Saturday, December 15, 2007

Beautiful Hilltop Winery in Sonoma Valley

Moon Mountain Vineyard is easily overlooked when winetasting in the Sonoma Valley. It requires an appointment to visit and is a couple of miles up Moon Mountain Drive, on the Sonoma side of Mount Veeder between the towns of Sonoma and Glen Ellen.

The drive up Moon Mountain Drive takes you through beautiful vineyards with fantastic views of the mountains and valley floor. Along the way, you will pass one of Sonoma County's most famous vineyards, Monte Rosso, which was founded by the Napa winery, Louis Martini. When you arrive at Moon Mountain Vineyard, you'll climb the steps to the tasting room, where you will have beautiful views of the surrounding hillside vineyards.

Moon Mountain grows all five of the classic Bordeaux varietals; Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petite Verdot, and Malbec; as well as Syrah. The vineyards are certified organic; although, the wine is not as sulfites are added.

Tours and tastings are available from Tuesday through Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and sometimes at 10:30 a.m. A tour lasts about 90 minutes and includes a visit to the winery's natural caves. There is a nominal $10 fee for the tour and tasting that is credited towards any purchase.

Moon Mountain is a welcome retreat from the traffic and crowds along Route 12 in the Sonoma Valley. If you would like to take a private wine country tour of Sonoma Valley that includes a stop at Moon Mountain Vineyards, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Come for the Architecture, Stay for the Wine

Carl Doumani, founder of Stags' Leap Winery, decided he wanted to own a smaller winery. So in 1996 he founded Quixote Winery after selling Stags' Leap. Like Stags' Leap, Quixote is best known for its Petite Sirah.

However, what brings many visitors to Quixote is not the wine but the unique architecture. Friedensreich Hundertwasser, a Viennese painter and sometimes architect, designed Quixote's building. Like all of his works, Hundertwasser included no straight lines in the building's design planted grass on the roof, capped the building with a turret, and utilized an array of colors.

You can learn much more about Fred Hundertwasser and his work by visiting Quixote. The 90-minute tour and tasting includes a presentation on the architecture as well as a tasting of Quixote's current releases. The tour does not include a visit to the production facilities as they are small and of less interest than the exterior architecture.

As for the wine, Quixote produces about 3,000 cases of Petite Sirah, Cabernet, and other varietals. Petite Sirah is not the same as Syrah (or Shiraz as the Aussies call Syrah). Rather, it is a cross between Syrah and Peloursin that was first propagated in the 1880s in the Rhone Valley of France by Francois Durif. In France and other parts of the world, the grape is known as Durif; however, it is seldom vinified in France.

Petite Sirah is a big, often highly tannic wine. Sometimes Petite Sirah is blended with other varietals to add more color and body tot he wine. The only thing petite about petite sirah is the size of the grape.

As you can probably tell, Doumani likes to do things differently. One other difference in his wines is that all the bottles are sealed with screw caps. This isn't the place to debate the merits of cork and twist-off closures, but Doumani believes that screw caps provide the best protection for his wines.

An advance appointment is required to visit Quixote. A tour and tasting costs $25/person. If you would like to include Quixote on a private Napa Valley tour, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) to arrange a visit. You may also e-mail me by clicking here.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Olive Oil Tasting in Rutherford

Not only does the Napa Valley produce excellent wine, but it is also home to high-quality, artisan olive oil. If you want to learn how olive oil is made and taste some excellent oil, I recommend a visit to Round Pond on Rutherford Road. The winery is on the south side of the road, while the olive mill is just north of the road.

Round Pond uses a stone mill and hammer mill to produce fresh olive oil from Italian and Spanish olive trees. When I visited last week olives were being milled, so I got to see some of the processing involved in the making of olive oil.

In addition to a tour of the production facility, a visit includes a tasting of Round Pond's oils and vinegar paired with various foods. The entire experience lasts about 90 minutes.

Tours and tastings are generally offered at 10:30, 12:30, and 3:00 and cost $20/person. Round Pond also offers an Al Fresco Lunch at 12:30 that costs $45/person. Advance appointments are required. Olives are usually harvested between October and January, so this is the best time to visit if you want to see some oil being made.

If you would like to take a private tour of the Napa Valley that includes a visit to Round Pond, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Cozy Tasting Room in St. Helena

I'd driven past Corison Winery in St. Helena many times and never given it much thought. That was a mistake!

Earlier this year, I read a glowing article about winemaker and owner Cathy Corison that piqued my interest. Yesterday, I had a chance to stop by. Corison is not the typical Napa ode to ego. The tasting room is in the front of the winery and consists of an old door laid across a couple of barrels. The tasting fee is a modest $10, which is credited to your wine purchase. But the wine is something else.

Corison produces two Cabernet Sauvignons, which are among Napa's best according to my Cab-loving friends. These are the wines that bring people into the winery. When you visit, you'll get to taste the current releases of both Cabernets and will have the opportunity to purchase older Cabs from Corison's library. I'm not a Cab guy, but I enjoyed Corison's Gewürztraminer and Petite Sirah.

If you want to taste good wine without a lot of fuss and without fighting the crowds, then Corison is for you. Tasting is by appointment, but you can call on the day of your visit to schedule a time to come in. Corison can be reached at (707) 963-0826. The winery and tasting room are located at 987 St. Helena Hwy, at the southern end of St. Helena.

If you would like to take a private Napa tour that includes visits to Corison and other small wineries, please feel free to call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Zin and Gewürzt in the Russian River Valley

Twice I have had the opportunity to take folks to Harvest Moon Estate and Winery in the Russian River Valley. This small tasting room features friendly staff and good wine.

Harvest Moon is owned by Bob and Ginny Pitts. On my recent, visit their son and Harvest Moon's winemaker, Randy Pitts, stopped by the tasting room, talked about his philosophy of making wine, and poured my guests some of his limited production Pinot Noir.

As you approach the tasting room, you are likely to be greeted by the Pitts' friendly dog. You'll then see the small production facilities off to your right. Harvest Moon only makes around 2,000 cases of wine so they don't need a lot of equipment.

Harvest Moon produces three different Zinfandels, a still and sparkling Gewürztraminer, a Late Harvest Zin, Pinot, and Cab. Not all of the wines are available for tasting, but you should be able to taste some Zin and Gewürzt when you stop by. When we visited, the winery was pouring its 2007 Early Harvest Gewürztraminer, the first wine I've seen from this year's harvest. My guests also tasted a barrel sample of Harvest Moon's Late Harvest Zinfandel.

If you would like to take a private tour of the Russian River Valley that includes a visit to Harvest Moon, feel free to call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Tasting Room Experience - Part II

A couple of weeks ago I commented on how an unfriendly staff person can ruin the tasting room experience. This past week I saw this issue again, but this time the result was a much improved tasting experience.

Last week, some guests wanted to visit Hartford Family Winery in the Russian River Valley. I had avoided taking guests to this winery because of two bad experiences I had around the time Blue Heron first opened. On both occasions I was served by the same man and both times found him to be an unbearable snob. As a result, I never took folks to taste at Hartford.

Over the past few months, one of the staff at De Loach Vineyards encouraged me to give Hartford another try. So, when my guests requested a visit to Hartford, I was pleased to have the opportunity to see if new staff would improve the tasting experience. I am happy to say that the tasting experience was excellent. The staff member who served us was friendly and knowledgeable about Hartford's single-vineyard Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. Plus the visitor center is located in a pretty building surrounded by lovely vineyards. I will definitely add Hartford to my list of tasting rooms to visit.

If you would like to take a private wine country tour that includes visits to Hartford Family Winery and/or De Loach Vineyards, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Taking a Winery Tour

If you have never taken a tour of a winery, I recommend doing so when you visit wine country. Most of the tours focus on the winemaking process; although, a few focus on other areas such as biodynamic farming and the history of the winery. Once you have done one tour, you are probably set for life unless you are really into making wine. After all, one can only see so many stainless steel fermentation tanks and oak barrels.

Many wineries do not offer tours. Still more offer tours only by appointment. If you arrive in the Napa or Sonoma Valleys or Carneros without having scheduled a tour, here are a few options for you:

Sonoma Valley:

Benziger offers one of the more unique wine country tours. You can visit their biodynamic vineyards in a tractor-pulled tram and then walk through their production facilities. The schedule varies, but tours are usually offered hourly if not more frequently. The tour lasts about one hour and includes tasting some of their wines.

Sebastiani's Historical Tour covers the history of Sebastiani as well as the winemaking process. Tours are usually offered at 11:00, 1:00, and 3:00; however, they may be cancelled due to special events so call before you arrive to make sure the tour is being offered. The tour lasts 40 minutes.


Artesa provides free tours of their production facilities at 11:00 and 2:00. There is no charge for the 45 minute tour.

Napa Valley:

Mondavi offers hourly tours that include tastes of some of their current releases. The tour is advertised as 75 minutes in length but frequently takes longer. During the summer and fall, more frequent tours may be offered. Children are allowed only on the noon tour.

Rutherford Hill's tours include a visit to their caves and tastings of some of their current releases. Tours are offered at 11:30, 1:30, and 3:30. During the busy summer and fall seasons, arrive early to make sure you get a ticket.

Mumm Napa has free hourly tours of their production facilities and photography gallery. You can just show up at the winery a few minutes before the start of the tour.

Beringer offers an array of tours. Some tours require advance reservations. For other tours, you just buy a ticket when you arrive at the winery. Most focus on some aspect of the history of Beringer, the oldest continuously operated winery in the Napa Valley.

Other wineries offer quality tours. If you have taken one, post a comment. If you would like to take a private wine country tour that includes a winery tour, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Friendly Tasting Room in Yountville

I have long been taking guests who like big reds to Regusci Winery on the Silverado Trail. Their Zin and Cabernet-based wines will make you happy if you like big, California-style wines.

Recently guests asked me to visit a tasting room in Yountville for Hope and Grace Wines. I had not heard of this winery, nor was it on any of my maps. We soon learned that the tasting room is located in Beard Plaza, next to Bouchon Restaurant, at 6540 Washington Street in Yountville.

Hope and Grace is the label of Hendricks Wines, whose owner, Charles Hendricks, is winemaker at Regusci. On our visit, my guests tasted two Pinot Noirs (Russian River and Santa Lucia Highlands), Malbec, Cabernet, and Chardonnay. Tiffani, the friendly tasting room manager, told us about Hope and Grace and walked us through the wines. Charles happened to drop in during our visit, so my guests learned more about the winery from him.

If you are in Yountville, stop by the friendly Hope and Grace tasting room. You'll taste some good wines and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. Maybe you'll even buy some of the antiques that are for sale. Just don't ask for a winery tour. Hope and Grace produces their wines at facilities leased from other wineries. They do not have a winery of their own.

If you would like to take a private Napa tour that includes a visit to Hope and Grace and lunch at one of Yountville's many great restaurants, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Tasting Room Experience

Just because a winery produces good wine does not mean you will have a good time in their tasting room. Schug Carneros Estate Winery has been producing excellent Pinot Noir and other wines since 1980. However, I seldom take guests into the tasting room because of the attitude of one of their regular staffers. He never engages visitors and can be quite off putting.

Yesterday, I was showing Pinot lovers around Carneros and decided to take a chance and visit Schug. What a difference! The three staff were friendly and the one serving my guests was very funny and attentive. This quality customer service coupled with the good wine made for an enjoyable experience for my guests.

I learned that the staff member lacking customer service skills does not work on Sundays and Mondays, so I'll put Schug back on my list of wineries to visit but just on the two days he's not there.

This one person I am criticizing is not the only tasting room staff member who does not have adequate customer service skills. I was recently at Chateau Montelena where a friendly staffer took good care of my guests. However, her colleague left a lot to be desired. I was the only visitor in the tasting room when others walked in the front door. The sole staff member in the room was doing some paperwork and never looked up to great the people after they walked in. If I was in their group, I would have walked out the door after standing around for a few minutes with no one even saying, "Hello," to them.

Wineries need to remember that many visitors have never been to a tasting room. They may be a little intimidated or not know how tastings are conducted. A warm greeting will go a long way to making their visit a pleasant one.

If you would like to take a private wine country tour where you will meet friendly tasting room staff, please call me at (866) 326-4237 or e-mail me by clicking here.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Pinot and Zin in the Russian River Valley

While the Russian River Valley is best known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, there are some excellent Zinfandels produced in the eastern end of the Valley. If you enjoy Pinot Noir and/or Zinfandel, I highly recommend visiting DeLoach Vineyards.

DeLoach started making wine over 30 years ago. Some of its wines receive fairly wide distribution, but a trip to the winery will enable you to taste some small lot Pinot, Zin and Chardonnay. DeLoach offers two tastings. The Russian River Valley Appellation includes 5 tastes for $5 and the OFS and Vineyard-Designate Tasting costs $10 for 5 tastes. I recommend the latter tasting as it enables you to taste some of DeLoach's smaller production wines. The friendly and knowledgeable tasting room staff usually are not sticklers for the five-taste limit. One tasting fee is refunded for each bottle purchased.

If you plan ahead of time, you can schedule a tour of the winery and learn more about their move to biodynamic farming. Eric, the tasting room manager, will likely lead your tour. His wit and knowledge will ensure that you have an enjoyable hour.

If you would like to take a private, wine country tour that includes a visit to DeLoach Vineyards, please call me at (866) 326-4237 or e-mail me by clicking here.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Tasting in Wine Caves

One of the prettiest tasting rooms in all of wine country is at Bella Vineyards. Located at the far northern end of the Dry Creek Valley, Bella is about 1 hour and 45 minutes from San Francisco. It's a long drive, but you will be rewarded with a pleasant tasting experience in Bella's wine caves.

Caves provide an excellent place to produce and age wine as the temperature is a constant 58 - 61 degrees and the humidity is about 55%. By using caves wineries can save on their electricity bills. They do not need to pay for heating, cooling, or humidifying their storage areas. With over 5,000 feet of caves, Bella has plenty of room to store their tasty Zinfandel, Syrah, and Late Harvest Zinfandel.

The staff at Bella are friendly and $5 gets you a taste of their current releases. If you want to picnic, Bella has a few tables on the lawn in front of the caves.

You can take a private, wine country tour that includes a visit to Bella Vineyards and other Dry Creek Valley wineries. For more information, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Comfortable Lodging in Elk

In my last post, I supplemented the August 2006 "Rick's Tips" with more information on winetasting in the Anderson Valley. In "Rick's Tips," I wrote about the lack of lodging and dining available in the Valley and recommended staying on the Mendocino coast.

Our favorite spot to stay on the coast is the small village of Elk, which I first wrote about in the June 2004 edition of "Rick's Tips." Recently, we returned to Elk and stayed at The Harbor House Inn.

This lovely bed and breakfast sits on a bluff overlooking the ocean. You can gaze out over the ocean from a number of the rooms and cottages or while sitting in their beautiful garden. The Inn also has a stairway down the cliff side to a small beach.

We checked out most of the rooms and cottages during our visit and recommend the Seaview and Oceansong cottages for the best ocean views. Your stay includes both dinner and breakfast. This was our second time dining at Harbor House and, on both occasions, we enjoyed both the food as well as the view from the dining room.

If you are planning a visit to California and would like to include the Anderson Valley or the Mendocino County coast on your itinerary, Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel can help plan your vacation. For more information, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Revisiting the Anderson Valley

The August 2006 edition of "Rick's Tips," Blue Heron's free, quarterly newsletter of fun things to do in Northern California, covered winetasting in the Anderson Valley. (To see this issue of "Rick's Tips, click here.) Recently, I returned to the Anderson Valley and visited some new wineries.

Meyer Family Cellars is a small winery in Yorkville Highlands that currently produces Syrah and a Zinfandel-based Port. Soon the winery will release its Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. We tasted both the Mendocino County Syrah and the California Port. Not being a Port fan I won't comment on that wine, but the Syrah was fruit forward and delicious. The tasting room is very pleasant and the staff knowledgeable.

We tried to visit Claudia Springs Winery on our last visit, but it had moved from the location indicated on our map. Located west of Philo, the new tasting room features wines from both Claudia Springs and Harmonique. Claudia was staffing the room on our visit and guided our tasting through a large selection of wines. The tasting room is open from 11:00 to 5:00 from Friday through Monday during the summer and from Friday through Sunday in the winter.

We also visited Standish Winery, which has a tasting room in an old apple drier. The setting was rustic, but the Pinot Noir quite good. We finally got to taste a couple of Lazy Creek's Pinot Noirs and made a return visit to Yorkville Cellars.

More information on Mendocino County Wineries can be found at the Mendocino Wine Grape and Wine Commission's website.

If you would like to visit Mendocino County's wine country, Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel can help plan your vacation. For more information, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Private Tastings for Pinot Lovers

Two excellent producers of Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley offer private tastings for visitors. Merry Edwards, a small but very well regarded producer of Pinot, offers "Taste with Ron." Twenty years ago Ron worked with Merry Edwards as cellar master at Merry Vintners Winery. Today, Ron offers private tastings in the company's offices in Windsor. You will not get to see the winery, but you will spend an hour with Ron as he walks you through some of Merry Edwards' current releases. Ron conducts tastings from Tuesday through Sunday at 9:30, 11:00, 1:00, 2:30 and 4:00. You can make an appointment with Ron by calling (888) 388-9050, ext. 31. When you book a tasting, Ron will send you a map to the hard-to-find tasting room. There is no charge for the tasting.

Another long-time producer of excellent Pinot Noir is Gary Farrell Winery. While Farrell recently left the winery, you will still taste wines produced under his supervision if you visit in the near future. You are welcome to just stop by the tasting room to taste Farrell's current releases. However, you can have a more intimate experience with their private tasting. You will get a tour of the winery and enjoy some cheese while you taste. To book a private tour, call (707) 473-2900. The winery is located at 10701 Westside Road, outside of Healdsburg.

If you would like to take a private wine country tour focusing on Pinot Noir that includes visits to Merry Edwards and/or Gary Farrell, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Sandwiches and Salads on Sonoma Plaza

If you are winetasting in Carneros or Sonoma Valley and just want a quick sandwich or salad for lunch, the Sunflower Caffe on Sonoma Plaza is the place to go. (The sign on the restaurant says, "Caffe," but all the internet listings say, "Cafe.") Using the freshest of ingredients, this pleasant bistro prepares a variety of light meals. On summer weekends, the Sunflower also offers sandwiches with freshly barbecued meats.

After placing your order at the counter, you will be given your drink and a number. Find a table and then wait for your meal to be brought to you. You can lunch inside on a rainy day, but on warm days you will want to sit out back in their sunny garden or at one of the tables in front facing the plaza.

The cafe is also a good spot to stop for coffee, espresso, and/or pastry.

Sunflower Caffe is located on the west side of Sonoma Plaza at 421 First Street West.

If you would like to take a private wine country tour in Sonoma County that includes lunch at the Sunflower Caffe, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Santa Rosa Garagista

I've used the term garagista in previous posts to describe small wineries that operate in facilities that are slightly larger than a garage. Siduri and Novy Family Wines of Santa Rosa can be called a large garagista as their wines are produced in a pretty good sized warehouse.

Siduri is a small Pinot Noir producer that sources grapes from throughout California and from Oregon. Tucked away in an office park not far from the airport in Santa Rosa, Siduri produces some of the most highly regarded Pinot in the state. The same warehouse facility is used to produce Novy Family Wines. Novy makes wine from Rhone and other varietals.

Siduri is owned by Adam and Dianna Lee. Novy Family is a partnership of Adam, Dianna, and other members of Dianna's family.

A visit to the Siduri/Novy Family warehouse lasts about an hour. You'll sample wines from both wineries, tour the warehouse, and learn a bit about the challenges of being a small producer. If you are willing to forgo the agricultural setting of many tasting rooms and take yourself to an industrial park, you will not be disappointed. The wine is good and the tasting experience is entertaining and informative.

If you would like to include a visit to Siduri/Novy Family on a private tour of the Russian River Valley, I would be pleased to make the arrangements for you. Feel free to call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Sparkling Wine with a View

Standing on a hill top, tasting sparkling wine, and gazing out over the Russian River and Green Valleys is a nice way to spend some of your time in wine country.

Iron Horse Vineyards is a family-owned, estate winery that produces both sparkling and still wines; although, it is better known for its sparkling wines. The winery is located in the Green Valley AVA (American Viticulture Area), a wine region that is surrounded by the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County.

To visit Iron Horse, you will travel down the narrow Ross Station Road near Forestville and then climb to the top of a hill. Here you will find an outdoor tasting room that affords views of the nearby valley vineyards and distant Mt. St. Helena. The tasting area is nothing fancy, just some wood planks on top of old wine barrels. Supposedly three distinct flights of wine are offered: a sparkling wine flight, a regular flight of still wines, and a reserve flight of still wines. However, on my recent visits, the staff poured generously from all three flights and failed to collect the tasting fees when wines were purchased. Since pours are generous and you are likely to taste many wines, you might want to share your tasting with a companion.

Iron Horse is open daily from 10:00 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. The winery is located at the end of Ross Station Road, which is a small road that intersects CA 116 between Sebastopol and Forestville. If you don't want to hassle finding Iron Horse, take a private, wine country tour. For more information, call me at (866) 326-4237 or e-mail me by clicking here.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Lodi Wine Country

For many people, all they know about Lodi, California is the reference Creedence Clearwater Revival made to it when they sung, "stuck in ole Lodi again."

For most wine aficionados, Lodi was not a wine region they sought out. For most of its grape-growing history, the overwhelming majority of grapes grown in Lodi were sold to large winemakers who used them in producing lower-priced "California" wines.

But all of this is changing. Downtown Lodi is a pleasant place to walk around. One can stroll down tree-lined School Street, eat some good food, and visit a few shops and galleries.

Many of the growers have opened wineries and are producing well-crafted, varietal-specific wines. The area is best known for Zinfandel, but growers are experimenting with other grapes to see what grows best in the region.

If you want to visit Lodi, there are over 20 wineries with tasting rooms. Some are open daily while others are only open on weekends. A good place to start your visit is the Lodi Wine and Visitor Center, operated by the Lodi Woodbridge Winegrape Commission. The Center has exhibits on grape growing and wine making in the area. It also houses a tasting room where you can taste wines produced by area wineries that do not have their own tasting rooms. The Commission's website,, is an excellent resource to help you plan your winetasting visit. The Center is located at 2545 W. Turner Road on the grounds of the Wine and Roses Hotel.

Lodi is about two-hours from San Francisco. You can easily make it a stop on your way to Gold Country or the Sierra Nevada Mountains. For more information on Lodi, visit the Lodi Conference and Visitor's Bureau's website:

If you would like to take a private tour to Lodi, please feel free to contact me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Napa Valley's Big Four - Part IV, V. Sattui Winery

Of the four wineries I've included in my posts on Napa Valley's Big Four, V. Sattui Winery is the one winery whose appeal mystifies me.

The main lure for visitors appears to be that Sattui is the only winery in the Napa Valley with a full deli counter. Since the winery also has a large number of picnic tables outside, it is easy for visitors to get food for a picnic and then eat outside. However, the convenience, in my view, is more than offset by the large crowds at the winery, particularly on weekends. I fail to understand why folks don't prefer to go to one of the excellent grocery stores in the Valley and then take their food to a quieter and prettier picnic area at one of the many other wineries that permit visitors to picnic. (You can see my recommendations for picnicking in the Napa Valley by reading my two posts in September 2006.)

The tasting room is fairly typical for a big winery -- lots of wines and lots of stuff to buy. The wines are ok, but there is nothing so special about them that makes tasting them worth fighting the crowds.

Sattui is the only one of the Big Four that I cannot recommend visiting. If you would like to take a private tour of the Napa Valley that includes a picnic lunch without the crowds, please feel free to call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Napa Valley's Big Four - Part III, Sterling Vineyards

Sterling Vineyards is located in one of the most stunning buildings in the entire Napa Valley. Located on a knoll overlooking the Valley, visitors access the winery and tasting room by taking an aerial tram. The tram ride, beautiful views, and the building's unique architecture lure hordes of visitors to Sterling. Families flock to Sterling because the tram ride gives young children something fun to do. This means that on a Saturday during the summer or harvest season visitors may wait 15 - 20 minutes to get on the tram.

Once you arrive at the top of the hill, you can take a self-guided tour of the winery, which includes videos that describe the winemaking process, . While the tour is not as informative as many of the guide-lead tours provided at other wineries, you can go at your pace. This works better for groups with children as they may get bored listening to tour guides.

The tasting room contains an array of gift items for sale. The tasting is conducted while you are seated at a table, which is a nice change from the bars found at most wineries.

A visit to Sterling is more about the tram ride and views, than the winetasting. The winery is often packed, which makes for a less than intimate experience. I only recommend Sterling to families with children and to guests who are not all that interested in wine or who have a special interest in architecture.

If you would like to take a private tour of the Napa Valley that includes Sterling and other beautiful wineries, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Napa Valley's Big Four - Part II, Beringer Vineyards

Beringer Vineyards is one of the most historic, and beautiful, wineries in the Napa Valley. Founded in 1876 by Jacob and Frederick Beringer, the winery is the oldest continuously operated winery in Northern California. The winery even managed to stay open during Prohibition by selling wine to the church. (Making wine was legal during the years of 1920 - 1934 if it was used for medicinal or religious purposes.)

Today the old winery still stands along with the historic Rhine and Hudson Houses. A visit to Beringer is a walk back in time. The winery offers a number of tours that focus on Beringer's legacy. Pick a tour that sounds interesting and you are sure to have an enjoyable 30 - 90 minutes.

The winetasting experience is something else. Beringer has two tasting rooms. Their regular tasting room is located in the old winery and the reserve room is in the Rhine House. Both tasting rooms have many knickknacks and gifts for sale. The regular tasting room offers a variety of tastings, including a flight of sweet wines. However, the tasting room is often crowded and the tastings pro forma. You are unlikely to leave the tasting room with any more wine knowledge than when you went in.

The reserve tasting room in the Rhine House is hit and miss, with the latter more likely. The wines are excellent, but the tasting room staff range from friendly to indifferent. I even had a staff member read a magazine in between pouring wine for my guest. It is a real shame that the staff are unable to show the same enthusiasm for showcasing Beringer's better wines that the winemaking staff demonstrates in making them.

I can only recommend a visit to Beringer if you want to take a tour to learn more about the winery's history. Otherwise avoid the crowds and visit one of the many other wineries in the Valley that provide superior winetating experiences.

If you would like to take a private wine country tour where you will visit wineries with friendly, enthusiastic staff, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Napa Valley's Big Four - Part I, Robert Mondavi Winery

While I have never seen any visitor numbers that tell how many tourists stop at the various wineries, my eyes tell me that the most frequented wineries in the Napa Valley are Mondavi, Beringer, Sterling, and V. Sattui. This will be the first of four posts with comments on the tasting experience at each winery.

When Robert Mondavi opened his winery in 1966, it was the first major new winery to open in the Valley since the end of Prohibition in 1934. Mondavi realized that if he was going to ask consumers to pay more for his premium wines he would need to let them taste the difference. So he included a tasting room in the building.

Today Mondavi offers one of the most comprehensive winery tours in the Valley. Advertised at 75 minutes in length, the tours always last 90 minutes and sometimes 2 hours. Guides are enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Tours cost $25 per adult and $10 for children. Children age 13 and over are permitted only on the noon tour. Children under the age of 13 are not permitted on any tours.

There are three tasting rooms at Mondavi: a room reserved for wine club members, a public tasting room, and a room for the public to taste reserve wines. The tasting is nothing to write home about in the regular tasting room. However, the reserve tasting is special. Here you can taste many older wines for a reasonable price. If you are a Cabernet fan, you'll especially enjoy the opportunity to taste vertical flights of older wines. The best deal is the flight of four wines for $30. Pours are big enough that two can easily share the tasting. You can enjoy your wine at the large wood table in the tasting room or take your glasses outside to taste in the sunshine. Tasting room staff are well versed in wine, but somewhat reserved. I find that if you start asking questions, they will immediately engage with you. However, they usually do not initiate the conversation.

Robert Mondavi Winery is located on the east side of Highway 29 in Oakville. It is open daily from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. You can make advance reservations for tours by calling (888) 766-6328.

If you would like to take a Napa Valley tour that includes a visit to Robert Mondavi Winery, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here. I can arrange for you to tour the winery if you are interested.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Napa Sparkling Wine

Schramsberg Vineyards is one of the best wineries to visit in the Napa Valley if you enjoy sparkling wine. The winery traces its history back to 1862, when it was founded by Jacob Schram. Robert Louis Stevenson, author of "Treasure Island," "Kidnapped," and "Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde," visited Jacob Schram's winery and tasted 18 different wines during the brief time he lived in the Valley in 1880. Over the years, the property had various owners until it was purchased in 1965 by Jamie and Jack Davies. Jack Davies passed away in 1998. Today Jamie Davies is chair and her son, Hugh, is president.

Schramsberg makes a variety of sparkling wines, some of which have been served at the White House. A visit to the winery includes tastes of some of these wines as well as a tour that includes a visit to caves that were dug by Chinese laborers in the 19th century. Tours are generally offered at 10:00, 11:30, 1:00, and 2:30 and last between 75 and 90 minutes and cost $25/person. Schramsberg is a very popular winery to visit and their tours sell out well in advance, especially on weekends and during the harvest season.

If you would like to take a Napa Valley tour that includes a visit to Schramsberg, I would be happy to arrange one for you. Try to provide me with as much advance notice as possible so I can get you a reservation at Schramasberg. You may arrange a private wine country tour by calling me at (866) 326-4237 or e-mailing me by clicking here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Tasting Sweet Wines

Sometimes I get folks on tours who prefer sweet wines and would like to taste such on their visits. Their preferences range from White Zinfandel to German-style Rieslings and Gewurtztraminers. Tasting sweet wines can be tough in Napa and Sonoma Counties as these wine regions are best known for dry wines.

There are wineries that produce excellent dessert wines such as Van der Heyden, Dolce, Trefethen, and Artesa. Some wineries, including Prager Port Works, Imagery, Frank Family, and Merryvale, produce sweet, fortified wines. However, my guests are usually looking for sweet table wines to sip or to drink with a meal.

To taste such wines, visitors can go to Beringer and Sutter Home. Both wineries have inexpensive, sweet wines to taste including some that are only available in the tasting rooms. These wines are not made with grapes from the Napa Valley and the tasting experiences are nothing to write home about. Beringer, though, is in a beautiful, historic facility. It is the oldest, continually operated winery in the Napa Valley and offers an array of interesting tours that focus on the winery's history.

The Napa and Sonoma Valleys are generally too warm for German varietals such as Riesling and Gewurtztraminer. Trefethen does make a dry Riesling, but this is usually not sweet enough for the folks I am talking about. My favorite place to taste a sweet table wine is St. Supery in Rutherford. While best known of its Sauvignon Blanc, St. Supery makes a quality Muscato that is a well-crafted sweet wine; although, not from Napa grapes. The Muscato is so popular that the winery has a Muscato-only wine club. St. Supery also makes an array of dry wines including Chardonnay, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and both white and red Bordeaux-style blends.

One of the advantages of taking a private, custom wine country tour is that I can help you pick wineries to visit that are likely to have wines you will enjoy. If you would like to make arrangements for a tour in Napa or Sonoma, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Zin and Bordeaux Varietals in the Alexander Valley

When I take guests on tours of the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County, one of my regular stops is Stryker Sonoma Winery. This small winery produces about 7,000 cases a year. However, winemaker Tim Hardin is a creative soul and likes to make small lots of wine. Thus, the 7,000 cases of wine are divided among approximately 22 red wines and 4 whites, with lots as small as 100 cases. One of Tim's specialties is wine from Bordeaux varietals, including a good number of Cabernet Sauvignons, a few Merlots, and small amounts of Petite Verdot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Semillon. Tim also loves Zinfandel, so he produces at least eight different wines from this varietal.

The winery is a sleek, modern building with floor to ceiling windows in the tasting room. Thus, you can gaze out at the vineyards while tasting Stryker's many wines. The tasting room staff are friendly and eager to tell you about Stryker's wines and the various wine regions from which Stryker sources its fruit.

The winery is located on Hwy. 128, north and west of the city of Healdsburg. The tasting room is open daily from 10:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. You may just drop in for tasting. Tours can be arranged by prior appointment. Stryker offers more than one tasting menu, so fees vary.

If you would like to take a private tour of the Alexander Valley that includes a stop at Stryker, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Lovely Russian River Valley Inn

In the southwest corner of the Russian River lies the village of Occidental. At one time, logging was the principal industry in this part of Sonoma County. Redwood trees were felled to meet the demand for lumber in booming San Francisco. The trains came to Occidental to pick up lumber for transport back to the city.

Eventually paved roads spread out to Occidental and other logging towns and the railroads died. Today, Californians want to preserve redwoods and logging is greatly restricted. As a result, Occidental is now a sleepy town with a downtown that stretches to fill two blocks. Its location not too far from the wineries of the Russian River and the beautiful coastline makes Occidental a wonderful spot to spend a couple days.

If you do venture to Occidental, the perfect place to call home is the Inn at Occidental. Each of the 16 rooms at suites at the inn have a unique themed. I stayed in the Wine Country Room, which came with wine bottles and collections of cork screws and bottle openers. My favorite themes were in the Safari Room and Marbles Suite. Regardless of the room you choose, you will have a large, comfortable place to call home during your stay in Occidental. The inn's owners and hosts, Tina and Jerry Wolsborn, will make sure that you have a comfortable stay. They will help direct you to nearby attractions and make sure that you are well fed. Your room comes with breakfast and an afternoon wine hour.

Relaxing at the Inn at Occidental is a great cure for the rush of modern life. Occidental has no cell phone service, so you will not be interrupted with pesky annoyances.

If you want to take a vacation that includes a stay at the Inn at Occidental, I would be pleased to help plan your visit. Feel free to contact me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Healdsburg Garagista

Most people have a romantic vision of Wine Country. They picture the vineyards and beautiful tasting rooms. Seldom do they expect to visit a funky warehouse in an office park. Yet many wines are not made anywhere near where the grapes are grown. Some of the most famous wines in the State are made in industrial sections of Wine Country's towns and cities.

This week I had the pleasure of visiting one such winery: Manzanita Creek. This small producer of Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Syrah is located amongst the warehouses and office parks of Healdsburg. When you walk in the door, you will be greeted by one of the owners, either William or Jack Salerno. My group had the pleasure of meeting Jack, who told us a few good wine country stories.

Normally I do not taste when I take customers to wineries. However, my guests said to me, "Rick, you have got to taste this wine." So I did. I like wines with a lot of fruit, and Manzanita Creek's wines were a perfect match for my palate.

I highly recommend a visit to Manzanita Creek if you want to taste good wine and don't care about a fancy tasting room. You will enjoy the wine and meeting one of the Salerno brothers. You might want to call before stopping by to make sure someone will be there. The winery's phone number is (707) 433-4052.

Manzanita Creek is a little hard to find. The address is 1441-B Grove Street in Healdsburg. Exit US101 at Dry Creek Road and turn right. Then turn left on Grove and keep an eye out for the small sign on the left a few hundred yards down the road. Better yet, let me include a stop at Manzanita Creek on your private wine country tour. To book a tour or to get more information, please call me at (866) 326-4237 or e-mail me by clicking here.

Friday, January 19, 2007

More History in Sonoma

Up the valley from the city of Sonoma is the small town of Glen Ellen. Just up the hill from the center of town is Jack London State Park; located on the site of Jack London's Beauty Ranch.

Jack London is one of America's great writers. Born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, Jack London wrote extensively about nature, politics, and the social conditions of late 19th and early 20th century America. After becoming successful, London and his wife, Charmian, purchased land overlooking the Sonoma Valley that they named the Beauty Ranch. Here London wrote, farmed, and supervised the construction of his dream home, the Wolf House. Tragically, the Wolf House was destroyed by fire shortly before the Londons were to move in. The cause of the fire was never discovered.

There is a museum in The House of Happy Walls, which Charmian built as her home after Jack died. You also can see the Wolf House ruins and remnants of the Londons' farm. Hiking, biking, and horse riding trails provide beautiful views of the Sonoma Valley.

If you are a Jack London fan, or just want to learn more about this charismatic author, I recommend a visit to Jack London State Park. It is located just up the road from Benziger winery, which I wrote about on June 10, 2006, so you can combine history with wine tasting.

If you would like to take a private tour of the Sonoma Valley that includes a visit to the Beauty Ranch, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Historic Sonoma Plaza

The town of Sonoma is important in California's history. The last of California's 21 missions, Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma (better known as Mission Sonoma) was founded in 1823; the only mission to be established under Mexican Rule. Nearby are the old barracks and the home of General Mariano Vallejo, a central figure in California's Mexican era as well as the first years of statehood. All of the historic buildings in Sonoma comprise the Sonoma State Historic Park. If you have some time while you are in Sonoma, take a walk back in time by visiting the park. If you are tasting wine with your children in tow, a visit to the Mission will provide them with a nice break from watching you savor your Chardonnay and Cabernet.

Sonoma was also the sight of the Bear Flag Revolt. On June 14, 1846 a rag-tag group of Americans captured General Vallejo and declared California to be independent. William B. Ide became the first and only President of the California Republic. The Republic was short-lived as the American navy sent a detachment to Sonoma on July 9, lowered the Bear Flag, and raised the American Flag. A monument to the Bear Flag revolt is located in the northeast corner of Sonoma Plaza, near the Mission.

If you would like to take a private Sonoma tour that includes a visit to Mission Sonoma, please call me at (866) 326-4237 or e-mail me by clicking here.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Winetasting for Non-Drinkers

Sometimes my tour groups include one or two people who do not drink. Since watching others taste wine is not much fun, I try to visit wineries that would also be enjoyable for the non-drinkers.

Wineries that are interesting to visit for both tasters and obstainers are those with art galleries. The Hess Collection, on Mount Veeder in the Napa Valley, has a large gallery of contemporary art. Three floors of modern art will give the nondrinkers plenty to do while their friends taste Hess' wines in the pretty tasting room. Mumm Napa Valley, producer or quality sparkling wines, has a photography gallery with a regular exhibit of works by Anselm Adams as well as rotating exhibits. Turnbull Wine Cellars, also in the Napa Valley, produces excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and other wines and has a gallery of excellent black and white photographs. Imagery Estate Winery, in the Sonoma Valley, has an on-going exhibit of the original works of art used for their wine labels. Lastly, Clos Pegase Estate Winery, in the northern end of the Napa Valley, has a sculpture garden with works by some of the twentieth century's best known sculptors.

Non-drinkers also enjoy visiting architecturally interesting wineries. Sterling Vineyards sits on a knoll overlooking the Napa Valley. Visitors travel to the winery in a gondola and upon arrival are treated to beautiful views of the valley. In the Carneros Region, Artesa Winery is an architecturally stunning building atop a hill. Great views may be had from the entry way to the winery as well as from the deck outside the tasting room. The winery is also home to a resident sculptor and a small museum on the history of Carneros.

If you are planning a trip to San Francisco with a group that contains both folks who enjoy wine as well as those who do not, I'd be happy to plan a Wine Country tour that includes stops at wineries that all will find interesting. To schedule a tour, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.