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Nov 11, 2013 06:08 PM

Napa wineries day trip with a group of 10 on Nov 29


I've got a group of 5 couples where I'm in charge of organizing a trip to Napa. This is part of an annual "mystery trip" where one couple organizes the suprise trip each year. We're staying in SF, and thanks to this board have had great success in arranging restaurants for our stay from Nov 27 to Dec 2.

I've got Great Pacific Tours picking us up at 9:30am on the 29th, and now trying to nail down the itinerary. As far as the group in general goes, we all like wine but not all of us our collectors. Bunch of ~40 year olds from Toronto, most will be visiting CA wine country for the first time, my only experience is in Sonoma. I'm settled on going to Napa, so we can rule out Sonoma.

General idea is head to Calistoga, pick up a picnic lunch and work our way down. As far as wineries to visit, I've had a couple of issues. One is that some of them are closed for the 29th, but there is enough open to still go (cant do the 30th). Secondly, once you get past 8 people, all the places I've call require you to do a tour. We will do at least one tour (was thinking of starting at Pride and doing the tour and a picnic there), but I don't want to tour everywhere. Not enough time, and will really limit the amount of places we can see.

So I am looking for guidance as to whether I can book a group of 6 and 4 for a tasting and roll out of GPT's bus/van without causing a scene. If not, I don't see how we can reasonably visit more than a couple of places before heading back. Ideally we would hit one for a nice tour and 3-4 for tastings and a look around. So maybe that points me a bit in the direction of the large wineries for the tastings.

Places that are on my radar that I've confirmed as open are:

Trespass (waiting for a call back as to whether they're open)

I've debated whether we should really be going as far as Calistoga, but the drive sounds nice and I think people will enjoy that, not to mention the views from Pride. Terra is closed btw, otherwise would have tried that while we were there.

I can completely understand how throwing a group of 10 could throw a small winery for a loop without notice, so I get the need for the booking requirement at some of these places. Also, some groups are different than others, we're not the type of people who bust on a scene and demand attention, just looking to have a taste and potentially a quick look around.

Looking forward to your responses, and will defer to your better judgement.

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  1. I would suggest that you consider a few other wineries. The wineries which I always recommend that people visit while in the Valley are: Darioush (just north of Napa, on the Trail), Regusci Winery (further north of Napa, on the Trail), Chateau Montelena (Tubbs Lane, Calistoga), and the Castello de Amorosa (St. Helena Highway, Calistoga). (You must take the tour at the Castello.) Not only will you enjoy some wonderful wines, you will also see some amazing architecture, at these wineries. Pride does have good wine and a fabulous view. Hess has some interesting art work, as does Mumm (on the Trail).

    2 Replies
    1. re: inthekitchen

      I am very sorry to say that three of the four wineries in your first sentence, are what I consider to be among the very worst of what Napa Valley has to offer. I agree that Chateau Montelena and Pride are good recs, that Hess is absolutely wonderful, and Mumm is good house for bubbly, but not as good as Schramsberg.

      1. re: maria lorraine

        Thanks. Shramsberg is booked up, I would have tried for the tour there. Given your traffic comments, I'm either going the Sonoma route via Melanie's suggestion, or will limit the wineries to south of St. Helena. Working on a different list if we stick with Napa...

    2. Just wanted to be sure that you're made aware that November 29, the Friday after Thanksgiving, is traditionally the busiest and most profitable day of the year for wineries. I'm almost a little surprised that wineries would take an appointment for a group tour that day because its so overrun at the best places and they need every staff member on hand to help out with the expected crowd.

      1. <<Secondly, once you get past 8 people, all the places I've call require you to do a tour.>>

        Normally, I'd be happy to give suggestions to you but your group is problematic for wineries, I'm sorry to say.

        The issues range from
        -- most important: large groups don't often buy wine, especially groups from other countries.
        -- groups this large often don't listen to the tasting room staff and instead talk amongst themselves
        -- groups your size are really on a drinking party, instead of a tasting and learning excursion
        -- groups your size usually require a dedicated staff member and separate area or room to accommodate them, especially on a extremely busy tasting day, which yours will be.

        Since the winery has to designate an employee to host you (and pay for their labor), pay whatever they ask. You are asking the winery to make an expense to host you, remember.

        You must be upfront with the wineries and tell them you will not be purchasing wine, or will be purchasing wine through the private-ordering process established by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), and paying the extra tariff on the wines that they will charge.

        Investigate your shipping options and the LCBO buying process before making reservations or putting together an itinerary. Inquire of wineries if they will ship to Canada (many don't). Here is the lengthy procedure in flow-chart form:

        Buying through the LCBO requires a lot of paperwork, and isn't the type of thing a winery wants to spend time on and may not even do on one of the busiest and craziest visiting days of the year for wineries.

        The reason wineries ask for tours is because they want you to pay for the tasting (since they won't make any money from your group on wine sales), and their policy may be that they charge for the tour but not the tasting.

        And, BTW, each tour is different, just so you know. I understand you may simply want to taste, but part of the tour is branding, so you may want to play along and only visit three wineries (which seems best anyway given travel from SF and the size of your group). Allow 75 minutes per tasting. Make sure to allow time to purchase and ship wines, if your group will be doing that.

        There are ethical considerations here of what you are asking wineries to do by hosting you -- lose money on your visit and make special accommodations for you on an extremely busy day.

        All of these considerations you should think through. Please do not deceive the wineries and neglect to tell them, when making reservations, that you are from Canada and will probably not be purchasing wines.

        I know your heart and mind may be set on winery tasting the day after Thanksgiving, but it's an absolute madhouse here in Napa Valley on that day, traffic is *extremely* heavy (bear that in mind when estimating travel times between wineries), and wineries will be both reluctant to host you and reluctant to say so. So, were I you, I'd consider another option for that day.

        8 Replies
        1. re: maria lorraine

          I second to look for tour or "experience" tastings. That way the winery is getting compensated for your visit and the staff isn't growing resentful that you are not buying anything (e.g. like Kenzo where they set up lunch) it will get really pricey - but that's Napa.

          I would add that sadly, and this is due to bad management on part of the winery, that your group may not be treated the best as you go through Napa - especially if you are younger.

          I've had the experience where we called and the person Ok'd the visit, but we arrived and it was clear the tasting staff was not happy about the request.

          The problems quickly unfold from there:
          1. The tasting staff doesn't treat you the way they should - they don't explain the wines they are pouring, they don't try to explain anything - they're just trying to get you out.
          2. The group gets offended about how they are being treated, starts tuning out the tasting staff
          3. No one wants to buy anything at the end of it. Which then reinforces the tasting staff's feeling that young big groups are a waste of time.

          It also creates this awful resentment where you want to sound like a yelp reviewer at the end of the tasting.

          1. re: goldangl95

            Thanks for laying that out so well. I've seen all those issues and more crop up with groups in tasting rooms, from both sides.

            I know that OP is set on Napa, but I'll toss this out. Sonoma Valley is having its 30th annual holiday open house event on Nov 29 & 30. Tickets are $45 apiece for access to 27 wineries. I skimmed through the list and only saw one winery that had any size of group limitations (VJB asked that groups of 6+ call ahead). This event might be the easiest way to get in and out of number of wineries without having to set up a slew of appointments and then crossing fingers that no snafus happen.

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              Thanks Melanie, while Sonoma wasn't where I wanted to go, I am reconsidering based on Maria and gold's comments. This may be a more welcoming situation for a group, although I would still look to get one proper tour in. Also will help shorten the commute if traffic is bad. I'm assuming the participating Sonoma wineries won't have free staff for a tour, any suggestions for a good tour from one of the other Sonoma wineries?

              1. re: canaxer

                Take a look at this page that has more details on what each winery has planned for the day. Several will have their winemakers on hand, and others mention winery or vineyard tours.

                The only one I've been to recently is Loxton. It's a small place and Chris Loxton is very hands-on. You might check ahead of time to see if it is possible to book some time with him. Other than that, the ones that look more educational to me are Arrowood's barrel sampling and vineyard tour, tasting in the cave at Deerfield, NakedWines, and any others where you can talk to the winemaker.

                If you want to schedule a more extensive tour, Benziger is known for its tour. It's participating in the event, but it's a larger winery and might be able to accommodate you with advance arrangements.

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  thanks Melanie, will check it out and confer with my better half

            2. re: goldangl95

              golddangl95, I hear you, and reconsidering the plan...

            3. re: maria lorraine

              All makes sense Maria. I get their logic, and want to be a good citizen. No sense showing up where we are not wanted. I agree a group of 10 is not ideal, but that's what we are. Shipping to/via lcbo isn't a logical option, better to carry it across the border, be honest with customs and hope for the best. However, that does limit to you to a case. Sometimes they'll let that slide, and even if you have to pay duties you're further ahead than going through lcbo i think. Thanks for the comments on traffic, GTP thought it would be light, as did the concierge at the Fairmont.

              Was thinking of maybe doing the olive oil tour at Pound if you have any thoughts on that, apparently November is the best time as it is harvest season.

              1. re: canaxer

                <<Thanks for the comments on traffic, GTP thought it would be light, as did the concierge at the Fairmont.>>

                Obviously, they had no knowledge of the zoo on that day for wineries.

                <<Was thinking of maybe doing the olive oil tour at Pound if you have any thoughts on that, apparently November is the best time as it is harvest season.>>

                I think this is fine, and love the terrace there, if you can get that set up for both a sit-down olive and wine-tasting. But, there are other equally good places to taste olive oil, and the Olive Press in Kenwood in Sonoma County offers a good possibility.

                I disagree a bit on harvest dates. Olives are the second harvest in wine country. I've researched this on site, and the big olive harvest time in wine country is Jan-Feb. We're still fermenting and racking wine in November. Believe you might be receiving inaccurate info on several subjects.

                I think it would be lovely for you to do sit-down tastings in Sonoma and pay the freight for that. Choose you winery carefully. And, if you can carry wine across the border, or even check it as luggage, you will open up possibilities for tastings. The styro shippers work well as checked luggage. Get them from Cartons and Crates in Napa, my fav shipping company. Available elsewhere also.

                What is the latest on Bill C-311, the law that allows you to bring in wine to Ontario? What's the current status on bringing in wine from the US?

            4. Listen to Maria - she is brilliant.

              But I would also like to have you reconsider the drive to Calistoga. Yes, it is pretty. But - honestly - once you start seeing the vineyards when you approach the valley, the view is going to be the same and get old considering how FAR up-valley you are trying to go *and* get back in one day.

              Also, because it is the day after Turkey Day, the traffic is going to be horrendous and will kill a lot of time you might rather have at wineries. By the time you get your group up to Calistoga, you are going to feel rushed at each winery if you are expecting to get back tot he city on the same day.