A Napa Winery Deep Dive

There is no shortage of wineries to visit in Napa Valley. You will quickly realize it may be nearly impossible to cover them all even after visiting numerous times. Every place that I visited was unique, and they all offered something a little different than the next. Below is a sampling of all the wineries that I booked a tasting at while in Napa. And, most importantly, I will discuss my favorites.

Artesa.  This was the first winery that I visited in the Napa Valley and a great way to start the trip.  The entry is dramatic and beautiful starting with a staircase up to gorgeous fountains and hills looming not too far in the distance.  Inside, I was greeted for my food and wine pairing.  On this particular Sunday, I shared the experience only with one other couple.  We started out with a small history lesson while sipping on the 2015 Grand Reserve Brut.  Artesa started out with only sparkling and then made their way into other varieties as the years passed.  They have other wineries throughout the world, and this is the only location in the USA.  Other locations are in Argentina and Spain.  The design and esthetic of the other wineries was equally as striking, as displayed in photos next to the entry.  After hearing about the background, our host took us on a brief tour of the property that ended in one of their private rooms.  The rooms surround a courtyard and are all glass.  Just outside of our private room was their main tasting room.  It was rather busy, so it was nice to have the private experience.  After the sparkling, I was offered five wines each paired with a small bite.  The food was extremely light, but undeniably tasty with the wine.  My favorite was the cabernet paired with cheese and meat.  The wines for the pairing were an Albarino, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, and Cabernet Sauvignon. I highly recommend a visit. The scenery is gorgeous. I enjoyed the wine, and they offered a good variety. I would absolutely repeat the same Tapas and Wine tasting. Artesa is located in close proximity to Carneros resort.  It is located to the west of Napa town. 

Domaine Carneros.  This estate is very proper and beautiful.  On a Monday morning in the middle of December, it was bustling.  Much like Artersa, there was also a dramatic staircase leading up to the main building.  I say building, but it looked more like a palace. As you near the top of your climb, there is an outdoor porch that is covered.  Just inside the main doors is the check in with a tasting room off to the right.  Even though we arrived on time, our seat was not available for the tasting.  We were offered a glass of sparkling even for a short wait, which was definitely appreciated.  They escorted us to a large glass enclosed porch beyond their indoor tasting room.  There was a nice fountain outside with views of the vineyard.  Of the seating options I visualized, I think this is probably the best room to sit in for a tasting, particularly if you are interested in a view.  They have many options to choose from online for their tastings.  Some of them are Bubbles and Bites: A Journey to Morocco, The Art of Sabrage, Ultimate Carneros, and The Ultimate Chip and Dip. My decision was the Art of Sabrage.  The Art of Sabrage allows you to taste four sparkling wines including their more basic option up to La Reve at a higher price point per bottle.  Along with this, you will receive a pretty extensive tasting board with everything from cornichons to caviar.  Even though the tasting was for four wines, we ended up trying many more.  They brought us at least two additional pours.  The grand finale includes the chance to sabre your own bottle.  This winery is also located in close proximity to Carneros resort and is to the west of Napa. If you love sparkling wine as much as I do, this is not to be missed. On top of this, they served a high quality spread of meats, cheeses, and other elevated snacks.

Saintsbury.  This winery is a little less frills than Artesa and Domaine Carneros, but it certainly was a fun experience.  Dependent upon the time of year for the visit, their outdoor covered patio area can get a little chilly.  I was the first tasting in the morning, and they just started the heater.  It began a little cold, but they do have blankets available if you are visiting in the winter.  Their primary focus is on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Our host here was extremely knowledgeable.  I reserved a tasting for five wines, but again, it ended up being many more than that.  There were not any other visitors until near the end of my tasting.  The experience felt very private and individualized.  If not for running late to my next tasting, I think they would have allowed me to stay nearly the entire day.  I ended up spending 2.5 hours. The hospitality and personalized experience was the strongest at Saintsbury. I enjoyed my tasting, but I would not return on a future visit. This winery is located to the west of Napa town in close proximity to Carneros Resort.

HALL.  If I am being perfectly honest, I booked this tasting because the property has a rather unique art collection.  This definitely caught my attention.  I started noticing the quirky touches as I pulled into the parking lot.  First, Bunny Foo Foo will greet you, a giant art piece located at the main entrance. Next, you will see your first sign telling you “you look nice today.”    As you continue to the parking lot, you will see a white camel, some sheep, and a mirrored ball that felt reminiscent of the bean in Chicago.  This is all before you even walk in the door.  But, when you do, you will be impressed.  I was at least.  The next large art piece is from Nick Cave.  I immediately recognized this from its striking similarity to a piece in the Shinola hotel in Detroit.  Turns out, it is the same artist, but this piece is even larger.  It is quite the showpiece.  Our guide here was phenomenal and had been a sommelier for seven years.  She was extremely well versed in the history of the property and the wines.  We started the private tour outside with a glass of the WALT Pinor Noir.  Walt comes from the owner’s maiden name.  The Halls are very interesting people, particularly Kathryn.  She is an attorney who was involved in affirmative action, the missing children on milk bottles campaign, and she also was asked to serve as the US ambassador to Austria.  The tour commenced with a lot of the history and the story of bunny foo foo.  The Halls commissioned this piece from the artist after seeing a similar one elsewhere.  The artist did not oblige.  However, after the Halls sent wine for two years, they eventually received their own bunny.  There are so many other incredible pieces on the property, I couldn’t possibly talk about them all.  I do want to talk about the wine.  I really enjoyed it, and they did modify the tasting to my personal interests.  Ultimately, I was again able to try much more than just the wines restricted to the tasting.  It was a fantastic experience and absolutely worthy of a stop regardless of whether you enjoy art or not.  My personal favorites of the tasting were probably the Kathryn and Exzellenz. Each bottle has a story behind the name and presentation. The attention to detail does not go unnoticed at HALL.

Stags’ Leap.  There were a few surprises while visiting Stags’ Leap for a tasting.  The first surprise had to be that there is actually more than one Stags’ Leap.  So, if you have something particular in mind, make sure that you visit the correct winery.  I simply picked the first winery that came up on google.  One way to differentiate them online is by noting the position of the apostrophe.  Stags’ Leap is the more historic winery, but most are likely more familiar with Stag’s Leap.  When the guide announced this at the beginning of the tour, one couple realized they intended to be at the other winery.  A second couple had reservations at both.  Regardless, I quite enjoyed the less mainstream but more historic Stags’ Leap.  They poured us a glass of Chardonnay to start our short walking tour of the property.  We went outside and then down into the basement speakeasy, much of which is in its original condition.  We sipped on a red while hearing a little more about the history of the home.  Finally, we ended in a formal dining room with some additional pours of red along with some lovely cheeses.  The experience ended by trying two dessert wines.  My favorite wine was one of the dessert wines, the 2015 late harvest Viognier.  Right or wrong Stags’ Leap, I thought this was a great experience.  Although the experience wasn’t private like some of the other wineries, it didn’t feel rushed or too crowded. If you enjoy cheese, I thought the Santori, Merlot Bellavitano from Wisconsin that they served was fantastic.

Far Niente.  This was one of the wineries that I was the most interested in visiting.  For that reason, we signed up for the Cave Collection Library Wine Tasting.  The grounds here are extensive and really spectacular.  The drive in starts with a gorgeous tree lined two lane road creating a dramatic entry.  You will make your way to the Far Niente gate and on the right have views over the many vines.  As you approach, you will see the property on your left.  It looks like a home out of a fairytale.  Beyond this, there are a couple of ponds with pathways for exploring around if you arrive early.  Our tour was private and started with a walk through the caves learning more about the property.  From the caves, we made our way upstairs into a beautifully decorated room with a fantastic view.  The table was set to perfection for two with a small sample of four bites to try with the wines.  They even had our names printed on the menu!  It was a nice touch that did not go unnoticed.  We had this large room to ourselves practically the entire tasting.  The wines from the cave collection really were spectacular.  They stood out.  Some of the wines we sampled were the 2018 cave collection chardonnay and the cabernet sauvignon (2010, 2011, and 2014 vintages). The tasting concluded with the 2014 late harvest Dolce. If wine is a passion, I encourage you to try the Cave Collection tasting at Far Niente. I cannot imagine you would be disappointed. If you join their wine club, they do waive the tasting fee, which is a little more pricey for the Cave Collection tasting.

Chateau Montelena.  This winery is certainly rich with history.  Prior to visiting, I didn’t know much about the “Judgement of Paris” and Bottle Shock.  These refer to the blind taste test that took place with wines from California and France.  The Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena won this test to the dismay of the French.  If you tour here, you will hear much more of this story and additional history surrounding the property.  Many of the wineries I visited seemed less crowded or more private.  To some degree, this is likely due to the time of year for my visit, which was December.  This is not the feel that you will get at Chateau Montelena.  It was quite busy and felt a little less special.  Obviously, popularity comes for a reason though.  Just keep in mind that this is a great winery to visit, but the experience won’t necessarily feel as indivualized.  This winery is located further North, particularly if you are staying in Napa.  For that reason, I recommend making this your first or last stop of the day.  If you are staying in Calistoga, then it would be much more convenient and centrally located.  

Larkmead.  Prior to my visit, I did not know anything about this winery.  It was recommended by friends and, for that reason, I scheduled our tasting.  When we arrived, the winery was very quiet with few guests.  Our table was set on an enclosed porch with a gorgeous view of the vines.  We had the entire area to ourselves.  The main house is beautiful.  It is a white country house with well manicured landscaping outside the doors.  There were three red wines ready for us to try.  The wine is served in Zalto glasses.  If you don’t know about Zalto, their wine glasses are some of my favorites.  They are a lovely high quality product, and I felt it was a testament to the quality that Larkmead deems appropriate.  They are smaller production as compared to other places we visited.  Also in comparison, I typically don’t see their wines readily available.  Sometimes it is nice to try something that you aren’t able to easily obtain.  If you are interested in a visit, I recommend booking further in advance due to their smaller number of tastings daily.  Before you leave, don’t miss the chance to walk around the back of the property and have a better look at the grounds.  It is a very peaceful, well polished operation.

Krug.  I visited Krug as a part of the Napa Valley Wine Train.  In other posts, I will speak more about the train.  Here, I want to discuss Krug in more detail.  This was the first winery stop on the train.  We started outside with a sample of white and began a tour of the property hearing more about the history.  The wine was served in a plastic cup with lid shaped as a smaller version of a stemless wine glass.  I found this very clever, particularly for walking around and sipping on wine.  At the same time, I don’t love drinking wine from a plastic glass.  Call me crazy, but I do think the glass makes a difference.  As we walked around, we sampled a couple of their red wines as well.  We ended by standing in their main building on property.  This building is very spacious with tasting areas upstairs and downstairs.  The seating areas are very nice with great atmosphere.  Personally, I did not enjoy their wine as much as other places that we visited.  It was a great stop for the wine train, but I would not set up a tasting and visit here on my own. 

V. Sattui.  This was the second winery stop on the Napa Valley Wine Train.  This was also a large property.  We were escorted to a cellar with all of the wines ready for tasting.  As compared to Krug, I felt this experience to be a little more refined.  We were actually seated and able to drink out of a regular wine glass.  The guide discussed all of the wines, and at the end, we tried one of their dessert wines.  Also on the property, they do have a large store serving many cheeses, wines, and gifts.  On the train, you are allowed time in the shop prior to again boarding the train.  Much like Krug, I enjoyed these wines, but I found other wineries more to my taste.  It is a great stop on the train, but I would not set up a visit outside of returning on the train.

HALL Rutherford.  After becoming a member of HALL, I couldn’t wait to return and tour their Rutherford property.  It is located in close proximity to the Auberge resort, and the turn is just to the right after you lay eyes on this resort.  Once you make this turn, it is a beautiful drive into the winery located at the end of a very windy road.  As we found upon arrival, you will feel rather special as the property is limited to 15 guests per day or 105 per week.  This is due to strict restrictions on the number of individuals traveling on the road.  After announcing your arrival at the gate, you will start to see some of the art pieces that are also abundant at the St. Helena property.  Have your camera ready as you walk in the door.  Their beautiful entry table will have your first pour and the large window behind frames striking views of Napa.  While I thought this area was incredible, I could have never imagined what was to come when viewing their caves.  Their wine cave is just unbelievably gorgeous ending with a grand room featuring a large table and possibly the most spectacular chandelier I have ever seen.  It was stunning!  We finished our tour of the caves and went back to the main building for our tasting paired with a lovely assortment of charcuterie and cheeses.  

Quintessa.  After driving by this property on my second trip to Napa, I knew it had to be on the list for my next visit.  Email the property in order to inquire about tasting availability.  We did their Estate experience which allowed us to try two vintages of their Illumination Sauvignon Blanc and two vintages of Quintessa.  You will be greeted outside and escorted on a short walking tour of the property.  There is a short climb behind the property, which was rewarded with some expansive views at the summit.  At the top, there was a glass enclosed building, which would be an incredible place to enjoy a tasting.  We continued back to the main building and were seated in their back room that felt like a wine cave.  The room was cozy with a long table and all of our wine vintages poured and ready to taste.  They also brought out a beautifully adorned plate with cheese, crackers, figs, sausage, and nuts.  At the end, our guide allowed us to try an additional older vintage, which was a great way to end the tasting. 

Nickel & Nickel.  Nickel & Nickel is the sister winery of Far Niente.  The Far Niente property is reminiscent of a cottage in the middle of the woods and my experience is described above.  I made the mistake of thinking this visit would be somewhat of a step down from my visit to Far Niente.  This was not the case.  The property has gorgeous landscaping adorned with well manicured greenery and pops of color with their flowers.  Their main house was aging well with classic decor.  We started here with a glass of chardonnay and quickly moved outside to tour the property.  The next stop was one of their barns on property, where we heard more about the wine making process and the different soils including their impact on the grapes.  Our last stop was another barn on property with a table set up for our tasting.  We initially had the room entirely to ourselves.  At the end of the tasting, another group was seated at another table.  The experience was extremely private.  We opted for the Terroir Tasting, which was offered at 50% off since we are wine club members at Far Niente.  This included eight 100% varietal, single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons.  It was paired with some lovely meats and cheeses.  I really enjoyed the barely buzzed cheese!  At the end, our guide assessed our preferences and brought out one additional tasting paired to my palate.  When I visited Far Niente for their library tasting, I thought the experience would be hard to top.  Nickel & Nickel was a great follow up!   

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