Wine tourism is a big business, especially in Napa where it seems every square inch is planted with grapes and route 29 is lined with tasting rooms from Napa to Calistoga. On this trip we mostly avoided the big, lavishly appointed wineries and visited some of the smaller places whose products are not so readily available where we live on the East Coast.
Our first stop was Del Dotto Vineyards in Napa. Founded by colorful real estate guru Dave Del Dotto, this vineyard, in addition to making fine Cabernets, offers an extraordinary tour and tasting. We sampled the same wine which was aging in different barrels - if you ever wanted to know the difference in taste between French Oak and Missourri Oak, this is the place to find out.
We stopped to pick up a sandwich at the Oakville Grocery which is not your average corner store.
Next stop was Groth Vineyards & Winery which was the largest winery on our trip and was founded by Dennis Groth, former CFO of Atari. (Lots of high-tech money has been recycled into wine production.) This time we tasted the wine right out of the fermentation tanks - after it was wine but before going into the oak - and learned about secondary malolactic fermentation. At the subsequent tasting from the bottles the wines were excellent. We were tempted to make a purchase on the spot, but after pulling out the cell phone to call a wine shop in Boston, we found we could get the same stuff cheaper at home - and not have to worry about how to haul it back.
Soon it was time to check into the Carneros Inn. It is difficult to describe this place. The property's web site makes it sound as luxurious as Meadowood while some of the travel sites containing user reviews complained it looked like a trailer park. We decided to see for ourselves and were glad we did. The architecture is very modern and low key. The rooms are beautifully appointed, very private, and have wonderful baths. If you go, make sure to ask for a room with a view of the vineyard. And make sure to have breakfast.
Dinner was at Mustards Grill, the place widely credited for bringing serious food to Napa Valley. Try the pork chops.
The next morning we were off to Mayacamas Vineyards & Winery, which was the high point of the trip - literally and figuratively. As we wound our way up Mt Veeder, the road became increasingly narrow and steep. Then the pavement became increasingly rare. Finally we emerged at this beautiful spot and saw the winery where Ursula gave us a tour and let us taste some of their wines. This is not a place with acres of stainless steel tanks, but a small (5,000 cases/year) production winery with venerable oak barrels that are used to store the wine rather than be replaced every year to impart that oak flavor. After pulling out our trusty cell phone and finding out we couldn't get the 2001 Cabernet back home, we bought a few bottles.
On the way down the mountain, we stopped at Chateau Potelle and collected some more wine. We stopped at Franciscan Estates to taste some of the wines from Mount Veeder Winery. Mt Veeder doesn't do tours or tastings, but having sampled their Cabernet at Radius (arguably the best restaurant in Boston) were were determined to try some and did so at the Franciscan tasting room.
Dinner was at Angèle, a Bistro in Napa that offered excellent Steak-Frites.
The next morning we tried the sparkling wines at Schramsberg who in addition to giving a great tour are very generous with the quanity they offer for tasting.
That afternoon we visited Shafer Vineyards and wish we had brought back some of their Firebreak Sangiovese.
It is worth adding that the approach the producers take to the tasting and tours business varies widely. The larger places, such as Del Dotto, Schramsberg, and Clos du Val, charge anywhere from $10 to $30 for the experience. More money usually means more generous pours. Some places such as Clos du Val will charge $10 or so but apply it towards a purchase. Others, such as Groth, put up a sign about charging but never ask for the money. The smaller, less formal places, such as Mayacamas and Shafer don't charge anything and just look on it as a combination of marketing expense and good old hospitality.
Then, there is the problem of getting the wine home. We got every possible answer, from "we can ship to every state" to "no way we can ship to Massachusetts." (Hint: If you live in Massachusetts you may have an easier time shipping "juice" than you will with "wine.")
We only had time to spend one night in Sonoma, which is much more spread out and low-key than Napa, but plan to go back.
See the Photo Album.