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Please help me narrow down my Napa wine tasting options

I know you get these kinds of requests all the time, so I tried to do my homework and read past threads before posting. We are visiting the Napa area next month and are having trouble deciding which wineries to visit. To be honest, we are not very knowledgeable about wine, so we are more interested in visiting places that have an interesting tour or stunning grounds than finding the best wine. We don't mind a touristy place, since we are more tourists than wine connoisseurs. We prefer white wines, although we also enjoy reds, and we love sparkling wine. We've visited the area once before, and had a great time at Sterling vineyards and Schramsberg. We loved the aerial tram ride at Sterling and the beautiful grounds, although we didn't like the wine that much. Schramsberg was an amazing experience for us...we thoroughly enjoyed the tour of the caves, which was very interesting and educational, and we *loved* their sparkling wines (fortunately we can continue to buy them where we live). We want to go to different places this time, but I think that gives you an idea of what we are looking for. Based on reading past chowhound threads, I was thinking of going to the following places:
Del Dotto
Domaine Carneros
Domaine Chandon
Frog's Leap
Joseph Phelps
Robert Mondavi
St. Supery
We'll probably only have time to visit 3 places. Which of these will be the most enjoyable for us? Or is there someplace else that should be on my list? Thanks in advance!

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  1. Some of our favorites are Cliff Lede, a beautiful tasting room with outstanding wines, both still and bubbly. Miner Family has a great view, sits high on a hill, and has a very tasty portfolio of wines to taste plus are very friendly. You have Frogs Leap on you list and thats a great place, believe you need an appointment but good wines and a very interesting winery. Another great winery in the same area is Robert Sinskey. Outstanding pinots all geared towards being enjoyed with food. Very pretty tasting room with again, a very friendly staff.

    I'd stay away from Mondovi, Beringer, both are always crowded. Both Domaines you listed have sparkling wines for the most part as is Mumm. Del Dotto is a half day experience almost, interesting but it's long and you get to taste a ton of wine, so much so you can get a little buzz on.

    If you want to go north, Frank Family is lovely, a very old winery but with excellent wines. In the same area is August Briggs, super wines, friendly staff.

    Have a great time.

    6 Replies
    1. re: rtmonty

      Due to a recent conversation I've had with HillJ (http://www.chowhound.com/topics/539551), I'd like to post about my terrible experience I've had at Frank Family two years ago just to give you guys a different perspective because I have only read positive things about that winery here.

      We went there because we had about an hour to kill before dinner reservations and were in the area. DH and I were basically snubbed and ignored by the wine host there. I was shocked because all I've read is that they're known for being friendly and like one big family. Ha! There was another European couple who was treated the same way we were. The only thing I can think of that we have in common is that our way of dressing was probably more "metropolitan" than the other people there.

      It was really strange. The host was all smiles and cheers to the other people in the tasting group. Then when he saw us and the other Euro couple, his face did a total 180 and became Mr. Hyde with us. He was really nasty and acted like he was doing a favor by pouring us some wine. He didn't try to engage in any conversation with us. And if one of us would answer a question, we were ignored! And then he would be Dr. Jekyll with the other people, laughing and being jovial. We never did anything to antagonize the man at all. If he was Mr. Hyde with everybody, I would understand it more and just chalk it up to him being a general ass. But he was selectively an asshole. Seriously, I have a feeling he pre-judged us from how we were dressed, probably thinking we were snooty "city folk" who looked down on the place. We ended up leaving after 15 minutes we stepped foot in there. I think the Euro couple stayed.

      When I was on tripadvisor last night, I was actually a bit surprised that I read a couple of negative reports of rudeness from the staff. Guess it wasn't just me. I just cannot recommend this place at all. But I can understand if one would want to go there -- perhaps they treat 99% of the people well. I just happened to fall into that 1%.

      Nicole, if you are interested in tasting some late harvest cabernet, you may want to look at Van der Heyden. They are the only winery in the world that produces it for commercial consumption.

      1. re: Miss Needle

        I've also noticed a personality problem with one of the tasting room employees there. He's rude, sometimes inaccurate about the wines, and his comments are occasionally lurid and distasteful.

        1. re: maria lorraine

          I see. I was just so surprised because until last night on tripadvisor, every single thing I've read about the place led me to believe they were the friendliest winery in the valley. I'll bet the travel writers probably don't get that particular employee. Well, with the exception of the Euro couple and us, everybody looked like they were having a good time.

        2. re: Miss Needle

          This may or may not be the case here. However, a weird thing happens at some places in wine country ... restaurants, wineries, shops. Some places treat non-locals or people who are not wine professioals like garbage.

          So they might have been familiar with the group they were falling all over. Since you were a new face and not an industry pro ... no service for you.

          One restaurant I HATE for this is Duece. I have never felt so left out and in the cold at any restaurant ...ever. They laughed and greeted people by name and talked with customers about their businesses and friends. I could barely get the attention of the waiter and all questions were met with curt abrupt replies and bored. looks.

          And though it is their lifeline, some places are just out and out nasty to tourists.

          1. re: rworange

            I definitely understand giving preferential treatment to regulars or pros, but do find it objectionable when a place treats nonregulars or nonindustry folks with such disdain. I don't think I would have been as shocked if I didn't read that Frank Family was actually known for being friendly. The guy's demeanor seemed to be the antithesis of everything I've read about.

            Thanks for letting me know about Deuce. I don't think I'll be going there.

        3. re: rtmonty

          For sparkling I would definitely add Gloria Ferrer right outside the town of Sonoma. It's very pretty and the wines are better than either of the Domain's in my opinion (Carneros was especially a disappointment). Across the street from Gloria Ferrer is the Cornerstone Center which has a couple of tasting rooms from different wineries, including Artesa. Artesa makes one sparkling wine which is great if you like your champagne quite dry.
          Not sure how much you'll enjoy Joseph Phelps, the wines are great and the views beautiful, but if you go do the terrace tasting, it's more casual and while I thought the seminar ($30) was a unique and educational tasting experience it was a little snooty.
          Enjoy your visit!

        4. I think that's a good list for your taste preferences and novice status.

          I'd start with Mondavi and/or Beringer, and go on the wine tours to learn about the process of winemaking and get that under your belt first. Mondavi makes some very nice Sauvignon Blanc/Fume Blanc, especially the To-Kalon. Beringer makes wines at a lot of price points; some of their higher-end Chardonnays are nice.

          Domaine Chandon used to give an excellent bubbly-making tour, so check into that and give that a shot. Pretty there.

          Domaine Carneros, based in a sort of a faux chateau, makes several bubblies and has a great one called Le Reve.

          St. Supery has a wine "sensory" center, that can help identify specific aromas and flavors in wines, plus they produce a couple of good white wines. Nice grounds also.

          Mumm's patio has beautiful sweeping view of inner Napa Valley -- get a good table and do the tasting of the older "late-disgorged" bubblies. Permanent Ansel Adams photo exhibit there too.

          INickel & Nickel is a standout, and I'd especially recommend your tasting the single-vineyard Chardonnays there. There are many of them, and you can learn what makes a single-vineyard wine so interesting. Be sure to tell N&N your white-wine preferences when you call, so you can focus on those. Stunning wines, very elegant grounds, and well worth the price of the tasting. Everything is first-class.

          You may wish to make your white-wine drinking preferences known when you call any winery and make a reservation. And do make a reservation -- you will get much better treatment and personalized service! This can make a big difference in the quality of your experience.

          Last, since Napa's best Chardonnays tend to be grown in the Carneros, the cooler region of Napa Valley that's just north of the north end of San Francisco Bay, you may want want to research the wineries in that area, though many wineries have vineyards there and their wine-making facilities farther north in the heart of the valley.

          Phelps (always wonderful but their focus is red wines).
          Yes to Frog's Leap, but not much white wine there.

          The one winery I would avoid is Rubicon -- $25 per head just to enter the grounds -- not worth it in the slightest, and the wines are flabby, over-ripe and not well-made. What may have made Rubicon appealing in the past -- the Coppolo movie-making memorabilia -- is no longer there. I don't know if Del Dotto is a good fit for you -- I'm not sure they make a single white wine.

          Good luck to you.

          1. OP here--thanks so much for the detailed replies! They are very helpful as I plan my itinerary. Maria, thanks for pointing out which places have sparkling and white wines and for your suggestion to express my preferences when I make a reservation. This is still going to be a tough decision with so many good options!

            1. Absolutely hit: Del Dotto

              Consider: Domaine Carneros, Domaine Chandon, Joseph Phelps, Frog's Leap

              Avoid: Rubicon

              2 Replies
              1. re: whiner

                I must add that you should DEFINITELY go to Cakebread. It's a bit smaller, but for $10 you get 6 tastings. Plus, the property is a bit more intimate and it's gorgeous. If you go to Frog's Leap, I would also suggest you try Honig, which is pretty much right next door. It's also much smaller, but the wines are really great and they're also very down to earth, friendly and casual. We're not wine connoiseurs, we just like what we like. I'm envious! I LOVE Napa and sadly we don't get there very often since we live in Chicago. We were just there in May though. Cheers and have a great time!

                1. re: scout1

                  I know Cakebread is well loved and I really liked their wines outside of the winery, but my experience there was disappointing. I thought the tour was overly commercial, and the tasting format uncomfortable as a group of us stood in a semi-circle in the aisle between stainless steel barrels, with no access to water or crackers, and with the dump bucket positioned awkwardly on a barrel behind the tasting host. Other than that I thought the wines were really flat, but perhaps that sense was in part a result of having no way to cleanse the palette and no water available.

              2. depending on where you're staying, I would ask your hotel concierge if they have free wine tasting vouchers. We stayed at the Westin in SF for our day trip to Napa and the concierge gave us a few (including Opus One, which is normally $65/pp)

                1. Schramsberg really is amazing - great wines and great place. A teaching tour.

                  Chandon is beautiful. A very lovely place.

                  The tasting room and patio at Mumm are nearly as beautiful as Chandon, and they do have the Ansel Adams collection and additional exhibit, if you like photography.

                  Mondavi is SO touristy that I cannot enjoy it.

                  I like the Chard and Sauv Blanc from both Raymond and Flora Springs - I'm a member of both clubs, primarily for the Trilogy red from FS and the Generations Cab from Raymond.

                  I'm sorry you did not enjoy the wines at Sterling. When I visited several years ago I paid a few more dollars to taste in their "Reserve" or Members room. If you are going to only three wineries I highly recommend that you pay the Upcharge to taste their Reserve or Library wines. Yes you must pay a bit for the 'regular' wines but think about the total cost of your trip and put in perspective the small extra expenditure for the 'best' wines available; that is money well spent.

                  Finally, Merryvale is one of the last tasting rooms to close. They do have some very good wines. It's quite a social scene there.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: AreBe

                    You know, I did not like Merryvale; I thought most of their regular wines very underwhelming, except for the Reserve tasting (surprise, but I was in no mood to pay the price for those wines). If you're looking for the very last winery to stay open, I'd much rather hit Peju, which closes at 6.

                    To address others, I would agree with the reply about Cakebread- the tour and tasting is rather pedestrian. Admittedly, the one time I did the regular tour and tasting was a cold March day, but they acted as if the cold had no effect on people's ability to taste or smell- it was all rather funny, a group of people huddled together desperately trying to get their reds to warm up using only our hands. But my wife's parents are members there, so we just go when visitors are in town because of the name and we can use the members tasting area.

                    For Frank Family, I guess we had a slightly better experience than some others, not great by any means, but a little better. The person pouring in the second room gave far greater attention to some groups over others. I won't say we were ignored, but he was not very attentive.

                    Definately hit Frog's Leap, but call ahead to make a reservation as they fill up quickly.

                    My wife is a member at Mumm, so we go there almost every time we go up to Napa. No caves, but they have free tours throughout the day. And you get your money's worth of sparkling.

                  2. This is great advice! Thanks again to everyone!

                    1. Hey Nicole,

                      Napa is our FAVORITE place, I highly recommend "Jarvis Winery" its actually built into a cave, with a natural spring and waterfall inside, absolutely stunning! You do need reservations and its about $30.00 per person, but worth every dime, the wine tasting room is beautiful, the food paring is fabulous, your not rushed. Its a definite "do not miss"! Oh, and yes the wines are excellent! Another plus, they donot push you to buy anything!

                      Over in Sonoma, not far at all, is Ledson Winery, its a huge beautiful castle, the grounds are perfect for a picnic and bottle of wine, and wine tasting rooms in the castle are breathtaking and the wines are terrific, as are the people that work there.

                      These are definitely "YOUR MUST SEE" wineries, you will have beautiful grounds, absolute knowledgeable, outgoing, personable people interacting with you, and the wines are excellent!

                      Sip, Swirl and Savor!