A friend and I decided to see wine country while it was just about harvest season, so there'd be grapes on the vines. She had been once before on a planned tour of about four places all in south Sonoma. We opted this time to rent a car and drive ourselves so we could hit the places we wanted to visit.
I learned some valuable things, so if you're planning on going to Napa/Sonoma anytime, this might help.
Number one, many of the wineries have tasting rooms you can visit without appointments. Personally, I think setting an appointment for ONLY a tasting is a bit much, but some want to project an air of being a premium, high end winery I suppose. And some of those, fairly enough, include a personal tour or a sit-down tasting, done more personally. So you can pick up maps anywhere that show the ones that welcome tasters openly and which ones you need an appointment for. Tours, you just about always need to set one and we found that many of them do this weeks ahead. We were not that structured, so we didn't plan for tours.
We began the first day from SF in Sonoma. We meant to stop and have lunch, then hit Roshambo. Every map we had, provided awful directions, so we never found it. We instead, went up to Ferrari Carano. They have a great room called Enoteca in which you can sample their reserve and other non-distributed wines. All great! We asked them where else in Russian River and Dry Creek Valleys to visit. Our tasting room pourer recommended Bella for the wine caves and Sbragia. Bella was a lovely place with open air picnic tables, a barn where we tasted the rosé, then the caves with the rest of their wines being poured. They had a guitarist playing and singing too. The caves were cool to see. Sbragia was a family-feel winery. Very pretty and nice staff, but for the accolades on the wall for their zins, I am guessing we didn't get poured those. I like everything BUT their zins. From there, we got a bit lost, as everything in these areas is spread out and it's a very rural area. We stopped at Jordan, which is a beautiful facility, but alas, you need an appointment. We then ventured down to Sonoma and only had time left to hit one more, and that was Buena Vista. Their tasting room was very crowded because a load of college students were being a nuisance. Once we got there, we had an awesome guy pouring for us and sharing inside info on each wine. We ended our day with a great dinner at the Fig Cafe, second venue of The Girl & The Fig, No corkage and great food! Highly recommended. Also, the saloon at the Jack London Lodge I believe, is the bar they used in filming BOTTLE SHOCK.
We called Opus One to set an appointment for the next day as we planned to hit Napa. They said 10 Am was no problem, so we though, great, tasting appt. at 10 and we'll be there for the 10:30 tour. We took Trinity Road, which is gorgeous, but slow and winding, from Sonoma (we stayed in Glen Ellen at the Jack London Lodge) to Oakville in Napa Valley. We came out right by Far Niente, Mondavi, Opus One and more. It was pretty awesome to se the signs for all these wineries I have been drinking from. We were early, as most of them don't open til 10, so we drove up the 29 looking at the wineries. It's so beautiful there!
We arrived at Opus before the gates were open, took some photos and snuck a few grapes off the vines. We went in and were told that the tours were full and we needed to schedule weeks out and our appt was just for a half glass pour of the 2005 vintage for $30. That was disappointing and what made it worse was the uppity attitude of all the staff there. I understand they have to maintain some regality as it's two wine monarchies we're talking about, but come on! So my friend had her tasting, I have had Opus before, so I, annoyed as hell, opted out. Gorgeous grounds and facility and their terrace provided a nice place for my friend to sip her pour and for us to snap photos of surrounding wineries like Turnbull, Nickel & Nickel, Mondavi, etc.
We stopped at Franciscan before it was open, before Opus, again on misinformation on our map. After Opus, we had a meeting at Cosentino with Michael Oullette. He's the winemaker of Blockheadia Ringnosii. My friend had met him in Vegas at a wine dinner and he gave her his card, so we had arranged to meet him for a private VIP tasting of his wines when we went to Napa. He opened his rosé, and three zins and one petit sirah. He was awesome! Very nice, informatie about how he made each one, his passion is evident and his zins are knock your socks off good! The petit sirah needed more time, but all in all, his wines are magnificent. He also opened Cosentino's "The Poet" for us and after, we got to take all the nearly full bottles with us!
We then were supposed to hit Redd for lunch and he recommended visiting Cliff Lede and Robert Sinskey, but Allison really wanted to hit Calistoga, having seen BOTTLE SHOCK, to see Chateau Montelena. So we took the Silverado Trail up north to Montelena. They were loading bins of chardonnay into the destemmer, so we took video and again, sampled a grape or two. Their tasting room was nice, but one of the more pricey tastings. We took photos with one of the famed 1973 bottles, then went to the spectacular Clos Pegase. Next we saw Sterling, but opted out of taking their aerial tram. No doubt it'd be a great way to see Napa Valley, but time was short as most wineries are open only until 5. On the way back down, we, having missed lunch were starving, so bypassed Beringer, BV and numerous others, in search of Dean & Deluca for some picnic foods to finish some Blockheadia and eat before continuing on. We then stopped into Franciscan and tasted. We realized we wouldn't have time for Trefethen, so we hit Mondavi since it was a "have to". I must say, everything we tasted that was cabs fell flat for me. Perhaps our salami and cheese lunch spread goofed up our palates, but all their cabs seemed to have nutty qualities. They did however have the generosity to let me spray my shirt with their Wine-Away, since Allison ha spilled on me at lunch. Mondavi is breathtakingly gorgeous! We ended our Napa day at Domaine Chandon.
We decided being south already, to take the Carneros Highway back to Sonoma/Glen Ellen. We then saw Domaine Carneros and decided to hit Carneros on our way out, toward SF the next day. We then went to another great dinner at Bottega before leaving Napa Valley.
The next day, we hit Benziger first thing as it was close to out hotel. Another great experience and nice facility. We then headed down to Gundlach Bundschu where they were also working with the chardonnay grapes. Their tasting room is awesome! Arrange for a cave tour there! Lots of great history and good wines! Then on to Domaine Carneros. Spectacular chateau!! Finally, we hit Boon Fly for lunch, then Artesa who just beat out Acacia, because of their architecture and style. Artesa is another awesome facility with great wines.
Obviously there is a ton to see. If you have a list of "must sees" be prepared to miss some or give some up. Time rarely allows you to stay on plan. What's almost a better plan is to hit a cople of must-sees, then ask where they recommend, or even drive and pull in to places that look interesting. Some of the lesser known ones are the best experiences! All in all, it's a great place with so much natural beauty and appeal and magnificent dining. I can't wait to go back and se even more that we missed. Hopefully I can go once a year, then work my way down to central CA.
Our initial "must see" list consisted of the following, with the asterisk on ones we actually made it to:
Russian River/Dry Creek:
Roshambo (took the place of Seghesio which we had on the list previously, hearing Roshambo is hip and way unpretentious)
Jordan*- again, no tasting or tour as we didn't have an appt.
Maybes were- Simi, Chalk Hill, Quivira, Dry Creek Vineyard, Kendall Jackson, Martinelli, Sonoma Cutrer
Gundlach-Bundschu ( "Gun Bun" as it's known)*
Maybes were- Acacia, Matanzas Creek, Chateau St. Jean, Kunde, Ravenswood, Sebastiani (BR Cohn we passed a lot and it looks VERY nice)
Cosentino (Blockheadia Ringnosii)*
Maybes were- Stags Leap Wine Cellars (we found out they're pricey so opted against stopping), Cliff Lede (again, costly according to the info we had), Far Niente, Cakebread, St. Supery, Rubicon (this tour seemed intensive and too long. I am sure it's great, but we wanted to spread our time out), BV, Grgich Hills, Flora Springs, Louis Martini (we'd have tasted here, but it was one of the more pricey tasting rooms and we wanted to picnic elsewhere), Charles Krug/CK Mondavi, Freemark Abbey, Duckhorn, Cuvaison, Mumm and Chappellet.
As you can see, there are so many to choose from and even when you chip away at your list, you likely won't make them all. We only had Saturday midday coming from SF, to midday Monday as we had to return to SF to fly home.
I'd recommend to anyone a trip to northern CA's wine country. It's gorgeous. Even if you're not that into wine, or others you travel with aren't, it's a fascinating place full of history and beauty. I am guessing you're into wine, since you're a Snoother! So make your plans and enjoy!!
Visiting Wine Country
- Reply by VegasOenophile, Sep 26, 2009.
I forgot to mention... all the wines we tasted on that trip were reviewed, so if you're interested, just peruse my profile/reviews. There were too many to comment on all, but I rated them all.
- Reply by lingprof, Oct 1, 2009.
Great descriptions, V.O. It really made me want to go to Sonoma. And I look forward to reading all your reviews!
- Reply by rar8888, Oct 3, 2009.
Great overview! My wife and I were in Napa Valley around roughly the same time but it looks like we hit completely different wineries. It was a beautiful time of year to be out there but I will say I was a bit surprised to see 100 degree temps at the end of September. The wineries that my wife and I hit were:
Our favorite experiences were the tour and pairing at Cliff Lede, the summit tasting at Pride Mountain, and the tasting at Larkmead.
Cliff Lede was a small group of 4 couples lead by a very knowledgeable guide (Tom). We toured the winery and took a brief stroll through the vineyards before our tasting. It was a lot of fun but it was a little pricey.
The summit tasting at Pride Mountain was amazing. It was a private tasting with one of the wineries senior staff members. We had Jason the head chef and trained sommelier. The tasting started with a tour of the caves, and we ended with tasting out of the barrel. It was great.
Larkmead is on our list first of all because their wines were fantastic. Secondly, the tasting experience was a ton of fun as well. We got a brief tour from Susan through the winery and got to see cabernet grapes being sorted and de-stemmed. The tasting itself was very relaxed and intimate. This is a definite must do for the next time.
- Reply by VegasOenophile, Oct 6, 2009.
Sounds great, I'll have to check out Pride Mountain. Cliff Lede was one people said we should check out, but the $30+ fee for the experience turned us off, since we had so much to see and do and had to "spread the wealth". Next time for sure, I think we'll hit that destination.