Before Kevin and I planned our vacation to Napa, we thought we knew a lot about wine. After all, wine has been our drink of choice for many years. We both love bold reds, although Kevin was not as big on California reds because of the fruit forward flavors of most of these wines. I prefer the earthy vibrance of Chilean reds. So we were eager to experience a true wine country, but our knowledge of Napa Valley wines was severely limited. In fact, the one reason we chose Napa is because it is home to Cakebread Wine Cellars, and we drank but did not remember the taste of a Cakebread Cabernet Sauvignon on our wedding day.
We arrived in the valley with not much of a plan. We grabbed a guide, quizzed the bartenders at our hotel bar and then set off rather blindly to taste some wines. Drinking wine is good; how could we possibly go wrong? Well, one thing we forgot to consider is that there are so many wineries in Napa Valley that it is not possible to visit them all (or even the majority) in a single trip. In fact, though we tasted more than 120 wines, I would say we barely scraped the surface of all that Napa has to offer. That’s good news, my friends, because we found some wines we dearly love and there’s plenty more to experience to keep us going back time and time again.
The first piece of advice I would give a novice traveler to Napa is to plan on buying wine. I did not realize we would be doing this. Apparently my dear husband had bigger ideas (more on that later). You might wonder how the heck you are supposed to get 2 cases of wine on a plane. Many of the wineries offer to ship the wine for you, which can be very expensive if you are only buying a couple of bottles here and there. We made this mistake twice before we finally landed at Chateau Montelena (a recommendation from The Sassy Writer). The tasting guide told us that our hotel could ship the wine for us. We talked to the people at Avia (great hotel by the way, although the city of Napa is pretty far from the action) and even visited the post office. That’s when we realized it’s far cheaper to ship wines by the case. So we started collecting all of our wines in the hotel room and then we just carted them to the front desk, filled out the paperwork and went home. It was really easy.
Now on to the goodies…
The first 3 days of our trip, it rained. Before you feel sorry for us, know that Napa Valley is beautiful during the rain. On our first day, Kevin and I drove around looking at the mountains lined with row upon row of grapes at first bud. We even stumbled into some back roads where the fog hugged the grapes and climbed roads into the mountains that reminded us of a similar trip up the mountains in the rain forest in Puerto Rico. Same beauty but completely different foliage. I am sometimes surprised by how beautiful our country is, and I had to get out of the car many times because I was so overwhelmed and wanted a closer look. After several hours of roaming around in awe we finally realized we needed to actually taste the wine. So we, at random, landed at Freemark Abbey. The winery is actually known for its collection of library wines, or wines that have been aged for many, many years. On this particular day, I simply ordered a glass of Petite Sirah that had strong flavors of vanilla and clove. I was intrigued by the taste, unusual compared to some of the other Petite Sirahs I’ve sampled. Kevin went bolder and did a tasting of some of the winery’s older wines. On that particular day, the winery was also conducting a private tasting for its members of some really old wines—we’re talking 30 years old—so after talking with a few members and making friends with the tasting hosts, he actually got a few samples of the older wines. His mind was blown. All of these years thinking California reds were fruity and here he was practically chewing on an old leather boot that had been dragged through ashes. He took 3 bottles to go. (We also recently adopted a puppy who we named Abbey after Kevin’s favorite California winery.)
I’m going to throw this out there before you think I’m crazy: Neither Kevin nor I am a fan of Beringer wines. A friend recommended that we do the tour because it makes the rest of the wineries make more sense. The tour took us into the natural caves where the original wines were kept, and we even saw a bunch of wines that were not even labeled but had been left there during prohibition. The winery itself is beautiful, but the tour was indeed very basic for wine lovers—at least it was until we got to the actual wine tasting. The tasting was a pairing. We sat down to a plate with an olive oil and salt breadstick, some cheeses and an apricot/white-chocolate truffle. As a person who mainly drinks whatever the hell I want, I don’t pay a lot of attention to pairing. Well, I’m also a vegetarian, and wines that I love are typically paired with red meat, so there you go. But this tasting was particularly interesting because we actually saw what a difference food can make with wine. I mean, this wine was not good, and yet with the addition of a truffle it sprang to life. I had always thought that the wine is what made the food better. I found out quickly that it is the other way around. A small detail that completely changes how you experience the wine. We did not buy any wine from Beringer, but we did leave feeling more knowledgeable.
I can imagine that this winery, which was featured in Jake’s season of “The Bachelor,” could seem a little hokey. After all, it is a replica of a castle. What makes this replica different, however, is that each stone in the place is actually from Tuscany. Even the fresco paintings on the great hall and the church’s walls are done in the same technique that the artists used long ago. We did a tour of the castle and thought it quite beautiful. The tour also provided more depth in terms of wine making processes. It actually built upon the knowledge from the Beringer tour; nothing was repeated. At the end we tasted several wines, but not even close to all of the offerings they had. I have to tell you I was quite surprised that the wine at the castle was really good, and cheaper by Napa standards. We had 2 white wines (WHITE WINE!) that we actually loved. Kevin and I started to wonder if we had been mistaken not only about California wine but also about white wine in general. We took home the Pinot Bianco and Gewurtzraminer—and some other reds.
We also stumbled into another quaint winery, Nickel & Nickel, situated quite close to Cakebread. We had to take a tour by appointment only although we really just wanted to taste the wine. I was about toured out when we reached this one, but it was actually the most informative tour on the trip. I don’t know if it was because these people are awesome (and they are) or because we had learned so much that we were asking more in-depth questions. Nickel & Nickel is located on an old dairy farm. The house is the original house and has a full wrap-around porch. It is beautiful. The lab for the winemaker is also an antique Pennsylvania barn that was shipped to Napa in pieces and then reconstructed. Two other barns that house the barrels for aging are replicas of this antique barn, and the construction doesn’t contain any metal, only wooden dowels to hold the structure together. Our tour guide greeted us wearing a cardigan and a bow tie and holding a silver tray for our “breakfast” Chardonnay. Kevin and I looked at each other wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. However, this guy was very down-to-earth and personable, and, well, a breakfast Chardonnay is a great way to start your morning. Nickel & Nickel is unique in that they make only single-vineyard wines. Most Cabernet Sauvignons are blended with some other type of wine (Cab Franc, Merlot, etc), but N&N does not blend. What you’re getting is straight Cab from a specific vineyard in a specific region of Napa. So the whole time we had been in Napa we were tasting wines from different areas of the valley: Rutherford Bench, which has extremely dry wine, Carneros, Russian River Valley, Oakville, etc., but it wasn’t until we tasted N&N’s wine that we were able to pick out the distinct regions in the valley. And here’s the reason the tastes are so different: even though this area is technically one valley, there are nearly 20 different types of soil. We actually saw a display of the soils during the tour and even within the Oakville region (which we found we really love), there were 4 vastly different soil types. I’ve always heard that soil and temperatures affect grapes, but I had a very academic understanding of that notion. It wasn’t until I tasted these wines side by side that I finally understood. Turns out, I really don’t prefer the blended cabs. I especially loved the CC Ranch (Rutherford), Copper Streak Vineyard (Stags Leap), Quarry Vineyard (Rutherford) and John C. Sullenger Vineyard (Oakville) Cabs—and the Truchard Vineyard (Carneros) “breakfast” Chardonnay. I love the single-vineyard varieties, and Nickel & Nickel has my vote for the best wine in the valley.
If you watched the film “Bottle Shock,” you’re already familiar with the legend of Chateau Montelena. In a 1976 Paris tasting, French judges put California wines to the test with a blind tasting. Until that time, no American wine had ever beat a French wine, which was thought to be the best in the world. That year, Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay won. Well, we tasted the Chardonnay from this winery and we’re not surprised. In fact, all of the wine we tasted from this vineyard was amazing. Hands down, this was our favorite wine from white to red because we didn’t try a drop we didn’t like. This winery is a pretty far drive from the city of Napa, but worth every mile.
Unfortunately, Cakebread Wine Cellars was a bit of disappointment. Kevin and I actually did a red tasting on our anniversary, and from the people to the actual taste of the wine, the whole experience was a letdown. Not to worry; they gave us a recommendation: Del Dotto. This was by far the most expensive wine we tasted, and we tasted around 12 of them, straight from the barrel in their prohibition-era caves (Del Dotto has two locations, but you definitely want to go to the caves). All of them were quite good. The interesting part of this tasting was that this winery literally takes the same wine and ages it in American and French oak, and then you can taste those wines side by side to see what a difference the oak makes. The American oak varieties weren’t bad; they tasted bold and untamed, a bit like the Wild, Wild West. The French oak varieties had more subtle flavors, and you could really taste the creme brulee and toasted vanilla in some of them, which is what the French oak is known for. I have to say I had the most fun at this winery. The tour guides were so entertaining, and since we were the last tour of the day, they didn’t want us to leave. They just kept pouring the wine. If you’re looking for a fun tasting, this is definitely the place to go.
Bouchaine was the first stop on our mountain biking tour through the vineyards. After traveling through the wetlands (who knew?!) and seeing the vines up close (did you know they grow fava beans between the rows to help improve the soil?), we landed at Bouchaine and started with a glass of Pinot Blanc that was by far the most refreshing glass of wine I’ve ever had. Let me explain why I hate white wine: to me it tastes like I’m chewing on a stick of butter. I never realized that there were wines out there, usually the ones aged in stainless steel barrels, that minimize the buttery flavor. Instead, these wines taste like grapefruit and honeysuckle and butterscotch. The second white we had, Chene d’Argent, was also quite delicious and we took a bottle home. But the best part of this tasting was the 2010 Pinot Noir. I can’t forget the smell of this wine, which was like walking through an herb garden dotted with olive trees. I wanted to turn it into a candle. The wine itself was good too. The most amazing part to me was that after we left Bouchaine, we were cycling on a country road to get to Etude, another winery in the region, and everything smelled so great. In fact, it smelled just like that glass of wine. And someone told me that during harvest time, those smells are even more pronounced; you feel like you are living in a glass of wine. Heavenly! Another wine we loved at Bouchaine was the dessert wine, Bouche d’Or, which tasted like pure honey. Normally dessert wines are much too sweet for me, but I think I could drink this entire bottle. The best part about Bouchaine is that these great wines are so reasonably priced. We took home a half case.
Those are the highlights of course. We also visited some really amazing vineyards, such as Regusci which had the most beautiful vegetable garden I’ve ever seen, Etude, whose wine was good but whose people were snots, and Darioush, which had very spicy wines and delicious pistachios (when you’re drinking this much in a day, you love the places with food). Still there were a few we really wanted to go to that we just couldn’t get an appointment for on such short notice (Stags Leap, the small one, and Far Niente, which owns Nickel & Nickel). And there was that one day we drank so much that we fell asleep in our hotel fully dressed without dinner. I am astounded also by the passion and warmth of the people in Napa Valley. I think after so many visits to California you just assume you are going to be greeted with pretension and snobbery, yet we rarely encountered that. These people are hard-working, salt-of-the-earth farmers who love wine, who love what they do. And I might be imagining it, but it translates. You can taste that in the wine.