Secrets of Wine Country An Insider’s Guide to Sonoma County and Napa Valley Travel
Visiting Wineries in Napa & Sonoma
What wineries to visit: Ah, that’s always a tough question. You see, everyone likes different wines, has different levels of interest/appreciation, and each is willing to spend a different amount of money on wine. Few seem interested in, for example, visiting wineries whose wines cost $75-$300 a bottle when they are only willing to spend $8-$15 a bottle. And please remember, wines priced higher aren’t necessarily better; trust your own tasting.
Napa Valley: It seems like 80% or more of the wineries have tasting rooms along either Hwy 29, Silverado Trail, or the cross roads connecting them. Almost all tasting rooms in Napa Valley charge a fee to taste (which is not the case in Sonoma - only some do there). Remember, Hwy 29 is jammed on the weekends (except on rainy weekends), where as Silverado Trail and the crossroads are never busy. Days to avoid: Silver Oak release weekends February 2 and August 2, 2008.
Sonoma County: The wineries are much more spread out. Unlike Napa Valley, the land in Sonoma County is also used for something other than just growing grapes (or building mega-Mansions). So, visiting wineries in Sonoma County requires you to focus on one of the major appellations at a time: Russian River, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley or Sonoma Valley/Sonoma Mtn (which is off by itself, compared to the others).
I strongly recommend that you choose one area and taste at wineries in that area, rather than trying to drive all-over. I particularly don’t recommend trying to taste Sonoma Valley (and Carneros) and any place else in the same day.
What Can Be Cool:Finding wines at tasting rooms that are not released to retail or restaurants. But also be a little cautious about these too. Some are terribly overpriced. Some "library releases"* are not at all worth the money – and they won’t let you taste them first. In general, be conservative in your purchases of any wine you haven't tasted. In the past, we’ve had especially good fortune from buying at the Ridge Lytton Springs tasting room in Geyserville. *I laugh at this term being used for wines a few years old (or even last year's vintage!).
About Large-Very Large Wineries: They all have tasting rooms, a website with times open, etc. The only two I somewhat recommend are Beringer (for the reserve wines) and Rubicon Estates (recently called Niebaum-Coppola) for the movie memorabilia and shopping (but not the wines). These two are good places to go with casual/non-wine lovers.
What's not cool: So many $50-100 wines that so aren't worth it. It's not just me - here's Robert Parker on this.
About Small Wineries: Some have tasting rooms, many don’t. Many will allow you to make an appointment to taste and/or tour. Be sure you have a real interest in their wines; don’t waste their time. These are the Moms & Pops – real family owned wineries. This is the best place to actually meet the owners and/or winemakers, as quite a few man the tasting room.
How to Dress for visiting a winery:
Neat, casual. Jeans are just fine. No suits, no perfume or cologne, go very light on the lipstick, and no high heels. I cannot believe how many times I’ve smelt strong perfume/cologne or watched a woman try to wade through soft ground or mud in high heels. It’s like painting an idiot sign on yourself when you walk into a tasting room.
Serious Tasters Spit: Believe it or not, you can judge a wine by swirling it in your mouth and than spitting it out – into a spit bucket, a cup, or on the ground (sometimes into a grate). Wine professionals always do this. About the only time it may not be cool to spit is if the wine is some super special/old wine (or costs three-figures), and/or that there are tiny amounts of it in existence. (Surprisingly, you don't see spitting frequently in Tasting Rooms but those who do are instantly identified as pros and are much more likely to be offered special wines or free tasting's.) Here's more on spitting by Daniel Rogov.
Limos – Con: The thing about limos is that many wineries look down upon their occupants (you’ll even see signs that say “No Limos”). Most of the occupants of limos in wine country are drinking with the eventual goal to get drunk. It’s a party on wheels. Wineries don’t want drunks, they want to sell wine ( – well, they most want people to join their wine club). If you’re going to do the limo party thing, do it by visiting the large wineries. Pro: Limos to a special event, dinner, etc., are great. Some Limousine companies do special tours of wineries. The best thing, of course, is you're not drinking and driving. Some limo operators can arrange an interesting tour of small wineries that don't have tasting rooms.
Meeting a Winemaker: If you’re hoping to chat with a winemaker, realize that during harvest (or bottling) is the time you’re not going to get to do this. Harvest runs from late August to late October. Every year is different and every winery harvests at a different time.
For the smaller wineries, you might find the winemaker or, more often, the assistant winemaker pouring in the tasting room. Or the owner(s).
For wineries that don’t have tasting rooms, you can often make an appointment to taste/tour at a winery. (The winery’s website usually gives a clue about these – if not, phone them.) Allocate a good two hours, even though it may last only 30 minutes. Except for large wineries, make appointments only at wineries that you have a good reason to visit. If there's no charge for the tour, buying a bottle or three, depending on the situation, would be very courteous.
Quality hint: The more varietals a winery sells, the lower the quality of many of their wines. The best wineries specialize in up to 3 varietals (for example: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah - not a dozen). I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions to this rule, but it’s darn challenging to think of them.
The basic reason is, say you’re a winery and make a great pinot noir – well, aren’t you then going to make more great pinot noirs rather than trying to also make petite sirah? Okay, but so you notice that quite a few wineries seem to make everything under the sun. Well here’s the thing, they get a lot of tourists, right? Someone walks in and wants to taste a chardonnay…well, don’t they want to have two or three Chardonnay’s to taste/sell? Why, yes they do! You’ll probably notice that some of these are “available at the winery only.”
What about the absolute best wines and the “cult” wines? I knew you would ask this! First, they are pretty much not for sale in wine country; the wineries sell these wines directly to their mailing lists (allocated), restaurants and some distributors. A few retail stores who are on these mailing lists sell some of these wines, at market prices or higher. Restaurants, particularly in Napa Valley, often charge top prices for these wines, and often have only vintages that are too young to drink. Don’t expect any discounts/deals, as demand is high, not low.
Must you buy wine (as a courtesy for visiting/tasting) when visiting a winery? Absolutely not for the big and medium sized wineries, so don’t feel even slightly pressured to buy anything (esp., with the high tasting fees some of them are charging in Napa Valley). But for small wineries, you have to consider it…each one is different, etc.
Also, as you enter the world of wine, most start with the big guys and then, the more you develop your interest in wine (and your palate), the smaller and smaller the wineries wines you’ll drink. The trick here is to not buy huge quantities of wines from the big guys, as you’re less likely to be loving those many years from now. Buying from the better/best small wineries, on the other hand, works out in the long run.
Can I call a winery and find out if they have a particular wine for sale and/or are pouring it in their tasting room before visiting? Yes!
Bad Tasting Rooms: Yes, they’re out there. They hide their tiny spit buckets. They have surly staff. They charge a lot and give you a tiny pour of their best wine and/or a huge pour of their mediocre, overpriced wine. They repeatedly tell you how many points the Wine Spectator (or whomever) gave the wine you’re tasting – how does that make it taste any better? They push their Wine Club, their biggest profit center. And I hate being told that whatever I’m tasting that they’re down to their last 4 cases, 2 bottles, etc. – like I have to snatch up the last bottles or I’ll miss out on having the greatest wine ever. (There’s always more wine coming. Really!)
*Alert, Alert, Alert*: Wine will "cook" in your car during the warm months (which is at least much of May thru October). Bring a huge cooler with ice if you intend to purchase wine (and take it home/hotel) while visiting tasting rooms. Most wineries will ship wine purchased at their tasting room to your home...yes, even to "bad" states (but at a high cost).
It's quite hard to recommend wineries to visit, as everyone has different tastes, level of interest, etc., etc. In general, I don't think there's much point in tasting grocery store wines here. I do think you should have a plan, rather than pick wineries out at random (which is okay when you have some spare time). For appointment only wineries, I believe you really should already be a fan of that winery's wines. – Jack
P.S. Not many are listed for Napa Valley because our favorites don't have tasting rooms; either too successful or too small. Plus, the high tasting fees are a turn-off. It's big! It's huge! It's a brand new monster castle! Presenting Castello di Amorosa in St. Helena for your touristic pleasures.
Note: Wineries like Rochioli and Martinelli, for example, only sell their less-expensive wines in their tasting room – their top wines are sold on allocation to long-time customers. Hint: Go in March-May for Rochioli Estate Pinot Noir. Go to Martinelli for Barrel Tasting weekend in March (to get Zin). Rafanelli is also open that weekend!
It was started by J Vineyards & Winery, south of Healdsburg, and wasn't a big thing until The Wall Street Journal wrote up the first of two Mayo Family Reserve Rooms (Healdsburg and Rt 12 Sonoma Valley). They have a $20/person pairing tasting: 8 Mayo Family wines with 6 appetizers.
St. Francis on Rt 12 Sonoma Valley is now doing this, too ($20/4 appetizers). Not a winery we recommend, however.
Swanson Salon in Rutherford, does a fancy pairing for $25-$55, Wed-Sun, 11, 1:30 and 4.
Patz & Hall Salon - $35, includes single vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines, and seasonal food "complements."
Also, Pine Ridge Winery does a $40 wine & food pairing on Sundays thru October at 11am.