Napa Valley is the ultimate destination for wine lovers with many unique tasting and touring experiences where visitors can learn about the region’s signature wines, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, as well as several others produced in the region: merlot, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, and more. Against a backdrop of gorgeous scenery, Napa’s 500-plus wineries — from small, family-run farms to famous, corporate-owned operations — offer something for everyone.
First timers to Napa find that navigating the valley is quite simple, with only two main roads essential for getting around: Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. The two roads run parallel to each other, north-south, and cover Napa’s 30 mile length. While these roads make it easy to find your way to and from the wineries, they are notorious for their traffic jams, and the last thing you want on vacation is to be stuck for hours in slow-moving traffic.
“I think the key to a successful visit is to book everything close to each other: wineries, lunch, dinner, picnics, photo at the Napa valley sign (there are two), so you aren’t racing all over the valley,” says Brett Van Emst, Marketing Manager at Napa Valley Vintners. “You don’t want to leave your last winery appointment at 5 p.m. for a 6 p.m. dinner in Napa. That’s the recipe for a stressful ride!”
So, in the interest of spending less time in your car, I’m recommending six winery visits in the more northerly part of Napa, from Rutherford up to Calistoga (stay tuned for a follow-up article featuring wineries in the southern area). The recommended wineries are right off the two main roads and not far from each other. So even if you do find yourself in a jam, it won’t be for too long.
I’ve organized the wineries into groups of 3, starting in the south, in Rutherford, with Honig Winery, Sullivan Rutherford Estate, and Wheeler Farms — all within a few miles of each other, and just south of St Helena. The second grouping of three (Ehlers, Shramsberg, and Chateau Montelena) is north of St Helena and within 10 miles of each other.
St Helena is a charming little town with many excellent restaurants. Scroll down to the bottom for lunch and dinner recommendations.
WINERIES TO VISIT
Honig Vineyard & Winery. Legendary winemaker André Tchelistcheff coined the term “Rutherford Dust” when he pronounced that “It takes Rutherford dust to grow great cabernet sauvignon.” Honig Vineyard & Winery, founded in 1980, is a small, family-owned Rutherford-based winery that confirms Tchelistcheff’s premise with its delicious ‘dusty’ cabernets. Winemaker Kristin Belair focuses exclusively on hand-crafted cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc, all sustainably farmed.
A variety of tastings are available by appointment daily from 10 am to 4:30 pm. My favorite is the Eco Tour and Tasting ($45) that includes tasting the wine before and after visiting the vineyards to see firsthand the measures taken by the winery to care for the environment. See the whole list of tasting experiences here.
Sullivan Rutherford Estate. Sullivan Rutherford Estate, situated in the heart of the Rutherford AVA, has been crafting world-class cabernet sauvignon for over 45 years. In addition to cabernet, Sullivan produces sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, merlot, cabernet franc, and petit verdot.
Founded by Jim ("James O'Neil") Sullivan, a devotée of cabernet sauvignon, the estate is one of Rutherford’s prime sites, due to the well-drained gravel which runs throughout the soil. In 2018, VITE USA, a family investment fund, purchased the winery with plans to build upon Sullivan Estate’s successful winemaking, and to turn it into a top Napa destination.
Sullivan Estate offers small, personal wine tasting experiences hosted by a wine educator in a beautiful garden courtyard. The Founder’s Tasting ($90) includes a sampling of their top estate wines and The Estate Tasting ($60) includes the current releases of Merlot, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, and Coeur de Vigne.
Wheeler Farms. In 2014, longtime Napa vintners Burt and Daphne Araujo acquired this historic property on Zinfandel Lane in the heart of Napa Valley. Established in 1880 by the Wheeler family, the property, originally several hundred acres, was planted with fruit and nut orchards as well as grapevines.
Over the years, much of the original property was sold off and the Araujo’s mission has been to bring the now 11-acre property back to its agricultural roots. Wheeler Farms is a diversified property with replanted vineyards, edible gardens, fruit orchards, olive trees, bees, hummingbirds, and a chicken coop. The winery is also a custom crush facility that allows other brands to make wine on the premises.
Sit-down tastings in the elegant hospitality space are available by appointment and include a tour of the gardens and winery. Visitors can choose from either the Farms to Table Experience, a private tasting of Wheeler Farms wines paired with light bites, or the Winemakers of Wheeler Farms tasting that showcases limited production bottlings from their custom crush clients. Tastings last approximately 90 minutes and cost $125 per person. Click here for more information about visiting historic Wheeler Farms.
Ehlers Estate. This beautiful flower-filled property, just off Highway 29 in Saint Helena, includes a stone barn winery that dates back to 1886, along with 42 acres of certified organic vineyards planted with Bordeaux varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Laura Diaz Muñoz, winemaker since July of 2018 was born in Madrid and her winemaking perspective is rooted in an old world, terroir-driven, sustainable style.
Ehlers offers a “Start Your Day” tour and tasting that includes crisp and buttery croissants from the famous Bouchon Bakery in Yountville. ($50 per person; $35 for wine club members).
There is a “Book Club” tasting each Wednesday at 10:30 am and 1:30 pm that offers four library vintages of their flagship wine, 1886 Cabernet Sauvignon. ($150 per person; $100 for wine club members).
Schramsberg Vineyards. Founded in 1862 during the Civil War by Jacob Schram, the winery, located in Calistoga, is world-renowned for its luscious and complex traditional-method sparkling wines. A state landmark since 1957, Schramsberg offers a variety of 90-minute educational tours (by appointment only) through some of the oldest wine caves in the Napa Valley, followed by a tasting of their delicious wines.
Tip: private candlelight tours are available for groups of 8 - 12.
Chateau Montelena. This winery helped put California wines on the map after its 1973 chardonnay beat out the French competitors in the famed 1976 Judgement of Paris. Located in Calistoga, the narrow, northern end of the valley, where the climate is the warmest, Chateau Montelena’s setting is one of the most beautiful and peaceful in Napa. There’s a stone castle carved into the hillside and the stunning grounds overlook Chinese gardens, vineyards and a lake (see photos below).
Chateau Montelena offers several tasting experiences by appointment only, but reservations are not required for the walk-in “A Taste of Montelena” bar tasting, available 9:30am to 4pm daily, $40 per person plus tax.
Check out the following Wine Chef approved restaurants, conveniently located in St Helena, close to the above wineries.
Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch. Inventive farm-to-table New American fare served in a renovated barn with an outdoor café and a general store.
Gott’s Roadside A Napa institution, this wait-in-line roadside restaurant, with outdoor picnic tables, uses only the finest locally sourced ingredients. A great lunch spot!
The Charter Oak Family-style dining in cozy brick-walled dining room with an outdoor patio. Serves seasonal vegetables grown at their farm, along with local wine & cocktails.
Acacia House by Chris Cosentino Part of the Las Alcobas luxury hotel property, this elegant bistro with a wraparound veranda serves fabulous seasonally-driven food.
Cook This small bistro in the heart of downtown St. Helena offers up scrumptious Italian fare in a cozy setting with a fun bar. Great for lunch or dinner.
The Restaurant at Meadowood a Michelin Guide 3-Star restaurant located on the grounds of the beautiful Meadowood Resort, The Restaurant at Meadowood offers an incredible dining experience with custom tasting menus and unique wine pairings. In 2018, I had the best meal of my entire year here! Make sure to reserve dinner well in advance.