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Jul 7, 2010 12:02 AM

Coming from Australia and need help with good Napa recommendations

Here in Australia we dont get much information / word of mouth reviews for the Napa Valley - or many Napa wines at all! My partner and I are coming over and are a little sceptical of the "sponsored recommendations" on the travel guides. For those of you out there that actually know good wine and where to find the hidden gems, I would love your help and experience.

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  1. Hello first time poster, Napa has a broad range of restaurants. What are you looking for?

    14 Replies
    1. re: bbulkow

      Actually BB, the OP is asking for winery recs - not restaurant recs.

      But, the point is taken; what types of WINES do you like? With over 500 wineries in the Napa Valley, there are a ton of hidden gems -- some because of their locale, some because of their architecture, some because of their rarity or obscure grape, and some because they require appointments to get in.

      What qualifies as a "hidden gem" to you?

      1. re: CarrieWas218

        Hi Carrie,

        Here in Australia we have hundred of wineries too. Thankfully I know most of them very well. As it turns out the "popular" ones are often no where near the best (with some exceptions like Penfolds Grange). The Hunter Valley north of Sydney has many smaller wine producers that do not distribute to bottle shops and to only very select restaurant and are by far the best. If you were to go to popular wineries like Tempus Two, Mcguigans, Tyrells, Hardys and Draytons you would leave thinking the Hunter produced only overpriced garbage, often brought in from elsewhere anyways. But if you are in the know you would find places like Ivanhoe and a perfect example of Iron Gate who in my mind produces the best wine in the hunter, red and white. The owner/wine (Roger Lilliot) maker often does tasting for guests himself - free of charge, still corks all his bottles and hand picks all his grapes. This he does for the love, not the money and subsequently produces a far superior and intelligent wine. Back to the point, my idea of a good "hidden gem" is one that isn't necessarily commercial like Chandon (not taking anything away from them) but makes good wine, wine even maybe well known in the circles of the San Fran wine community. As you know every country and even region has its own particular style. I like all wine but love each region, or even particular vineyard for what they do best. So to answer your question, I would like to find something "typically Napa", something the region does best. So far all the Napa wines we get here are typically heavy reds. Is this the typical style favoured?

        1. re: OneNamedRicardo

          First... yep, the reds are big out here. Big, bold cabernets are still the signature wine, but the area has so many freakish little microclimates that there's not much that can't be grown and made into fantastic wine.

          Other than the cabs, Napa seems to do really well with chardonnays. They tend to fall towards the malolactic, buttery flavors and are smooth as a baby's butt. Not so much for the drier, crisper sauvignon blanc styles. Personal opinion is that the Marlborough region NZ sauvignon blancs blow them away. Those are just general trends, though. There are so many wineries in the Napa/Sonoma region that every varietal I can think of is being spectacularly produced somewhere.

          Since there are so many wineries so close to one another here, the "hidden gem" thing doesn't hold. Everybody competes with everybody for quality. Even some of the bigger houses that produce a less expensive wine for a larger market usually produces some spectacular stuff that you'll never see hit a bottle shop. And let me tell you, some of these places, well, making that less expensive wine still needs impressive winemaking skills, and the winemakers really strut their stuff at the winery. As an example, take Beaulieu Vineyards. They put out a lot of wine, available the world over, and very affordable and drinkable. Go the the winery and go to the reserve tasting room. Sure, you'll pay a few bucks to taste at that point, but it's a different world with their top of the line products. You'll leave with a lighter wallet and more expensive luggage charges at the airport from all the bottles, but you'll have a very happy palate.

          I don't think any of the wineries in the valley make bad wine. Too many others next door that would flog them with dried grape vines if they did.

          As you go through Napa Valley, there are literally so many wineries so close together that at some points you could walk from winery to winery and make a day of it. The main highway (29) will put you on the high density winery crawl, and across the valley is the Silverado Trail, which is the one that's full of those beautiful vistas that you see in the movies and on postcards. Still a bazillion wineries, but not so close-packed.

          Be prepared here that most of the wineries now charge for tasting. It's just kind of evolved that way. When I first moved out here twenty years ago, hardly any wineries charged. Now most do. Hidden gems and crap ripple still have the same overhead and the economy has forced them to keep up or shut down.

          In all my years of tasting in Napa , I've always liked to just stop at a winery I've never heard of before. I've rarely been disappointed. Enough hidden gems to make a lot of beautiful jewelry.

          Beaulieu Vineyards
          1960 Saint Helena Hwy, Rutherford, CA

          1. re: LarryW

            I would place Beaulieu far down on the list.

            Ricardo, a request for Napa comes up several times a week. Do you have specific questions about what you've read in other posts? There is a wealth of info to be gleaned from what's already been written.

            1. re: maria lorraine

              I guess to be more specific I would be looking for big reds or good smooth Chards (particulariliy chard that can age well) or anything interesting worth mentioning. We are doing France and italy next year so French varieties im not so interested in trying, more what styles Napa do best - when in rome, do as the romans do. Also if there are any Somona vineyard worth doing I will be very intersted in that.

              1. re: OneNamedRicardo

                <<French varieties im not so interested in trying, more what styles Napa do best >>

                Do you realize this is a silly statement?

                Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Viognier, Petite Sirah, -- what Napa excels at -- are all French varieties.

                Not so many Italian varietals, only the occasional Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, Barbera.

                So once you've eliminated all those, you have Zinfandel.

                Ricardo, please do some required reading on this board and on the Wine Board to educate yourself as to the best wines and wineries.

                1. re: OneNamedRicardo

                  If you are thinking of making a side trip over to Sonoma, I would recommend visiting the Dry Creek Valley area. This area tends to produce great zinfandel.

                  You seem to be looking for wine that is uniquely Californian and I think zinfandel is something Sonoma does particularly well that is not necessarily prevalent outside the US. Although you will find it in Italy, called primitivo, it's not something I would go out of my way for if I were doing a wine trip there.

                  For the most part, the zinfandels in Dry Creek Valley will be very big, high alcohol, ripe/fruity, and perhaps spicy. Two of my favorites are Seghesio and Ridge.

                  For scheduling purposes, be aware that a Sonoma trip will likely take up an entire day. (Dry Creek Valley in particular is in the northern half of Sonoma County.) It's not really practical to do things in both Napa and Sonoma in the same day.

              2. re: LarryW

                Wow, thank you for taking the time to post such a detailed reply. I wish I had the time to do a comprehensive sweep of 29 and Silverado but we are unfortunately only there for 2 days then back accross the bridge for a few more. We have had to make arrangements around our French Laundry booking... Other than that, any other unique or personal favourite suggestions would be very helpful.
                Thanks again to everyone who has taken the time to reply.

                The French Laundry
                6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599

          2. re: bbulkow

            We are particularly looking for wineries for their wine only. I am lucky enough to have a booking at the French Laundry but if you can recommend any good picnic spots or modest lunch spots, or even good places to pick up lunch supplies - ie cheese shops or deli's, I would be eternally grateful!!

            The French Laundry
            6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599

            1. re: OneNamedRicardo

              Deli supplies at Dean and Deluca, St Helena.

                1. re: wolfe

                  Wow! I would have been very upset if I had missed this stop! Sturgeon in wine county... Why do not we have this!! Sincere thanks!

                  1. re: OneNamedRicardo

                    D&D in St. Helena is fine. Sunshine Market is better in terms of variety and cost, plus it's a local family-owned business where the local gourmets shop. But try both.

                2. re: OneNamedRicardo

                  Still need to know what kind of wine you like, and what you've thought of the other winery discussions. Poking through maria lorriane's postings is a good start.

              1. Here is a recent thread with wineries that could qualify as hidden gems.

                1. The SF Chronicle newspaper has a regular column reviewing winery tasting rooms in Napa and elsewhere in the state. I would not say it is the ultimate authority, but, at the very least, you can use it as a starting point in your search for information. You can access their archive of articles and data at:


                  8 Replies
                  1. re: DavidT

                    Unfortunately, the SF Chronicle reviews of winery tasting rooms reviews them for the "tourist" experience -- not the wine. A huge flaw. Those SF Chron reviews are directing a lot of people towards some terrible tasting wine on some pretty grounds.

                    1. re: maria lorraine

                      What would be your suggestions Maria? I am so far planning Elyse, Chandon, Mumm, Stags Leap, Van Der Heyden, Kamen and Domaine Carneros.

                      Domaine Carneros
                      1240 Duhig Rd, Napa, CA

                      1. re: OneNamedRicardo

                        I'd start over, quite frankly. Especially if you want great wine. I guess this could sound like a lot of noise, all of these varying recommendations, but here's my two cents to get you started: Chappellet, Ehlers, Schramsberg, Turnbull, Heitz, Pride, Terra Valentine, Failla. I live in the Napa Valley, and I only care about what's in the bottle.


                        1. re: ThirstyReader

                          I'm with Thirsty Reader. Chandon, Domaine Carneros and Mumm are all reflections of the same thing and going to all three would be a waste of your time. If I were going to explore ONE California sparkling, it would be Schramsberg for their historical caves and quality wine.

                          Stags Leap jumped the shark years ago and there is nothing exceptional about Van Der Heyden or Kamen. Like Maria and Thirsty Reader, I care more about what is in the bottle but I also appreciate what is offered in the tasting experience. Stay off Highway 29; these wineries thrive on the tourist trade and become jammed with the weekend tourist and those looking for a quick getaway.

                          Consider the mountain wineries - those that take a little more time to get to but will provide a more one-on-one experience and superlative juice. I can't recommend this enough; Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain, and the Mayacamas Mountain ranges are where those "hidden gems" you are so desperate to find actually exist.

                          Because the wineries on the mountains escape the heat spikes of the valley floor, the grapes do not produce the thicker skins making softer, more velvety juice and more elegant wines. I will take a Howell Mountain wine over any produced in the Stags Leap appellation any day of the week.


                          Domaine Carneros
                          1240 Duhig Rd, Napa, CA

                          1. re: CarrieWas218

                            Thirsty Reader and CarrieWas218 are two very reliable, solid posters, Ricardo.
                            Heed their advise. I'd also advise you to start over.

                            1. re: maria lorraine

                              Wow again! I must say I am quitely peeved.. More at myself, for spending so much time and effort securing the game plan I had. This is not easy to do from afar. However I am estatic that I did not make the wrong choices and that I now have my nose and palate pointed in the right direction! Thank you all for your brutal honesty - it is exactly what I needed. I will be sure to post my new itinerary in the next few days for your scrutiny. If I kept going on simple online research and viewing websites, every well funded winery would look great! This is all very helpful.

                            2. re: CarrieWas218

                              Our first day we will be travelling from SanFran Airport so will not have a lot of time. We would probably have to visit wineries in the south Sonoma that day and maybe only 2 or 3. What would your recomendations be?

                            3. re: ThirstyReader

                              I just had a phenomenal experience at Chappellet and ended up joining and buying half a case. Everything we tried was really great.

                      2. Hello-
                        I have lived up here in Northern Cal for a while and Napa is the 'poster child' for wine up here.
                        In my opinion Napa is over priced and the wines And generally speaking the wine valets usually have their noses' up rather than their bottles. Sonoma right next door is more Artisan and the makers are usually pouring as well. The real Jewel that is in the area are the Santa Cruz Mountains the wines there are superb, and the people are even better. Along with being nestled in the most beautiful forest in the world ( the Redwood Forest) The Cab's here are worth any ones attention.