Over Memorial Day Weekend, my husband and two other couples and I spent a glorious three nights in Napa, California. We rented a lovely three-bedroom house (via VRBO by Homeaway) within walking distance of downtown Napa, and spent two very full days eating and drinking our way through Napa Valley. Here are some tips for wine tasting that I picked up along the way, as well as some highlights of our long-weekend trip:
Call in favors from anyone remotely connected with the Napa Valley wine industry. I was lucky enough to travel with a friend who was friendly with a local sommelier. He actually arranged four incredible VIP wine-tasting experiences for us. In all instances, we had private tours and tastings, just the six of us, away from the cattle-call, crazy-drunk-people scene in crowded winery tasting rooms. If you don’t know anyone in the wine industry, you can always…
Pay extra to reserve private or VIP wine tastings. No matter where you go, you’re going to pay to taste wines. Sometimes you get the $10 or $25 tasting fee back if you purchase some bottles, but gone are the days where sample flights of wine are free. So, I’d recommend saving your pennies before your trip, and making reservations for private tours or tastings. This way you get to know a winery a lot better, in an intimate setting, away from the crowds.
For example, at Artesa Vineyards & Winery, a spot we loved for its unusual location built into the side of a hill and the rolling countryside surrounding it, you can tour the subterranean wine cellar then enjoy a private tasting of Reserve wines for $40. Pay an additional $10 for a special candle-lit tasting among the wine barrels, accompanied by monks chanting (via CD, said to help better age the wine). I highly recommend a visit to this scenic spot; it is owned by the Raventos family of Spain, whose winemaking history dates to the mid-sixteenth century. Though a large operation, it’s a really nifty place with a fascinating history — I’d recommend a stop here, for sure.
Don’t be afraid of “tastings by appointment only.” Prior to this trip I was totally intimidated by the thought of a private tasting, or a winery where I’d have to book a reservation — namely because I know so little about wine and I didn’t want to feel like I was “bothering” anyone, by taking up their time, having to share their wine with a newbie. Pshaw. Everybody who poured for us was so genuine and friendly, and willing to answer our questions. Plus, some of the most intriguing little wineries only offer tastings by appointment only.
We sampled wines while relaxing on overstuffed striped couches, inside a cozy Adirondack-style farmhouse at Failla in St. Helena. This winery is certainly off the beaten path – its only signage is the name “Failla” discreetly written on a red mailbox on the side of the Silverado Trail. But what a gem! I loved learning that the owners are a married couple with two young daughters, and that the family will move into the bright yellow house once a new tasting room and offices are built. While I was tasting wine here, I felt as if I was in someone’s home — it was that comfortable and welcoming.
Do not drive yourself. Period. Unless you have a non-drinker in your party who has no interested in sampling wine and doesn’t mind carting you around to wineries all day long, I highly recommend you either a) book a limo service/tour or b) hire someone to drive your car (your own or a rental).
We did the latter, by reserving a driver through Napa Bee Driven. This was the smartest thing we did all weekend; for two very full days of wine tasting (we had our driver Justin with us for a total of 17 hours!) it cost us $780. If we’d rented a limousine, it would have cost at least double, if not triple what we paid. Granted, we did have to rent the van (for $285; we needed it anyway to transport us all from and to the San Francisco Airport anyway) and pay for gas ($75). Still, we thought the Napa Bee Driven service was top notch, and we loved not only feeling free to imbibe, but we appreciated not having to navigate maps and unfamiliar roads. It was truly a hassle-free wine-tasting experience all around.