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May 25, 2010 08:41 PM

Wine country ideas for a 1st timer

We are going to stay in Rutherford for 3 days and then Napa for 3 days. We have never been to wine country before and we are not really sure where to start. I've been reading threads and I have so many notes but I need to narrow it down to make this a relaxing trip.

A little background - we are huge foodies. We are not doing French Laundry this trip but we are planning on going to Ad Hoc, Redd and Celedon.

As for wine - we don't know much about it. We drink it but we are not wine experts by any means. I enjoy chardonnay, sparkling, riesling (in the summer) and all reds. Someday I would love to go to wine school but we won't have time before this trip.

Can you suggest a good starter winery in the Rutherford area? We don't mind driving north to Calistoga but we don't want to head west over to Chateau St. Jean (I saw this was a good 1st timer winery in another thread).

We also plan to hit the Olive Oil tasting/lunch at Round Pond - I saw that in another thread and I thought it was an awesome idea! Is there anything else like that - not a winery but some kind of unique tasting?

Then in Napa is there a good 1st timer winery to try there?

I am afraid to try more than 2 wineries - we want this to be a relaxing trip and we don't want to rush from place to place. If you think we can hit more than 1 in each town we are up for it. We just have no idea what to expect. Then when we come back another time we will be more prepared on what to expect.

Also - I read that Del Dotto was a fun winery to try but I saw there are two locations. Is one better than the other?

We are always up for unique adventures - if you have any suggestions in addition to food and wine on what to do we would love to know!

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599

Ad Hoc
6476 Washington St., Yountville, CA 94599

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  1. I think you've discovered some nice ideas so far. Personally, I wouldn't really bother with Celedon -- I think you would find Terra or Martini House more interesting and memorable.

    In terms of wineries, you can definitely visit more than two per day, even at the slowest pace. With six days in the Napa Valley, here's what I would do if I was a first-timer: Spend the first two days visiting wineries that don't require appointments, but as you see or hear of something that might be interesting, book some appointments for later in the week.

    The Del Dotto location in Rutherford/St. Helena is newer than the Atlas Peak location, though I probably wouldn't bother with them, either (they earn the name "Del Blotto" because of their heavy pours, but the place is like a garish Italian circus). Maybe try Grgich, Turnbull, Heitz and/or Plumpjack on your first day.

    Martini House
    1245 Spring St., St. Helena, CA 94574

    1. My DH and I are serious foodies and just spent 2 weeks touring Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Russian River eateries. My suggestions for Napa:

      Reserve a tour at Castello di Amoroso IMMEDIATELY: Unique castle architecture and friendly folks, the tasting is fun (make sure to try the very salty dark chocolate with the sweet late harvest dessert wine).

      Castello is across the valley from Sterling so you could also take Sterling's lovely tram tour although the wines there are only so-so.

      Wherever you go to eat, all you need do is ask the waiter or sommelier what they would suggest you drink with your food choices. Without exception the staff everywhere loves to eat and drink, and they are always happy to lend their expertise to help you decide.

      I’d suggest Bottega – the goat’s milk panna cotta dessert was amazing! And the portions are huge and reasonable. Lovely gnocchi primavera, too. Right across the street is Bouchon Bakery, where you can buy those lovely chocolate budino desserts in a bag of six (and trust me, you will eat all of them. By yourself, if you’re not careful).

      If you have the $$$ - try to get an outdoor dining table at Auberge du Soleil. It’s halfway up the hills with a simply dynamite view of the outdoor pool, the valley and the mountains across. It makes you feel like one of the ‘beautiful people’ even if you aren’t! Amazing service, too. The suckling pig was phenomenal, the lobster and veal sandwich on brioche absolutely divine.

      Bouchon Bakery
      6528 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599

      6525 Washington Street Suite A9, Yountville, CA 94599

      6 Replies
      1. re: jakkom

        I recently toured the Castello D"Amoroso with a group as part of a business event (not wine related). My general impression is that the guy who built that castle has more money than sense. OMG, what a strange place! The tunnels and torture chambers and dungeons are the strangest thing ever. The money he spent to replicate some Italian castle is crazy. Talk about an egomaniac. Apparently he even changed his name to Dario (everyone referred to him by his first name, constantly, frequently, in every other sentence) from Darryl, according to some of the locals in my group.
        Aside from the fact that this guy needs serious therapy, the castle, not the wine, is the focus at this place.
        The wines are made in the Italian style (according to our guide) which makes a lower alcohol, more acidic wine. I didn't care for the wines. But that's just my taste. The spectacle of the place is not to my taste either, but if you want a bizarre castle tour, go for it.
        I did like the dessert wine, the name of which I can't recall.

        1. re: pcdarnell

          The same guy owns V. Sattui winery, and their wine is horrible. We stopped by the castle one time and just wanted to look inside real quick to see if we wanted to do the tour. The guy at the door looked at me like I had two heads. The only way to get inside is to pay for the tour, so we left.

        2. re: jakkom

          I have far different impressions from Jakkom.

          Though Castelllo di Amoroso is a (fake) castle, the wines are horrid, deeply flawed, and the place is expensive. When I say flawed, I mean there is something chemically wrong with the wine (I know).

          Sterling is not much better. They've been in a horrible slump the past 15 years. There are far better wineries. Nice view from the south terrace but that doesn't mean it's worth a visit.

          Disagree about Bottega too. The portions of some dishes were terribly small, and there is not the same care going into prep or service that there was when it first opened.

          Auberge is lovely for a drink on the terrace. Eat elsewhere.

          What I like: Schramsberg for sparkling wine (excellent wines, beautiful setting).
          Mondavi: for a basic tour on how to make wine.. Ask for the reserve tasting.
          Elizabeth Spencer: small, postage-stamp-sized tasting room, but the wines are good and the people are great. Charming.
          Others: Nickel & Nickel, Shafer, Frog's Leap, Round Pond (be sure to sit on the stunning terrace), Viader for the stunning wines and the view, Mumm for the late-disgorged bubblies, the Spring Mountain District wineries like Spring Mountain Vineyards (the stunning setting, ,Falcon Crest house plus great wines), Pride for excellent wines and a great view, Paloma, and Terra Valentine.
          Restaurants: Oenotri, Press (for steaks), Ad Hoc, Bistro Jeanty, Bouchon (but ONLY at the bar), Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, Bistro Don Giovanni (never a miss).

          Read the posts on Rutherford. There are many, and they go into many of the hidden finds.

          Ad Hoc
          6476 Washington St., Yountville, CA 94599

          Bistro Jeanty
          6510 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599

          Nickel & Nickel
          8164 St Helena Highway, Oakville, CA

          6534 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599

          1425 1st St, Napa, CA 94559

          1. re: maria lorraine

            Wow, for as thorough as the above post was, I ditto just about every single comment. Spot on. I will double ditto that Castello di Amoroso is a tourist trap.

            I do feel okay about Bottega, though -- the food has always been great when I've gone.


            6525 Washington Street Suite A9, Yountville, CA 94599

            1. re: ThirstyReader

              I've been to most of the NV wineries done the tastings and tours. I agree the price for the Castello di Amorosa tour is a little high, but it was a great value. I asked about the Tasting Fee (I believe it was $16 which includes a tasting session) and the person told me that if they didn't have it, the place would be a tourist trap.

              We had a guy on our tour from Tuscany who marveled at detail of the castle and it's cellars and caves, stating that is identical to what one would see in Tuscany.

              I tasted their wine and while they make 15 or more varieties, I did find many that I liked, bought and shared with friends. I even tasted their reserve Il Barone and the other Tuscan blends; each received 94 for Robert Parker according to the guide and the material in the tasting room. Their Chardonnay won a big award at a competition in Florida and their Merlot was a top wine according to a Napa Valley Vintners tasting panel. I've tasted wines all over the Valley and their wine is fantastic.

              I don't agree with the above comments that it's a tourist trap. Many that I ran into liked the wine and thoroughly enjoyed the castle, grounds and the views of the Napa Valley.

              I'm going back and bringing my family when they visit this summer.

            2. re: maria lorraine

              Maria. Nice idea about Spring Mountain Wineries. Not many know how beautiful that place is. Gee, I bet you're good at trivia.

          2. My Wife and I got married in Napa Seven years ago and go back for our Anniversary every year. It's really easy to get around. Hwy 37 is the western border and Siverado Trail is on the east side. There are several cross roads that join the two.
            Rutherford is pretty much the middle part of the valley, so you might want to hit the northern part of the valley the first few days. By the way - The Rutherford Grill is a good lunch place - Prime Rib French Dip - need I say more?
            For a great (and free) tasing, call Cain in St. Helena. Really good wine, but it will take you 30 minutes to get up to the winery from downtown St. Helena. Speaking of St. Helena - Great Breakfast/Lunch place called Gillwoods. Good Italian place called "Cook" accross the street. One last thing about St. Helena - nasty traffic every day around 3:00-4:00.
            You mention Ad Hoc - we went there last year and it was one of the best meals of my life. Thursday is typically "Steakhouse night". Their menu is posted on their website every day.
            For Sparkling Wine, Domain Chandon and Domain Carneros are great. Great lunch place called Boonfly Cafe on the way to Domain Carneros.
            Closer to Napa there is a really cool winery called Jarvis that is amazing. The entire place is built in to the side of a mountain. Tasting is $$ but the wine you are drinking is at least $70 a bottle.
            Other restaraunts - Bisto Don Giovanni (italian - near Napa), Brannans Grill (American - in Calistoga), Coles Chop House (Steaks - in Napa)
            Other wineries - Frogs Leap, Cardinale, Joseph Phelps, Nickel and Nickel (expensive but good), Whitehall Lane, Silver Oak, Shafer (another expensive but good one)...
            One last tip - Share your tastings. You get to taste a greater variety and don't get too drunk.

            Have a great time!

            Ad Hoc
            6476 Washington St., Yountville, CA 94599

            7600 St Helena Highway, Oakville, CA

            Rutherford Grill
            1180 Rutherford Rd, Napa, CA 94558

            Gillwoods Cafe
            1320 Napa Town Ctr, Napa, CA 94559

            1 Reply
            1. re: Indy_Foodie

              Thank you for all of the replies! The Martini House looks great - we will definitely try that. We've tried Bouchon in Vegas and we really liked it - I didn't realize the one in CA had a bakery and now that I search more I see a lot of people are talking about it! I had written down Auberge and I forgot about it - I think that might be fun for drinks and maybe even appetizers. I am starting to feel overwhelmed! We will definitely have to come back another time!

            2. You are probably overwhelmed w/ recs but here's a few of mine for a laid back visit. Also, agree w/ you about limiting the number of wineries you visit. Before living in the area we would hit 5-7, now we just do 2-3. Experience is so much better when you take your time & take in the area and wines.
              Joseph Phelps - very pretty, nice view o verlooking vineyards.
              Prager - funky, small, family run
              Silverado - another nice patio w/ a pretty view, low cost good wines
              Plumpjack - funky, cool architecture
              Frog's Leap - cool CA experience

              Oakville Grocery - strongly recommend picking up food her for a picnic or to eat on site.

              Oakville Grocery
              124 Matheson St, Healdsburg, CA 95448

              4 Replies
              1. re: Allfrog68

                I've seen the picnic idea mentioned before - can you bring food to the wineries? I thought that sounded great but I didn't want to do something impolite.

                1. re: OurBigAdventure

                  Very few wineries allow picnics. It depends on what type of tasting room permit they have. If they don't have the correct type of permit, it is against the law for you to have a picnic there.

                  1. re: OurBigAdventure

                    There's information here about Napa Wineries with picnic grounds: Always call first to see if you need to make a reservation. There are also other places to picnic in Napa Valley that aren't at wineries, you can check with your hotel to see where they recommend.

                  2. re: Allfrog68

                    Another great winery where you will learn and, in all likelihood, walk the vineyard with the owner, is Hendry Vineyards in Napa. Very fun and interesting.


                    Last year, my business event annual wine tour took us to Signorello, where we did a wine and chocolate pairing. I see from their website that you can make an appointment for a tour/tasting during the week, or they are open on weekends.
                    Anyways, the wines were fabulous, and the view was spectacular. They have a patio with a vanishing edge pool looking over the valley and it is just breathtaking. They are on the Silverado Trail, which I like better than fighting the crowds on Hwy. 29.