5 Favorite Napa Wineries to Visit - Suggestions from a Sommelier Who Doesn't Actually Get Up There That Often
Working as a sommelier in San Francisco, I am often asked by visiting tourists how often I go tasting in Napa Valley. Every day before work? Certainly once a week? Most are shocked and perhaps disappointed to hear that it’s really closer to once a month, maybe a little less. Over 3.5 million people visited Napa Valley in 2016, with over twenty percent of those coming from overseas. If they can travel from across the globe to visit this truly world-class winegrowing region, I should be able to make the hour-drive more often. The fact is, the restaurant business is a labor-intensive one, and weekends away can be hard to come by. We are certainly very spoiled in San Francisco as well, with great access to tasting wines brought to us by the sales teams of local wineries and importers alike. The restaurant can function as a tasting room. Still, there is good reason for millions of people to make the trek to Napa each year. The climate is incredible, the scenery is stunning, and the food and wine experiences available are second to none. While I don’t make it up every day, I’ve been fortunate to have spent many beautiful days visiting some of the nearly five hundred wineries that call the valley home. Here, I’ve listed five of my favorites, offering varying settings, wine styles, and price points. We still have a couple of months before high-season hits, making this the perfect time to go find your new favorite winery. As if there weren’t already enough reasons to visit, supporting local tasting rooms, restaurants, and hotels are also important ways to help the region recover from last year’s disaster.
Frog’s Leap, Rutherford $$
Owner and winemaker John Williams was the only employee at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars when their Cabernet Sauvignon won the 1973 Judgment of Paris Tasting, forever changing the course of California wine history. In 1981, after graduating from UC Davis and with a few harvests under his belt, he founded Frog’s Leap Cellars along with his early mentor, Larry Turley. Eventually the pair each ventured out on their own, and John Williams was able to purchase the current winery along with some surrounding vineyard land. The location is ideal for grape growing, but also for visiting, tucked away from the main roads but still easily accessible. In 1988 Frog’s Leap became the first Napa Valley winery to be certified organic, and their recently updated tasting room is surrounded by beautiful gardens. Although appointments are required, the vibe is decidedly laid-back and the pricing is down to earth, too. Frog’s Leap picks their grapes a week or two before most other folks in order to preserve extra freshness in the wines. This is not a bad thing when you’re visiting on a hot Napa afternoon.
Chappellet, Pritchard Hill $$$
Don Chappellet founded this iconic estate on Pritchard Hill, overlooking the gorgeous Lake Hennessey in 1967. At the time, it was just the second winery constructed in Napa Valley after the end of Prohibition, opening just a year after Robert Mondavi. Today,taking the twisting and winding Soda Canyon Road east from the Oakville area, it is difficult to imagine bringing the materials necessary to plant a vineyard and build a winery up this way fifty years ago. The view from the top is sure to cure any lingering motion sickness, with San Francisco visible on clear days. In more recent years, Pritchard Hill has become home to some of Napa’s most acclaimed (and expensive) names such as Colgin, Bryant Family, and Ovid. Because the Chappellet family established their estate before Napa Valley, let alone Pritchard Hill, was “a thing,” they are able to offer their wines at amazingly approachable prices. In fact, their neighbors aren’t even allowed to put the prestigious Pritchard Hill name on their labels, as the Chappellets trademarked it years ago. Appointments should be made a few weeks in advance. Certainly the flagship Signature Cabernet Sauvignon is stunning, yet the Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc are equally impressive.
Darioush, Stag’s Leap District $$$$
Proprietor Darioush Khaledi grew up in Shiraz, a city in Iran with an ancient winemaking tradition important enough that the name itself is now a synonym for Syrah that is commonly used in Australia. He immigrated to America when he was thirty and worked tirelessly to establish a successful chain of independent grocery stores. As a young man, he gained an appreciation for fine wine, specifically Bordeaux, from his father, who had a small collection that he shared with his son. In 1997, Darioush realized his dream of opening a Napa Valley winery, and a spectacular one at that. This is a great place to bring friends and family from out of town, as it epitomizes the opulence and grandeur that defines today’s Napa Valley. The palace-like winery is an homage to his Persian heritage while the art collection on the wall provides a great showcase for pieces from his homeland. The wines of course include an assortment of Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. There is also Syrah that is appropriately labeled as Shiraz, and Chardonnay and Viognier as well. In keeping with the surroundings, the wines are rich and decadent, sure to impress any wine lover who may be visiting you.
Cardinale, Oakville $$$$$
Each year, legendary winemaker Chris Carpenter crafts a singular wine from only the best mountainside plots owned by the Jackson family. The family that shot to the top of the California wine business with their Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay in the early 1980’s is now one of the biggest vineyard landowners in the state. It may seem unlikely that a company famous for its inexpensive, buttery Chardonnay would also be behind such an impressive, and expensive, Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, the family now owns high-end vineyard land around the world and is at the forefront of sustainability, even partnering with Tesla to install solar energy storage units at many of their wineries. By using fruit solely from hillside sites, Cardinale is reliably dense, structured, and capable of long aging. The winery sits on a hill just off Highway 29 that affords great views of the valley. The experience is special and includes a tasting of a few vintages. It is a great place to spend an upcoming birthday or anniversary, or just to taste a wine of unique power and character.
Failla, Calistoga $$
Calistoga sits at the far north end of Napa Valley. Although it is well worth the trip from the Bay Area, it is too far for sea breezes and fog to journey up from San Pablo Bay to cool the area off. The resulting hot climate is well-suited to bold styles of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Failla, however, specializes in elegant bottlings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Winemaker and owner Ehren Jordan was still working full-time at Turley winery in nearby St. Helena when he started Failla. He wanted to craft wines from some of the coolest climates in Sonoma, but didn’t want a long commute to his day job. Each vintage, grapes from some of the best Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah vineyards along the coast are picked in the early morning hours and brought to the winery in refrigerated trucks. The resulting wines are always smooth and balanced and show bright aromatic character. The tasting room is an old ranch house and the wine cave doubles as Ehren’s man cave. The entire experience is a very refreshing one, in the hottest part of Napa Valley.