Monday, March 17, 2014

Wine Country Favorites

When I take guests on tours of wine country, I frequently am asked to name my favorite winery. I respond that I don’t have one favorite winery; that there are many great wineries. The best wineries for you to visit depend on the types of experiences you want to have and wines you enjoy. This post describes some of my favorite wineries in Napa and Sonoma Counties. I’ve tried to break them down into useful categories. While I have not been to every winery in these two counties, I have visited over 140 tasting rooms in Napa and 130 in Sonoma County. 

Napa County
Napa is all about Cabernet. This is the grape that makes Napa one of the premiere wine producing regions in the world. If you are looking for great Cabernet, just about every winery makes one. If you’re looking for something else to try, you may have to look harder.

Tasting Rooms for White Wine Fans 

If you prefer white wines, Napa can be a challenging place to find a winery with more than one wine you will enjoy. Trefethen is a regular stop on my tours as it has a variety of whites and reds. This family-owned winery produces a couple of Chardonnays, a dry Riesling, a white blend, and other whites as well as Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, a Malbec blend, and a few Cabernets. The friendly tasting room staff will make sure you enjoy your visit. Mike Grgich is one of Napa’s legendary winemakers, making his name on Chardonnay.  

At Grgich Hills, the tasting room usually has a couple of Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs available. Red wine fans can taste Merlot, Zinfandel, and Cabernet.  

St. Supery is one of the few wineries in Napa that is best known for Sauvignon Blanc. Visitors can usually choose from a couple of Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays as well as a Semillon, Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend, and Muscat. The winery also produces a few Cabs and other red wines. 

Wineries for Sparkling Wine Lovers 

If you want to take a tour of a winery that produces sparkling wines, check out Schramsberg. The tour and tasting includes a visit to caves built by Chinese laborers in the 19th century. An appointment is needed and tours fill up well in advance, especially during summer and fall. On popular dates, you may need to book 60 days in advance. 

There’s no place more pleasant that Domaine Carneros’ terrace overlooking the rolling hills over vineyards. You can enjoy flights of sparkling wine and/or Pinot Noir paired with cheeses, caviar, smoked salmon, and other tasty treats. Try to avoid weekends, which can be crowded on nice days.

Tasting California’s Heritage Grape - Zinfandel 

Napa is not generally known for Zinfandel (red, not pink) but a few wineries make very good ones. Two of my favorites are Robert Biale and Elyse. Both require appointments to visit and provide intimate tasting experiences. On a nice day, you can enjoy your wines while seated on Biale’s patio.

Intimate Tasting Experiences 

For me, the best tasting experiences are at small wineries where the staff or owners provide you with a private tasting that walks you through the producers best wines. These wineries require appointments but are worth the extra effort. Many do not distribute their wines or have very limited distribution. Look at any winery map of Napa and you’ll see many names of small wineries you never heard of. Pick one and make an appointment. Two of my favorites are Bell Wine Cellars and Sullivan Vineyard. Both wineries are known for Cabernet. Bell makes a variety of other wines. Sullivan makes a few Cabs, Merlots, and blends. While tasting you could meet one of the owners.

Where to be Wowed 

Napa is home to many wineries that are palatial estates with exquisite architecture and/or beautiful views. Most of these wineries require appointments to visit. Four of my favorites are Hall Wine’s Rutherford winery, Palmaz, Jarvis, and Quixote

Hall’s Rutherford winery is located on a hill overlooking the Valley. When you arrive you’ll enjoy a panoramic view of the Napa Valley while tasting a white wine or rosé. The 90 minute tour and tasting includes a visit to a cave lined with bricks from the Hapsburg Empire and a seated tasting under a Swarovski crystal chandelier in the shape of a grape vine’s root system. 

Palmaz also sits on a hillside with lovely views. The two-hour tour and tasting includes a visit to the one of largest underground reinforced structures in the country. You will see technology that is not found in many wineries. After the tour, you'll enjoy a seated tasting of Palmaz's wines. Often your host is a member of the family.

A tour of Jarvis includes a walk through a beautiful cave with a creek flowing through it and a stop at the ladies room. If not being used, men also get to see this unique restroom. Following the tour, you'll get to taste current release wines in the cave. 

One of the most unique wineries you’ll find anywhere is Quixote. The building was designed by the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Fred, as he was called, did not believe in straight lines and many other architectural rules, making the winery quite whimsical. The tour at Quixote focuses mostly on the architecture rather than the winemaking process. Following the tour, you'll enjoy a seated tasting of Petite Sirah and Cabernet.  

Sonoma County 

Sonoma County is home to 16 wine regions including the Alexander, Dry Creek, Russian River, and Sonoma Valleys. The Russian River Valley is best known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The Dry Creek Valley produces some of California’s best Zinfandel. The Sonoma and Alexander Valleys are best known for Cabernet although many other types of wines are produced in both regions. Given the size of Sonoma County, I’m going to divide my recommendations into two regions: Sonoma Valley and Northern Sonoma County (Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River Valleys).

Sonoma Valley 

If you are a white wine fan, check out Anaba, Nicholson Ranch, and Chateau St. Jean. The first two are small family-owned wineries. Anaba produces a few Chardonnays as well as Viognier and a white Rhone blend. Their reds include Pinot Noir and Rhone varietals such as Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, and Petite Sirah. Nicholson Ranch has a pretty tasting room with views of a lake, oak covered hillside, and a waterfall during the rainy season. They make a variety of Chardonnays, as well as Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Merlot. Chateau St. Jean is surrounded by lovely gardens, making this a great spot for a picnic. It’s best known for Chardonnay and Cabernet and a few of each are usually available for tasting. 

One of the best tours in wine country is offered by Benziger.  The 75 minute experience includes a tram tour through the vineyard where you will learn about biodynamic farming, a visit to the winery’s cave and production facilities, and a tasting of current releases.  Tour reservations are not required but are recommended during the busy season. 

Benziger’s sister winery, Imagery, produces wines from a wide variety of grapes. Here you might be able to taste Viognier, Cinsault, Grenache, Lagrein, Malbec, Mourvedre, Petite Verdot, Tempranillo, and other types of wine that are difficult to find in Napa and Sonoma.  

VJB is a small, family-owned winery that produces Zinfandel and Italian varietals such as Prosecco, Tocai Friulano, Montepulciano, Sangiovese, Sagrantino, and Barbera. The tasting room is not located at the winery but in a freestanding building on CA 12, the main road through Sonoma Valley. The complex also includes an Italian delicatessen, a wood-fired pizza oven, and a patio where you can lunch on a sunny day.

Northern Sonoma County  

Russian River Valley 

The Russian River Valley produces some of California’s best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. There are many great wineries to visit here. A sit-down tasting at Merry Edwards is a great introduction to Russian River Pinot Noir. Merry also makes terrific Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. An appointment is needed for the sit-down tasting, but you can do a shorter, stand-up tasting by just dropping in. 

Lynmar is one of the prettiest wineries in the area. You can often enjoy your tastings on the terrace next to the organic garden. On summer weekends, the winery can arrange a picnic to go with your wine. 

There’s nothing fancy about the tasting room at Porter Creek. It’s just a large shed. Porter Creek is a great spot to taste good wine served by friendly staff in one of the most unpretentious settings in wine country.  

VML’s tasting room is surrounded by pretty gardens, making this winery a nice picnic spot. VML produces a variety of Pinot Noirs and other wines. After tasting, you can pick the perfect VML wine to accompany your food. 

For something completely different, visit Siduri and Novy, two sister wineries located in an office park in Santa Rosa. There are no pretty vineyards or palatial estate. You will learn that great wine can be made far from where the grapes are grown, even in a warehouse. The tasting includes a variety of Pinot Noirs, Syrah, and other wines. 

If you like bubbly, visit Iron Horse on a sunny day. The tasting room is outside with great views of rolling hills of vineyards.

Dry Creek Valley 

Dry Creek Valley’s reputation was built on Zinfandel and there are many great producers. Both Lambert Bridge and Passalacqua have very pretty picnic areas. Both produce Cabernet, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and other wines. 

At Truett Hurst, you can reserve a chair by the Dry Creek to enjoy your wines with a bite to eat. Relaxing by the creek with some good Zin is a perfect way to spend some time in wine country. 

The Tuscan lunch at Kachina Vineyards is a fun wine and food experience. You'll enjoy Kachina's wines paired with cheeses, salumis, and other Italian delicacies. On nice days, you sit outdoors under the trees. You’ll probably be served by one of the owners. A reservation is needed. 
 Lastly, you can visit a lot of tasting rooms with little effort at the former Timber Crest Farms on Dry Creek Road. My favorites include Papapietro-Perry and Peterson. And don’t forget to try the olive oil at Dry Creek Olive Oil Company if you visit before they move to a new home later this year.  

Alexander Valley 

The Alexander Valley made its reputation on Cab. Silver Oak and Jordan are two of the better known producers of Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Field Stone is a great winery to visit when your group includes both white and red wine fans. Here you can taste Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet, Petite Sirah made from vines that are over 115 years old, and other wines.  

Alexander Valley Vineyards (AVV) is one of the bigger producers in the region, best known for Sin Zin. A free winery tour that includes a visit to AVV’s cave is offered daily at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. 

At White Oak, you will taste good, reasonably priced wines while being served by friendly staff. Plus you can enjoy the view from one of the tallest buildings in the Alexander Valley – two stories. White Oak produces Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, Cab, and Zin.  

Stryker Sonoma is a great spot for red wine lovers. Tim, the winemaker, likes to make small lots of wines from Bordeaux varietals, Zin, and other types of grapes. The pretty building enables visitors to enjoy views of the neighboring vineyards while enjoy Stryker's wines. 

In reviewing this list of favorites, I realize I omitted many great wineries. To optimize your wine country visit, do a little research ahead of time and pick some wineries you think you’ll enjoy. Better yet, book a private wine country tour with Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel by phoning (415) 337-1874 or e-mailing