Napa Valley Wine Tasting

Dan and I took a full day tour to the Napa Valley from San Francisco with Max’s Wine Tours.  After scouting out a number of tour companies, we went with Max’s Wine Tours because it seemed to encompass the most winery visits (and therefore the most tasting).  The tour was quite expensive, at about $175 a person not including lunch or tastings (which cost at least $20 a person per vineyard). Be sure to consider this when budgeting your day!  Needless to say, this was quite the expensive day…

The tour started with Max’s colleague, Evan, collecting us in a large SUV promptly at 8:45. We then picked up two other tourists (tours are max 6 people) who we got along with quite well. Next, we were on our way to the Napa Valley (about an hour drive), where we stopped at 4 wineries and in St. Helena for lunch. The tour was fun, our guide was incredibly knowledgeable about wine & the Napa Valley, and the Napa Valley is just gorgeous.  However, I have to say after visiting a number of major wine producing regions in the world, the Napa Valley is my least favorite.  Sorry Napa! [I feel like this needs a caveat.  Napa is gorgeous and there is significant opportunity to try fantastic wine.  However, Napa is also very commercialized and expensive.  A $25 dollar tasting in Napa may only be $5 for similar quality wine in Mendoza or South Africa.  If we were to go back I would probably try to get a hotel in Napa, drive myself and visit two vineyards per day- Dan].

The tour started with a visit to Honig Vineyard and Winery.  Honig is a family vineyard and winery that started in 1964 and grew from there, specializing in Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Today, Honig is quite recognizable and uses a cute bee theme!  At Honig, Dan and I both ordered the sampler, which included a 2013 Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford, 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (really good and awesome to compare against the 2012), 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Bartolucci Vineyard and 2013 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc (super sweet!) The tasting was held in an outdoor courtyard surrounded by vineyards.  I recommend Honig, especially to visitors new to wine!  Honig a good introduction and the location is very nice.  All of Honig’s wine were delicious.  We did not buy any because they are available on the East Coast.

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After the tasting, we moved on to our next stop – Frog’s Leap Winery.  Frog’s Leap was Dan’s personal request, and it did not disappoint!  Frog’s Leap was the most upscale winery that we visited.  Upon arrival, we were taken to an outdoor table over looking the vineyards.  Gorgeous.  Actually, the entire property is beautiful, from the interior decorating and fresh flowers to the landscaping.  We tasted five wines, one white and four reds, and nibbled on cheese, nuts, crackers and dried fruit (included with our tasting fee!).  After our tasting, we walked through the vineyards and property, which is somewhat of a small farm!  They have huge orange trees, fish, chickens and a number of other things to occupy your time if you are not into wine tasting.  Check out the weathervane…its a frog!  We purchased a few bottles of their Heritage Blend, which is so so delicious and unfortunately only sold at the winery.  Definitely taste it if you have the opportunity, and buy me a bottle!

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After Frog’s Leap, we drove into St. Helena for lunch. St. Helena is a charming little town, dotted with swanky cafes and expensive shops. It would be a fun place to spend a night or two. For our lunch, we went to Archetype, which I loved!  The restaurant was impeccably decorated and the menu was amazing. I had such a hard time deciding what to eat.  In the end, I ended up going with the lamb gyro and an order of  tater tots…YUM.  I recommend this restaurant to anyone driving through the Napa area.  Reservations are recommended.

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 After lunch, we moved on to our third stop – Swanson Vineyards!  Yes, the same family behind the frozen dinner empire.  Swanson Vineyards started in the 80s and has been producing wine in the Napa Valley since. The tasting room (or Sip Shoppe as they call it) was decorated with a red and white stripe circus tent (seriously, an actual tent) and was my favorite décor of the trip!  Our tasting took place outside at a picnic table.  We tasted a rose, Rosato, then moved on to several reds, including their delicious Instant Napa (GREAT LABEL) and Alexis Cabernet Sauvignon, among several others.  While I did not know that Swanson was in the wine game, their wine was very good and we bought a few bottles to take home.  Of particular note was the Swanson Merlot.  They call it a cab-drinkers Merlot, and it is probably the best Merlot I have ever had!  Great value, too.

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If you can’t tell, I REALLY loved the decorating here, especially the above bamboo bar in the courtyard!

Our final stop was supposed to be a small winery, but due to an unexpected road closure, we subbed in Domaine Carneros by Tattinger.  Domaine Carneros is a very commercial vineyard, with one of the closest locations to San Francisco and extended hours (10-5:30) to accommodate as many visitors as possible.  Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable stop!  Domaine Carneros’ tasting room is in a huge Versailles-esque building with outdoor seating overlooking the surrounding vineyards. Domaine Carneros had the most picturesque location of any of the vineyards we toured.  For our tasting, we choose a sampling of four sparkling wines (including a sparkling rose!) and ordered a plate of cheese, dried fruit, nuts and crackers! While this is a commercial vineyards, it was quite enjoyable, and I think this would especially be true for those not so into wine.  Fun game – try to find the black sheep in the surrounding vineyards.  Also, be sure to take your camera here.

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After our sparkling wine tasting, Evan drove us back over the Golden Gate Bridge and dropped us off at our hotel around 6:30.  In total, the day was enjoyable and a safe way to visit several Napa Valley wineries. However, it was extremely expensive compared to wine tours we have done in other parts of the word (like in Stellenbosch and Mendoza) and I am not confident that I would do it again for that reason alone.

STEAL OUR TRIP

 Max’s Napa Wine Tours –  T: 415-523-7814.  Call or email for price quotes.

 Honig – 850 Rutherford Road, Rutherford, CA 94573 T: 800.929.2217.  Basic tastings start at $20 per person and go up to $50.  Reservations required.

 Frog’s Leap Winery – 8815 Conn Creek Road, Rutherford, CA 94573.  Reservations are necessary, although they can be made the day of and/or online. There are several tasting and/or tour options ranging from $20 – $25 a person. Frog’s Leap will waive one tasting fee with the purchase of six bottles.

 Swanson Vineyards – 1271 Manley Lane, Rutherford, CA T: 707-754-4018.  Reservations are necessary. I would call a day or two prior. Swanson Vineyards offers two tastings at a cost of about $20 a person.  Swanson waived one of our tasting fees when we asked since we bought a few bottles.

 Domaine Carneros – 1240 Duhig Road, Napa, CA 94559 T: 800-716-BRUT (2788).  Reservations required, and you can make them online or at 800-716-2788 ext. 150.  However, our group was able to do a tasting just walking in.  Tastings and tours cost between $30 and $50 dollars a person.  Small plates are also served.

Archetype – 1429 Main Street ⋅ St. Helena, California T: (707) 968-9200. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.  Reservations (recommended even for lunch) can be made online.

 ON A BUDGET

 If you are on a budget, a number of other companies offer big bus tours of the Napa Valley at a lower cost, although they will lack the “personal sommelier” touch.  You can also drive around to the individual wineries yourself. If you do this, you need to make reservations for tastings before visting, especially on weekends, and know that tastings cost at least $20 a person (although you can split a tasting with one other person for no extra cost).   Sonoma, just a bit further, is supposedly cheaper.

Also, always ask if tasting fees are waived with purchase.  Many will waive the tasting fee for one person if you buy a few bottles.

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