Napa Valley has been on our bucket list for quite some time. We make our own wine at home and have become much more interested in different wine regions. In the states there is no area with better growing conditions than the Napa Valley in Northern California. It is full of beautiful vistas, great weather (mostly), and over 375 vineyards that have the availability for tastings. Not only are there more vineyards than one person could possibly visit in one trip, it is also a foodie’s paradise. There are 4 Michelin one-star rated restaurants and one in particular, The French Laundry, boasts 3 stars. Additionally, 25 restaurants carry the Bib-Gourmand, or L’assitte, rating. If you’re looking for a relaxing spa or wellness getaway, a romantic getaway, or even a family trip, there are accommodations for everyone. From B&Bs, to inns and boutique hotels, and larger resorts, there is something for everyone in your group.
We already wrote a post about planning a trip to Napa that walks one through the steps to plan a successful trip so this post will get into what we did and what we thought of this wonderful wine filled region.
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We were lucky enough to be able to fly first class into San Francisco airport. We had a lovely flight, and upon landing grabbed the luggage, and headed out to grab a rental car at Budget Rental. We had checked in online for the rental car so we could use their Fast-Track service which saves a ton of time. We had a splendid ride through San Fran and took the Golden Gate Bridge toward Napa which was first for both of us.
After checking in at our room in the Solange (an Auberge hotel), we unpacked quickly and headed off to Honig winery for our first tasting.
Prior to talking about our wonderful journey through the wineries, I want to give everyone some tips that a wonderful wine host Victor from Clos Du Val gave us on how to properly enjoy a wine tasting:
- How to taste a red wine:
- Taste relies on saliva
- Unlike white wine, which is very acidic and creates a lot of saliva, red wine dries the mouth due to the tannins robbing one of the ability to taste the flavor in wine.
- We are taught to swish the wine, hold it in your mouth, and then swallow, but not told why. It’s because if you let the wine sit for 7-8 seconds, saliva builds up and allows one to truly taste the wine.
- We often do this with tasting, but rarely when we actually drink. This is why so few of us are able to appreciate the complexities of red wines.
- Victor recommends that when drinking or comparing two wines one takes a relatively large sip to make the mouth half full. Then allow the wine to sit and swish for 7 seconds or so, and then swallow slowly (almost forcing the liquid down bit by bit). If comparing two wines quickly, take the second wine in your mouth and do the same process, then switch back to the first quickly. I will tell you that doing this made me taste the wine and the differences like I was never able to before.
- Vintage years:
- Victor explained that as Napa has such a consistent and great growing season every year, there are almost no bad vintages. There are better vintages, but no bad ones. Of course this is excluding smoke taint which can spoil wines, but as those usually result in wines never being released they aren’t really considered bad vintages, but lost years.
- In France, weather can fluctuate significantly, especially when related to too much rain. As every winemaker in France follows strict rules, and all have many years of experience, weather and vintage makes the greatest difference, and not the vineyard or winemaker. His recommendation when choosing a French wine goes by whether it was a good weather year or not, and not what winery made the wine.
- The most food friendly wine is Brut Champagne as it is very acidic, lower alcohol, and pairs with any food from breakfast to dinner.
We will discuss all the wineries and our experiences here but will have a separate post on our dining and lodging. One thing we also purchased before heading out was a wine suitcase to bring home some of the single bottles we purchased along the way to avoid shipping. We really liked it and everything got home in one piece. If you buy heavy bottles however you may only get 11 bottles in under the weight limit. We also purchased some new luggage. We like this large check bag and this medium check bag depending on the requirements of your trip and travel mode.
Who is this winery for? Honig vineyard is for those who love well-balanced wines in a classic setting without pretention.
Honig is one of our favorite wines and we were excited to visit to learn more about where one of our favorite wines comes to the table. Honig is the German word for bees and between having bees on the vineyard and in the middle of the H in the logo, the theme of sustainability and reverence for the founder Louis is evident.
Louis Honig purchased the Rutherford Vineyard (where we tasted) in 1964 as a retirement plan, but the winery didn’t start producing wine there until 1980 after his unfortunate death, so he was never able to see his dream realized. In 1984, his grandson, Michael, took over management of the vineyard and winery, and along with several family members and a small staff turned it into a successful and socially responsible business.
We had a spectacular time at the vineyard learning about its history. The owner originally bought the land planning on retiring but ended up with a winery that makes spectacular wine. They specialize in Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The land, which is about 57 growable acres, had 40 acres of Sauvignon Blanc grapes (much of this area is known for Cabernet, so this is an unusual choice). They leaned into what was there and now make a really great wine with those grapes.
Our hostess was knowledgeable and friendly and spent a significant amount of time with us. She added a layer of personalized knowledge and storytelling that really made the experience over the top.
So much so, that we joined the wine club and shipped a case home.
Castello di Amorosa
Who is this winery for? This is for those who want Italian style wines (very drinkable and pair well with food) served in an authentic castle. If you love castles, or want a feeling like you really are Tuscany, then this is a must.
Castello di Amorosa is an amazing realization of a dream of Dario Sattui. Though the castle is what many recognize, it all started with Dario’s great-grandfather Vittorio, who founded a winery in San Francisco in 1885. The Sattui family lived at the winery through Prohibition and Dario always dreamed of resurrecting the family wine business — and that he did –founding V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena in 1975 and eventually purchasing 171 acres near Calistoga where he had acres of beautiful forest and hills, a stream, a lake, and a great home, where he decided to settle. Dario began construction of Castello di Amorosa winery in 1994 with the intention of building a modest 8,500 square foot castle, but this quickly expanded to an over 120,000 square foot, 13th century Tuscan castle that is absolutely magnificent. It took 8,000 tons of stone, 15 years and more imported ancient bricks than one can count to build. The castle even has a torture chamber, as well as a moat, drawbridge, towers, defensive ramparts, stables, and an armory. Of the 107 rooms, 95 are used for winemaking.
The winery focuses on small lot Italian wines and has many vineyards from which they produce wine, including Villa Amorosa, Butala Cresta, d’Oro, Morning Dew, Boonville, Melanson, Morisoli, Don Thomas, Rapp, Voyager, Promissio Boschetti, Bien Nacido, and Henry. Wine from this location is not distributed but sold only directly to the consumer.
We did a tour of the castle and winery which was by chance private since we were the only one on the tour. Stephane our very accomplished guide explained the history, philosophy and theory of how the winery produces their Italian style wines.
The tour started in the chapel with reproduction, hand painted Italian frescos painted by an actual Italian painter. Everything in the castle is functional and authentically produced using 13th century Italian techniques. The attention to detail is simply amazing. After a walk through a magnificent great hall used for wine club events we descended into the cellars passing wine nooks, a torture chamber, arms room, and finally to a storage area where we tasted from the barrel one of the few cabernets coming out of the Napa Valley in the 2020 vintage due to the Glass wildfires. Castello di Amorosa just happened to harvest a very small portion of their cabernet grapes on a large hill 2 days prior to the wildfires. The fires resulted in smoke taint, spoiling over 75% of the harvest in the entire Napa Valley region. The 2020 vintage was set to be a record year for all vineyards due to favorable growing conditions, making this an enormous loss for the region and the 60 barrels they managed to make, a unique wine indeed. Though the wine was still young it showed a lot of promise.
We then entered the tasting room where we shared samples of 12 different vintages while Stephane regaled us with stories and information about each wine. After the tasting, we purchased a case of the 2020 vintage that will ship when it is bottled near the end of the year and a bottle of the 2017 cab to take home with us.
Who is this winery for? Duckhorn is for those who wish to try a world-renowned wine in a no muss or fuss setting. Duckhorn simply serves great wines with great stories and an explanation of the history of the winery.
Duckhorn was co-founded by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn in 1976 and they have spent forty years establishing themselves as one of North America’s premier producers of Napa Valley wine. They have focused on Merlot, which had never been popular in America due to the Paris Judgment showing American Cabernet could stand up to any wine in the world and crowning Cabernet as the king of wines. The varietal took an even greater dive after the movie “Sideways” deemed it junk and launched Pinot Noir onto the scene. The Duckhorns were unswayed and continued to perfect their Merlot, along with making many other fabulous wines. In 2017 that perseverance paid off, when Three Palms Vineyards Merlot (owned at the time by Duckhorn) was named Wine Spectator’s 2017 Wine of the Year. Just like that Merlot was back on the scene and the Duckhorn’s had been proven right. They purchased the original 10-acre property in beautiful St. Helena, Marlee’s Vineyard, and have acquired many properties since to increase their ability to create some of the best wines in the Napa Valley. They now own seven properties with distinct attributes that reflect the variations in soil, terrain, microclimate, and exposure that the valley possesses.
We did a tasting inside due to construction and had a fabulous wine guide named Reggie who told us stories and explained the wines to us. He had an amazing ability to tell us about the wine but also tell stories that made the wine production so relatable and enjoyable. We focus on wines we like and those we connect with through a story are at the top of our list, making this experience at Duckhorn amazing. One of the stories was especially relevant. The Hurtado family has worked for 4 generations with the Duckhorn folks and the Patzimaro Vineyard (1989) is named after the hometown in Mexico of the Hurtado family. We purchased a bottle from the Patzimaro Vineyard and had the great-grandson Miguel (who has carried on the tradition of working with Duckhorn) sign the bottle. Great wine and a greater story. We grabbed an Uber and were off for some more wine and some good food at Brian Arden.
Who is this winery for? Brian Arden is great for those looking for a slower pace tasting paired with spectacular food.
The Brian (husband) Arden (wife) story started in the early 1950’s on a Northern California farm with prunes and pears. In 1961, Arden’s family purchased an ancient Zinfandel vineyard with rich soil and sweet grapes. Brian moved to Calistoga in 2008 and studied and worked with multiple wineries. In 2010, Brian and Arden purchased a 2.25-acre estate along the Silverado Trail at the foot of the Palisade Mountains. In 2014, the winery had its first harvest and now produces less than 2,500 cases a year.
We did the wine tasting lunch which is offered every Tuesday. The couple who was supposed to be with us was a no show so we had a another personal tour and experience. We started with a tour of the facilities while sipping on some bubbly and then headed back to the kitchen for a chef’s tasting lunch. The food was spectacular from the first bite to the last. The wine perfectly paired with the food and I am challenged to say which was better –the food or the wine. I feel this is a must for anyone in the area who likes food and wine.
Who is this winery for? Far Niente will appeal to those who want some of the finest wine that Napa can offer served in what can only be described as a fairytale setting.
Far Niente was founded in Oakville, California in 1885 by John Benson. Benson hired architect Hamden McIntyre to help him create an exquisite oasis in western Oakville. Far Niente, like many wineries at the time, prospered until the onset of Prohibition in 1919. Sixty years later, the vineyard was purchased by Gil Nickel. Far Niente is on the National Register of Historic Places. Far Niente translated from Italian means ‘without a care.’
Far Niente is considered by many as one of the most beautiful views in all of Napa Valley with amazing gardens with numerous southern azaleas that bloom through springtime and acacia trees that line the drive coming up to the vineyard. Many wineries in Napa have wine caves but the Far Niente caves are something really remarkable with 40,000 square feet of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay vintages gently aging in 100% French oak.
Our visit to Far Niente started with a check-in and explanation of the grounds while sampling some 2017 Chardonnay before walking down a beautiful path to meet our wine host, Scott. He was warm and friendly and took an unusual amount of time to get to know us in an attempt to maximize our tasting. We had our tasting by the pond near the horseshoe bar surrounded by amazing scenery. We had a typical tasting of 2020 Chardonnay, 2019 En Route Pinot Noir, 2019 Bella Union Cabernet, and 2019 Far Niente Cab, all paired with cheeses. Based on our preferences throughout this part of the tasting he picked two wines for us from the older vintages to try and select the perfect wine for us. I tried the 2012 Far Niente Cabernet and the wife, the 2016. Though we both loved our pours, we purchased the 2016 Cave Collection Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville with the thoughts of aging it in the cellar for several years prior to drinking as it will likely be as good as the 2012 in 4 years and was a bit less expensive. We ended the tasting with a small tasting of the 2014 Dolce a sweet Sauterne made in the traditional style and paired with blue cheese. He gave us a tip of smashing some cheese on your palate before sipping to allow proper taste mixing with great results.
After the tasting we spent some time exploring the beautiful grounds and taking some photos of the historic buildings, the classic car collection, and the landscaping. Far Niente has great wine but the locale made the tasting experience even better.
We stopped at Oakville Grocery for a quick lunch and then took the short walk to Opus One. I would recommend walking as the path up is beautiful and the exercise helps get you ready for the tasting experience.
Who is this winery for? Opus One will appeal to those who love French style Cabernet Sauvignon and don’t mind spending 350 dollars (or more) for amazingly curated and produced wine.
The vineyards of Opus One are comprised of four parcels in the western portion of the famed Oakville AVA. Opus One believes in hand-harvesting and other traditional approaches with an idea towards treating the fruit and wine in the way that will produce the best wine possible.
Opus One is an elegant vineyard full of French influence owing towards the involvement of the Rothschild family. They only make Cabernet Sauvignon and focus their whole effort on doing that wine perfectly. The main wine is Opus One, but due to overrun in quantities, like most French wineries, they make a very fine second wine, Overture. It felt a bit pretentious at first, but as the tasting went on and the wine opened, so did the winery. Our wine host, Daniel, was attentive and I believe as we chatted that he realized we truly love wine and want the authentic experience, as opposed to why some people may arrive at Opus One — to put on airs. After trying the Overture, 2016 and 2018 Opus One vintages, Daniel took us on a long tour of the facility including the partners’ room and grounds explaining all the technology, person power and care put into creating a bottle of Opus One wine. He also explained the detail put into the architecture of the winery which is built to look like a gian wine glass. Upon returning to the tasting area, he poured a generous pour of the 2008 vintage which gave us a real idea of what the wine can do with appropriate aging. It was spectacularly complex and although I can’t imagine spending 800 dollars on a bottle of wine, I am very glad that I had a chance to taste this spectacular vintage. We purchased a 2018 Opus One and hope with 10 years of appropriate cellaring will have a spectacular wine for a special occasion. This is a must do for anyone who loves Cabernet.
Who is this winery for? This is for those who love bold and powerful, reasonably priced Napa valley Cabernet.
Silver Oak began with two friends (Ray Twomey Duncan and Justin Meyer) that had a bold vision to create the best Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in American oak, that they could. Starting in a Napa Valley dairy barn in 1972, they produced their first vintage of only 1,000 cases. Silver Oak grew in popularity over the years, with their wines selling out quickly upon their release. Ray’s sons, David and Tim Duncan, own and operate the winery to this day.
Silver Oak is one of our favorite wineries and we were excited to sample the wine. Silver Oak, like Opus One, only does Cabernet Sauvignon. It is produced under two labels: Alexander Valley and Napa Valley. We trialed the 2007 and 2017 Alexander and Napa Valley wines to compare the two vintages and two slightly different styles. Honestly, all 4 wines were excellent and we decided to purchase the 2017 Alexander and a magnum of the 2010 Alexander to age for a special occasion since it was the last year the Alexander was 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. We had a wonderful wine host, David from Syracuse, who was very educated and took us on a nice outdoor tour in the middle of our indoor tasting. When we returned, we also tried the Timeless Merlot, which frankly was spectacular. Overall, our trip to Silver Oak was perfect and I will say the wine there, though a bit less expensive than Far Niente and Opus One, was just as good making this vineyard a great place to pick up a bottle or two after a wonderful tasting. They also do a food and wine pairing which we will take advantage of when we return.
We then checked out of Solage and checked in at the Hotel Yountville.
Who is this winery for? This winery will appeal to those who value sustainable practices along with supporting a bold female in the wine industry.
Trois Noix (twah nwah) is French for “three nuts” — named after the three kids that inspired the wine label. Trois Noix is owned by Jaime Araujo. Her family has been making wine for 25 years in Napa, but this is her vision with the guiding principles of Community, Opportunity, and Possibility. It is based on the Wheeler Farm which has been a working farm for many years. Jaime and Trois Noix still run a farm on the property with hens, many vegetables that the chef uses to prepare meals at the winery. They focus on sustainable principles. Trois Noix wines are made in collaboration with multiple people Jaime knows who are fabulous winemakers and grape growers in their own right. These collaborations and the open minded nature of the owner have led to many amazing wines and unique tastes.
The tasting area and surroundings of the winery are beautiful. The wines have unique tastes with the Chardonnay being crisp and clean, the Sauvignon Blanc having more depth than most, and the reds having a complexity reflecting the careful nature of how the grapes are sourced and the wines blended. The wines were served with locally produced cheeses and freshly sourced accoutrements from their own garden.
Who is this winery for? This winery will appeal to those who value the story of strong female leadership paired with one of the oldest vineyards in the valley, along with the added bonus of an amazing setting for a tasting.
Stags’ Leap is on one of California’s earliest wine estates with a unique terroir combining volcanic debris and bale loam along with an ideal microclimate of a small valley that blocks early morning sun, retains afternoon heat, and funnels cooler marine air over the vineyard. This supports the Stags’ Leap standard of grape growing, land use, and winemaking. Stags’ Leap is a 240-acre estate with 85-acres that are planted in 23 separate blocks based on soil type and exposure to the sun with the majority, as is common in the Napa Valley, planted to Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Stags’ Leap tasting experience is quite unique. The home/resort the tasting is held in has a very long history passed from family to family mostly as a wedding gift. It served as a home in the 1880’s, then a resort, and when Prohibition hit it added a speakeasy, post office and women’s tea club (where women could drink while “picking up their mail”). The owner at the time felt that her friends should be able to drink, not just her husband’s friends in the speakeasy, so she added the post office so the women had a reason to come to the house frequently. Many accomplished and female forward women took care of this home. The wines were again accompanied by local cheeses and the tasting occurred in an expansive dining room with stained glass windows.
A few words about this winery and the story behind the apostrophe — as our educator told us we are now apostrophe ambassadors. There is another Stags’ Leap winery called the Stag’s Leap cellar – apostrophe before the s. A long legal battle was waged over who could use the name. Stags’ Leap retained the historical title, but the Stag’s Leap Cellar (which made the famous wine that won the Paris Judgment) was allowed to keep the singular version because it is the native American name for the region and not to be owned, like a family name. My wife who is an intellectual property lawyer really loved this story! We mistakenly took an Uber to the wrong one but realized as soon as we arrived we were at the wrong location.
We then checked out of the Hotel Yountville and checked in at Carneros Resort to continue our journey.
Clos du Val
Who is this winery for? This winery will be enjoyed by those who appreciate Cabernet and want more about the history of wine in the Napa Valley region.
Clos du Val was started in the early 1970’s as a collaboration between John and Henrietta Goelet, along with winemaker Bernard Portet. Bernard was asked to find the Goelets the best place to grow Cabernet Sauvignon in the world. He settled on an area in the heart of the Stag’s Leap district which was a bold choice for the French family at the time as this was prior to the Paris Judgment. Clos du Val has seen three generations of Goelet family ownership and is now held by John and Henrietta’s six grandchildren. Clos du Val currently farms over 225 acres of estate vineyards located in the Stag’s Leap District and Yountville AVAs within the Napa Valley. Clos du Val is also the winery that won the second Paris Judgment in 1986. Portet was made a genius by history and great choices putting the winery and many in the Stag’s Leap area firmly at the center of the wine universe.
We had an amazing wine host, Victor Orozco. He gave us numerous tips about the wine industry spending an hour and a half educating us. We spoke a lot about this knowledge at the beginning of the post as it was about so much more for us than just Clos du Val. This winery has a place in Napa history and everything about the wines we had spoke to the style of French and Napa Valley fusion. The wines were excellent. Our first red was a Cabernet Franc which is the father of both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and a base of many blends. This wine stood on its own. We also tasted several Cabernets and were lucky enough to try the 2006 and 2011 vintages. 2011 gets a bad rap as a bad year but Victor explained there are no bad vintages in Napa and true to his word, this wine was the best we had on that day. One point of interest — we saw the landscapers removing numerous old Southern magnolia trees along the road on the way into the vineyard. We worried that they were diseased, but it turns out that the magnolias were sucking the ground dry of water using almost 70% of the water in the central vineyard, so for the grapes’ sake the trees had to go.
Who is this winery for? This will be enjoyed by those who love traditional champagne/sparkling wine and are looking for the closest thing outside of France.
Domaine Carneros is a small grower-producer of traditional sparkling wine, Pinot Noir and Estate wines. Founded by the family behind Champagne Tattinger, Domaine Carneros was established in 1987. The Chateau (inspired by the classic 18th century Château de la Marquetterie in Champagne, France) was completed in 1989 and it and the winery are on the original 138-acre parcel in the heart of Carneros, Napa Valley. The vineyard produces classic vintage-dated Brut cuvee and the luxury Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs. In 1992 they added on Pinot Noir and other still wines to the portfolio. All of the wines are from the Carneros appellation, and 100% of the fruit comes from the six estate vineyards comprising 400 acres. The area that the Carneros vineyard lies in has very similar weather to that of Champagne, France making it an excellent place to source grapes for sparkling wines.
Our tasting was amazing as we did a food and sparkling wine pairing (Bubbles & Bites: A Journey to Morocco). All the sparkling wines were well paired with an amazing bite of food. The wine host here spent little time with us as he was clearly covering several tables, so beyond the basics we didn’t get too much understanding of the chateau or winery.
Who is this winery for This winery will be appreciated by those who love Pinot Noir and lighter tasting Chardonnays.
Saintsbury Winery, named for George Saintsbury, literary historian & oenophile, was founded by Richard Ward and David Graves in 1981. Richard and David met at UC Davis and worked together managing harvests for other wineries prior to founding their own that focuses on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They have become greener in their growing and production practices as well as expanded their vineyards, and distribution over the years.
We had an enjoyable time at this winery. Pinot Noir is not really our wine of choice, but if one is to expand their palette and find out what they like, you must sample it all. This led us to the Saintsbury Winery. It was interesting that the three Pinots we tried had many different characteristics because of the different regions they were sourced from. The wines were well made and symbolized the flavors and treatments this milder, less durable grape needs to shine. If you like Pinot Noir style wines it is well worth a stop.
Where did we personally like the most you may ask? I’ll answer this a few ways:
Our Favorite Vineyard (vista, story, etc.)- Stags’ Leap
Our Favorite Wine (simply the taste)- Silver Oak
Best Bang for the Buck (best wine taking cost into consideration)- Honig
Where would we maybe not visit again?
- Saintsbury- Great Pinot but we don’t love Pinot, and there was not any great vistas or scenery.
- Domaine Carneros- Beautiful location but it felt really commercial and rushed. Worth a single visit but not worth a repeat for us.
Where would we go everytime we visit?
- Silver Oak
- Stags’ Leap
- Clos du Val
Will we go to Napa again? Absolutely! In fact we are already starting to think about when we can get back.