Your Next Grape Escape
Get lost, ditch your winery checklist, and discover the best of Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Our wine expert, Julie Blacklidge, shows the way.
I lived in San Francisco six years, but between college and my budding journalism career, I had only visited the wine country two to three times a year – mostly with out-of-town guests. That is, until I got the pink slip. After the dot-com bubble burst, I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands and little money. The plan: gather all my unemployed brethren, collect $5 per person for gas money, and head up to Sonoma and Napa armed with a list of wineries offering free tastes.
We had our favorite routes and wineries but always stopped to try something new – as long as it was free. Unemployed bliss lasted six months. Since then, I’ve widened my scope; now I stop at wineries with a price tag, still approaching each excursion with the same enthusiasm. Consider your winery checklist as the skeleton of your trip, not the entire tour. Get lost. Leave room for whatever catches your eye. And make sure to have fun. Wine is about pleasure and stimulating your senses. Lap it up.
BEST BIODYNAMIC WINE
Benziger Family Winery
1883 London Ranch Rd., Glen Ellen
Raise your glasses and toast a truly exceptional wine: Benziger’s Tribute – the first certified Biodynamic wine from Napa and Sonoma Counties – is rich and chewy but not overwhelmed by harsh tannins. The 2001 sold out and the 2002 is well on its way (they always leave a few cases to sell at the winery). Think of Biodynamics as the new-and-improved, sometimes wild and wacky, method of organic farming. No pesticides, herbicides, or artificial fertilizers. That’s just for starters. Growers must also create self-sustained ecosystems and follow techniques such as burying cow skulls under the vines and harvesting on the full moon (they say it helps to pull all the juice into the berry). The result is a superior wine rated 93 by The Wine Advocate (Robert Parker).
BEST BIRD’S-EYE VIEW
1111 Dunaweal Ln., Calistoga
Visitors to Sterling Vineyards leave their cars and buses behind and take an aerial tram to the top of a 300-foot forested knoll, where the winery overlooks the breathtaking Napa County Agricultural Preserve. The three-minute ride is your bird’s-eye view of the valley, striped with rows of vineyards and surrounded by rolling, rocky hillsides. There is a different view on the way down, so you won’t see the same thing twice. Winery tours are $15 per person, which includes a self-guided tour and five tastes (don’t miss the Pinot Gris or the hearty Syrah). Frugal tourists take advantage of the two-for-one offer on the web site.
1400 Schramsberg Rd., Calistoga
Schramsberg sparkling wines top the list of the best in the United States. The accolades are well deserved. The charming, secluded winery between St. Helena and Calistoga made history in the ’60s as the first American winery to make bubbly using the methode champenoise, and continues to set the bar today. President Richard Nixon served it at a state dinner for Chinese Premier Chou En-lai in Beijing. You don’t have to be a world leader to get your taste, though. Call to make an appointment for a tour, which takes you through wine caves dug by Chinese immigrants in the 1800s, and ends with a tasting of several styles including my favorite – J. Schram. This is a bright, tangy Chardonnay-based sparkling with a touch of Pinot Noir for structure.
P.O. Box 50, St. Helena
Mention Long Vineyards to any Chardonnay lover and you’re sure to hear, “Napa’s new Grand Cru.” Mention original winemaker Zelma Long and they’ll never shut up. She’s the Grand Dame of Chardonnay (inducted to the James Beard Hall of Fame in 1996) and consistently churns out exquisitely crafted wines that age beautifully. There are new winemakers at the helm, including Sandi Belcher, but the quality hasn’t changed a bit thanks to Zelma’s and proprietor Bob Long’s involvement. The Old Vines Chardonnay is as memorable as a first kiss. It’s full-bodied with nutty, vanilla notes and subtle oak influences hanging in the background, letting the natural earthy flavors dominate. Get a bottle while you can; only 150 cases are produced.
BEST CHOCOHOLIC FIX
1506 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga
Wine tasting is hard work. Seriously. You can easily work up an appetite after lifting the glass to your lips all day. That’s when you should head out to the Palisades Market in Calistoga. The little shop is known by locals for the most decadent treat in Napa – the homemade ding-dong. Hostess has nothing on this devilish delight – the 3-inch tall confection has two moist pieces of chocolate cake sandwiching a slab of rich whipped cream and is then dunked in chocolate. We’d like to say one is enough, but you’ll definitely want another one later, so stock up while you’re there. The market is also filled with gourmet oils, sauces, and seasonings.
BEST CULT-STATUS CAB
557 Silverado Trail, Napa
Screaming Eagle’s Cabernet Sauvignon is the most sought-after limited production Cab in Napa Valley. With a mere 600 cases released each year, oenophiles line up to shell out more-than-$1,000-per-bottle prices usually reserved for first-growth Bordeaux. But if you ask the winery, they’ll tell you each bottle goes for a mere $300 a bottle and is sold exclusively through their mailing list. If you’re one of the lucky few on that list, you’ll pay just $300 a bottle or $900 for the three-pack. However, the rest of us have to shell out the big bucks to get a taste. Budget a few thousand dollars for the set. We saw a 1997 three-pack going for $6,500 on winecommune.com, but newer vintages are auctioned off for much less – anywhere from $1,500-3,500. The winery is tucked away on an Oakville hillside, where tours and public tastings are as rare as the wines made there.
BEST EATS (IF YOU CAN GET IN)
6640 Washington St., Yountville
Two months before you plan on visiting the wine country, make a reservation at Thomas Keller’s world-famous French Laundry. Don’t think you’ll be able to sneak in unannounced or parlay your way in on the waiting list. Unless you’re somebody, you won’t get seated. Is all this trouble really worth it? Let me just say: Ricotta gnocchi with shaved Roquefort and 50-year-old Sherry vinegar. Valrhona bitter chocolate souffle with dry apricot marmalade and mascarpone sorbet. The adorable river rock structure was built around the turn of the century to house a saloon, but laws soon changed and the building was sold and turned into a French Laundry. Keller took over in 1994 and the rest is foodie history.
BEST EXIT STRATEGY
Once you’ve reached Calistoga, don’t retrace your steps and go back the way you came through Napa or Sonoma. Get up early enough to feel the cool breeze and set off on Highway 128 for the Alexander Valley. Morning is breathtaking with mist hanging lightly above the gnarled vines and mossy oak trees while sun beams cut through the fog highlighting a patch of green in the distance. The curvy road will lead you past tiny white country chapels and produce stands nestled among the vineyards. As you make your way to Highway 101, which you can take south into San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll run into some of California’s finest wineries including Jordan Vineyard & Winery, Chateau Souverain, and Silver Oak Cellars.
Joseph Phelps Vineyards
200 Taplin Rd., St. Helena
Once you’ve tasted a wine with the body, elegance, and complexity of Joseph Phelps Insignia it’s hard to go back to basics. This Bordeaux blend was not only the first in California with its 1974 debut; it’s still considered the best in the region. A dark purple hue shows through the glass with inviting aromas of cassis and chocolate filling the air. Its voluptuous mouthfeel is followed by a long finish. The tannins are there, but surprisingly soft. Spoil yourself by making an appointment to visit the gorgeous redwood winery off the Silverado Trail in the shadow of the Mayacamas Mountains and the chic hamlet of St. Helena.
Prager Winery and Port Works
1281 Lewelling Ln., St Helena
Prager’s tiny tasting room is hidden behind barrels stacked from floor to ceiling. A wall of international currency tacked up by visitors, a window covered in 30-year-old cobwebs, and a stylized photograph of Prager patriarch Jim Prager set the lighthearted mood. If Jim’s your host, count yourself lucky. The bearded, white-haired winemaker will introduce you to his lineup of red and white ports, late harvests, and a few varieties of wine. It’s the white ports that seem to get all of the attention. They’re lighter than traditional ports and can be served before a meal or even with seafood and light appetizers. Try the Aria with its subtle traces of apple and pear touched with a bit of hazelnut. Don’t leave without a taste of the delicious Chocolate Port Drizzle.
BEST PRIVATE COTTAGE
Auberge du Soleil
180 Rutherford Hill Rd., Rutherford
When the wine has been drunk and the afternoon sun turns to a soft golden glow, connoisseurs of luxury drop their bags at Auberge du Soleil. This secluded inn is known for its lavish private cottages nestled amongst a 33-acre hillside olive grove. The 1,800-square-feet maisons are decked out with two fireplaces, a steam shower, flat-screen TVs, a terrace hot tub, wireless Internet, and more. The decadence is worth the $2,500-3,500 a night price tag if you can afford it. “The Inn of the Sun” doesn’t just cater to the rich and famous. There are three other room options including a 1,250-square-foot cottage suite and a simple room in the main house. A trip to the spa is a must. Go with the grape theme and try the Opus package – a four-hour treatment using grapeseeds and grapeseed oil.
BEST TASTING EXPERIENCE
25200 Arnold Dr., Sonoma
The first stop on any trip to Sonoma should be Viansa Winery. Located just off Highway 121 (Arnold Dr.), the classic Tuscan villa sits on top of a hill that overlooks a 90-acre waterfowl preserve on one side and rows of vines on another. The winery, owned by 360 Global, has made a name for itself with Italian varietals. I never leave without a few bottles of the La Nebbia Nebbiolo and the Athena Dolcetto. You’ll also find Sangiovese, Barbera, Primitivo, and French varietals as well. In addition to $5 wine tastings (which include a tour), you get to nibble your way around six tables lined with gourmet dips, sauces, and toppings. The dessert section is sinful with Pecan Caramel Dolcetti and Blackberry Cabernet Sauce. Picnic tables are set up outside overlooking the wetlands (sandwiches, tri-tip, and other offerings are available), but after you make your way through the tasting room you probably won’t be hungry for lunch.
BEST THERMAL SOAK
The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa
100 Boyes Blvd., Sonoma
The natural mineral hot springs at the Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa have attracted locals for more than 160 years. Native Americans believed in the water’s restorative and mystical powers. Don’t scoff. After an hour of the hotelâ€™s trademark Bathing Ritual Experience, you’ll eagerly agree. It starts with a warm exfoliating shower using a thermal mineral kur shower gel, then moves on to a cozy mineral bath (96-98 degrees) followed by a hot soak (102 degrees) with therapeutic jets. After a quick rehydration, it’s on to a cool shower before relaxing in an herbal steam and sauna. By the end of the hour you’re swaddled in a comfy robe reclining in the relaxation lounge. For most, that is just the start of their day at the spa. The menu is endless, with multiple massage styles, body wraps, kurs, flotation treatments, and hydrotherapy. Although packages are available, individualize the experience by designing your own.
2000 Main St., St. Helena
Winery tours can start to run into each other after a couple of days. Barrels. Tanks. Vines. Got it. The Vintage Legacy Tour at Beringer Vineyards is the one you’ll remember out of all of them. Two brothers from Germany started Beringer Vineyards 129 years ago, and it remains the oldest-running winery in Napa Valley. Visitors to the winery just outside of St. Helena can experience the brothers’ vision from vineyard to bottle as well as tour the original Home Vineyard, taste four reserve wines in the Old Stone Winery, and slip into the hand-chiseled caves for a barrel tasting. There are seven tours to choose from, including a semi-private Reserve tasting (by appointment only). If you’re looking for a history lesson, the Historic District Tour allows you to explore more of the property including typically off-limit sections of the Rhine House, built in 1883 to mimic the Beringer brothers’ childhood home on the Rhine River in Germany. Call ahead of time to reserve your space.
4240 Silverado Trail, Napa
Since the first plantings of Viognier in California in the early ’80s, results have been hit and miss. Very few have lived up to their luscious Northern Rhone origins. Darioush proves that California can produce a Viognier that can rival its French counterpart, Condrieu. Here’s a moderately-priced wine to get excited about. Dried apricot and hints of orange zest are followed by a velvety smooth finish that lingers on the palate long enough to make you want another sip. The winery is worth the visit, too. Proprietor Darioush Khaledi created an unusual building influenced by Persian architecture featuring an opulent tasting room and visitor center that looks more like a five-star hotel lobby. A quick stroll around the grounds will lead you to a stone amphitheater and row upon row of carved pillars.
Seghesio Family Vineyards
14730 Grove St. Healdsburg
Seghesio Zinfandels are the benchmark. Edoardo and Angela Seghesio planted Alexander Valley’s first vineyard in 1895 along side the family home, and those same vines still produce wines rated above 90 with each vintage. The Home Ranch Zinfandel – drenched with ripe blackberries matched with a spicy, earthy finish – is a quintessential example of what many consider to be California’s varietal. Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys are home to the oldest Zinfandel vines in the world – many sourced from the original Seghesio vineyard. Try the Old Vine Zinfandel, made from plants at least 50 years old. Fourth- and fifth-generation family members still run the business and someone is always around to chat. Adding to the history of the winery and vineyards, the tasting room is located in a cellar dating back to 1890.
Best Bets for Beginners
“If you’re new to the California wine scene, don’t start with Napa and Sonoma. They’re expensive, established vineyards and you’ll pay top dollar. Instead, go to the central coast of California, such as the Paso Robles area or Santa Barbara. Once you taste the different varieties and decide what you like, you’ll be ready to head north,” says Greg Wilemon, owner-manager, Farpointe Cellar. “For the beginner? I suggest anything from Hahn Estates. Try an inexpensive Cabernet or Chardonnay.” 721 East Southlake Blvd., Southlake. 817-416-7500. http://www.farpointecellar.com/.