It had been 27 years since my husband and I had visited the Napa Valley when we took a trip there last fall. I assumed that it would be several more years before we made a return trip. But that Napa wine experience got under our skin, and when my husband learned he had a conference to attend in San Francisco that pull for a return trip to Napa was too strong to resist. It certainly isn’t that we have become learned wine connoisseurs. But we have become fans of the area, especially the upper Napa Valley – from the southern town of Yountville to Calistoga in the north and all points in between.
We could travel to Napa another twenty times and not even come close to seeing all there is to see. Along with developing a mature wine tasting palette, we are learning how to get the most out of spending a couple of days in this amazing region. Amazing because of the moderate temperatures, pretty much year round. Amazing because of the beautiful wineries that dot both sides of Highway 29 and Silverado Trail. Amazing because of the quaint small towns that emerge out of the acres upon acres of vines that line both roadways. Amazing because of the interesting, entertaining and informational wine tours.
It is hard to control the desire to hire a driver and see as many wineries in a day as opening hours allow. But we have quickly learned that patience truly is a virtue when experiencing the finished product of the efforts of vintners who have devoted years if not decades to the amazing craft of wine-making.
There are many ways to visit wineries, and each winery has their own style they prefer to use to share their end products with the public. One thing we find amazing in Napa is how many wineries do not sell to retail outlets. A good many we visit sell only to their members or to favorite restaurants of their choosing. They prefer not to have their wines’ value diminished by selling mass quantities. So they sell less for more. Is their wine any better than those sold in mass quantities? What and who get to distinguish that comparison? We have certainly tried our share of wines over the last 30 years, but what we have found out is our taste buds are integral to us and what tastes good us. And even at that, my husband and I do not share the same tastes. We can sit with 5 glasses of wine in front of us and not agree on any one of them.
For us, we have discovered the niche of finding wineries that offer up a personal one-on-one experience vs group tastings. We learn more about the specific winery, the wines they make and the story behind the wine and wine makers. And for us this has value, as well as it is neat to showcase wines in our wine cellar that you can’t just run down to the local liquor store and pick up.
Instead of Napa becoming a once in a while post, it looks as though my husband and I are going to make a great effort to get to Napa at least once a year, so this will be an ongoing post, where I will review the wineries we drink at, the restaurants we eat at, the little towns we walk around and any other activities each new trip to Napa affords us.
We are learning that it is not only okay, but important to not give into the urge to drink every last drop poured for you at the wine tastings. There is a clay pot there for a reason – taste what you need to get a flavor of the wine and then toss out the rest. It is a sad waste of a lot of great wine, but your head will thank you in the morning. It also helps to have a fairly clean palette so that when we get to the final winery of the day my tongue is not numb and my head not swirling.
Whether you do or don’t watch your intake of wine, I still highly recommend hiring a car service. Not only is it nice to be dropped off and picked up at the front entrance of each winery, but many of these drivers have lived in the area for years, moved here because of a love of the region and wine-making or something to do with wine, and often have some great local stories or stats that you probably won’t get at the wineries, restaurants or lodging.
This time we stayed at the Calistoga Ranch, an Auberge Resort property. Most of the wineries we wanted to visit were in Calistoga. It is a resort built along a roadway that creeps up into the hillsides of this part of the valley. Each unit is like a glorified treehouse, that are tucked into a heavily wooded area. The units are quiet, and much to my husband’s pleasure have an outdoor shower! Apparently even in invigorating 55 degree temps the shower was a refreshing change of pace. This wimp stuck to the warm cozy indoor shower.
Chateau Montelena. On our last visit to Napa, every winery we stopped at asked if we had watched a movie entitled, “Bottleshock.” Based strongly on the story of how the Napa Valley outpaced the dyed in the wool French wine market in the 1976 wine tasting competition. In a blind test of chardonnay’s the Chateau Montelana was picked unanimously by a mainly French wine judging panel over a strong line-up of French chardonnays. When the results were read the outrage was so palpable that some of the judges tried to rescind their vote once they learned what they had done because they could not conceive that an American/Californian wine had beat out their beloved French wines.
The winery is beautiful with an old world charm of a French Chateau facade replete with ivy starting to turn vibrant fall colors. Below sits a naturalized area with a pathway winding around lush greens spaces and a pond with beautiful local fauna and flora. And a red bridge tying the whole scene together. Inside the winery there are three beautifully hand carved wood bars for patrons to step up to and be served a flight of several wines of their choosing. No appointment necessary here, so pick off-peak times to visit as it is a highly sought after winery to visit. We went at opening on a Saturday morning at 9:30 am and had the place to ourselves and the attention of everyone working.
Fantesca Estate and Winery. Next we were off to a special treat when it comes to how to really enjoy a wine tasting tour – in our humble opinion. We arrived at Fantesca Winery at about 10:30 and for the next 90 minutes we were spoiled with the knowledge and charm of a young wine expert. She was new at Fantesca, but had been in the wine business for nearly a decade. We started with a viewing of the Fantesca vineyard that flows down from the base of the winery into the rolling hills below. After a quick peak into the caves dug out of the hillside to store the newly barreled wine, we headed up into a beautifully appointed wine tasting room.
Fantesca Winery hired the apparent Queen of wine makers, Heidi Peterson Barrett, to create their wines. Heidi is said to have a palette for wine that maybe one in a billion people are born with. She is the most highly sought after vintner and is the only vintner, male or female, to score four perfect 100-point ratings on wines she has created. And has her name attached to the most expensive bottle of wine sold in this region – a 6-litre bottle of Screaming Eagle – that had scored one of those 100 point ratings. This certainly was a tipping point for us when deciding whether to purchase Fantesca wines.
And once we tasted, even their young wines, we could truly tell the difference between wine being made by somebody with Heidi Barrett’s talents vs an average run of the mill vintner, whose only talent is a love for the craft of making wine. The smoothness and robust flavor of even Fantesca’s young wines outpaced any other wine we have tried – even those that have had ample aging time.
Castello di Amorosa. Our third and final winery of the day was a place the locals call, “the castle.” And as the following pictures show, it is just that – a castle. A replica of an Italian 13th century castle that was built stone by stone in the same style that was used all those centuries ago. It is certainly a site to behold, but it has also become a huge tourist trap and wine tours can consist of a couple of dozen people per tour, with several tours going on at the same time. The wine is good, but the tour is equally about the castle and how it was built and all of its special attractions including a torture chamber in the dungeon. The vistas from the turrets offer views of amazing scenery and several of the large, more well-known wineries in the area.
Several reasons pull you to a winery, and those same reasons may entice you to choose to buy their wines – everything from the creativity of the wine labels or the bottles themselves, to the wine tour experience, to the actual taste of the wines. We have bought wines based on all of those reasons and more, and the desire to continue the journey only becomes more tantalizing with each visit. Just as I will never be completely sated by a single glass of wine, I will never be sated with a single visit to the Napa Valley.
We flew into the quieter Sacramento Airport, rented a car and drove the two lane state Highway 128 which winds tightly through the countryside, along creeks, past lakes, through a heavily treed and then a heavily burned out area, eventually morphing into Silverado Trail in the upper Napa Valley about two hours later.
After our visit in Napa, we made our way into San Francisco. My husband had meetings while I took in the sites and sounds of a bustling San Fran. Experienced a glass blowing demonstration by world-renowned Randy Strong, lunch at the historic Claremont Hotel Club and Spa sitting up high in the hills of Berkeley, and some wonderful dinners of local fresh seafood.
I will highlight the where we ate in the new “end of the month – where to eat” posts I’m starting this month.