Wine Tasting in Napa, California

Whilst visiting San Francisco we really wanted to see some of the nearby Californian wine country too. We only had time for a taster and we could return many times more and never do the same vineyard twice I'm sure but the little bit we did manage to do was great. Before we travelled I read lots about both Napa and Sonoma, there seems to be a lot of debate about which is the better but in the end we settled on visiting the perhaps better known Napa area.

The first commercial vineyard was opened there in 1859 but grapes were far from the only crop being grown in the region at this time and by the end of the 1900s farmers had planted over 500,000 fruit and nut trees, mainly plums and pears. This diversity helped to soften the blows of subsequent insect infestations and the effect of prohibition and agriculture there remained diverse until the 20th century when wine grapes became the focus.

Enjoying a glass of the sparkling stuff in the grounds of Domaine Chandon

From doing a bit of research beforehand getting to Napa from San Francisco by public transport was an option but with the vineyards so spread out once you get there you either really need to book a tour or have access to a car. Initially we looked into a tour (there are lots) but they all seemed to work out quite expensive when you take into account that after paying the tour fee you still need to pay the tasting fee at each vineyard you visit. In the end we decided on the option of a hire car and whilst you obviously need to be mindful then of how much you taste at each place we decided that quality not quantity was the best approach for us. Another thing to keep in mind when planning your trip is that due to strict county laws many wineries in Napa cannot legally receive drop-in visitors unless you are buying, in many cases you need to book in advance. However this isn't the case for all so do your research and you'll still find plenty of vineyards that can accept drop-ins. Handily our hotel, as you'd expect, had an extensive vineyard guide available in our room and most of those listed in it indicated if you needed to pre-book or not. Plus we also found the local tourist information centre in the city of Napa on our first day which had loads of information (almost too much at first glance when you're on a limited time frame), as well as flyers offering two for one tastings etc. which if you can find will again make your visit a bit cheaper.

Whilst we were in the Napa area we stayed in a place called American Canyon. We saw nothing of the place other than our hotel which was more motel and, if I'm honest, a little tired in places but it was fine as a base. The only slight downside to doing this being that we seemed a little out of the main vineyard area though I think no matter where you stay it would be hard to have easy access to it all. As I mentioned above on our first day we ended up stopping first in the city of Napa which in hindsight we decided might have been a better base for us. Especially as we ended up returning there daily for breakfast, coffee and dinner stops. There were lots of dining options etc. plus several of the vineyards have tasting rooms there which would have meant we could have probably sampled a few more wines over the course of our stay, but we know now should we ever return and this certainly didn't stop us from making the most of this part of our trip. 

Napa river

Our time in Napa wasn't all about the wine, we enjoyed some locally roasted coffee and some great food (see below) too.

The first vineyard we visited, based on the not needing to pre-book approach, having picked up a two for one tasting voucher for it and as we'd visited their vineyard near Melbourne a few years ago was Domaine Chandon. Obviously very well known but actually a lovely start to our vineyard hopping. This tasting was very much dictated by us, we arrived made our choice of the tastings that we wanted and were given a brief overview, then we were able to enjoy our sparkling wines at our leisure either inside or out in their grounds. Whilst San Francisco, according to local weather reports, was enjoying some unseasonably warm weather during our visit Napa was a good 5°c or more warmer still so it was far too nice to be inside, especially after surviving another Scottish winter. The grounds were lovely with seating and great views across the vineyard. We were also able to get some food here, another thing to note is not all vineyards are able to serve food so go prepared. Here though there was a good range of nibbles to choose from, far more than just a few water biscuits, and we settled on some cold meats, bread and cheese. With this, the great views and some good wine we ended up spending most of our first afternoon here. Perfect!

Over the next couple of days we visited a further three vineyards. The first of these, Castello di Amorosa was chosen purely because of the fact that it's a replicated 13th-century Italian castle complete with moat, ceiling frescoes and catacombs and we were curious to see it. The wines produced here are Italian in style and at the tasting you can chose to taste whites and rosés, reds, reserves or sweet wines. We stuck to the whites and rosés which you taste in an atmospheric vaulted brick ceiling tasting room. This tasting was a far quicker affair than our previous one had been (they were a lot busier for one thing) but our guide through the tasting was a real character and full of enthusiasm for the wines on offer.

Some of the wines in the tasting room at Castello di Amorosa

Our second choice of vineyard was the V. Sattui Winery, this tasting allowed you to chose four that appealed to you the most from an extensive selection. This was great as it meant I could have a couple of rosés whilst my husband could try a red. I chose quite randomly, one of them purely because the name, Dancing Egg seemed fun. Luckily I also chose a rosé, Gamay Rouge which was possibly one of the nicest rosés I've tried. Unfortunately of the vineyards we visited some only supply limited restaurants etc. if any at all so enjoying these wines regularly, as we aren't based in the U.S., could be tricky. We have no choice it seems other than to return again at some point!

One thing to note about this vineyard is the excellent deli and sandwich counter in their shop. I mentioned before that not everywhere is able to sell food but this is a good one to stop at if you need to refuel and haven't come prepared. You can also pick up a whole lot more if you're looking to buy items for later including salads, pastas, charcuterie and cheeses. They have a lovely outdoor seating area where you can sit and eat your  lunch purchases and maybe enjoy a glass of one of the wines you've bought too.

The final choice of vineyard on our mini trip, Chimney Rock, was based on the fact that it reminded my husband of some of the architecture of South Africa where he was born and spent the first few years of his life. After asking it turns out that the owner had lived in South Africa for many years and drew on the Cape Dutch-style architecture found at many of the wineries in the Stellenbosch region for inspiration when building this vineyard on his return. This vineyard primarily focuses on red wines but does offer one that's a blend of sauvignon blanc and sauvignon gris which we were able to try. Despite me not being a huge red wine drinker I actually enjoyed their reds more than I expected to in the end. The staff looking after us were incredibly informative and friendly and made this tasting a really delightful way to end our time in Napa.

All too soon it was time to head back to San Francisco with our holiday almost over. On the journey back my husband got to tick another wish off his list by driving over the Golden Gate bridge and we also made one final detour with a stop at the little coastal town of Sausalito. We ended up stopping there as we knew that one of the hop on hop off tour buses stopped there so we were curious to see the place ourselves. Prior to the building of the Golden Gate bridge it served as a terminus for rail, car and ferry traffic and whilst these routes may have subsequently ceased to operate there is still a passenger ferry service linking it to both the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero and Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf. It was a pleasant little stop for a wander and a coffee by the water. Here's a little 'did you know' fact about it too, it was whilst he was staying here that Otis Redding wrote his song, (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay.

Can you see that famous fog hugging the hill above the town?

As I said our visit to Napa really was the smallest of tasters, we could return many many more times plus there is Sonoma to visit too. It was fun to do and something I'd definitely recommend if you're basing yourself in the San Francisco area for longer than just a couple of days and having a hire car gave us the chance to explore the area with ease. I definitely do need to return again to try a few more of those rosés though. 


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