Rombauer is fairly well known for their iconic Chardonnay, which embodies the big, buttery Californian style that has come to define the region. Despite having such a huge following, the winery remains a small, family-run place that's fairly hidden away from the main strip of wineries down the road. The tasting room is up in St. Helena, off Silverado Trail. It can be hard to find, and you'll need to keep an eye out for the small sign as you head around a tight bend on the road. From there, it's a short ride up a winding hill to the the tasting room.
One thing I really like here is the laid back, welcoming staff. I'm not a fan of snobby tasting rooms, and this place is super chill. The staff seem to love their jobs, and many have been working there for a long time. They'll pour five wines for guests, which include the Chardonnay, an interesting Zinfandel that has 2% residual sugar, a Cabernet, and a Merlot. Despite being famous for the Chardonnay, which I personally love, the Cab and Merlot were also very tasty. The Zin was not my favorite, but seems to be a hit among many others. To each his own.
Visitors are rewarded with outstanding views of the surrounding valley floor and mountains in the distance. It's a really nice, private location that's also surrounded by an extensive garden that weaves in and out of the woods. This is where you can find some interesting sculptures, including the famous cow. There's some outdoor seating as well, in case the small tasting room gets too crowded. I'd recommend calling ahead to see what sort of day they're having, because if it's too crowded, you won't enjoy the visit as much.
This place is atop my list of favorite spots to bring guests when they're visiting. A few things that make it a stand-out include:
1. They have 19 vintners products under one roof. These include some of the biggest, baddest names in the industry, such as Aaron Pott, Whitney Fisher, Roger Harrison, and Jeff Ames to name a few.
2. Tastings done your way. Instead of offering one or two tasting menus, guests can choose from a selection of any wines that are currently available at the collective. You can enjoy a full glass of Cabernet, a flight of Blackbird wines, or sample a mixture from several producers.
3. The relaxed setting. Most tasting rooms offer a bar where you can pony up shoulder to shoulder with other guests for a tasting. At Ma(i)sonry however, you'll be offered a spot outside, where you can soak in the Napa sunshine at one of their comfortable seating areas. There's also a long family-style table that's made from a giant slab of a tree, where guests can sit to enjoy their wines.
One of the best things about the Napa Valley is the huge amount of great producers we have here. However, to find the best ones usually involves making phone calls and sending emails to arrange appointments and then venturing way off the beaten path to get there. These small producers often don't even have tasting rooms or distribution, so it's a challenge to find their wines. At Ma(i)sonry, the aim is to bring these sorts of winemakers and their wares together.
Among my favorites were the Blackbird Arise ($50), R.A. Harrison's Late Harvest Sauv Blanc ($35) and the Casa Piena "Our Gang" Cabernet ($75).
I'm no wine expert, but you might enjoy St. Supery just north of Napa on Rt. 29. They have wine tastings but they also have a museum-type place where you can go from container to container and sniff various flowers, berries, leaves, etc. and relate them to what you are supposed to be smelling in the wines you taste. It is fun to go there first and see what you are supposed to be smelling; then go to the wineries and see if you can pick out the various aromas. Outside there is a small vineyard with wine grapes labeled by variety and you may walk through the vineyard and pick and taste the various grapes.
Another favorite of ours is V. Sattui (outside St. Helena on Rt. 29). They have a terrific gourmet deli and picnic grounds so you can get a picnic lunch, a bottle of wine and sit outside under huge oak trees having lunch. You may have to share a table but that's part of the fun. We've met people from all over the world there.
As far as tours, if you don't mind tasting and spitting, drive. If you like to swallow the wine and want to visit a lot of wineries, it might be a good idea to do a tour so you aren't driving with all the other slightly to greatly impaired drivers. If you must drive, the Silverado Trail in the Napa Valley has less traffic . . . and fewer wineries.
Some wineries still don't charge for tastings; most now do but I'm sure they wouldn't mind your friend coming in with you and not tasting. When he's driving, my husband never tastes since he's not fond of spitting. (As I said, we are not wine experts!)
. . . or you can come over to the Shenandoah Valley near Sacramento and taste for free.
I always encourage visitors and guests to venture off the beaten path when visiting Napa. There are so many large wineries on the main strip heading up Route 29, and visitors would be making a huge mistake if they only stayed on this path. The best spots, like Chappellet, are found in the surrounding mountains.
Chappellet is one of those gems. It's a bit hard to find, so print out directions first. You'll head up Silverado Trail, and turn right on Sage Canyon Rd. Go about three miles, and as you wind around Lake Hennessey, keep an eye out for the turn-off on your right, where the long winding road to Chappellet can be found. It's a steep, winding drive up to the winery, and once you're there, one of the most spectacular views in the Valley awaits you. At the top of Pritchard Hill, where some of the most venerable winemakers source their fruit, you'll find this family-owned winery.
This is one of the oldest family-run wineries in the Valley, and they make killer wines. From the Las Piedras red wine to the Don Chappellet Reserve Cab, and the Chardonnay, everything we tried was good or great. The winery also has a giant solar array, which powers the entire place - pretty amazing.
The staff is very welcoming, and the tastings are intimate encounters where you'll learn a lot about the wine, family history, and surrounding vineyards where they source grapes from. Don't forget, you'll need to make a reservation first!
If you want to try great wines, including some amazing Cabernet that's made from estate fruit from Rutherford, then visit Bello Family's tasting room in St. Helena. Many high-end spots like this require reservations and bring with them a high level of pretentiousness. But at Bello Family, the style and quality are high, while the vibe is laid back and welcoming.
Speaking of style, the tasting room is one of the more "baller" ones in the Valley. The 200-bottle chandelier, glowing quartz countertops, silver baffled walls, fireplaces and gigantic skylight add to the overall ambiance, which is luxurious to say the least. However, Chris Bello is as friendly and down-to-earth as they come. This is a place where you can come in your Ferrari or Toyota, walk in, and feel welcomed no matter what.
As for the wines, well, they're damn good. The Bello family recruited two all-stars to help them. David Abreu manages their estate vineyard, and brings with him a world of experience and prestige, having managed some of the top vineyards in the Napa Valley for many years. They also have Aaron Pott as the winemaker, who recently won winemaker of the year from Food + Wine, and makes killer boutique wines.
They have a fairly broad price range, with the "Megahertz" Cabernet coming in around $50, and the Reserve Cabernet at $250/bottle. If you're more into whites, they feature a crisp and fruity Sauvignon Blanc and a Chardonnay that's not too oaky.
Located at the base of Howell Mountain. Viader (pronounced VEE-ah-dare) cannot claim to be a Howell Mountain wine because they are 200 feet below the designated elevation to be considered a Howell Mountain wine. None-the-less, their wines are very good. I'm not a fan of Cab Franc but they make a good one. They also make a very good cabernet sauvignon but it comes with a hefty price tag. They have an amazing view of the Napa Valley. Wine tasting costs $50 but will be waived with a $100 wine purchase. By appointment only.
Located in the Stags Leap region, you do not have to make an appointment. Wine tasting includes a tiny food pairing. Open daily from 10am - 4:30pm. Their red blend is pretty good and affordable. They have facility tours by appointment.
Located in the Stags Leap region, they have some great wines. The website indicates you should make an appointment but they seem to take walk-ins as well. I liked their Patriarch. But, we can buy it from our local wine store in Pasadena. They are open daily from 10am-5pm. Currently, wine tastings cost $25 per person.
Normally, you would find this tip under Shopping but I strongly feel this is a "MUST" Things to do tip. What can I say, it's not your typical market. It's an amazing collection of artisan purveyors selling the most extraordinary ingredients, meat, cheese, oil, spices, pastries, fresh oysters & seafood. Even if you're not hungry, I think you will find something to buy and bring home. I did! Kaffir Lime Leaves are hard to come by but they have them! I also found my Italian herbed salt that someone had given me and I was just about out. We also bought some wine here (yes, at the market instead of a winery). A recommendation for dinner one evening, we liked the wine so much that I went back to buy what they had left. Great place!
The tasting room is located Downtown Napa. Robert Craig Vineyard is located in Howell Mountain but made reaching them easier by having this tasting room right in town. It's open to daily to the public and their wines are worth tasting and buying.
By appointment only. Located in Howell Mountain, it's a really windy road up the hill. There is no initial sign for the winery from White Cottage Road. You locate the black gate, pass through and drive until you see the gate of O'Shaughnessy. Absolutely, beautiful winery. They do all their processing there on the premises. We only tasted a couple wines. The wine visits are really for their club members.
Maisonry's tasting room is also an art gallery. This particular place not only will taste the Maisonry and Blackbird Vineyards (their primary labels) but will taste you on other vineyards as well. Lots of outdoor space to taste comfortably at. The artwork is interesting but pricey. We were not too fond of the wines. I think, partly, because they were released too early. Located in the heart of Yountville. Lots of great places to eat at nearby.
By appointment only at the moment. Their new wine tasting room is about to officially open and then you can probably just walk in. Labels include Hestan Vineyards, Meyer Vineyard and Stephanie. The wine is tasting very nicely but then you can usually expect that from Meyer and Stephanie. Beautiful tasting room!
I'm sure there are many, many other things to do in Napa. But when it's your first time and you enjoy wine, the goal is to visit as many wineries/vineyards as you can and we did just that! Our first day, we visited about 5-6 wineries. We each had our own glass for our wine tastings and found ourselves getting "tipsy" after a while. The next day, got smart and decided to pay for one individual wine tasting and shared the glass between us. You get enough to have a couple sips a piece, that is all you really need. Most of the wineries are very beautifully landscaped, the architecture is gorgeous - lots of stonework and the vineyards are well kept/groomed. You really can enjoy "soaking" up the views here.
The link below is a printable Napa Valley Wine Map
UPDATE AS OF 2011
INGLENOOK is back and the ever changing wine scene at this property is reunited by Francis Ford Coppola once again. As of 2011, the name Inglenook will be once again a proud winery in the Napa Valley. Rubicon will become the flagship wine.
s4The following is a review was from my original visit to the Coppola winery.
The Niebaum-Coppola Chateau Winery owned by the man who brought "The Godfather" movie to the silver screen, Francis Ford Coppola, is a beautiful example of mixing "Hollywood" with wine to come up with an interesting blend of spritz and glitz. Coppola, who had no real interest in wine but only the beauty and serenity of the Napa Valley settled in and began to enjoy the wine industry and created a reality of a dream.
The name Coppola on a bottle of wine now rates right up there with the best of wines, as does the name Coppola rates high on the list of top directors of movies. It seems as though anything Coppola does, he tries to be the best at it. Movies and wine, make for a great time. See my travelogue on the house that "The Godfather" built. It is a must see in the Napa Valley and gets my thumbs up.
UPDATE REPORT ON THE FOLLOWING: As of Feb. 1, 2006, the new name of this winery became "RUBICON ESTATE'". Rubicon Estate has a Twenty-Five Dollar guest fee, which includes entree, tasting of five estate wines, and a tour of the estate. Local residents and members of the RE wine club, enter without charge.
Francis Coppola has opened another winery in Geyserville with the Coppola label. Many changes have taken place at the Rubicon Estate winery and some of the movie glitz is not a part of this new/old winery. Francis, per his Wine Club Manager, has upgraded the wines with the RUBICON name and concentrated on fine wine from the estate in the Napa Valley. I have tasted the Rubicon Estate, Captain's Reserve 2003 Cabernet Savignon and I must give it a thumbs up.
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