I love wine. But my wine journey is a continued learning experience. I am by no means an expert nor do I claim to be one. I keep discovering new wines from all over the world and figuring out what it is that I like. I also continue to learn about the varietals, harvest and over all process of winemaking. Finally, I have been to the region about 3-4 times now, which is to say I have most certainly not visited all the possible wineries and tasting rooms to experience in the area, this is just all based on my experiences thus far. This all to say that this post is based on a few things in terms of why I like these wineries, it may not necessarily be that the wines here are the best in the world or best I had ever tasted, in some cases sure, but they offer a unique experience worthy of your time and effort in getting to wine country.
- Unique experience. Venturing out to wine country and visiting the wineries themselves, I want it to be worthwhile and to be special. Dont pour me the bottles I can get off the shelf at a Kroger Supermarket. As such when visiting wineries I like choosing ones that arent as common or easy to find outside of the winery. But not only that, I like to choose ones that offer an experience during the tasting v. commercialized tasting room. Furthermore, I prefer ones that offer the tastings in a fantastically designed environment, just adds to the ambiance. NOTE: there are tasting rooms out there that offer unique experiences as well as hit the below qualities, it is not meant to be a blanket statement.
- Service. Some wineries are super pretentious and unwelcoming. Some run things like a commercialized tasting room and are impersonal and dont really dive deep into the wine and winemaking. You can judge these things by the website or experience of booking a tasting, dont be turned off by ones that only offer tastings by appointments, I was surprised by a few like that.
- Educational. I have found my favorite wineries all involve some level of truly sharing their passion for the wine and science / geography …etc. behind the winemaking as well as their love for the region the wine is from. For me, visiting wineries is in part to try special wines not commonly found but its also a chance to learn more and expand my own understanding of wines.
Wine is so subjective and everyone has their opinions and tastes. These are my favorites based on my experiences. For example, some people rave about Opus One wines, which are good but I think overrated and while the tasting room and winery is beautifully design, an the staff were nice and not pretentious I thought it was just ok and not necessarily worth a visit, but it is a good and somewhat affordable way to try Opus One if you have never tried it. One other thing, is that I think a great documentary trilogy to watch is “SOMM”, especially part 2 and 3, really insightful.
Notes and Logistics
Napa Valley wine tasting tends to be a lot more expensive than Sonoma or other parts of the Northern California Wine country. This doesnt not necessarily translate to Napa is better or has better wines, it is just the namesake that put the region on the global spotlight and gave rise to some of the most prominent household names in American winemaking. As things reopen more and more wineries and tasting rooms will accept walk-ins. But for the most part many are by appointment only, in some instances they were and always have been by appointment only.
Hire a car or designated driver to drive your car. Plenty of these kinds of services in Napa and Sonoma. Highly recommended and is worth the price. It will make your trip far more enjoyable and relaxing. If its your first time and you dont know what wineries to choose from or begin with, go with the wine tours. Otherwise, I recommend doing your own research and booking your own tastings and just have a driver take you to and from. They are all priced similarly, usually for a party of 2-4 in a mid-sized car, its about $45/hour, not including tip.
The wine region’s southernmost point is about 30-40 minutes outside downtown San Francisco by car. You can fly to an assortment of airports. For Napa you can fly into Napa Airport, which is really only served by Fly JSX. For Sonoma/ Healdsburg and Santa Rosa, you can fly into Santa Rosa Airport with more commercial service. Otherwise fly into Oakland or San Francisco International.
Most important things is to stay hydrated between tastings, especially on beautiful sunny days in the valley. The wine tastings may not be full pours, but multiple tastings can sneak up on your out of nowhere.
The 3 I have listed for Napa are ones I never heard of before until researching for my trip in April 2021. These are ones where their wines are not commonly found on shelves at grocery stores or even major wine stores/ local tasting rooms around the country. They are smaller, boutique style wineries but are tied to big names and produce incredible wines. Not only that, the tasting experiences are great. All in amazing settings, all unpretentious and all educational. All 3 are by appointment only.
Helmed and founded by winemaker Gustavo Gonzalez, their tasting room and estate just outside of downtown Yountville only recently opened. Appointments can be made by submitting a request form online, and they are quick to respond and very friendly. Tasting fee is $100/person, waived per 3 bottles bought. Allot about 90 minutes or more for your experience. If you are lucky like we were, you’ll be joined by Gustavo himself to guide you through the tasting, and what a phenomenal treat that is. He is so nice, humble but has such a wealth of knowledge and experience in the wine making world of not just California but the world. Part of the experience is touring their onsite facilities and soon you’ll also get to see each grape varietal they plant in their vineyards in these small garden plots within the tasting area. What is also fun is that the entire place is design per the Golden Ratio and Fibonacci sequence, in fact their price range is based on the sequence too. The tasting comes with 3 pours and a welcome rose, but upon request they more than happily pour any of the bottles they have including their library selection. For sure, ask to try to Schweizer Vineyard Cabernet and Hyde and Sons Pinot Noir. We thoroughly enjoyed our time and experience here and chatting with Gustavo was a highlight. Estate manager Ed and his wife are both so outgoing and welcoming as well. It is a down to earth, educational, and beautiful wine tasting experience that will expand your understanding of the wines from the region and really the world too.
NOTE: it is a pet friendly place, and they have 2 large outgoing dogs, if you are allergic or not attuned to dogs, they more than happily keep them inside or away.
I stumbled upon Promontory when I called Harlan Estate to inquire about tasting. FYI, Harlan does not have a public tasting room and you cannot make appointments, but the friendly receptionist at Harlan referred me to their sister property Promontory to make an appointment. I did not know Harlan and Bond had a sister property called Promontory but upon going to their website and seeing images of the Howard Backen designed estate, I knew I had to book. You submit a request online and one of the Promontory concierges will promptly respond via email and a phone call. Given that this is associated with two of the biggest cult wines in the region, and that the tasting is $200/person, waived with purchase of wine, I was expecting everyone here to be pretentious (there was another cult winery I rang up who were very rude and pretentious when asked if they had public tastings, the answer was no). However, everyone from the concierge team I communicated with to our host, Christy, were super friendly, welcoming, down to earth and engaging. It is located in the hillside just off of Oakville.
The 90+ minute Promontory experience begins with a pour of Dom Perignon in the courtyard overlooking the rolling hills of the Harlan family vineyards. Your host then takes you through the property and talks through Promontory, the winemaking, the Harlan family and the design. Nowadays with reopening, you also get to tour the caves housing the large Italian oak barrels and the rock in which the estate was founded upon. You then proceed to your tasting. The tasting comes with 3 pour, but you can ask kindly to taste some other library vintages if available and they more than happily oblige. They only produce one kind of wine, Cabernet Sauvignon. All the vintages we tried, 2016 (current release), 2015, 2013, 2012 and 2010 were all so incredible. One of the best parts is how beautiful it is on the nose. $200/person is steep for a wine tasting, but when considering how much their current release bottle retails for, the tasting fee is worthwhile for all the vintages you could potentially try, plus a pour of Dom.
I came across Fantesca when googling wineries. I was looking for smaller, boutique, family owned wineries for a more personalized and unique wine tasting experience. Fantesca is owned and founded by Susane and Duan Hoff, founders of Best Buy. The winemaker is Heidi Barrett, famous for Screaming Eagle. On the team is also DLynn Proctor, one of the stars of the SOMM series. So yes, Fantesca is tied to lots of giants in both the wine world and retail world. But dont be intimidated. Being small and family run, means the tasting experience is personalized and welcoming. Appointments are made by submitting a request online, and they will respond back via email or give you a call to make an appointment. Super efficient and they were friendly and proactive, which was not what I was expecting given the associations to such big names. Tastings are $150/person, waived with wine purchase and takes around 90 min. At the time with COVID and having been affected by the wildfires, their normal outdoor tasting pavilion was destroyed and the new one was in final stages of construction so we tasted indoors in a very opulent room. During our visit we could not tour their cave but it appears with reopening that is now doable. It is located in the mountains just off St. Helena.
The tasting beings with a nice champagne, followed by walking through the vineyards and getting a lay of the land before heading in for some wine. The wines here are great. Loved the King Richard’s Reserve Pinot Noir, though Mira’s Pinot was slightly better. Unfortunately they had sold out of the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and as such we were not able to taste it. But the stories behind the labels, naming of the vintages and even the quotes on the corks are great to learn about with your host. Some bottles, like the Estate Cab, are hand etched and are beautifully textured.
Honorable Mention: The Setting Wines
They do not have a formal winery or tasting room in Napa, as the actual winery is on the Sonoma side, I believe somewhere in Santa Rosa. However, you can book an appointment to do a Setting Wine wine tasting at the Setting Inn just outside of Yountille. This is where we stayed during our recent visit and I did a tasting. You must do it as it is one of the best Sauvignon Blanc I have ever tasted, they barrel ferment it which adds a layer of complexity and oakiness and smooths out the often times overly acidic nature of Sauv Blancs. Appointments can be made by calling or emailing the Setting Inn or the Setting Winery.
This first one, isnt really Sonoma proper, its more Carneros Valley which is in my geographic opinion essentially where Napa and Sonoma converge, and it is the closest to San Francisco.
I last went many years ago, but this is an example where the tasting room experience is a bit more fast paced/ commercialized, but they do offer tours of the winemaking facilities and process. The other things it that the grounds and building are beautiful. The wines poured at the tasing room are a mix of ones commonly found but also reserve/ library selections. And their wines are good and offer good value too. Bookable online and walk-ins welcome.
Kunde Family Estate
This is my favorite winery to visit in the Sonoma area. The wines are fantastic, especially their dessert Cuvee served with house made salted dark chocolate, a heavenly pairing. But what makes it so great in my opinion are the unique tasting experiences the offer. There is the regular tasting room experience, but the best thing here is the mountaintop tasting. You get transported through the vineyards and rolling hills as they explain and their wines, the land, the winemaking and history of the winery. You arrive and a short little hike later, you are atop a hill overlooking Sonoma Valley, the Kunde Estate and are tasting wines under the trees and around naturally formed rocks. This is also where they filmed the 2008 film “Bottle Shock” about the Judgment of Paris. If you go, book early for the Mountain Top Tasting, so worth it. Bookable online. Walks-ins welcome but not for the Mountain Top, that you have to book in advance as its limited seating.
There are so many wineries and tasting rooms in the Napa and Sonoma valleys. It is impossible to hit them all in one go or even on multiple goes. If there is a particular wine or winery that you love and have wanted to visit then go for that. If you are new to wine and have no idea where to begin, try a place like Kunde or Mira where it is highly educational, inviting and beautiful setting to learn and dip your toes in wine, or just book a wine tour. However, if you feel you’ve been to a few more commercialized tasting experiences in the region and want more unique experiences the above spots I listed really provide that, especially the Napa ones I mention. And finally, remember just enjoy, wine is meant to be enjoyed. It shouldnt be something that is intimidating or pretentious, enjoy how you like, and doesnt matter if your taste in wine differs from the winemaker, tasting host or your friends, just go have fun, and dont ever let a winemaker/ tasting host or winery judge you for your taste in wine.