Over the past year, I have spent a few weekends in Napa wine tasting. This has been quite a fun experience, and I have had an excellent tour guide in my friend, Leigh-Anne, who lives in the Bay Area and has taken many of her friends on trips to Napa. She has been to so many of the vineyards and tasting rooms and always has suggestions; but she is always super kind to listen to my requests and make sure that we fit in what I want and have a FABULOUS time.
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When planning a trip to Napa, it can be absolutely overwhelming. There is so much that you can see, but at the same time, you are on vacation, so you do not want to be on a tight schedule the entire trip. Here are my top ten tips for making a wine tasting trip to Napa successful:
1. Start the day with a big breakfast.
Whether you choose to have a sit down breakfast or grab something at a bakery, it is critical to have a full stomach before you start drinking wine. I am a huge fan of Bouchon in Yountville. There is often a long line at the bakery, but it is well worth the wait. Additionally, when we have scheduled tastings without a lunch break, I have picked up a sandwich here. And, it is difficult for me to leave without having at least one macaron. I also recommend snacking and drinking water to stay hydrated, you will thank me in the morning.
2. Plan a few wine tastings, but also leave some free time.
I would recommend making no more than three appointments in a day. My preference is to schedule one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Generally wineries are open from 10 am to 5 pm. Some wineries are by appointment only, so it important to research the wineries in advance. Since Chateau Montelena opens at 9:30, on one trip, we started the day there. In addition to the tastings that you have booked, have a few other wineries in mind if you have time. If you are particularly fond of pinot noir and want to taste more of those, review a few wineries or tasting rooms near the scheduled appointments to see if you will be able to taste something that appeals to you. Alternatively, it can be fun to pass time in between appointments by strolling through the town.
3. Go to a variety of wineries
There are so many wineries to choose from you should try to experience a variety. Don’t go to all well-know wineries or all small ones. Domaine Chandon is a well-known winery and is located near the town of Yountville. I enjoyed the tasting there, but I have also enjoyed going to small wineries such as Whetstone. The two have very different experiences and it is nice to try both.
4. Some of the tasting rooms and wineries have draws other than just the wine.
Castello di Amoroso is an authentically-built 13th century Tuscan castle and winery. This can be a nice diversion and something different if you are concerned with just going from tasting to tasting. Silver Trident has a tasting room in Yountville that is a partnership with Ralph Lauren Home. I really like home furnishings, so it was fun to be able to peruse the area as I was sipping wine. On the tables they had pricing lists for the furnishings in each room. Additionally, the smaller items were available for purchase on the spot.
5. Don’t schedule more than one tour in a day.
These tours can be very informative, but also it is important to not have information overload. I am a big fan of the cave tour at Schramsberg. It is a very informative tour and they have a great history. Additionally, the wine there is delicious! But don’t worry at most places you can have tastings without tours, and many do not offer guided tours at all.
6. Be selective on wine club memberships.
You will no doubt be tempted to join wine clubs. Most will give you free wine tasting(s), perhaps a significant discount on any wine purchases on the day you join, however, then you are signed up to be sent and billed for several shipments of wine per year. How do you decide if the club is right for you? Find out if they will send wine that you will like – often some people prefer a certain varietal and they may not be able to get it as part of the shipment. What kind of discount will you get on wine? Is the cost of each shipment a set amount? I wouldn’t sign up for a club without knowing the shipment amount.
I like being a member at Schramsburg because I get wine that is not readily available, plus we get a free wine tasting every time we go. If you are local, it may be make more sense to become a member especially if there are member events that you would be able to attend.
7. Purchase wine selectively
Some of the wine may only be available for purchase if you are a wine club member or are visiting the tasting room. I always like to ask this question when I am deciding what to buy and carry home with me. I am not particularly fond of carefully wrapping a bottle of wine and checking it with my luggage only to find that it is available at my local wine store. Also, keep in mind that many wineries will waive the tasting fee if you purchase their wine. Additionally, often there is a discount if you join their wine club.
If you do want to purchase wine to take home, you will need to take precautions to make sure the wine makes it safely. Nothing worse than opening up your suitcase to red wine spilled on your favorite dress. If you plan on buying lots of wine, you may like this special suitcase (isn’t it cute?). Please note you need to buy the foam insert separately. If you are only going to bring one or two bottles home, you can buy this reusable wine bag. Wineries will also ship, so you should check with each one for pricing. Also, the wineries generally sell packing supplies and in town, there are stores specifically for wine shipping.
8. Consider hiring a driver or taking the train.
Remember that you will be drinking quite a bit, so have a plan before you begin. Either have a driver or stay in town (Yountville, Calistoga, Napa, St. Helena) so that you can park your car and walk to a few tasting rooms. We had a marvelous time at the Orin Swift tasting room in St. Helena – just because it is an in town tasting room rather than at the actual vineyard doesn’t mean that you can’t still have a great experience. But, if you really want to go from vineyard to vineyard, you can hire an uber. If you haven’t signed up for uber yet, use this link and you can get a free ride!
Another option would be to take the Napa Valley Wine Train. The Napa Valley Wine Train offers a memorable experience that combines the glory days of train travel, with fine dining, Napa Valley scenery and ultimate relaxation aboard exquisitely restored vintage rail cars.
9. Napa is a foodie’s delight, so be sure to do a little research before your trip.
Without reservations, you may be limited in your options, so it is best to plan ahead. La Toque, recipient of a coveted Michelin Star, is located in the town of Napa and I enjoyed a wonderful meal there. Morimoto is also located in Napa and I enjoyed their tasting menu. It was a treat to be able to taste so many different items all in one meal. Additionally, we really enjoyed our dinner at Evangeline during our stay at Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Spring Resort.
10. Above all, relax and have fun wine tasting!
Don’t worry if you’re not a wine expert, everyone can still enjoy wine. Just taste the wine and find out what appeals most to you.
Have you been to Napa? We would love to hear about your wine tasting experience and other tips in the comments.
- There really isn’t a bad time of year to go. Yes, there is harvest, but of course this is also when there will be large crowds. I have had a great time visiting in the winter when the valley is not as crowded.
- Be sure to eat and drink water along with the wine.
- If you are in the planning stages of your trip, consider seeing if you can pre-purchase a wine passport that is good for tastings at various wineries. This often is a good value even if you only intend to go to three or four of the wineries listed.
- Here are two additional guides that can help you get started on your planning: Food and Wine and Palate Exposure.
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