Napa Valley, California is a wine lover's dream destination in the United States. Some of the finest wines in the world are made there, and there is nothing like the experience of visiting the birthplace of your favorite wine.
Nestled in a valley between the Mayacamus and Vaca mountain ranges just 47 miles north of San Francisco, the towns of Oakville, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga provide unique settings for this famous wine producing region.
Vintners have developed world-famous wineries in this area since the mid-1800s, but the area didn't become known as a serious producer of wine until the 1960's. It came to fame in 1976 when the Chateau Montelena and Stags Leap wineries won a famous blind tasting competition in France. Soon after that, the Napa Valley became a wine destination.
One of the most interesting things about Napa wines is that many of the best are not sold to retailers or restaurants. You can only experience them at the winery or if you order direct from the producer. I happen to be a lover of bold red wines, and have discovered that my favorite wines come from wineries most people have never heard of.
Credit: R St Hilaire
Sherwin Family Vinyards
Take a trip up Spring Mountain Road in St. Helena if you dare. The road seems innocuous at first, but soon turns into a steep, winding, hairpin turn adventure to the top of Spring Mountain where two of my favorite wineries are located. The first is Sherwin Family Vineyards. Sherwin was started in 1996 by builder Steve Sherwin on 30 acres. Although today the vineyard rolls across 2 hillsides around a beautiful pond, the land was totally covered in huge trees when Steve purchased it. He had to clear the land, build the production facility, and plant the vines at the top of a mountain. Three years later they produced their first wine.
My recommendation is to arrange for a private tasting at Sherwin. The tasting room is in a beautiful house set on the crest of a hill with large windows that overlook the vineyard. During the Spring, Summer, and early Fall you will sip several wines while sitting in plush leather chairs overlooking the land. The fresh mountain air is crisp and full of pine scent. During the colder months a roaring fireplace will keep you warm.
Two of my favorite wines there are the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Cellar Scraps. The cabernet is round and robust and has a little Merlot and Cabernet Franc mixed in. It is aged 22 months in French oak and then at least another year in the bottle. Cellar Scraps is an experience. It is literally what the name implies, a mix of whatever was left over from the red wine production at the vineyard, and it is some of the best red wine I have had. It's distinctive shaped bottle with hand-dipped wax neck is beautiful to look at, and the wine it contains is simply wonderful.
Enjoy the hospitality of the Sherwin family, and experience the smell and the taste of wines that come from the special "terrior" of Spring Mountain.
The Sherwin Family Winery is located at 4060 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, CA.Credit: R St Hilaire
Behren's Family Winery
Just down the road from Sherwin is the Behren's Family Winery. The private tasting here is a must do when visiting Napa. Located at 4078 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, CA, the Behren's winery was started in 1993 when Les and Lisa Behrens, and partners Bob and Lily Hitchcock brought 3 tons of grapes and began their great experiment to make wines they loved. In 2005, Les and Lisa formally formed the Behren's family winery.
Today when you visit for the private tasting you will enjoy several awesome wines while relaxing in an old wood paneled trailer perched on a ridge overlooking a mountain vista. In this small, quaint trailer the host is Napa local Robin Cooper who has worked with the Behren's family for over a decade. As she serves you amazing, dark, round, full of black fruit wines, she regails you with stories of the winery, Napa Valley, and the unique names and labels for their wines. Each of the labels are works of art, some literally. Many of the labels are shrunken versions of larger pieces of art, and each have a long and usually hilarious story to go with them.
A few of my favorite wines from Behrens are:
The Change Up - a dark red blend with aromas of roasted plums, sweet cherry, and coffee. It has a great structure in the mouth and a very long finish. If you love powerful reds, this one is for you.
The Road Les Traveled - a non-vintage red blend, named after Les Behrens that has flavors of black raspberries, plums, and spice. Although considered a "bright" wine, it has some dark places in it, and has a long finish.
There are several others you will taste, then I recommend buying a few bottles and then sit at the picnic tables or in the adirondack chairs overlooking the vast mountain ranges while sipping a glass or two.
Perhaps one of the best and most versatile wineries in the valley. T-Vine winery is located on the floor of the valley at 810 Foothill Blvd in Calistoga.
T-Vine, referring to a way to grow a grape vine, is truly a vintners winery. Started as a joint venture by famous vintners James Hardy and Jim Regusci in 2009, this winery is an ongoing experiment in amazing red wines. T-Vine has several vineyards spread throughout the Napa Valley because they want to create unique tastes from the various "terroir" of these locations. They partner with master grape growers such as Helen and Charles Bacigalupi who provide them with Zinfandel grapes from ancient vines, or David "Doc" Gold who grows Cabernet grapes which make some of the finest Cabs.
Do their private tasting if possible. You will sit at a long hardwood table and be served several of their best wines from Petit Syrah to Cabernet Savignon to several Zinfandels. Then they break out the good stuff. Bottles they have stashed away for the private tastings from their "library" or "archive" collection. Some are just mind-blowing.
As a final note on T-Vine, if you get a chance drive north just a bit and look for an old garage with the name "Tank" on it. This is a great little place where James and Jim and some of their friends make "experimental" wines to satiate their personal palates, and they are great!Credit: R St Hilaire
Last but not least is the Regusci Winery located 5584 Silverado Trail, Napa. It sits on a steep mountainside with huge crags of rock surrounding it. The main barrel hall is located in an old stone barn, and that is where you will have your private tasting. Sitting in leather bound chairs surrounded by hundreds of giant wine barrels under the ancient exposed oak beams of the barn is an unforgettable experience.
Gaetano Regiuci bought an established winery in 1932 and it has been in the family ever since making some of the valley's best wines.
Under the expert, and often hilarious tutelage of "Aunt Rita", you will learn all about the history of the winery, and sip some wines that will alter your view of what a good red wine is. At the end of your tasting you may even be lucky enough to be taken to the lowest floor of the barn and taste directly from the barrel. If you want to understand what a truly complex, high-end red wine tastes like, try a few of my favorites.
The Elders - a phenomenal Cabernet that comes from the vineyard's oldest vines. It is a mouthful of dark red and blue fruits with hints of spice and cigar. It has a soft and silky texture on the palate, but them comes on strong!
Patriarch - a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc with a texture like velvet. This flagship red is full of dark fruit and spice aromas and tastes. If you can get a bottle of the 2007 it will be a memorable wine drinking experience.
Take the opportunity to walk the beautiful gardens of this winery, full of flowers, cedars, meyer lemons, and vast vineyards that stretch across the valley.
There are many hidden gems in Napa that you will want to experience. Don't limit yourself to the "tourist" wineries or those you are familiar with. Each town in the valley offers a unique experience. Explore the valley and the mountains. Search for the wineries off the beaten path. Look for the vineyards I have mentioned or ones such at Atlas Peak or Erba. Ask at your hotel or restaurant about boutique wineries. The real masterpieces of wine will be found on mountain roads, in the corners of the valley, perhaps in a garage at the best wineries you haven't heard of.