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Snooth User: John Andrews

Touring Napa

Posted by John Andrews, May 16, 2008.

This past weekend I did what the most tourists in California do, I went to Napa Valley. Napa Valley continually outdraws any other tourist attraction in California. Yes, even Disney Land. Napa is a beautiful place. Not only that, it is a great place to grow grapes. With great soils and wonderful growing season, even in the most difficult years, the wines that come from Napa rival the worlds offering. With all that Napa has going for it, your experience may not be picture perfect.

I guess my expectations of a wine tasting experience are a little skewed. In the four years that I've lived in California I would estimate that I've done in the neighborhood of 50 some trips to wine country (in Napa or Sonoma). Roughly put, I'm in wine country at least once a month. I've come to know what I like and what I don't. My goal for this blog is to help you get the most out of your wine country experience.

Here are my rules, okay guidelines, for a great wine country experience.

1. Know what you want. Sounds simple enough but it is a bigger challenge than people expect. If you don't know what you want to do, you'll end up wandering aimlessly and getting in my way. Have a theme and stick to it. Something like, superior cabernet producers or mainstream wine producers. Whatever it is, it will help you in getting around.

2. Have a plan. This means doing some research. Yeah, I know, heading to wine country is supposed to be fun and it is not supposed to be work but a little planning helps the day, weekend or week go smoothly. Know the wineries you want to visit, get an idea of where they are, and get an idea of distance between them. The last thing you want to be doing is rushing to an appointment and being stuck behind a tour bus heading to Mondavi.

3. Call ahead. Not only is this courteous but it may be required. Most wineries will allow you to drop in, many more are requiring that you call ahead and have an appointment. Some will be anal about the timing, others will be flexible and happy to accommodate you.

4. Get recommendations. If you don't know what you want, ask people. A lot of wineries (including the one I work for Loxton Cellars - shameless plug) live off recommendations. Also, don't be afraid to ask for recommendations from staff at wineries. We understand that the wine business is about "co-opetition". If you do ask be prepared to answer the questions of, "what do you like?" and "what are you looking for?". The answer to the first is Syrah/Shiraz and the second is small, independent Australian run winery (again shameless plug for Loxton Cellars in Glenn Ellen, CA).

5. Be flexible. I know, I know, this flies in the face of having a plan. But, as the saying goes, "Stuff happens". This is a rule that I could take more to heart. Even the best thought out plan doesn't always work. If you've did your planning right you'll be able to adjust quickly.

6. Stay off the main routes. Nothing drives me more nuts that trying to make a left hand turn on to highway 29 at 2pm on a Saturday. You'll have more luck with the scratch-and-win lottery tickets. Thus, my recommendation is to plan your route so that there are more back roads than main roads. My experience says that you'll uncover some little known gems and you'll actually save time in travel (even if it feels like it is longer).

7. Avoid Saturdays. 'nuff said. Saturdays are when the booze cruises, stretch limo and bus tours are out in full force. You'll have trouble getting appointments, unless you had called a month in advance. You'll encounter some tasting bars that are two or three rows deep. And parking becomes an issue. Okay, this mostly applies in the summer time but in general...avoid Saturdays if at all possible.

8. Go when the new releases are available. Most people want to go to wine country during the summer. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The best time to go is when wineries release their new wines. Why? Well, you'll actually get an opportunity to taste the small production wines and be able to buy them. So when is this? Spring and Fall. Plus, you'll avoid the crowds and the hotel rates will be better.

9. Have a designated driver. This should go without saying. Police presence in wine country may seem low but they are there and they will bust your ass. No joking here. Working at a winery we hear about the times when people have not taken this to heart and it gets messy. If a winery staffer suggests that you might have had too much remember they see this kind of thing every weekend and it isn't meant as insult, it's meant to get you home okay.

10. Have dinner in wine country. Again, something that I wish more people did for many reasons. First, it helps you avoid traffic back to San Francisco (where most people seem to want to stay). Second, there are some outstanding restaurants in wine country and I mean beyond The French Laundry, Brix, and Bouchon. Lastly, the food is friggin' awesome. If you need some suggestions, let me know.

While what I have said here was meant to be about Napa and Sonoma (my home away from home), it really applies to any wine region. You've spent the money and the time, you might as well get the most out of it. Some people can have fun doing things by the seat of their pants but the reality is, most of us (especially me) need some structure, rules, guidelines, whatever, to make something like this work. Using these rules...errr...guidelines makes things work for me. If you need more advice, you know where to find me … I'm always on Snooth!

John Andrews is a software product manager during the week and is a professional Tasting Room staffer at Loxton Cellars in Glen Ellen, CA on the weekends.


Reply by Mark Angelillo, May 16, 2008.

Good suggestions, John. I've had particularly poor luck not calling ahead. I feel like it's generally a waste of everyone's time when I simply show up at a winery unannounced.

Reply by Philip James, May 16, 2008.

John - agreed 100% about avoiding summer. If you go in the spring you can see the new grape buds blossoming and if you go in the fall you might just be lucky enough to see some of the harvest activities.

And my only addition to point #10, is eat early. I've been caught out several times by how early everything shuts in Napa. Its not like in a city where you can wander out at 10pm and find a bite on the nearest corner. 6pm is dinner time in Napa

Reply by radavis3, Mar 3, 2009.

Thanks for the tips John. I am heading up there mid April. I have a couple of places picked out already. Any suggestions?

Reply by John Andrews, Mar 3, 2009.

@radavis ... send me an email and I'll give you some ideas. :-)

Reply by Adam Levin, Mar 3, 2009.

The traffic issue is my #1. I just hate sitting in it. it prevents me from going up there as often as I would like. The very first time I went up to St. Helena it took me 3 hours to get back to SF.

Reply by John Andrews, Mar 3, 2009.

@adam ... Silverado Trail is your friend ... Traffic is much, much, much less on Silverado Trail and makes getting around Napa a lot quicker. Heading back to SF? Stay in Napa for dinner and you'll cut your return time in half. Most people had back to SF from 4pm to 6pm. If you are heading back at 8pm I guarantee there will be a lot less traffic.

Reply by Adam Levin, Mar 3, 2009.

Yah, agreed. The 3 hour trek actually happened when I first moved out here and didn't know the Bay from the Golden Gate bridge.

Reply by chaser68, Mar 4, 2009.

Frig it..I am just going to go with you :-) Who needs the headaches of figuring all of that out! I really need to get there at some point. It may be in the books. We might be coming that way for the Tour of California in 2010.

Reply by John Andrews, Mar 4, 2009.

@chaser ... let me know when you are up here and we can figure something out.

Reply by hilaryannprice, Apr 2, 2009.

Great tips! Thanks!

Reply by spmommy2, Jan 2, 2010.

LOL - I agree about Napa. We always get started way too late in the day. Our motto is "We went to Napa - but it was closed".

Reply by RobUncorked, Jan 19, 2010.

My wife and I frequently wine-tour up here in the Okanagan Valley and definitely have similar suggestions for here. Although, it doesn't get as crowded up here. But planning is definitely the key. Great post.

I'm actually planning a trip down there for June this year. My wife and I are going to drive down and try to spend a week or so there. Will definitely take this into consideration.

Reply by John Andrews, Jan 19, 2010.

@spmomm2 & @RobR ... when you are heading to Napa for a trip let me know and I can help with some recommendations.

Reply by RobUncorked, Jan 19, 2010.

I actually just posted a forum topic asking for suggestions. Thought I'd open it right up without stealing this post. Looking forward to your input.

Reply by amour, Jan 19, 2010.


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