That could also be blamed on the fact that it was the 4th winery we visited that day. I would definitely go back next time with a fresh palette.
Notable: The2008 Carneros Pinot Noir was great. We considered a bottle of the 2000 Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. I could drink that wine all day long… if we won the lottery. Hubster also really liked their Rosé and may go back and order a few bottles.
Brought home: Nothing
Glen Ellen Inn
Another restaurant that was walkable from the hotel was the Glen Ellen Inn. The dinner was, unfortunately, a mixed bag. We were excited about the martini bar after feeling a bit wine soaked. Hubster loved his straight up version, but I didn’t really dig my “hot and cold” jalepano one. The fresh bread was amazing and they offered up free cups of soup when our entrees took longer than expected. It was a welcome surprise, but certainly not necessary. Both the shrimp bisque and sorrel soup were fantastic! Hubster’s rib eye with a vinegary chimichurri was a hit but my “filet” was the toughest piece of meat I’ve ever been served at a restaurant. I probably should have sent it back, but I muddled my way through. I capped it off with buttered popcorn ice cream. The presentation was impressive but I would have been happier with a garnish of caramel popcorn and ended up digging around it en route to the frozen treat.
Iron Horse Vineyards
Why we went: It was on the Lot 18 pass and we heard good things about their bubbles once we arrived in the valley
Experience: This property is gorgeous. The rustic open air tasting room overlooks part of the vineyards and I would definitely hang out there with a group of friends. We chose their Sparkling Flight and were impressed with most of the offerings
Notable: Our favorite was the 2007 Russian Cuvee thanks to the pop of citrus. The 2007 Ocean Reserve and 2006 Brut Rose were also good. The 2006 Classic Vintage Brut was a nice complex sip.
Brought home: Two bottles of the 2007 Russian Cuvee
Why we went: I didn’t have a great handle on Sonoma so we grabbed a suggestion sheet from Gaige House and were intrigued by their description of Preston
Experience: This was one of the prettiest wineries we visited and I totally regretted not bringing picnic items so we could munch on their grounds. It is THE perfect place for a picnic. If you go, buy some of their estate produced bread to go with your meal.
Notable: The 2010 Madam Preston was a complex and creamy blend. We no longer choose wines based on the label, but we loved the styling.
Brought home: A bottle of the Madam Preston
Why we went: This was another winery from the Gaige House list and the wine host at Preston also recommended it.
Experience: It was a nice experience. Nothing remarkable, except for the Grenache
Notable: Holy cow! The 2009 Grenache was awesome! We tasted several “barbecue” wines (those that would go well with barbecue… shocking right?) throughout the trip, but nothing drew us in the way this Grenache did.
Brought home: Three bottles of the 2009 Grenache
After a futile attempt to find Montemaggiore (seriously, put up a sign!) we drove into Healdsburg and grabbed a bite at a micro brewery. Hubster had another nice round of fish and chips. I had an uninspired sandwich/salad combo. Then we realized we had hit a wall. While we had a few other recommendations on where to taste, we opted to drop most of our purchases at Fitch Mountain Shipping before heading to the room to relax and enjoy our complimentary bottle of wine from the Gaige House.
The Fig Café
Of course we went back. It was too good to stay away. One our second trip we ordered a cheese plate to munch on before (of course) the plat du jour. We decided on a cow’s milk cheddar and two sheep’s milk cheeses that I really should have written down because they were awesome. I’ll blame that on the bottle of wine we had before dinner. The plat du jour started with the same lovely gem Caesar salad. The main course was ale braised pork mixed with pappardelle pasta, fennel, fava leaves and crème fraiche. It was outstanding. We finished with a buttermilk panna cotta that was perfection.
If you made it this far and are still wanting more you can see the details of where we stayed and what we did that wasn’t wine related here.
We’ll take one more look at wine country tomorrow and I’ll toss some suggestions your way in case you want to plan your own trip.