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Winery Overload - a Napa Breakdown

My wife and I and another couple are taking a trip to San Francisco and Napa this upcoming Labor Day weekend. I have spent much time sifting and digging through the Chowhound archives to try and find the best wineries and vineyards to visit. All I have to show for it is a headache and a convoluted list.

Here is our plan as of yet. One couple arrives in SF and the other in Oakland. We rent a car and get to Napa around 2pm and check into the Avia Hotel. We would love to go to a very educational and informative winery/vineryard/winebar to begin the trip. Something nearby the hotel would be best. Suggestions?

Next, for Friday and Saturday we are planning on hiring a driver – either Home Sweet Home Car Service or Wine Country Driver. Suggestions? Is there something better?

The consensus of the group is to hit a couple of nice tasting/tours with some more moderate to cheap tasting in between. We have all day Friday and Saturday for these. We will leave Saturday night to head back to San Francisco. We do have reservations on Friday (Ad Hoc @ 8:30) and Saturday (Bistro Don Giovanni’s @ 7:30).

Here is the convoluted list of wineries:
• Del Dotto
• Silver Oak
• Jarvis
• Jordan
• Cakebread
• Duckhorn
• Fleury
• Hess
• Honig
• Frog’s Leap
• Paloma

I would love some direction – maybe thumbs up; thumbs down. Also, what are some good wine & cheap ($10 or under) tastings?

Thank you so much. Frustrated yet excited.

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  1. FYI: the Bay Bridge that connects SF and Oakland will be completely closed down from Thursday at 8 p.m. until Tuesday morning at 5 a.m. for a big retro fit project.

    There is however BART that goes directly from SFO to Oakland, Berkeley and the East Bay. Here's more info: http://baybridgeinfo.org/1/index.html

    2 Replies
    1. re: ML8000

      Good point. The best plan for these two couples would be for the ones arriving in SFO to take BART over to Oakland airport (there's a shuttle to the airport at Coliseum BART), meet their friends and take the rental car from there (or, if the friends flying into Oakland get there first, they can obviously meet them at the BART station).

      Wineries. It really depends on your level of experience. Everyone who is interested in wine should do a full winery tour at least once, but when you've seen one winemaking facility you've basically seen them all, so unless you're really interested in the processing side, there's no reason to do another full tour (okay, maybe a sparkling wine tour, since that's slightly different). After that, then it depends on what you want to get out of the visit. Do you want to taste a complete line from each producer? Do you want to taste a specific type of wine from a variety of producers? What price range are you interested in? Do you want to meet someone actually involved in making the wine, or are you okay with a knowledgeable sales person running the tasting room?

      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        Ruth - thanks for the "one tour is enough." That is a very good point. Seeing that this will be all of our first time to Napa, I am at a loss for what we want to do and/or what we should do. I think we would rather taste complete lines and enjoy one place at a time versus tasting specific varietals at many different places at shorter intervals. Price ranges can vary. We would like to go to a couple higher-end places and then throw in more budget friendly ($10) tastings. As for who is serving us, I don't really mind. If there are some small vineyards with great wines where you get to sit with the owner and drink, I wouldn't pass it up.

    2. Ok, so I posted about my Napa/wine country trip last weekend. If you would like information about your hotel, please email me. I tried to mention something about it to another Hound, but the moderators caught me as it wasn't CH related. (Sorry Chow Team!!!)

      Ok, SO I visited Cakebread and Honig last weekend. From what I understand, the greater Napa/wine country region has passed new regulations as to how tastings are done and wineries must now require appointments. Maybe another hound can elaborate on this. I went to both with wine club members so I think there was some wiggle room there, but you should call the wineries you are interested in to see where you can squeeze in. Honig's tastings are $10 a person or free with a $50 purchase. I really enjoyed my time there and their wines. Cakebread is definitely appointment only and the cost per person depends on what tour you opt for and what wines you are tasting (basically, the depth of your tour). You can get more information here http://www.cakebread.com/tours/tours_...

      FYI - Frog's Leap and Honig are down the lane from eachother and there are others on that little stretch as well, but don't remember who just off the top of my head.

      1 Reply
      1. re: adrienne156

        Thanks Adrienne. I read your post earlier; however, not soon enough to get the low down on Avia. I think I will take you up on your offer to email you.

      2. Some of your wineries are very far out and given holiday/weekend traffic could take quite some time to get around. Even though the wines are good I would remove Paloma and Hess as they are far off the beaten path.

        Jarvis is a nice tour and so is Nickel and Nickel which is not on your list both are relatively expensive. You should also consider Schramsberg which is a good tour/tasting for sparkling wine.

        It would be good to know whether your group prefers red or white wine. Some places are better known for one or the other.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Scott M

          Thanks, Scott. I really appreciate the geography lesson, that will definitely help narrow the selections. I would say the majority of us prefer reds a little over whites and stills over sparkling.

          1. re: AAnthony

            Some addtional things to keep in mind. Jarvis is also a little out of the way (ie. not on the Silverado Trail or Hwy 29) but not an unreasonable distance from Avia. But there are no other wineries in the general vicinity. Also, the tour is better than the wines.

        2. "We would love to go to a very educational and informative winery/vineryard/winebar to begin the trip. Something nearby the hotel"

          Backroom wines is a wine shop at First and Main, across from Bounty Hunter. The owner Dan is a great guy and knows his stuff. Very casual with good selection. They do tasting every afternoon and have Friday night events usually with a few winemakers pouring their wines. http://www.backroomwines.com/visit/wi...

          Vintners Collective is a little more fancy tasting room-ish, with many small wineries represented. On Main at Clinton. http://www.vintnerscollective.com/

          Backroom Wines
          1000 Main Street, Shop 120, Napa, CA 94559

          4 Replies
          1. re: Junie D

            For a truly informative winery experience, and in Napa so not too far from Avia, try Hendry Wines -- appointments are a must. You will probably spend time walking the fields and tasting wine with George Hendry, the owner/winemaker. He is great, as are the wines.

            1. re: stevenmargolis

              Gotta agree with stevenmargolis on this one. Hendry is one of the most informative tours I've been to in Napa. You need an appointment, but it's FREE!

              During our visit, George Hendry took as around himself...we spent about an hour touring the vineyards, tasting the grapes and looking at all the cool machines they use for winemaking and bottling. We then spent another hour sitting at a table tasting all their current releases (around 11 wines). I particularly like how he tells you what kind of food he likes to have with each wine, and also how you get to taste some wines side by side (2 zins from different blocks, or 100% cab vs. blend).

                1. re: arlenemae

                  For Labor Day weekend, I know that Hendry has Harvest Tours for mailing list members so general public appts may not be available.

            2. You are aware that Jordan is in Alexander Valley, some distance from Napa, also spots are required there.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Mariana in Baja

                Not to mention a very pretty drive through the redwoods and alongside Napa Creek . . . . I love Hess too.
                Also, for the sheer beauty of the setting (and some decent not too expensive tastings), Artesa in Napa is awesome - it's accessible on scenic beautiful off the beaten path roads through the vineyards from Brown's Valley area of Napa. Since I don't like crowds, I would seek out some of the tucked away gems like these on a busy Labor Day weekend. The 29 corridor and the Silverado Trail will likely be packed as folks get in their last vacation of summer.

              2. First, everyone does have their own style of doing wineries / tours, and as a first timer you should consider being flexible. Some people like hitting a few places with longer gaps. Some people like hitting as many wineries as possible in the shortest time. Some people are willing to taste just two wines and get out of dodge.

                Second, if you spend some significant time at a tasting room, and feel some connection with the sales person, and you've bought some of their wine, ask them where else they'd recommend you go. At that point, they've got no interest in making a sale, and should be honest about what you'd enjoy.

                Third, be willing to not go through the entire wine catalog, and be willing to "spit" (throw away part of your glass). I'm large and can hold my wine, and I just don't like going through 9 or 10 wines before rolling off to the next place. Drinking everything poured means I can only taste at 3 or 4 places before I need to go sleep it off. If you take a small sip and really don't like it, that's what the spittoon things on the counters are for. And feel free to just do reds or whites, simply to cut down on the amount of wine consumed. My girlfriend and I would actually "split" a tasting, simply to cut down on the amount of wine consumed - we'd also have one or the other of us taste everything, then have the other taste only the "good stuff"

                Regarding value, every tasting I've seen takes the tasting fee off wine purchase. It's rare, for me, that any reasonable winery doesn't have *a single* bottle that's interesting enough to buy. If you've got a party of 5, say, and it's a 10 dollar tasting, would you rather hand them $50 and get a bottle or two of wine to take home, or give them $50 and not take home a bottle? Even more so if it's a $20 tasting.

                Finally, the Sonoma bed and breakfast association has a card that's given to guests that gives free tastings at about 20 sonoma wineries. I know you're already "locked and loaded" with your hotel choice, but you should ask at the hotel. Maybe better for the next trip too - it's a great way to try tastings you might opt out of because you're expecting not to like the wine.

                1 Reply
                1. re: bbulkow

                  I think that your second point is a great one -- I've gotten some really great recommendations from tasting room folk about where to go next, especially since after I've done my tasting, they have a good idea of my likes and dislikes. I've discovered some great wineries that way. So yes, I would definitely echo Ruth's suggestion below of not having too packed a schedule so that you can ask some questions and stop and discover other wineries -- part of the fun of Napa Valley is relaxing with the beauty of the valley, enjoying the wine, and making discoveries without too much of a plan, and you don't want to miss out on that because you feel rushed the whole time.

                2. Here is a more concrete schedule:
                  Hendry Winery and Hess followed by a trip to Back Room before dinner.
                  Pride, Paloma, Cain and Del Dotto (St. Helena)
                  Silver Oak, Cakebread, Honig, Frog's Leap, and Fluery or Kuleto

                  Thanks for all the input. Feel free to dish more out, as well.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: AAnthony

                    My feeling is that the Friday and especially Saturday schedules look pretty intense. I would prioritize so that if you feel that you're getting burned out and want to drop something, you don't end up dropping a place you really wanted to visit. In other words, I would cut back those schedules for those days to three places that you absolutely would hate to miss and a couple of "maybe, if we feel up to its." In particular, you have some great places on Saturday, and I have the feeling by the third day visiting four, let alone five, wineries will seem like more of a chore than a fun day.

                    1. re: AAnthony

                      I think those Friday and Saturday itineraries should be quite doable given how close the wineries are to each other.

                    2. I'd add a caveat that during harvest & crush, the actual winemakers are incredibly busy. It's exciting to see the process, but you may not get the same hands-on attention that you could at a quieter time of year.

                      Just want to manage your expectations - a great winery is a great winery, but the interaction will be different at different times of the year.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: cyberroo

                        Most wineries won't be harvesting or crushing yet. Sparklers really just got going a week or so ago on the valley floor; so Hendry might be harvesting limited blocks of his 2 white varietals, but that's it. The higher elevation wineries that are smaller--Paloma, Cain, Pride, have a later growing season and are mostly or exclusively red, so they're all 6+ weeks away from major harvest operations.

                        To the OP: if you have some members of the group who are somewhat novices in terms of wine appreciation, St Suppery has a wine exploration center where they have stations to directly smell specific flavors that you will find in wine, like melon, cut grass, cherries, etc. It can be a useful exercise to train your senses, and it's only 10-15 minutes north of the city of Napa.

                        1. re: SteveG

                          I was going to mention St Supery, they have a pretty vast wine learning center. They also used to have buy one tasting get free tastings for life. But they stopped that a few years back. Their whites are fantastic, as well as their dessert wines. I also enjoy some of their reds.

                          I am a Cakebread wine club member and I also think they are fantastic. They give a great tour and the 2005 CAB is one of the best i have tasted.

                          In terms of high end:
                          I like to every now and then go to Opus One. You must make an appointment and the tastings are 35 a person, but they pour you a whole glass. They also sell a varietal there called Overture, which is very tasty and is only 60 bucks.

                          Other Suggestions:

                          If you go on friday, Hagafen is a great little place to go to. They pay a lot of attention to you and answer any and all questions you have.

                          Off the beaten path:

                          Stoney Hill
                          Smith Madrone

                          All are small wineries, call for appts. But well worth the trip and you get a lot of one on one time with the actual owners of each of the wineries.

                          Nickel and Nickel and Del Dotto are personal favorites, Del Dotto does an awesome wine cave tour.

                          1. re: sccrkeepr

                            Be careful with the Del Dotto cave tour because you might be drunk by the end of it and you might not be able to enjoy your meal after. The tour was fun, if a bit cheesy, but you might get someone who pours you a half glass of wine for every barrel you taste from and that's when you'll need to be careful.

                      2. The Final Schedule:
                        Herndry and Hess. Dinner @ Ad Hoc
                        Cain, Pride, Paloma and Del Dotto. Dinner @ Bistro Don Giovanni
                        Silver Oak, Kuleto, Honig, Cakebread w/ optional Frog's Leap and Fleury

                        Thanks again for all of your help and we will be sure to report back after our amazing trip.

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: AAnthony

                          Do you have a reservation set up at Frog's Leap??? If so, that tour and tasting is a must....

                          1. re: AAnthony

                            I'm interested in hearing how your trip went.
                            How were your meals?
                            Were you able to visit all the wineries on your itinerary?
                            What did you enjoy most?

                            1. re: DonZ

                              Sorry for my tardiness... here is how it went.

                              oHendry and Hess. Dinner @ Ad Hoc
                              oHendry was amazing. One of the best winery experiences I have ever had. I would highly recommend this vineyard to anyone. We tried 11 wines, many of which I had never had before. We loved the people, the tour and definitely the wine.
                              oHess, fun but nothing too special. We went late so we were able to try some great wines for half price. Interesting Art.
                              oAd Hoc: I really, really wanted to love this place. And, it was good, but it did not blow my socks off. We began with an Arugula, Melon and Mint salad which was amazing. Then for our entrée we had Steak Diane. This is the course didn’t do it for me. The steaks were slightly tough and the amount of sauce was lacking. For dessert we had make-your-own Sundaes which was whimsical and good. The cheese course was great as well. I would go back. A good over-all experience, but I think I talked it up too much in my mind.
                              oCain, Pride, Paloma and Del Dotto. Dinner @ Bistro Don Giovanni
                              oCain – Amazing, Amazing, Amazing. My favorite winery that we visited. The wine was unbelievable. We were given the tour of the property by Pat, the Commercial Director, then were joined by Chris the winemaker in the Library. A perfect setting for some amazing wines.
                              oPride – Beautiful location and Beautiful wines and had a beautiful picnic on top of Spring Mountain.
                              oPaloma – We literally drank wine in the owner’s dining room. I don’t believe it gets more intimate than sharing your home and wine with others. Good times, especially since I love their Merlot. Barbara, the owner, treats you like her grandchildren for the time that you are there. Another place with amazing views of the Spring Mountain, this time accompanied with Hummingbirds.
                              oDel Dotto – could have skipped it. Seemed like a frat party for winos. Not the most fun, but they definitely had some big, bold wines; however, they said “big and sexy” way too much for my liking.
                              oBistro Don Giovanni was good food and a nice setting. Not sure if we would go back however, seems like so many restaurants to try to go back to it.
                              oSilver Oak, Kuleto, Honig, Cakebread w/ optional Frog's Leap and Fleury
                              oSilver Oak – this was an early excursion, yet it could not detract from the beauty of the wine. Silver Oak produces amazing Cabs. A family favorite for a long time.
                              oKuleto – this is the ultimate experience. They do not sell you wine, but the lifestyle of Kuleto. Not to say that their wine isn’t good, because it is. However, it definitely was not the best that we tried on our trip. The total package was the best of trip. Kuleto goes above and beyond to give you the very best experience. A very good time.
                              oWe did not make it to Honig, Cakebread and Fleury.
                              oFrog’s Leap – We capped off our tour of wineries with a pleasant tasting in their gardens. Nice, well priced wines in a very laid-back and relaxing setting.
                              •This was an amazing trip! Thanks to all who helped lead us in the right direction.

                              Ad Hoc
                              6476 Washington St., Yountville, CA 94599

                              221 Powell St., San Francisco, CA 94102

                              Bistro Don Giovanni
                              4110 Saint Helena Hwy, Calistoga, CA 94515

                              1. re: AAnthony

                                Correct link:

                                Kuleto Estate Winery
                                2470 Sage Canyon Rd St, Helena, CA