Whether or not you can distinguish Cabernet Sauvignon from Chardonnay, know how to pronounce French winemaking terms like terroir, or understand the reasoning behind aging wines in French oak versus concrete eggs, a trip to the Napa region of California is worth your time. The vino is most certainly the focus, but there are plenty of other reasons to visit, and design is one of them. Some wineries acknowledge their European heritage through motifs and detailing, but, refreshingly, many of them have chosen to present a west coast design vernacular. Though our autumn excursion was enhanced by the rich fall colors, comfortably cool temperatures, and seasonal selections from local farms, don”t let the time of year stop you from experiencing this romantic region.
Assuming you start in iconic San Francisco, a scenic way to start your uncorked journey is to drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge and continue on to Sonoma, arriving at the gate of Ram’s Gate Winery [28700 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, California 95476] (below). Their “rustic modern” tasting facility sits atop a hill, affording it expansive views of the surrounding vineyards. The textures do the talking as the overall palette is a quiet one. Exposed beams, veined white marble countertops, and stone floors in French gray tones mix comfortably with ample outdoor seating areas surrounded by weathered timber lit with flame lamps and furnished with a mix of upholstered lounge, wrought iron, and wood pieces.
About an hour north along Highway 29 sits the smaller, more modest T-Vine Cellars [810 Foothill Blvd, Calistoga, California 94515] (below). Their new tasting facility is finely detailed and contemporary but still exudes warmth, inviting visitors to savor their respected selection of big juicy red varietals. Warm wood walls are punctuated with generous windows that offer up-close-and-personal views of their old vines. The poured concrete tasting bar serves as a focal point in the primary loft-like space, but a more intimate meeting room featuring photos of the winemaking team and process is available for groups.
A Walk In The Clouds
Drive about eight miles northwest, and you will arrive at the Peter Michael Winery [12400 Ida Clayton Road, Calistoga, California 94515] (below). Don”t just show up at this hidden gem and plan to walk right in, though. This exclusive family-owned winery is available only to members of its wine club, and due to their small production levels, getting into the club is only slightly easier than winning the lottery.
If you are lucky enough to get on the list and secure an appointment, then you are in for a true treat. First, you will you receive an extensive tour of the spectacular property, which includes a trip to their vista-rich, hilltop outdoor entertaining space used by the likes of chef Thomas Keller to raise money for his foundation. Next, in a warmly lit, elegant room adorned with beautiful oil paintings, you will partake of a delicious tasting of wines so limited that they will not even sell them to you. It is absolute vino heaven.
About 40 minutes east up a winding mountain road and hidden behind some nondescript gates is O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery [150 White Cottage Road S, Angwin, California 94508] (below). The morning we arrived the fog was thick as frosting, concealing the vineyards that encircled the building. Again, you need to be a member of their wine club in order to reserve a tour, so arriving unannounced is not an option.
The interior of the tasting area is handsomely appointed with rough-hewn walls of stone, warm wood detailing, transitional furniture, impeccable accent lighting, and abstract art. Attached to this entertaining area is the production facility, which is just as impressive with its tall steel containers, stained concrete floors and skylights. From there we were led into the in-ground cave to see where the wine ages in hundreds of oak barrels. Incredibly, the cave also contains a long, narrow room housing the owner’s private wine collection that is stored and displayed in the most stunning, meticulous fashion we had ever seen.
If you head south approximately 10 miles, Luna Vineyards [2921 Silverado Trail, Napa, California 94558] (below) awaits. With its terra cotta tones, plaster walls, classical statuary, inlaid wood furniture, and patterned tile floors, the winery’s style is unquestionably more European in nature.
Less than two miles away is Del Dotto Vineyards Napa Historic Winery & Tasting Room [1055 Atlas Peak Road, Napa, California 94558] (below), which takes pride in its Italian heritage by featuring an Old World atmosphere. Venetian light fixtures, Greek key tile patterns, and faux plaster walls greet visitors in the front tasting area, while dark wood beams, aggregate floors and stone walls lie beyond in the barrel tasting and aging areas. (Note that Del Dotto has another location – St. Helena Venetian Estate Winery & Caves [1445 St. Helena Hwy South, St. Helena, California 94574] – that we did not visit.)
Also Worth Your Attention
Ten miles northwest is the famous giant of sparkling wine, Domaine Chandon [1 California Drive, Yountville, California 94599] (below). We loved the spectacular grounds, which gave the impression of a botanical garden, but were less impressed with the facility’s interiors. Granted, this well-known producer must accommodate a sizeable amount of visitors every year, so their spaces are not as intimate as other wineries, and they receive a great deal of wear and tear. Still, a stop here is worth the trip due to the quality of the wines and the friendliness of the staff.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is Failla Wines [3530 Silverado Trail, St. Helena, California 94574] (below), a David to the Goliath that is Domaine Chandon. Failla feels more like a your family’s cabin in the mountains. It is welcoming, charming, comfortable, and delicious. We experienced our tasting while sitting in a small lounge area next to a roaring fire, received an enormous amount of personal attention, and felt like we were part of the winery”s family. It was one of highlights of the trip and our growling stomachs were the only incentive to leave.
Don’t Skip A Meal
With all of the wine tastings, food is a necessity, and Napa does not disappoint. A hearty breakfast will do you a world of good before a day of imbibing, and we enjoyed both Gott’s Roadside [644 1st Street, Napa, California 94559] (below left) and Napa General Store [540 Main Street #100, Napa, California 94559] (below right).
As we met area locals during our excursions, we asked for recommendations for favorite dinner spots. Two establishments kept coming up in conversation – The Thomas [813 Main St, Napa, California 94559] (below top) and Oenotri [1425 1st Street, Napa, California 94559] (below bottom) – and neither restaurant let us down. Both were friendly, inviting, absolutely delicious, and had fantastic bar areas at which you could enjoy a more casual meal.
We stayed at The Westin Verasa Napa [1314 McKinstry Street, Napa, California 94559], which allowed us to walk comfortably to many restaurants and shops within the city. It was nice not to have to worry about parking, and we were able to burn off some of the fantastic food and wine we enjoyed.
Lastly, the lowest traffic days of the week at the wineries are Monday through Wednesday. If you can take the days off from work, you will experience much less traffic, receive much more personal attention, and have a stress free trip.
Cheers and Bon appétit!