According to The Wine Institute — which recently sent me and my friend Jen Miner to the Northern California wine country on a research mission to find great adventures for couples and friends — September is California Wine Month.
And while September is a gorgeous time to visit the Napa Valley, home to hundreds of wineries and the towns of St. Helena and Rutherford…it’s now over. Fortunately, Napa should also be pretty darn stunning in October and November.
For a little travel-planning inspiration, here are some of the adventures that Jen and I enjoyed in the Napa Valley, from a tour of the granddaddy of Napa wineries to an elegant lunch on a garden terrace to a wine cave atop a famous hill.
It took us just under an hour to drive from the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg to the Napa Valley town of St. Helena, but we allowed enough time to stop by the roadsides and take pictures of things like this.
The Napa Valley is a gorgeous unfurling of hills and mountains and fields, and I’d never turn down a day of driving around it. However, it’s never been my favorite destination for wine tasting. Based on my past five or six visits, I’ve come to equate it with splashy, well-funded corporate brands who collect art as a tax shelter and seem to formulate their wines based on audience testing.
This time around, on my first day in the Napa Valley, I had a chance to see three different versions of the big-scale, well-funded winery — and met them with varying degrees of excitement.
Jen and I officially started our first Napa day with a tour of the famous Robert Mondavi Winery, whose success helped the Napa Valley craft its identity as California’s wine country. (This was no mean feat, as California actually has over 100 different AVAs [American Viticultural Areas] spread across 37 counties.) Open since 1966, Mondavi has grown into an enormous corporate operation that’s styled to look like a California mission, sown with grass seed, roses and grapevines, and peppered with works of art.
Mondavi offers an array of tours that aim to educate wine newbies about how grapes are grown, tended and processed into wine. These impressive introductions provide a little agricultural history of the region, the romantic tale of the fun-loving Mondavis, a stroll around the grounds and through the cavernous inner workings; at the end, you can opt to taste a few wines, or set yourselves up with a clever wine-and-cheese pairing designed to school your palate.
However, if you already know about barreling and temperature control and what cheese goes best with a Chardonnay, this isn’t going to be the ideal stop for you. We enjoyed looking at unusually enormous wooden fermenting tanks and dozens of red-tinged oak barrels, but knowing that we can find Mondavi wines at just about any Southern California grocery store, we were more eager to spend a few minutes exploring the shops in downtown St. Helena.
St. Helena is charming, like a smiling stranger at a cocktail party who politely offers you your favorite drink and a seat beside them on the couch. Clearly a place where folks have money to spend, the vibe nonetheless manages to be more down to Earth than fussy. I’d recommend popping into Baksheesh Fair Trade for inexpensive gift items from around the world; Footcandy Shoes, because…shoes; Woodhouse Chocolate for locally-and hand-made treats packed in sky blue boxes; and one of the smallest, sweetest, most soothing bookstores I’ve ever visited, Main Street Books (1315 Main Street). On past trips, Jen and her husband have loved the patio and laid-back mood at Cindy Pawlcyn’s Wood Grill & Wine Bar, as well as the hamburgers at the retro-styled Gott’s Roadside Stand.
On this trip, we drove two minutes north of downtown Main Street and spent our lunch hour(s) at V. Sattui Winery. Begun in the 1880s as a San Francisco boarding house selling their own homemade wine, V. Sattui is now a sprawling operation that teems with visitors on the weekends. We visited on a Sunday, along with about 200 other people; I’m not usually a fan of big crowds, but it’s easy to get swept up in the festive mood here. Folks here looked happy and relaxed, especially around the outdoor barbecue pits and picnic tables.
Our tour included V. Sattui’s Deli & Marketplace (which stocks about 300 different kinds of cheese and makes its own charcuterie), as well as their wine cave and little winery museum. The best part, though, was an experience that took us away from the general population and deposited us on an elegant garden terrace in front of gorgeous deli sandwiches, pesto pasta salad, and a sommelier-guided tasting of six of the winery’s vintages. My favorite? The rich, sexy 2010 Black-Sears Vineyard (Howell’s Mountain) Zinfandel.
Call ahead and book the Vittorio’s Vineyard Garden Terrace Tasting ($25 US per person), and you, too, can sit out here with snacks and wine; otherwise you’ll be enjoying your repast out at the picnic tables or your own blanket on a side lawn. Neither of those options would be a bad way to go, just decidedly less…exquisite.
Well-fed and, um, watered, we departed for an afternoon tasting at the rustic-chic Rutherford Hill Winery in tony Rutherford. Lofty in both location and target market, this place feels simultaneously corporate and escapist; the wine prices here are mildly staggering, but so are the valley views.
The winery’s quirky design aesthetic falls somewhere between the mid-1970s and ancient Rome, with rough hewn wood, stately poplars, draping vines and an enormous wine cave. This is a heck of a setting to bring your own picnic and have a tasting; the tasting room staff is friendly, and this is the only place where Jen and I actually bought wine on our whole trip. Though they’re most famous for their Merlots, I felt their Cabernet Sauvignons were even more nuanced and delicious.
This particular day in the Napa Valley was truly lovely, but didn’t do much to change my mind about the region: I still feel it’s a beautiful part of California, but that many of its wineries are either too corporate or crowded for my taste. I was glad to find nooks of calm and quiet — as well as a few stellar wines — but it wasn’t until we got to Calistoga that I found a version of Napa that was even more my speed.
That is to say, hardly moving at all.
My wine country adventure soon continues in
Adventures in California Wine Country: Napa Valley – Part Two
This trip was sponsored by The Wine Institute,
including all travel, tours, meals and lodgings.
However, all observations and opinions are my own.