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Napa Valley

Without much argument, the Napa Valley is California's most popular wine-producing region- and with good reason. The wines are generally excellent, there are enough wineries to keep a busy visiting/tasting schedule for a week, the scenery is some of the most beautiful in the state, and there is an abundance of accommodations ranging from busy resorts to secluded, romantic bed-and-breakfasts. Because of the popularity of the Napa Valley, the area can get quite crowded, especially on the weekends.

Beringer Vineyards [St. Helena], one of the most popular wineries in the valley, is a must-see for the first-time visitor. The historic Rhine House is one of the better-known landmarks in the valley and there is an excellent tour which includes a visit to their famous caves. The wines are always impressive, especially the Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon and the reserves, which can be sampled for a fee, are definitely worth tasting. You'll also find a large selection of gift items here, most bearing the Beringer label.

Chateau Montelena [Calistoga], is a small-scale midieval castle beside a five-acre Chinese garden lake. I actually came to see the winery grounds, which I would recommend to anyone visiting the Napa Valley, but was just as impressed with the wines. The Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the best I've tasted and was well worth splurging for.

Clos du Val Winery [Napa], whose tasting room is highlighted by 50-foot ceilings, produces some excellent wines, especially the Cabernet Sauvignons and one of my favorite dinner wines: the Carneros Chardonnay. Unfortunately, the winery, which was at the top of my "priority list," was closed on three consecutive days for special events during my last trip.

Clos Pegase [Calistoga] was built in the 1980's by owner Jan Shrem as a "temple" to both wine and art." The imposing winery is seems to be an eclectic Egyptian/Roman/Greek/modern mix and art adorns almost every wall inside. The architecture and grounds, which includes a formal garden, are definitely worth seeing and afforded aome very good photographic opportunities. A tour of the wine caves is definitely worth your while. The winery produces Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Sirah. I particularly liked the Carneros Merlot.

Folie a Deux Winery [St. Helena] loosely translated means "share the fantasy," which is what Dr. Larry Dizmang, a psychiatrist, had in mind when he converted this former sheep ranch into a winery. The wines include an award-winning Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a sparkling wine called Fantasie. The cottage-style tasting room is comfortable and a relaxing change from the nearby mega-wineries on the main highway.

Grgich Hills Cellar [Rutherford] was started by Mike Grgich (whose Chateau Montelena chardonnay is legendary) and Austin Hills (heir of Hills Bros. coffee) in 1977. The small wood-paneled tasting room is housed in an ivy covered Spanish-style building on the main highway. The Chardonnay is still excellent, but the Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon are equally excellent, if not better.

Milat Vineyards [St. Helena], whose tasting room is located in a small, simply decorated cottage on the main highway, specializes in estate grown varietals. Their wines are available only at the winery and include a buttery Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Prager Winery and Port Works [St. Helena] will provide an experience you'll never forget. The tasting room is tiny and dusty, has cobwebs in the corners and old currency tacked to the walls. Jim Prager sat us down in some overstuffed chairs and provided us with tastes of his red wines and Ports (and chocolates for a fee). The Tawny Port was excellent but a little pricey. When I said that I'd "take one," he instinctively assumed that meant one case.

Robert Mondavi Winery [Oakville] has one of the best guided tours in the valley- taking you first into the vineyards and then into the winery. The Mission-style winery and grounds are impressive and accommodating for the large number of visitors. I would suggest that you make an appointment for a tour early in the morning, as the wait can sometimes be several hours. The wines are very good, especially the Fume Blanc and the Cabernet Sauvignon, and are widely available.

Robert Sinskey Vineyards [Napa] gets my vote for the most architecturally pleasing winery. It is an impressive mix of stone, redwood and teak, and has a variety of grapevines planted in a small garden as you enter the tasting room. The best part of this winery is that is has some of the best wines in the valley. This is THE place for Pinot Noir, offering several to choose from, but they also have a very impressive Chardonnay and Merlot. In fact, before you finally taste the selected (a different one each day) Pinot Noir, you are served a hot hors de ouvre which is chosen to complement the wine. I opted for a wonderful Carneros Pinot Noir and a Carneros Chardonnay.

Rombauer Vineyards [St. Helena] was the most impressive surprise of my last visit to Napa Valley. Billed as "by appointment only," this winery was recommended by a wine affectionado at the B&B that I was staying in. I took a chance of driving in without an appointment only to find the best Chardonnay that I had tasted thus far. With only few wines available, and only a few cases of each left in stock, I walked out with the wonderful Carneros Chardonnay and an equally-impressive Cabernet.

Rutherford Hill Winery [Rutherford] is situated high above the valley just off the Silverado Trail. Here you will find almost a mile of tunnels, one of the most extensive systems of wine caves anywhere in the U.S. The tasting room is cavernous, with high beamed ceilings and cathedral-style doors. Rutherford Hill produces Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, an exceptional Zinfandel Port and Merlot, which accounts for most of the production. You'll also find very nice shaded picnic areas overlooking the valley.

Silverado Vineyards [Napa], owned by Walt Disney's widow Lillian and her family, is a very attractive winery which produces some excellent Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots and Chardonnays. I particularly liked the Cabernets. There are quite a few to choose from and each is quite different from the others.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars [Napa] is home to some of the best Cabernet Sauvignons in the Napa Valley (which you'd expect in the Stags Leap district). If you love Cabernets, this is the place to go. In fact, for a small fee, you can taste a sample of their $100 bottle Cabernet and I will suggest that you do- it is one of the best you'll find anywhere. What really surprised me was their Beckstoffer Ranch Chardonay- one of the best in the valley. I bought several. You'll probably find a congregation of the more serious wine lovers here, and they're taking their time while enjoying the tasting. Their second label, Hawk Crest, is a very good wine for the price and I certainly wouldn't think twice about serving it to dinner guests.

Sterling Vineyards [Calistoga] is probably worth visiting just for the experience. Perched on a hill, this stark-white Moorish winery is reached only by a 4-person per car cable tram ($6 for adult including tasting and $3 for child) from the parking lot below. You will find some of the most impressive views of the Napa Valley from here and there is an excellent self-guided tour- one of the best I've seen anywhere. The wines are sampled (usually three wines per tasting) in a cafe-style room and are poured by a hostess while sitting at small tables.

Sutter Home Winery [St. Helena] is easily recognized in the valley by the landmark yellow Victorian mansion. It is a very commercial winery, but offers a very friendly, casual tasting and a wide variety of consumer-style wines. If you prefer the lighter non-oaky wines then you will enjoy the wines and should definitely plan a visit. Sutter Home invented White Zinfandel and the Chardonnay is crisp and fruity as it is aged in stainless steel. They also produce Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet, a very good Zinfandel, and even a line of non-alcoholic wines under the Sutter Home Fre label. There is a very large selection of gourmet food items and wine-related gifts in the adjoining gift shop.

Trefethen Vineyards [Napa], at the site of the old Eshkol Winery, is the oldest gravity-flow winery in the Napa Valley and the largest estate vineyard in the valley. Trefethen produces Chardonnay, Dry Riesling and an excellent Cabernet Sauvignon. They also produce a Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon under the Eshkol label-- which I feel are very good wine values.

V. Sattui Winery [St. Helena] is definitely the winery to visit for an afternoon picnic. Much of the visitor center is a full-service deli featuring almost 200 cheeses, meats, salads and breads, arguably the largest selection in the valley. The grassy picnic grounds are laden with picnic tables and shade trees. You will not find yourself alone here, either picnicing on the grounds (you can drink only V. Sattui wines here) or at the extensive tasting counter. There are quite a few wines available for tasting, the staff is very friendly, and the experience is very memorable.

Villa Helena Winery [St. Helena] might be the smallest winery in the Napa Valley, but the tour (which one can take in with a quick glance) was personal and interesting. Because I was staying at a next-door B&B, I walked up without reservation and was treated to the few production wines, including Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet and "impromptu" barrel blend of what would one day be an excellent Port.

William Hill Winery [Napa]

Don't Miss (First Visit): Beringer, Robert Mondavi, Clos Pegase, Sterling, Sutter Home and V. Sattui Wineries.

Don't Miss (Serious Wine Lovers): Chateau Montelena, Robert Sinskey, Rombauer, Silverado and Stag's Leap Cellars wineries.

By the way...

If you're looking for a nice place to stay in the Napa Valley, I would recommend the Vintage Inn in Yountville (around the center of the valley). I have stayed in several B&Bs but found my most memorable stay in this mid-sized "resort."

If you want a picnic spot that is more secluded than most wineries, the Bale Grist Mill, a State Historic Park is only 3 miles northwest of St. Helena. There is a working antique flour mill and shade to picnic under.   

© Copyright 2007 Steven A. Manick
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