Ask Heidi: First trip to Napa – need recommendations

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Dear Heidi,
I have explored your website and find the content and your personal knowledge to be very impressive. My wife and I are making our first trip to Napa this upcoming weekend. I was wondering if there is a ‘must do or see’ list for first timers?

My experience with wine is very limited, only recently learning  that ‘wine from a box’ generally isn’t considered premium wine.

We are only there for two days & nights and I think we are dedicating 1 full day to visiting some wineries.  Do you have any recommendations? — Tony

Thanks for your question! Giving recommendations for Napa is a tough one with so many places to visit and we each have our individual preferences.  But if I were to plan an impromptu weekend trip to Napa, here are my tips and a few recs for a first-timer.

What you should know:

1. Napa is known for powerful Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, followed by Merlot. Wineries offer other varieties but these three are the dominant ones. Generally speaking, the best quality wineries often focus on a smaller number of varieties.

2. Tasting fees – almost all wineries charge for tastings and it’s not uncommon to pay $20 to $30 (or more). A few smaller wineries may only charge $10 to $15, so you’ll want to keep this in mind.

3. Wine prices – most wines are going to range from $75-$300 per bottle at the wineries. I usually budget to spend my money on those wines that I absolutely fall in love with AND that I can only get at the winery or that I can’t find back home.

4. Silverado Trail/Hwy 29 – Hwy 29 is the main drag through Napa Valley. You’ll see many of the big name wine producers on this road. On weekends, Hwy 29 is very busy, so I suggest hitting some wineries along the Silverado Trail (runs parallel to Hwy 29) to avoid some of the traffic. It’s a beautiful drive and has some great places to stop.

5. Pace your visits – Depending on your pace and how busy wineries are when you visit, I suggest that people don’t try to cram in a bunch of places during one trip. They will all become a blur and your senses will be getting tired after a few tastings at 1 or 2 places. 3 to 4 wineries is probably the max even for experienced tasters. So take your time and enjoy!

6. Spit or Dump It – If you don’t like it, don’t drink it. I learned my lesson many years ago that drinking all of the tastings at each winery was not so great (especially the following day). Politely pouring out the wine from your glass or spitting out the remainder in your mouth into the dump bucket is okay. I felt really self-conscious when I first tried this, but it’s totally acceptable during tastings.

7. Go with what you like –Don’t feel pressured to like a wine or buy it just because the server is talking it up. Buy a bottle (or sign up for a wine club) once you’ve gotten to know the wine. It’s okay to spend a few minutes appreciating the wine first or ask for another taste of the wine before making your decision.

8. Stay hydrated & well fed – I always make sure that I get enough food for breakfast, lunch and dinner when wine tasting and I bring bottled water with me. You’ll enjoy your trip even more and prevent hangovers if you stay hydrated while wine tasting.

Some of my favorite Napa Wineries:

Keeping a short list short is nearly impossible when you’re talking about Napa favorites, so I focused on favorite places I went to during my first Napa trip and what wineries were so good, that they’re still in my cellar today:

1. Clos du Val – A long-standing Napa winery known for great Cabs. They also represented CA in the 1976 Paris Tasting going up against top Bordeaux.

2. Round Pond – Gorgeous property in the middle of the Valley in Rutherford. Spend the extra $10 and go for a guided tasting. They prepare small dishes on site from their local garden. Great food+wine pairing experience. Appointment needed. *currently in my cellar

3. Darioush – Amazing Persian-inspired architecture makes this a unique winery in Napa. Very good red blends and good specialty wines. (Visited my first time in Napa.)

4. Schramsberg – I have a mad crush on this winery and their sparkling wines. Great tours of their champagne caves. You learn a lot and get a flight of bubbly tastings at the end of the tour. If you are lucky enough to taste their J Davies Cab, you’ll probably buy a bottle if it’s not sold out. *currently in my cellar

5. Chateau Montelena – Great Chardonnay + Cabs. It was this winery that helped CA gain world recognition for its wines when their Chardonnay won a blind tasting held in Paris in 1976. Ch Montelena Chard won over esteemed French wines. (If this interests you, see the movie Bottleshock.) *currently in my cellar

6. Twomey – I like this place because it’s homey, smaller and laid back. Has good Merlot and Pinot Noir. Reasonable tasting fees ($10/person).

7. Bennett Lane – Also a smaller winery, near Ch Montelena. Good red blends, quaint tasting room and reasonable tasting fees ($15/person). Try their Maximus red.

8. Cliff Lede Vineyards – (Another place I visited the first time in Napa.) No appointment needed and reasonable tasting fees. It’s like hanging out at friend’s house. Nice, warm, cozy place. They have an amazing Inn on the property too. Their Poetry Cabs are incredible. *I took plenty of their wines back home with me but sadly, none left in the cellar.

Wineries offering tours/attractions:

If you’re looking for interesting winery tours, then these are some great places to learn more about Napa’s wine history and winemaking. Call ahead for appointments.

1. Sterling Vineyards – Beautiful Greek-inspired buildings take you back to Mykonos. Take the aerial tram for views of the valley.

2. Inglenook – Formerly known as Rubicon, this winery is owned by the Coppolas (of movie fame). They have brought back the Inglenook name to this Napa icon. Good for wine tours and a treat for film buffs too.

3. Charles Krug – This was the first Napa Valley winery started in 1861. This place is overflowing with history and homage to C. Krug and the Mondavi family, both instrumental for putting Napa on the map together.

4. Robert Mondavi – The infamous winemaker instrumental in establishing California’s quality wine reputation. Typically very busy winery, but their tours help first-timers get a sense of place and wine history of Napa.

Have fun!

A day or two in Napa is perfect for a get-away. You’re going to have a great time! Plan on going back again especially as you begin to broaden your wine experiences and try new places. Come back and tell us about your trip!

For loads of fun things to see and do in Napa wine country, pick up a copy of the Wineopolis Citizen’s Guide to Napa and Sonoma at Amazon.

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