If you’re thinking of going to Napa Valley, here are a few wineries I’d recommend. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something wonderful about every winery in the region, but you can’t see them all! This grouping is of some of the larger wineries where it’s as much about the experience as the wines. But there are many smaller wineries with small, friendly tasting rooms where you can try a few wines and chat with the staff. Sometimes, it’s worth just stopping and giving them a try. We usually try to get out to one winery in the morning, have a bit of lunch, then visit two more wineries. That’s usually enough, especially as you’ll want to spend some time at each winery. I’d also suggest visiting two major wineries, then finding one smaller, which will give you a nice cross-section of the selection available in Napa.
Located at the north end of the Napa Valley, Chateau Montelena was popularized in the 2008 movie Bottle Shock, the story of the early days of California wine making featuring the now infamous, blind Paris wine tasting of 1976 that has come to be known as “Judgment of Paris,” in which California wines were chosen over their French counterparts. They have a smaller tasting room which can get quite crowded, so it’s best to go early. They do offer a tour and tastings, as well as a special tasting event highlighting the history as shown in Bottle Shock, which starts at 9:45 am. Cost will be $25 and up per person. We went because of the movie, but found the tasting room to be quite crowded, as we just walked in. Next time, I think I’d like to book a more formal tour. Regardless, their wines are wonderful.
Also towards the north end of Napa Valley, Sterling is located atop a hill that offers absolutely breathtaking vistas. You can enjoy the vistas as you take the unique tram ride to the top of the hill. Once there, take the self-guided tour, then enjoy a wine tasting. But be ready, the regular tram ride with self-guided tour and tasting is around $30 each. You don’t need to book in advance unless you’re in a large group. Beautiful wines, many of which are available in Canada.
Very close to Sterling, Castello di Amoroso has to be seen! It’s styled very authentically after a 13th Century Tuscan castle, complete with gatehouse and crenelated watch towers. They offer several tours and tastings, which range from $35 and up. General admission is $20 per person, which comes with a tasting of 5 wines. You can also wander around and explore the castle if you don’t want to participate in a guided tour – inside and out, there’s lots to see and enjoy. We really enjoyed the wine tasting in the tasting room, which is underground and just oozes atmosphere.
Close to Yountville, Domaine Chandon offers still and sparkling wines – although we’ve only tried their sparkling wines which are among my favorites. They offer several tours, as well as tasting menus which you can enjoy on their beautiful patio. When we were there last, we sat beside a beautiful little pond with a waterfall – and watched the hummingbirds darting all over. It was extremely peaceful and a wonderful way to relax and enjoy the wine. It’s a large winery with lots of capacity, so your experience should be good whatever time you visit.
In the Oakville appellation of Napa Valley, Robert Mondavi is just a bit north of Yountville. It’s one of our favorites because of the wines – we usually just scoot to the To Kalon Room to taste some of their reserve wines and agonize over whether we can afford a bottle. But they do offer several reasonable tours and tastings – and recommend that reservations be made in advance. It’s a lovely, spacious setting, and even when there have been lots of people there, we’ve never felt crowded.
Regardless of where you go in Napa, there are at least 1200 wineries to choose from, so there’s lots of room for return visits.
Here are a few resources:
- Map of Napa Valley (PDF)
- Heritage Wine Trail – full day tours
- Napa Valley Wine Train
- Bouchon Bakery in Yountville – if you’re looking for breakfast, plan to be there at 7am when the doors open. This is the bakery designed to provide baked goods for the famed French Laundry Restaurant, but it’s also a local gem. Wonderful pastries and coffee, and if the weather is nice, it’s the perfect place to sit outside and enjoy breakfast. Just watch out for the hungry birds!