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Jun 5, 2001 04:30 PM

Most enjoyable wineries of Napa and Sonoma?

  • s

I will be making a trip to the Napa and Sonoma areas in mid-June and would appreciate recommendations for smaller, more interesting wineries to visit. How likely is it that I will get an opportunity to try some of the finer wines in the wineries' tasting rooms? Do any winemakers allow visitors to set foot in the vineyards proper?

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  1. GREAT topic for discussion. I feel the same way...I don't want to sit among tourists seeking quick buzz by slurping down the bottom-of-the-line red and white from each winery. Boring, unchowhoundish, not good.

    How DOES one get to try the better wines? I know in some places you can pay a by-the-glass fee (fine, whatever it takes). Some places offer no obvious alternatives. Are there other strategies?
    Melanie? (gg)


    7 Replies
    1. re: Jim Leff

      There are many choices here of smaller high quality wineries. Each one is so different and that makes the experience even more fun. Most can be contacted by phone (sometimes by e-mail) to make an appointment. I used to love visiting the tiny ones on a shoestring who were putting their hearts into the wines. (Some of those have grown into bigger fancier wineries but still make good wine.)

      Most will be happy to have you visit if you are truly interested in their wine. Could you narrow your question to things like varietals, how small, how big (the mid-size wineries like Joseph Phelps, Chateau Montelena, Dry Creek, etc. can be fun if not quite as personal)? Some have incredible views. The Silverado Winery ( the winery started by the Disney family) in Napa has a friendly tasting room, good mid-priced wines and don't charge a fee for tasting, or require an appointment.

      One of our favorites for super wines in a beautiful spot, the tiny Smith-Madrone, is on the top of Spring Mt. outside St. Helena, and would require an appointment.

      Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma is full of small wineries that make very good Zinfandels, and an outing though there is a lot of fun.

      I'm sure you can get some other good suggestions from chowhounds who live here or close by. Actually, probably some from others that have visited here
      before. Have fun!

      1. re: Ann L.

        It's great how all us local's jump on this one. There are so many places to drink/taste wine around here. One suggestion is to call the Napa Visitors Bureau and find out exact info. you'll need. The Napa number is: 707.226.7459. They fax & email everything you'd need in the area.
        It would be fun for you to try a winery in each appellation . . . one in Carneros, one in Stags Leap District, Howell Mountain, etc. It seems like alot to take in but on personal knowledge, wineries appreciate consumers who are truly interested & honest in gaining personal knowledge more than "industry folk". Theres more sincere trust in sharing knowledge, added appreciation & less "weight". A personal friendship in their craft/life-style is a worthwhile thing.
        Melanie's right with keeping notes & buying wine. It's gives you crediblity & them respect for time & product. I need to suggest a few favorites here as I send friends on the road tasting often.
        In Carneros, Saintsbury is a great experinece. The wine maker has been there 15 years & most of the front staff. They don't care who you are if you love Pinot.
        See if they'll taste you on their Pinot Gris, a true treasure. Swanson Vineyards/ Salon off 29# is fabulous. Great tasting experience that will cost you $20 (need appointment) but will get you a personal tour, tastes of everything they make from appropriate Reidel glasses, beautiful cheese plate & chocolate truffles. If you get Alyson for the tasting, you will be in for some fun. Franus Vineyards on #29 in Rutherford is truly unique. Peter Franus will take you through a barrel tasting of his Zinfandels that will leave you speechless & so happy, no charge. You'll just "need" some of his wines. Kent Rasmussen is another great experince in St. Helena off Silverado Trail and most of their wines are Carneros fruit. Again, great Pinot's & Chardonnay. Try Steltzner Vineyards & Regusi on Silverado Trail for great Cabernet, also tiny places. Sonoma is a whole new venue. There's always too little time for all the wonderful wine. Saludt!

        1. re: Lucy Gore

          One thing I meant to mention, Ramo. There are many, MANY small wineries that can only show their wines by appointment due to restrictions in their liceneses. It has nothing to do with trying to be exclusive, ultra-highend or anything of the sort. Many of these folks are so appreciative of all to call. So don't be put off by "appointment only's". They will be some of your all-time-best wine tasting experiences. Enjoy!

          1. re: Lucy Gore

            Disabled by a vine less kind than the grape, I was able only to visit a single winery. Corby Kummer's paean to Louis M. Martini's moscato amabile had left me determined to buy a bottle or three, so the Martini winery was my sole stop. (Very politely, the staff ignored the poison oak blisters on my legs which looked more like leprosy.) Martini produces a very fine Bordeaux style wine called "Los NiƱos," which I was able to try as part of a six dollar wine flight, and I also tried a number of pleasant whites. Since I'd arrived quite early (following Melanie's kind suggestion) I enjoyed a personal tour of the winery, given by a pleasant young woman who did not hesitate to hail the men making the wine and subject them to my inquiries. Thanks to her and to a fellow named Doug I learned quite a bit about the fining process, and determined that those who do not want to harm animals need to be wary of wines fined with gelatin or isinglass--and many wines are fined with these, rather than with such vegetarian fining agents as bentonite, egg whites and dried milk. I bought a few bottles of wine, was poured some more once it was clear I was intent on spending some money, and drove home in a very chilly car to keep the moscato amabile (an effervescent muscat sold only at the winery) more or less refrigerated--it has to be chilled from the time it is made until it is drunk.
            I will make good use of all the information provided by fellow chowhounds when I visit Napa, Sonoma, Russian River and the Anderson Valley later this year. To all who informed, my thanks.


            1. re: Samo

              Samo, thanks for reporting back.

              Ah yes, Moscato Amabile. I have friends in SoCal who make a run up here every year with ice chests in the trunk to keep the precious load cold for the drive home. Since it's so low in alcohol, you can freeze it in an ice cream machine and make a delicious sorbetto.

              I'm surprised that Kummer says that Moscato d'Asti is hard to find. There are many nice ones imported to the US, availability has improved dramatically in the last 4 years or so. The trick is to buy the freshest, youngest one you can find. This is not a wine that improves with age.

              Love those peachy fizzies on a warm summer day. And with those low alcohols, you can easily gulp down a whole bottle by yourself and not feel any ill effects.

              Hope you're healing quickly.

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                Haven't tried the Martini version, but I haven't found a version yet which compares with the (imported) moscato from Giorgio Rivetti. $15 for summertime bliss!!

                1. re: Mark Lee
                  Melanie Wong

                  Ah, Rivetti! Great producer, Rivetti's "La Spinetta" Moscato d'Asti is wonderful but can be hard to find. La Spinetta is underappreciated, IMO. Much more subtle, minerally and refined than many Moscatos. A real wine, and not just fizz. You are a connoisseur.

    2. b
      Brandon Nelson

      Good Subject

      Some of my favorites are; Plumpjack for it's small size and personal touch, Saddleback for incredible Viognior (they sell by allocation and there is a waiting list, contact the winery) ,Carneros Creek for not being too touristy (Killer Chardonay), and I recomend that everyone should enjoy a glass of 93 La Reve on the terrace at Domaine Carneros.

      Ask if they are pouring anything that isn't on the list. I have been the benafactor of a few "asides" just by being friendly. Being a local doesn't hurt though. The tourists are a neccesary evil, but they don't enjoy a lot of the perks the locals get. Have fun.


      1 Reply
      1. re: Brandon Nelson

        I second the recommendation for plumpjack. Visited this winery a month or so ago and really enjoyed the experience -- very quiet and peaceful, sat on the back deck in the afternoon sun looking out over the vineyard, sigh...

      2. m
        Melanie Wong

        Hey Samo, I've really enjoyed your posts on a myriad of topics.

        I'm on the road, but let me drop a few tips for getting the best from the tasting rooms. First, let's do a reality check, bear in mind that many of the small production Calif. cult labels don't have tasting rooms. In fact, they don't even have wineries, as they use contracted facilities and consulting winemakers to produce their wine. Hopefully you're visiting mid-week and not on a summer weekend when the popular places in Napa Valley and increasingly Sonoma will be mobbed. Little chance of any special attention otherwise. While the staff may be inclined to offer you a taste of something special, if the place is crowded and someone else spots them doing this, suddenly they're on the hook for 50 pours, a situation they'll try to avoid. Also remember that wines are selling through very fast these days, and many wineries highly allocated top wines are already spoken for and not available for sale or sampling in the tasting room.

        In St. Helena (Napa side), visit Beringer and ask for the Founders Room. A selection of older vintages and reserve wines are available for a charge for tasting.

        Several tactics for getting any tasting room to open the best stuff -

        Go early in the day when the decisions about what to open are being made and they still have the chance to finish the whole bottle that day.

        Join the winery's wine club. More are offering special services only to club members who are high rollers.

        Make an appointment to taste/tour. Better yet, have your favorite retail wine shop make an appointment for you and ask for VIP service. If you do, please show up. Wineries tell me that they have more than 50% no-shows.

        Buy something. Some wineries have an open bottle under the counter that is reserved for paying customers (vs. lookie lous).

        Carry a notebook or micro-tape recorder for your impressions. You need to look like you're serious and not out on a group drunk.

        Wineries will offer tours of their vineyards. Don't bring any plant material from Southern Calif., we're all edgy about spreading Pierces's disease and glassy-winged sharpshooters. For the polished version, try Benziger in Glen Ellen (Sonoma side). They're moving toward organic, making good wines at each price point (try the Imagery line, only available at the winery), and they have a tram. Or Robert Mondavi in Oakville. The new winery with all oak fermentation vats is finally done and ToKalon is the prized vineyard of the estate. I believe you can walk through it. You may need appointments for these.

        At the smaller places that grow and produce their own wine, you might get an impromptu tour if they like you and the vineyardist has some free time. Here's a link to an earlier thread on some of my favorite Zin producers in Sonoma County.


        3 Replies
        1. re: Melanie Wong
          Dixie Chicken (Gerard)

          I second Melanie's tip about going thru your local wine retailer. I've done this a number of times and the winery experiences have always been fantastic. In fact, after a very high end tour of the Robert Mondavi winery and some very wonderful wine, our guide asked my wife and I "so, what part of the wine industry are you in?" It appears that in the reservation process, it got translated that we were in the business. It was one of those happy accidents.

          1. re: Dixie Chicken (Gerard)

            Every time I am asked that question-industry affiliation-I tell them that I am the most important of the industry members--a consumer.

            1. re: Mark B

              Absolutely. Wish more producers would remember this.

        2. r
          Randy Salenfriend

          This is a subject near and dear to my heart!! We have been tasting and collecting wines and visiting wine country for many years. In my experience, it helps to approach the "wine country" by considering its various appellations, each with their own relative strengths and weaknesses. We prefer the less crowded areas of the respective valleys and thus tend to frequent them. This summary will be geographic in nature, that is, beginning with the first stops along the entrance to Sonoma/Napa at Shellville on Highway 12, just prior to the right fork where you begin your journey.

          1) Stop at Schug Winery. Walter Schug is quite skilled in utilizing Burgundian methods in crafting his Pinot Noirs. Small tasting room with warm, friendly staff. Nice variety of wines featured with opportunites to sample different reserves.

          2)Head to the Carneros region for a wonderful sampling of less frenetic(read crowded) wineries. Off Highway 12, locate Duhig Road. This pastoral portion of Carneros has a veritable treasure trove of small, premium wineries, i.e., Acacia, McKenzie-Mueller and Adastra. The latter has superb Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay. Once again, a very small facility, although I am not certain as to whether they are open to the public absent an appointment.

          3) Head back towards Highway 12 and locate Old Sonoma Road. In my opinion, one of the finest small, small production wineries in all of the State lies ahead, Truchard Winery. You will definitely need an appointment here. Contact JoAnn & Tony Truchard and reserve a spot. Lovely grounds, beautiful cool cave to explore and superb juice to savor. The Truchards are lovely people and maintain a nice stock of older, library wines. Purchase them if you can.

          4)If you still have the time and the wherewithal, take Old Sonoma Road into Napa. This is a great alternate route and it is a beautiful drive. Head North on Hwy 29 and cut over to the Silverado Trail ASAP, thus avoiding as much traffic as possible. Look for Robert Sinskey winery. Contact them before hand and find out if they are having a dinner while you are in town. For my birthday last year, we had quite possibly the finest dinner experience ever. From a veranda overlooking the vineyards, superb wine flowed all night, complimenting the marvelous cuisine of Maria Helm-Sinskey, formerly Chef of PlumpJack in The City. Grilled Quail, beef tenderloin, fresh prawn and corn chowder, served with fabulous Pinot Blanc, Reserve Pinot, Claret and more. Divine.

          5) If you have more time on day 2 or 3, head to the Russian River area of Sonoma. First, stop at Chateau Souverain. Although a large prodcution winery, their reserve Cabernets are quite nice and can be tasted/purchased at the winery. Two other benefits, this winery commands a sweeping view of the Alexander Valley which is stunning and also features a serene and charming cafe, where you can sit outside on the deck and enjoy said view.

          6) Head to Westside Road in the Russian River area. This is one of the most beautiful regions in all of wine country, dense woods, lush vineyards and the meandering river. Seek out Rochioli Vineyards, legendary for Pinot and Chardonnay. Small tasting room with a nice outdoor area overlooking the vineyard. Generally, they only pour two wines, the above two. The difference however, is that Rochioli wines are so extraordinary that the standard bottlings far surpass some winery's so called reserves. Then, head to Madrona Manor for lunch or dinner. Even if you cannot eat there, stop by and marvel at the stately old Victorian and marvel at the beautifully landscaped grounds. If you still seek more wine, you are surrounded by outstanding wineries aplenty!!

          I could go on but this represents a good cross-section of the different areas. I just remembered Landmark, in Sonoma County. Better stop before more pop into my head!! Enjoy.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Randy Salenfriend
            Randy Salenfriend

            Oops. Locals will recognize my faux pas in the previous post. I meant Highway 121, NOT 12. Apologies are in order. I really must get more sleep.

            1. re: Randy Salenfriend

              Maybe you spent too much time at Tower

          2. I really like Dutch Henry, in St. Helena on Silverado road (or is it trail... sorry) and Larkmead. It's small, laidback, and the staff is mellow. Try the 1998 Merlot, and pet the dogs before you leave.