By Igor Sill
What are the best Napa Valley wineries to visit? This isn’t an easy question to answer because there are so many truly amazing Napa wineries. Some people prefer the small boutique “micro” wineries, some want a winery that focuses on their favorite wine style or varietal, while others want a lively venue with many amenities like restaurants, shops and art galleries. This list is meant as a starting point on your exploration of this globally revered wine region.
No other wine region on the planet draws as much attention as Napa Valley. It’s visited by well over three million people every year; making it one of California’s top tourist destinations (Disneyland ranks #1). Perfect for a day or weekend trip from San Francisco, Napa Valley awards one with beautiful scenery, exceptional wineries, world-renowned wines and, of course, an unforgettably memorable experience.
For many San Francisco Bay Area tourists, the opportunity of tasting premium wines is an absolute must. Napa’s soil, gentle climate and growing conditions (terroir) make for ideal grapes, coveted by wine enthusiasts worldwide.
Napa Valley contains well over 400 wineries, with most welcoming guests with winery tours, wine education and tasting rooms. While enticing, the sheer number of winery options can be overwhelming. This article was originally published back in February of 2016 based on reviews from visitors compiled via yelp.com. In this updated version, I researched both yelp.com and TripAdvisor.com to uncover those wineries that recent visitors felt offered excellent wines, a substantial, service-oriented winery experience, rich history, as well as an informative and entertaining adventure. Seems a lot has changed since then, both from visitor reviews and the winery programs themselves.
Both of these websites are free and provide consumers an open platform to voice their experiences about the quality of products, services and experiences so that anyone can instantly acquire information from countless other consumers about their personal experiences ranging from restaurants to movies to physicians and, wineries! After compiling the most positive ratings, I visited these top 10 wineries unannounced to confirm the reviews.
The recommendations listed are supported by analyzing well over 3,000 yelp.com and TripAdvisor.com shared reviews, for the best, a few hidden gems, as well as my own first-hand experience of their hospitality, quality of wines, ambiance, history, the overall wine tasting experience and the memories that linger long after the visit is over. Yelp has always been a dependable community review site with full user profiles helping others determine if they might agree with a particular reviewer’s taste. Yelp encourages users to post real photos and their real first name and last initial. I believe both yelp and TripAdvisor reviews are reliable, trustworthy and fairly representative by visitors.
Wine is not to be feared, though at first it can seem somewhat daunting. A knowledgeable wine tender can erase those fears while guiding your pallet to an enjoyable and memorable experience on your very first visit. If you are a first time visitor, you may wish to consider picking the right time of year to visit. The best time to visit Napa is during the Spring and Fall seasons, meaning April to early June and the September to October timeframes. Early fall is our “crush” period, when wineries are harvesting their grapes. If you want to experience a winery in action, come in the Fall. The other optimal time is early Spring (late February to March) when Napa Valley’s mustard plants are all in full, brilliant yellow bloom.
Excellent wines are certainly treasured; however, the experience a winery and its staff provide determines its guest’s assessment and the desire to return. Wineries achieve first class status when their staff enjoys greeting people, are extraordinary experts in their fields and capable of conveying their knowledge in a friendly, fun and understandable fashion. Life is way too short for lousy wine and a mediocre time. And so, with the help of yelp.com and TripAdvisor.com shared reviews, here are 10 of my favorite wineries with tastings and tours that are open to the public.
Of course, this list only scratches the surface. Napa has dozens of other wineries worth noting, such as Beaulieu, Beringer, Cakebread, Chateau Montelena, Ehlers, Far Niente, Mondavi, Pine Ridge, Shafer, Silver Oak and many more.
The smaller wineries will often receive guests on an appointment only basis, so always call ahead, or visit their website for availability. Also, note that Napa zoning restrictions preclude picnic eating at all but a couple of Napa estates, so hold off on that picnic basket.
Virtually all wineries will charge a fee for the tour or tasting, but given the amount of information garnered and the quality of wines poured, along with the beautiful and stylish settings; these visits are an incredible bargain.
My list of the best Napa Valley wineries to visit:
1) V.Sattui Winery, St Helena, Napa (www.vsattui.com): This is the most popular and most visited winery in all of Napa. Hours are 9-5 in the winter and 9-6 in the summer months with no appointment required, 7 days a week. V.Sattui continues to evolve and upgrade their guest experiences, recently adding a Concierge Service designed to custom tailor visits based on guest preferences. It’s a top favorite because they offer old world Italian charm, more than 60 different wines, champagne and ports, vast picnic grounds, personalized winery and barrel tasting tours, food pairings, a legendary deli with fresh foods, cheeses and a friendly, knowledgeable, well trained staff. It’s one of the few wineries that consistently receives top awards for their wines crafted by noted Winemaker, Brooks Painter who joined V.Sattui in 2005 from Robert Mondavi Winery. The main tasting room is as close to a party as you’ll get in the often seriously elitest Napa. For those who want to learn and talk about terroir while indulging in aficionado conversations about serious wines should visit their Vittorio tasting room (Tower) where wine expert, Marc Golic, can be found. There’s always a party going on at this winery because it’s always packed with visitors, frequent summer BBQs, special events, entertainment and weddings year round. This winery has a full time wedding and special events Michelin Star Chef, Stefano Masanti, insuring exceptional cuisine matches glamorous events. Culinary Director, Joe Schneider, combines award winning wines with weekly food pairing tasting events. It’s also a great spot to relax with their wines while enjoying a family lunch on their picnic grounds. The terrace grounds behind Vittorio Tower is like walking through olive tree lined lavender fields in Italy. V. Sattui is a family, dog friendly winery where you’ll see children having a great time as well. This is truly a wonderful and gorgeous place to spend your day. V.Sattui believes in doing very little advertising, relying mostly on word-of-mouth from loyal Wine Club members, which seems to be working very well for them. Highly recommended for fun-loving novice wine buffs as well as the accomplished wine aficionado. 1111 White Lane, St Helena, CA 94574 (707) 963-7774
2) Darioush Winery, Oak Knoll, Napa (www.darioush.com): I made reservations for 4 at Darioush Winery for a flight of 5 wines hosted tasting on a busy Saturday afternoon @ $150 per person. We arrived a bit early and drove up that beautiful long driveway at the base of Atlas Peak off of Silverado Trail. We were graciously greeted as we approached the entry by Mark, a very friendly concierge who checked us in with a smile and served us a wonderful Russian River Chardonnay. Mark quickly guided us inside to a waiting living room setting in front of a massive fireplace graced by Persian columns. Mark then introduced us to our host, Derek, who engaged us with a bit of history behind Darioush’s founder, Darioush Khaledi, who achieved the American dream by immigrating to the US from Iran following the Islamic revolution and started what turned out to become the largest family-owned grocery business in Los Angeles. He then founded Darioush in 1997 to bring the opulent architecture, rich culture, arts and wines of the famed royal city of Persepolis to Napa. And, that he has done. The winery is amazingly impressive, with Persepolis columns framing the entrance with a royal palace setting inside. Our 5 wines were served paired perfectly with artisan cheeses and nuts. We tasted 2 Syrahs, a Merlot, a 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon and lastly, the Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. All were luscious and superbly outstanding. Darioush himself walked over, introduced himself and welcomed us to his winery with a genuine and gracious hospitality, making us feel like royalty. Derek then invited us downstairs where we toured Darioush’s personal wine collection cellar, filled with first growth Bordeaux wines, in the style of Haut-Brion, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux (one of my personal favorites), Chateau Lafite and Mouton Rothschild, including a bottle of 1942 Chateau Lafite Rothschild–reportedly one of only 2 left in the world. Derek then pulled out a wine thief and proceeded to extract tastings for each of us from a cellar French oak barrel of 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, yet to be bottled or released. It was truly outstanding and, though a bit young, will clearly be brilliant in a few years. Overall, we tasted some 7 lovely wines and were graced with an unforgettable wine tasting experience in one of Napa’s absolutely finest wineries. Without question, an exceptional and unforgettably memorable experience, worthy of 6 yelp stars (5 is the max)! Appointments required. 4240 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558 (707) 257-2345
3) Castello di Amorosa, Calistoga, Napa (www.castellodiamorosa.com): Castello di Amorosa knows how to make a huge first impression. Set on a Calistoga knoll, this authentically styled, 13th Century Tuscan castle winery is unlike any other you’ll visit. It took some 15 years for owner Dario Sattui (founder of V.Sattui Winery) to construct it and has all the elements you’d expect from an authentic Italian castle, such as a moat with drawbridge, high stone walls, gargoyles, a church and fully equipped torture chamber. The castle winery produces hand-crafted Italian-styled wines including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Primitivo and Sangiovese. A number of guided tours and tastings are available. The castle hits all the marks: delicious wines that you can only get from here, unforgettably gorgeous grounds, delectable foods and cheeses, and a friendly, knowledgeable staff. Busy and crowded. $25 gets you into the castle along with 5 tastings. 4045 St. Helena Highway (Hwy 29) (707) 967-6272
4) Spottswoode, St Helena, Napa (www.spottswoode.com): Spottswoode is a true family owned historic winery on the west side of St Helena in the Napa Valley. Established in 1882 by George Schonewald, the estate is distinguished by the historic Victorian home portrayed on their wine labels. Founder, Mary Novak was a vital part of the fabric of Napa Valley and its wine community since 1972. Her intelligence, sense of humor, humility, and vivacious personality continues to inspire all at Spottswoode. Today, the winery is managed by her daughters Beth Novak Milliken, its President & CEO and Lindy Novak, who runs the winery’s wholesale marketing program. The family produces a small portfolio of 4 delicious varietals, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and a miniscule amount of Syrah and Albarino. Their hospitality and tasting room is in a quaint Victorian farmhouse nestled amongst the vines. Tours are available on Monday through Fridays at 10AM with no more than 10 people allowed, so call in advance as this is a popular site. Spottswoode is consistently rated one of the very best (5 stars) at Yelp. Phone (707) 963-0134 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to make a reservation.
5) Inglenook Winery, Rutherford, Napa (www.inglenook.com): As one of the original Napa wineries, the elegant, ivy-covered Inglenook was founded by Finnish sea captain and Wine Connoisseur, Gustave Niebaum in 1879. Gustave was passionate about making fine wines in small quantities. Many Hollywood legends were drawn to this Napa treasure in the 1930’s and 40’s including Carole Lombard, Clark Gable and Jean Harlow to name just a few. In 1975, Francis Ford Coppola acquired the notorious winery from the Niebaum family and spent considerable time, money and energy restoring it back to its magnificent original splendor. It has since been known by several names, ala Niebaum-Coppola, Coppola and Rubicon until 2011, when Francis Ford Coppola acquired the Inglenook trademark, paying more, he said, than he had paid for the entire estate. He has since, restored the historic name Inglenook to the estate so that it remains a true crown jewel of Napa Valley. Tours are by appointment and definitely worthwhile so that you can appreciate these amazing grounds.
6) Artesa Vineyards and Winery (www.artesawinery.com) Out of all these wineries, Artesa offers the very best overall Napa views. The family-owned winery is set into the highest hill of its 350-acre estate. A terrace offers beautifully expansive vistas of the surrounding countryside, and on clear days, a view of the San Francisco skyline.
Artesa’s architecture reflects a series of Spanish Mediterranean themes. Originally named Codorniu Napa, the name was changed to Artesa in 1997, which translates to “handcrafted” in catalan. Today Artesa wines are crafted from the varietals for which Carneros and Napa Valley are best known: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Tastings are $35, $45 and $55 per person dependent on exclusivity of the wines served. There are some truly amazing picturesque views to absorb as you enjoy some truly great wines. 1345 Henry Road, Napa (707) 224 1668
7) Domaine Carneros, Napa, CA (domainecarneros.com) Founded by the noble French family behind Champagne Taittinger, this majestically grand château is a splendid way to enjoy the Carneros Appellation of Napa. This stunning, fairy-tale château was modeled after an 18th-century French mansion owned by Taittinger. Carved into the hillside below the winery are exceptional sparkling wines reminiscent of those crafted by Taittinger, using estate grown Los Carneros grapes. The estate is located in the southern part of Napa Valley near the cooler climate of San Pablo Bay. There are 3 terraces from which you can enjoy breathtaking views while sipping extraordinary Sparkling and Pinot Noir wines. If you elect to take a tour, you’ll experience behind-the-scenes look at how wines are produced, from the vineyards through to the bottling process and culminates with a sampling of wines paired with an array of artisan cheeses, gourmet caviar, smoked salmon and charcuterie while seated in the Louis XV–inspired salon or on the terrace overlooking the vineyards. Reservations are required. 1240 Duhig Road. Napa, CA 94559. (707) 257-0101, email: email@example.com. Tasting Hours: 10:00AM-5:30PM
8) Luna Vineyards, Napa, CA (lunavineyards.com): Co-founders Michael Moone and George Vare launched Luna Vineyards in 1995. Wonderful, magically modern and an absolutely amazing small estate vineyard close by to downtown Napa and a short distance from Silverado Resort. You can leave your car parked at your Napa B&B and easily get there via bike. Luna, located on Silverado Trail is the largest producer of Pinot Grigio in Napa. They offer a sunny patio area with ample comfy chairs to relax in while tasting their wines. Luna is more like a wine bar than a working winery, with music playing and a relaxed comfortable setting. You can also catch the beautiful scenic views of the historic Silverado Trail overlooking the vineyards from their rooftop tower. They specialize in Atlas Peak mountain varietals which include Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese. Reservations are recommended. 2921 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558 Open Daily: 10:30AM – 6PM (707) 255-5862
9) Opus One, Oakville, Napa (www.opusonewinery.com) This winery originated as the joint venture between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe Rothschild who teamed up to create this magnificent winery focused on producing a single Bordeaux styled blend based on Napa Valley floor Cabernet Sauvignon. Opus One Winery delivers a luxurious, though somewhat formal wine experience. The estate is impressive, especially when driving down the center driveway to the winery entrance. Looking out across Opus One’s vineyards from the upstairs terrace, you immediately sense the beauty of Napa Valley. This is a winery to just sit back, relax and absorb a wonderful glass of wine with the company of good friends. It doesn’t get any more luxuriously sophisticated than this, so take plenty of pictures while there. Constellation Brands acquired Robert Mondavi winery in 2004 and entered into a management agreement with Baron Rothschild to manage Opus One. The Winery tours are by appointment only, so call in advance to secure your reservation, and if possible, note that their very best and most knowledgeable tour Docents are Sandy, Nancy, Vicki, Hank and Japanese-speaking, Kaede. Opus One produces only one wine, a Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignon blend, so be prepared for tasting one lovely red wine in a bit pretentious and pricey setting. Opus One is worth the visit. 7900 St. Helena Highway (Hwy 29) Oakville, CA 94562 (707) 944-9442 Tasting Hours: 10:00AM-4:00PM
10) Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Oakville, Napa (www.cask23.com): Founded in 1970 by Warren Winiarski, this winery brought international acclaim to Napa Valley winemaking when their 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon won the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting. A bottle of 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon was inducted into the Smithsonian National Museum in 1996 as a result of being awarded first in this competition and to reflect the impact that the achievement had on Napa’s wine industry. The winery’s newly remodeled facility provides floor-to-ceiling views of its vineyards as its centerpiece. The winery’s cave “is the moral center of the universe” according to founder Warren Winiarski. He installed an amazing floor-to-ceiling Foucault pendulum at the center of the vaulted caves. It’s an awesome sight to behold as it swings methodically. The winery was sold to a joint venture by Chateau Ste Michelle and Marchesi Antinori in the summer of 2007. Reservations are accepted Monday through Friday from 10AM to 4:30PM at firstname.lastname@example.org. 5766 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558 (707) 261-6410
After an enjoyable and fun-filled day of wine tasting, you may want to continue your romantic adventure by exploring a few of Napa Valley’s finest restaurants. Paring those exceptional wines is a very real part of the wine country lifestyle. Chef Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, located in Yountville is a three Michelin stars, though getting a reservation is challenging and, if successful, costly, however, the intimacy of the dining experience make it well worth your while. Another favorite is Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, offering superb dining with a magnificent valley view. A bit further north in St. Helena, is one of my favorites, Market, on Main Street in downtown St Helena. Not far away, is PRESS Restaurant which boasts exquisite steaks and one of the valley’s best all-Napa wine lists. On Silverado Trail is Chef Christopher Kostow’s The Restaurant at Meadowood, another 3 star Michelin restaurant. Further north in Calistoga is another of my favorites, Solage’s Solbar which offers a relaxing and beautiful setting, local and seasonal ingredients as well as an extensive wine list. So, pack your bags and increase your expectations. You won’t be disappointed.
The author Igor Sill farms a 24-acre mountain vineyard in Atlas Peak and a terraced cabernet sauvignon vineyard in St Helena, Napa, California. He’s a passionate vintner; wine lover; writer; Court of Master Sommeliers; attended UC Davis’ winemaking program; Member, Napa Valley Wine Technical Group; Judge, International Wine Challenge, London UK and holds his Masters from Oxford University.