Napa Valley has been done. Am I right? It’s been written about from every angle, every budget, every preference, every possible perspective, so it’s almost intimidating to write about it, hoping to give it some fresh, new edge.
But, here it goes.
I had vacationed in Napa a few years ago with my girlfriends and we had the time of our lives. In those few days we spent there, I developed strong attachment to some (not all, certainly) of the wineries we visited, promising myself that I’d find my way back there. Lucky for us, some friends planned to marry in St. Helena this summer, so it was the perfect opportunity to go.
After driving down through the Redwoods, we found ourselves in the valley for four days of indulgence. What I love about this region is the ease. It is laid out so well. The downside of this is that it’s extremely commercial. Touristy (a word that makes travelers cringe).
Our goal was to avoid the traps that felt generic and overdone. In fact, as we moseyed up and down Rt. 29 (and the lesser used Silverado Trail), we skipped right over all the heavy hitters. I waved to Robert Mondavi and Sutter Home. We blew right past Sterling and Rutherford Hill. In fact, we attempted Stag’s Leap and walked right back out. Too crowded, loud, touristy and not at all the vibe we were going for during our vacation.
So now for the places we did go. Since we aren’t wine snobs (can’t remember the last time I turned away a bottle), our enjoyment was largely dependent on the atmosphere.
On day one, we first wanted to fuel up for the day of tastings ahead. Stopping at the Oxbow Public Market in Napa, we reveled in Latin American coffee flights and huevos rancheros. It was 10:30am and we were ready for wine!
William Hill Estate Winery
Our first stop was William Hill, just outside of Napa. We lounged on adirondack chairs under a shady umbrella (mercifully, as it was near 100° that day) and sipped on a custom tasting selection, which was just divine. It was very intimate, only a few other chairs speckled the grassy hilltop and guests were respectfully talking in hushed whispers. And the views were spectacular. With sweeping vistas of the valley in every direction, we immediately felt like we were on vacation. It was the best way to start.
Robert Sinskey Vineyards
After grabbing hearty sandwiches from Soda Canyon, we drove up Silverado to Sinskey, outside of Yountville, for another tasting and a picnic lunch. Because of the blazing sun, the rose-lined patio was deserted and we planted ourselves under another umbrella. Enjoyed the solitude and, again, the views.
Further still up the Silverado Trail, we ended our day of touring at Mumm, near Rutherford. This one was a bit more crowded, but it was worth it for the sparkling bubbles to cap off a great day. It had larger capacity, but if you snag a table at the edge of the patio overlooking the vineyard, you feel miles away from anywhere.
Frog’s Leap Vineyard
The next morning, after some warm sourdough breakfast sandwiches from Model Bakery, we had a reservation at Frog’s Leap. This might be my favorite. I love the wrap-around porch and their organic, irrigation-free wines. I also love that you can get up close and personal with the vines and the gardens; you’re free to stroll around as you taste. Afterward, we cruised over to étoile Restaurant at the Chandon Estate. Needless to say, it was a luxurious meal.
Rustridge Vineyard & Winery
Sadly, this was the only disappointing stop in our visit. We were the only ones there, and while I like privacy, this was too much. More like a red flag. The grounds were nothing special, the wines were just okay, and the host was terribly awkward. Not sure it’s ever appropriate to make guests feel like they’re inconveniencing you by showing up. Still, I’m glad we went. It was a beautiful drive out on Sage Canyon Rd, way far away from the congestion in town. Our misadventure was framed by the pretty drives.
Sequoia Grove Vineyards
Another favorite. The wooden barn for Sequoia’s tasting room is rustic without being frumpy, a sort of quiet elegance that is comfortable and refined. I love it. We grabbed a bottle since we didn’t want to commit to a full tasting, and enjoyed a glass on the back patio.
This was the star of the show when I was here with girlfriends a few years ago. Tucked away on a quiet side street and only available by appointment, Kelham delivers a truly five-star experience. Set on the family estate, you are free to roam around by the reflecting pool and play with the dogs. Taking us through eight wines, it was the biggest tasting and most expensive (at $80 p.p.). Worth it.
Wait, but where’d we eat? Farmstead (the gnocchi!) and French Blue (the cheddar biscuit!) in St. Helena were both that perfect balance of laid-back charm and good, fresh food. Highly recommend. Carpé Diem in Napa was also great and they don’t have a corkage fee if you bring your own wine. Pass on the overbearing service at Goose & Gander; the drinks and apps were tasty, but the server was pushy.
And, of course, the wedding was lovely. How could it not be? Napa Valley is a slice of heaven.
P.S. I “discovered” the Silverado Trail in February.
P.P.S. French wine country is a little different.