I love wine. Although I strive to learn more about wine traits, styles and etiquette, I’m certainly no expert. A few years ago, friends of mine and I began a quarterly wine club. We thought it was a great way to increase our wine knowledge and have fun at the same time.
After many get-togethers and discussions about our desire to explore California wines firsthand, we finally made it happen this past spring. One couple in our group had previously toured Napa Valley and Sonoma. Based on their experience, and what we hoped to accomplish as a group, they created a fantastic weekend itinerary for us (and even secured drivers to transport us between tastings). Seven wineries in three days may seem ambitious, but we wanted to make the most of our wine country experience. We’re already planning a return — and much longer — visit.
Chateau Montelena Vineyard
This was our first and probably my most highly-anticipated tour. A few of us had watched the 2008 movie Bottle Shock, which tells the story of how Chateau Montelena’s 1973 chardonnay did the unthinkable and beat all their French competitors in the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976. A cabernet sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars also won. A bottle of each can be found in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. This event at the “Judgement of Paris” shattered the widely-held notion that only the French could make premium wine. As a result, between 1975 and 2004, the number of California wineries increased from 330 to 1,689.
Resembling a beautiful English estate, the chateau was originally built in 1888 by Alfred Tubbs (and called A.L. Tubbs Winery). At that time, most Napa Valley wineries were constructed of wood. The building’s unique thick stone construction provided protection from external hot and cold temperatures. The estate grounds are such a peaceful backdrop, with the vineyards stretching out to the base of Mount Saint Helena. The Barrett family purchased Chateau Montelena in 1972.
We enjoyed a Library Tasting, which took place in their private Library Room. We tasted a 2014 Riesling (Potter Valley), 2009 Chardonnay (Napa Valley), 2012 Zinfandel (Calistoga/Napa Valley), 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) and 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (Calistoga/Napa Valley).
We made a lunch stop here on our way to our next tasting, and I highly recommend you make time for this gem. Opened in 1881, Oakville Grocery is the longest continually operating grocery store in California. Today you’ll find varied locally made products like preserves, cookies and other food items. Order breakfast or lunch and grab a seat at one of the picnic tables outdoors. The veggie sandwich I ordered was on point — red piquillo peppers, Piment d’Ville feta spread, roasted leeks, sprouts, greens and artisan bread.
Silver Oak Winery
Sated from lunch, we were ready to venture to our next tasting at Silver Oak Winery. Founded out of a dairy barn in 1972, it was the result of a partnership between entrepreneur Raymond Twomey Duncan and winemaker Justin Meyer. It’s actually still owned by the Duncan family, and their wines are produced the same way they did when they began 37 years ago.
When a fire destroyed their historic Oakville winery in 2006, they made the absolute best of a bad situation by rebuilding to new levels of energy-efficient winemaking. They became the first commercial production winery in the world to earn LEED Platinum certification in the “existing building” category.
Our host, Kolea, led us through a vertical cabernet tasting (meaning we tasted different vintages of one particular wine). She was phenomenal. Friendly and patient with our many questions, she provided my favorite tasting experience of our whole trip. Our cabernet vintages included: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2009.
Trefethen Family Vineyards
We were all pretty smitten with the historic three-story wooden gravity flow winery (the only surviving example in Napa Valley), as well as the surrounding 500-acre grounds. Originally named Eshcol, it was built in 1886 by Scottish sea captain, Hamden McIntyre.
The property sat dormant from 1940 to 1968, when Gene and Catherine Trefethen bought the property. They carefully restored it based on their research into the winery’s history. Their attention to detail earned Trefethen a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Their son John began making small batches of win in his parents’ basement, and in 1973 he produced Trefethen Vineyards’ first commercial wine. In addition, they earned “Best Chardonnay in the World at the 1979 Gault Millau World Wine Olympics in Paris.
We did the Villa Reserve Tasting, which takes place in the former Trefethen family residence. The woodwork inside the villa was remarkable, and several ribbons and awards that Trefethen has earned over the years were displayed throughout. The wines we sampled included: 2016 Harmony Chardonnay, 2015 F-H-B Merlot, 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon in Magnum, 2016 Dragon’s Tooth and 2015 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
While visiting Napa in 1973 to photograph the area for the book The Treasury of American Wines, Jack Cakebread stopped by the Sturdivant Ranch to visit friends. He commented that if they ever wanted to sell their land, he’d be interested. That afternoon, the Sturdivants called with an offer, and Cakebread Cellars became a reality.
After our “welcome splash” of their 2017 Sauvignon Blanc, we gathered in the barrel room for our Current Release Tasting. This experience featured both reds and whites. Our host, Jacob, was a lot of fun and very informative. Our tasting included: 2017 Chardonnay (Napa Valley), 2015 Chardonnay Reserve (Carneros), 2016 Pino Noir (Two Creeks, Anderson Valley), 2015 Merlot (Napa Valley) and 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley).
I could have spent an entire day here. The grand chateau, lake and vineyard views from our private tasting table on the terrace — there was so much to love. The chateau is architecturally inspired by the Chateau de la Marquetterie in Epernay, France, which is owned by the winery’s principal founder, Champagne Taittinger.
Domaine Carneros is renowned for their award-winning sparkling wine and Pinot Noir. We booked the Sparkling Sampler Tasting, and paired our wine with some of their cheese and charcuterie plates. It was delicious. I’m typically not a huge fan of rosé, but discovered a new favorite here.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
Founded by Warren Winiarski in 1969, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was another winery we were excited about thanks to Bottle Shock. Their 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon beat out world-famous French reds at the 1976 Judgement of Paris.
The FAY Outlook and Visitor Center was nothing short of something you’d see in the pages of Architectural Digest. However, the underground caves were my favorite. There are more than 34,000-square-feet of tunnels, with the capability to house 6,000 barrels of wine. During our Estate Wine Tasting and Cave Tour, we walked to the center of the cave, the Round Room. Here, a Foucault pendulum is suspended from the ceiling above a quartzite floor. It’s powered by the movement of the earth and an electromagnet, and seems to move with the rotation of the planet.
Benzinger Family Winery
This was our Sonoma stop, and I really enjoyed our Tribute Estate Tour here. The Benziger family purchased the historic Wegener Ranch on Sonoma Mountain in Glen Ellen and founded the winery in 1981.
Benziger is a biodynamic winery, and their commitment to sustainability is inspiring. They only pick their grapes by hand at night and follow the lunar calendar. They also use nothing but nature to take care of pests. For example, bird houses are found throughout the property to attract birds that prey on animals that would damage the vines. Birds also carry seeds that help pollinate the garden. In addition, they employ a small herd of Scottish Highlander cattle to provide organic manure, and sheep replace mowing (as well as aid in aeration and fertilization of the soil).
We toured the estate, the winery, and then proceeded to our seated tasting in a private room inside the wine cave. I’m partial to red blends, and the Benziger Estate Joaquin’s Inferno (Sonoma Mountain) was probably my favorite here.
In between tastings, we made sure to carve out time to experience local restaurants. Here’s a list of a few you should consider:
Named for the yellow Spanish mustard flower that helps nourish vineyard soils each spring, this restaurant has been a Napa Valley staple since 1983. They boast an extensive wine list (with rare vintages from around the globe), fresh fish, ribs, steak and sandwiches. There menu reads “Sorry, everything is delicious,” and they aren’t wrong.
Produce from local growers provide inspiration for seasonal offerings here. The restaurant décor includes local art available for purchase. The menu boasted their house made onion rings were “Best in the Valley.” Although I wasn’t able to test that claim against other area onion rings, they were some of the best I’ve ever had. Burgers (including a vegetarian option), pastas, wood-fired pizza (vegan cheeses available, too!), salads and soups — there’s a lot to choose from.
Chef Anita Cartagena is at the helm of this Caribbean-style, fast casual restaurant. Eat here and you’ll see how she defeated celebrity chef Bobby Flay on his Food Network show, Beat Bobby Flay. We enjoyed an al fresco lunch here. Cartagena is warm and accommodating. When I asked if something in particular on the menu was vegetarian, she offered up several other items she could make me that weren’t listed on the menu. I would eat here every day if I could. Since their menu changes daily, I’m sure I would never get bored.
What better to enjoy fantastic wine with than an unbelievable Italian dish? Pastas, pizza, main courses and tempting desserts — they have something for every palate.
I love public markets. The only downside (especially if you’re only there for one meal) is choosing from the varied dining options. I ordered a veggie quesadilla and I was not disappointed. Their guacamole and chips were to die for, too.
Located in Sonoma, this popular restaurant features French-inspired fare using locally sourced products. The restaurant’s interior was cozy with a shabby chic vibe. We savored brunch here. I ordered the eggs Benedict without the ham, and it was delicious. Also, the gin sparkler — Junipero gin, lemon, agave nectar and French sparkling wine — was very refreshing.
Your local AAA Travel Agent can help you craft an independent California wine country getaway or group tour with one of our preferred travel partners.
Here are a few trips to consider: