A trip to Napa Valley is simply iconic for those who enjoy a glass of wine (or 3!), especially if you like stunning landscapes, the quiet of the countryside and being, well, wined-and-dined. Whether or not you can tell a Pinot from Cabernet or know what makes sparkling wine different from champagne, a day in the vineyards is not to be missed if you find yourself in California.
There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of wineries sprinkled throughout Napa and nearby Sonoma (also famous for its wine-making abilities) that will please any palate. The great thing about this is you can zone in on vineyards you’re familiar with, or simply hop on a tour bus where each stop is a surprise.
How to get around
I travelled through Napa on board a shuttle bus with a company called Green Dream Tours. For about $130 per person, they’ll pick you up and drop you off in San Fran, shuttle you out to the country so you can drink as much as you please, and cover your tasting fees at the three different wineries you’ll stop at. The whole day trip from San Francisco takes about eight hours, including a one-hour stop for lunch. There are a number of tour companies which offer similar trips (some for much less—about $80) but keep in mind they might host much larger groups which could take away from your experience.
Alternatively, book a room at a quaint B&B in Napa so you’re free to come and go as you please. Some offer bike rentals so you can peddle around to the different wineries, or you can rent a car for the day to get to vineyards that are farther out. Keep in mind—you should never drink and drive! Ever! So sort out who the DD will be, before you find yourself a bottle of wine deep in the middle of the countryside.
If you’re in Napa with a tour group, you’ll likely make pit stops at three different wineries, and will get to try five different varieties in each place. Some will let you choose from a list, while others are set menus. We were never offered any sort of food, but those who showed up on their own were—so methinks the red carpet is rolled out a bit more for those who seem like they’ll hunker down for a while! If you’re heading there independently, expect to shell out between $15 and $20 each for your tasting.
The employees/owners at the vineyards are obviously extremely well-educated when it comes to all things wine, so feel free to pepper them with questions as you go. They’ll likely take the chance to teach you some things as well, like what temperature to store wine at (12/55 degrees for both red and white) or when you should crack open the bottle (within the first few years for white, four to six for red). And of course, you’ll ‘get’ the chance to purchase a bottle—or case—at any time. In my experience they aren’t any cheaper here then if you came across the same bottle at a liquor store, but it does make a nice memento either way.
Of course, it’s important to pretend you know what you’re doing, so follow this list every time a new glass is poured, and you’ll look like a connoisseur in no time!
- Look at the glass, making note of the colour of wine, clarity and if there is any sediment.
- Swirl the wine in your glass, which allows oxygen into the wine, opening the aromas up. Be careful with this, if you’re swirling a red and happen to be wearing white!
- Smell the wine, to get a hint of what it’s made of. Chocolate? Apples? Strawberries?
- Sip the wine and hold it in your mouth, to try and detect the different tastes.
- Drink the rest! (This is my favourite part). If you’re not fond of a particular variety, there is always some sort of jar where you can dump the remnants without offending anyone, to make space for the next pour.
There are so many different vineyards that it would be impossible to see even a fraction of them during your first visit, so it’s a good idea to pick a few you’re interested in before you go. If you have a favourite brand you drink at home, why not check that one out? Are you Jewish? Try the Hagafen vineyard, which makes kosher wine—and even supplies the White House! Castello di Amorosa is extremely popular, seeing as how there is an actual CASTLE on the gorgeous property, or head to Sterling Vineyards and take the aerial tram up the mountain, for a fantastic view of the winery.
Where to eat: Most tours stop at the Oxbow Public Market, a cute complex that houses a number of restaurants and vendors. You can pick up fresh olive oil, oysters, cheese, honey or cupcakes (to name a few), or sit down for a leisurely lunch at one of the gourmet restaurants.
When to visit: Harvest time (September and October) is a great time to head to Napa, as the temperatures are still warm and the vines are full of bright purple grapes. The vines are dormant in winter, so there won’t be as much to see, but you can expect more one-on-one service as there will be less crowds.