We’ve been away from California for over a year now, but I still get regular requests from friends and family asking for advice about wineries in Napa Valley. I’m always happy to share my thoughts and advice, so here they are, in blog format, for all to see.
First Things First: Transportation
Tourists who don’t want to run the risk of a pricey DUI ticket often decide to hire a limousine, ride the Napa Wine Train, or take a bus tour. The problem with all of these options is that they visit a set list of wineries (usually the big touristy ones), and you have little or no control over your experience.
For a more personalized tasting experience, Napa Bee Driven is a much better option. They’ll provide you with a knowledgeable chauffeur to drive you to the wineries of your choice (instead of the big wineries frequented by every tourism company in the valley), for $50 an hour. The drivers know their wine, and we’ve had great luck following their recommendations. Any research into pricing in Napa will confirm that they offer the best deal in town. So what’s the catch? They drive you in your car. Just tell them where to meet you and the driver will appear out of thin air. At the end of the day they’ll drop you back at your hotel or the restaurant of your choice. It’s not the lap of luxury, but for budget conscious travelers it is the way to go.
Next Up: Lunch
Most of the wineries open at 10 or 11am, but we never visited a winery before 1. Instead, we’d have lunch at Gott’s Roadside (Napa location). Kevin recommends the Texas burger and a side of onion rings; I like the veggie burger and sweet potato fries. If you’re a dessert person, the milkshakes are amazing. Everything is delicious and you really can’t go wrong.
Now The Important Stuff: Wineries
This list begins just outside of downtown Napa and winds its way up to St. Helena. I recommend starting with the winery farthest from your hotel and making your way back through the valley to get the most out of your time. This map is a handy reference.
We love this winery. It’s a tiny little family-run winery and microcrush operation just off the Silverado Trail. The staff is one of the friendliest in the valley, and the wine is always tasty. We had one of the best bottles of Syrah we’ve ever tasted at this winery. Just call first for an appointment (they are very flexible and accommodating, even at the last minute).
Tasting fee: Not listed, but definitely reasonable (around $10 or so), and they’ll waive the fee if you purchase a couple of bottles.
I have to include this winery on the list for entertainment value alone. It’s basically a tin shack in the middle of a vineyard, with a ramshackle outdoor seating area and friendly dogs roaming the property. If you’re lucky, you’ll be hosted by the grumpy patriarch of the family, who seems ambivalent about whether or not people like his wine (what matters is that he likes his wine). They also offer delicious homemade truffles for tasting. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the wine yet… that’s because it isn’t very memorable. You go to Van Der Heyden for the experience, not the wine. We usually make it our last stop, as they are open later than everyone else (6:00), and it’s a fun way to end an afternoon. They recommend making an appointment, but we’ve never had a problem walking in.
Tasting fee: Not listed, but I remember it being very affordable ($10 or so for a flight), and I believe they waive the fee if you purchase a bottle (don’t quote me on that).
This is not a winery for people on a budget. Bottles start at around $35, and prices top out around $100. The tasting room is stuffy, and you’ll definitely feel some pressure to buy a bottle (or 10). So why would anyone go here? For the wine. This place is the opposite of Van Der Heyden, lacking in fun and atmosphere, but the wine is oh-so-delicious. You’ll wish you had a few hundred dollars to blow on their delicious reds. Just don’t stay long. There is too much fun to be had elsewhere. No appointment necessary.
Tasting fee: $20-$35 per flight, not waived with bottle purchase
This winery is on my top 3 list. It’s a family operation and it feels like it (they’ve been making wine since 1932). The wine is pure California, with big, fruity flavors. We always go for the Zinfandel. Along with great wine, they offer friendly staff and beautiful grounds. They even have a corgi who will follow you around and beg for a belly scratch. Bottles start at $35 and make their way to $86, but they are worth every penny. We always have fun here. It’s the kind of winery that makes you want to move to the valley, just so you can visit more often. No appointment necessary.
Tasting fee: $25 per flight. They’ve been known to pour a little extra if you make friends with the hosts, and they’ll waive the tasting fee with a bottle purchase.
This winery is in Yountville (short detour from the Silverado Trail), and it is the perfect place to end your tasting adventure if you plan to eat at one of the restaurants in town (which we lovingly refer to as the “Keller Compound”, see restaurant recommendations for more information). The winery doubles as an art gallery, and seating is provided in a restaurant style layout. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable, and they offer a nice variety of wines to taste. There is literally something for everyone, and they might have the best rose in the Valley. Just don’t forget to make an appointment first, because they tend to get very busy.
Tasting fee: $20, waived with bottle purchase
We stumbled onto this winery entirely by accident one afternoon, and I’m so glad we did. The wine is good, and the atmosphere is great. The staff is friendly and accommodating, and once you sit down at one of their tables, you might not want to get up. The tasting room bumps right up against their vineyards, providing great scenery, and a perfect place for a tourist photo. We really like the viognier. They require an appointment, but like most other vineyards in the area, they are happy to make room for you if at all possible.
Tasting fee: $20 for a tasting of 7-10 varietals (most vineyards offer 4 varietals in a flight)
We love this winery. They offer two tasting rooms; the main tasting room offers current releases, and the reserve tasting room offers reserve wines and a fantastic art gallery. There is something on offer here for all tastes and interests, and the staff is knowledgeable and accommodating. If you go for the reserve tasting, you won’t be sorry. We really like their cabs. No appointment necessary, and make sure to leave a little extra time in your itinerary to spend time browsing the art.
Tasting fee: $10 for standard flight, $20 for reserve tasting
Frog’s Leap is the one and only big producer on this list. You can find their wines at your local grocery, but it’s still worth a visit for the experience of sitting in their tasting room and wandering the grounds of the vineyard. The tasting room is really a wraparound deck on the side of a mansion, with views onto the gardens and vineyard. You get a little cheese snack with your wine, and visitors are encouraged to wander through the vineyards, gardens, barns, and barrel room. Nothing is rushed here, and you’ll definitely feel like you’re away from it all. We like the petite sirah, the rutherford and the pink, but you really can’t go wrong. They require an appointment for groups larger than six, but it is a popular winery so I recommend calling ahead for any size party.
Tasting fee: $20
Don’t Bother: Wineries that aren’t worth your time or money.
Don’t let the grounds fool you, Silverado is an empty suit. And they’re owned by Disney. One of their wines is named “Fantasia”. ‘Nuff said.
The wine is excellent. The presentation-not so much. First they make you wait with a group of strangers in a holding pen, then everyone is welcomed into the tasting room at once. Once you are completely trapped with a crowd of strangers, the host/community theatre reject does a cornball song and dance about each bottle, followed by a heavy handed sales pitch. Avoid this place at all costs.
I will never understand how this winery became the tourist trap that it is. The wine is nothing to write home about, and the tasting room is a crowded nightmare. Don’t bother.
Last Stop: Dinner
If you don’t have a few hundred dollars to spare at The French Laundry, I highly recommend making a reservation at one of the lesser Keller enterprises.Bouchon and Ad Hoc are affordable and offer some of the best food available in Napa Valley (all conveniently located in Yountville, aka, the Keller Compound). If you want to break free of all things Keller, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen offers farm fresh California cuisine to die for. To experience Michelin starred vegetarian fare, try Ubuntu in Napa. I can still taste the fried green tomatoes I had the last time we were there…
So there you have it. Happy drinking! Feel free to share your favorite wineries and Napa Valley experiences in the comment section below!