Napa Valley is a dream, a sophisticated, compact and sunny dream; California's answer to years of old wine in Europe. Napa Valley is a very well-known wine region (possibly it's best known) which is only a few hours drive from San Francisco. (Skip to my 6 top tips.)
Unfortunately we didn't plan it very well in advance and hadn't booked a load of wine tastings, plus
we had to sort out our rental car in the morning so we didn't even arrive til gone midday! However I did have the foresight to book one tasting the night before for an 'Aromatherapy with a Corkscrew' session which was supposed to help us find our noses (more about that below), but all the other ones we fancied were fully booked (like Frog's Leap) or the timings didn't work.
If you find yourself in a similar situation then don't worry ALL IS NOT LOST. I used the Napa Valley Welcome Centre to route with maps, but we decided to pop in and take a look as we were there. The centre was very glam and talking to a very relaxed lady who looked like a Mum from the OC. She talked us through her route including 4/5 tastings, and an Italian deli, with 2 for 1 vouchers for most. ("Oh no, we don't want you paying full price for anything!")
The thing you should understand about Napa Valley is that it is a series of smaller areas that are only minutes from each other, so once you're at one vineyard, you know you've got another minutes away. I didn't expect to find such a manicured area - I think I thought it was just vineyards and wilderness. This so isn't true, Napa Valley is beautiful, manicured and civilised! On to the vino...
Raymond VineyardsWe started our day at Raymond Vineyards which came highly recommended by the lady at the welcome centre (I feel rude now that I didn't get her name). There are a few rooms that you can choose for the tasting, but it's worth the little extra to be in the Crystal Cellar which is something else. It's Moulin Rouge themed with hooker-like mannequins hanging from the ceiling, colour changing lights, chandeliers and words scrawled in lipstick by the owner himself.
Now I always got the impression that wine tasting was always going to be somewhat stuffy and all about the in-club. Well the girl who took our tasting didn't even flinch when we admitted that Josh was brand new to wine (he was teetotal until he met me... whoops) and that I hadn't really had more than a few sips of red wine! She was chatty and talked us through what made the wines different, asked what we liked and didn't shove overtones and tanis mumbo jumbo marketing talk down our throats. We very much appreciated it & relaxed easily!
Tell them if you're new to wine tasting. They need to know how to pitch it and what advice and chat you're most receptive to; don't forget to ask them questions too even if it's just "what is your favourite wine?"
V Sattui WineryNext up was V Sattui Winery were we popped in to get some food from their Italian deli to soak up some of the wine. The staff at Raymond Vineyards mentioned that the deli opposite was a lot more classy and high quality, but for ease we just went to the one we were recommended hoping we'd have time to enjoy the grounds (we didn't and hate to eat not the road).
Take some food or allow enough time for a meal and snacks... Or you definitely won't make it through a day of tasting.
Rutherford Ranch Winery
St SuperyThis was the final tasting that we managed to squeeze in to the day and although it would've made sense to do it first thing, we just wanted to experience it at some point in the day. As I already mentioned we managed to prebook the Aromatherapy with a Corkscrew session which is all about training your nose to smell lots of different things. Considering 90% of what we taste is how it smells (read more about it in this interesting Guardian article) it's amazingly tricky, at least for me, to find all the different smells that the back of the wine bottle states.
This tasting is so different as it gets you to smell something, identify it and then see if you can match it to your wines. It was great fun and genuinely informative and I highly recommend including this tasting in your day. You can also see down in to the room where they make the wine and there's a small gallery of artwork which you can ponder while you enjoy the last of your wine.
2. Wear smart casual clothes as some of the places are lovely, but none seemed to have a dress code. Think summery dresses with wedges/sandals and perhaps a summer shirt for the men.
3. Research the different tasting available ahead of time, but don't necessarily book out the entire day; this allows you to take your time and act on recommendations.
4. Start early enough, end early as most tastings are over by 6pm.
5. Go to the welcome centre to make the most of half price/free tastings.
6. Allow time to eat and designate a driver. The 'pours' (glasses of wine to taste) are generous and you want to be able to enjoy your favourites.