400 Wineries in 6 Days

I guess that would be a bit of a lofty goal. We knew we couldn’t do that many in a lifetime, so we set out to do a few. One of the six days was a travel day, further limiting how many vineyards we could visit. We moved from Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California to Skyline Park on the southeast edge of Napa. The move was all of 26.5 miles. However, it positioned us to be able to limit our driving while visiting multiple wineries a day.

Having already done some reconnaissance, we had an idea of what we wanted to do while in Napa. We also knew that halfway through the experience we would move to Calistoga at the north end of the Napa making those establishments to the north easier to get to. The move from where we were in Napa to Calistoga was all of 30 miles.

We had a AAA map that listed several of the wineries in Sonoma and Napa Valleys. There must be close to 300 establishments on that map. On one side of the map there are lists of the wineries with symbols indicating whether one has to pay to participate in tours or tastings. I highlighted all those that indicated free tastings. It seemed a good way to reduce the list to a more manageable number. When I was done highlighting, I was rather surprised at the apparent free options. Our list had not gotten much more manageable at all.

Plan B was to decide which direction we wanted to drive on our first day of tasting and then make a list of both free and “really want to see” places. I think that list was some twenty strong. Again, more than we could possibly manage, but at least it was a starting point.

So, on April 29, following an early morning visit to the Starbucks just down the road from Skyline Park we set out to the west and Sonoma Valley. Our first stop was Gundlach Bundschli Winery, the oldest family owned winery in the country. Don’t get too worked up over that claim. Although a family will work hard to ensure a quality product there are a lot of corporate owned wineries that have some pretty fine standards to keep the shareholders happy. We stopped here only because of the claim, but after walking around the wine shop and realizing how pricey the product was we saw no future in a tasting. We moved on.

By the way, half the fun of this self guided tour was to take in the beauty of the grounds surrounding the many wineries we visited. This first stop was no disappointment in the beauty category.

Our second stop was Sabastiani, a large property with a full range of wines to choose from. While this was not one of the free tasting wineries, we thought it a good starting point for a tasting to sort of give us a large established vineyard to compare our experiences to. We did taste seven different wines while at Sabastiani. I should take this opportunity to explain how wines are poured throughout the valley for tastings. Nearly all pourers give you just enough for one fair sized swallow. From that you are expected to get three tastes and have some left to either enjoy or pour into the discard tankard. In other words you get much less than an ounce from each pour.

Our third stop of the day was to Ravenswood. Although this winery was not one of those said to be free, we had heard that they offered a good military discount, so we gave it a go. I have had a few bottles of Ravenswood and found them to be pretty good to my taste. Over a fairly long period of time we tasted six different wines. The pourer was very good at talking us through each selection while controlling the pace.

I think it was about this stop we realized we had a problem with buying a lot of wine. We are on our way to Alaska. In order to get to Alaska we have to drive through Canada. US citizens are allowed to take only 2 bottles of wine per person into Canada. That is a problem. So, I thought we could just have our purchases shipped to my brother in Colorado and we could pick them up on our way through this fall. Well, no one ships free and with the per bottle price already at least twice what we have agreed we will pay for wine we just couldn’t justify shipping either. That made the rest of our visit in the area even more challenging as we knew there would be wines we just didn’t want to pass up. At this point we were still carrying all four of the high priced wines we bought at BV on our reconnaissance tour. But, I was starting to develop a plan for those wonderful bottles.

By now we were getting a little light headed and a lot hungry. So we decided to stop at Viansa Winery and Italian Market for a late lunch. Although every property we had visited thus far was really beautiful, this place quickly took the top spot for the day. To get to the winery you drive along an olive tree lined road up a long hill where a huge market place and party area has been built. As it turned out there was a tour starting within the half hour of our arrival, so we got a sandwich to share and went out on the patio to enjoy it and the view before starting the tour. During the tour we learned that the winery had outgrown the facilities at this location and therefore moved all their wine making to a new facility down the road a ways. The remaining wine making facilities at the original location are more for show than anything else. Of course the cellars are available for events and they seem to book a lot of events there. At the end of the tour we got to taste four wines.

We were done tasting wine for the day at this point, so we went shopping on our way back to Skyline Park.

I should mention that Skyline Park is not your ordinary RV park. In fact the RV park is really a small part of the total property. While not a private park Skyline is also not a national, state or city park. It is controlled by a citizen group and has something for most. There are several miles of hiking trails, some of which can be used by horses. There is a horse corral and some minimal horse facilities. Additionally, there is a memorial garden that is cared for by what must be a very active group of volunteers. In our short stay there we did some late afternoon bird watching and walked off some of the calories supplied by our wine tasting. We also had a great time talking with our neighbors in the RV park. It was a good place to stay.

April 30 started with another visit to Starbucks to get some caffeine and figure out where we should go. I went back to the list I had made the day before and checked off some of the places we had not been to on day one but which looked promising.

Our first stop on this day was Valley of the Moon Winery where we tasted four wines and had a great time talking to the pourer. We had never heard of Valley of the Moon and I said so to the pourer. He told us that the wines are pretty widely distributed throughout the states mentioning Safeway as one of many retailers who carries the brand. With that we started tasting. We found two we really liked a lot. As the winery was offering a great deal, buy four bottles at price and get two for 50 cents each, we bought four of the cabs and two of the chardonnays. Our entry into Canada was getting a bit harder.

One of the things we learned on day one was that we needed to eat something between wineries in order to not get light headed, if you know what I mean. So, when we returned to the car Connie broke out some crackers while I studied the map to see where we were headed next. This process proved to make a huge difference not just on our stamina, but it also allowed us to more easily discriminate between wineries.

Our next stop was Kenwood. Kenwood had an offering a good bit different than most of the previous wineries we had visited. There seems to be a practice among most of the wineries to offer samples of their harder to find or limited production wines that are only sold via their wine clubs or at the winery. With us moving around all the time, wine clubs just do not work. Buying wine from the winery only works if you are there. So, when we saw Kenwood sampling very widely distributed wines we were quite happy. They offered us a white table wine and a red table wine retailing for $7.00 a bottle. Both of these wines were really good. Of course they don’t stand up to the $60 cabs we had sampled elsewhere, but they were more than just drinkable. I will look for either of these wines as we roam around the country. Hats off to Kenwood. They also offered a Pinot Gris that was good, but did not justify the price being asked. There was one wine that is not easy to find, a 2006 Cabernet that is only distributed to restaurants. It was really good and I will look for it as we dine. Our final taste at Kenwood was another 2006 cabernet that I would have bought had we not the Canadian issue to deal with.

It was once again lunch time, so we stopped at Ledson Winery & Vineyards. We stopped here for a couple of reasons. First, they had food. Second, the building looked like a mini-castle. We were greeted at the front door by a woman who seemed more a docent than wine person. Her job was to explain the building and it owner to us. It seems that the fellow who owns, designed, and built this building is an architect and general contractor who also has a love for wine. As our greeter explained, the builder had intended the building to be his residence, not a winery. Construction delays and design changes forced him to change his plan and open it as a winery instead of a private residence. It is a gorgeous property. Connie and I chose to eat lunch but not sample the wines. Although I am certain the wines were wonderful, they don’t seem to be available outside the winery and they are priced outside our range and we certainly couldn’t take any with us.

We had one stop left on this day, but it was going to be a good one. Some thirty years or so my parents were traveling through Sonoma Valley and stopped at the Robert Mondavi Winery in downtown Oakville. While there they bought my sister, Holly, a bottle of Moscato D’oro, a dessert wine. Holly had asked us to get her a couple of bottles if they still made it and that is why we went there. Robert Mondavi is probably one of the largest distributors of wine in the valley and certainly has one of the most recognizable names in the US wine industry. The winery is built around a courtyard and they have separated the tasting areas from the retail area taking away a bit of the stigma that makes one feel a little guilty about tasting without buying. We tasted three wines here: a great cabernet and a really good pinot noir. Finally, we tasted the Moscato D’oro we were going to buy. Having sampled it, I won’t have to have any at Holly’s house, assuming she offers. I won’t say it is bad; I just don’t have a taste for sweet wines. Therefore, I just won’t comment any further.

We felt that day two was more controlled than day one and we certainly were learning lot. We were done with the southern end of the valleys and headed back to Skyline and a late afternoon hike up the slopes behind the park.

May 1 was moving day. We drove the 30 miles up the valley to Calistoga where we camped at the Napa County Fair Grounds. We got settled and drove around town to get our bearings and then decided to head back south a ways to visit Mumm Napa, a sparkling wine maker. Connie has long been a lover of champagne and she really wanted to visit Mumm. We were both sort of surprised to realize that Mumm Napa and Mumm are not the same. Mumm is French and therefore makes champagne while Mumm Napa is obviously American and therefore by international agreement can only make sparkling wine. At any rate we sampled four very good sparkling wines, all of which are widely distributed around the country. Another plus was the method Mumm Napa employs for their tastings. Each party is greeted by a steward and taken to a table in a long narrow room with all tables facing a fully windowed wall looking out over the vineyards. The steward then discusses all the sampling options and gives you some time alone to decide what you want. Of course there is a cost for these tastings and all tastings are not the same price. We purposely chose the grouping that is widely distributed so we could have a chance of buying what we may have liked. When the steward came back we gave him our decision and he went off to get it. He first brought four flutes with coaster matching the choices we had made. Then he brought the sparkling wines over one at a time and pouring while explaining what makes one different from the previous. I should add that we have continued to share a tasting wherever offered and I believe that was all to date. Anyway, we were allowed to taste at our pace and once again were not pressured to buy by the collocation of the tasting and the retail sales. When we were done we got a check just as in a bar which we took to the retail area to checkout. Of the four wines we tasted, we would drink any of them, but strangely enough the most reasonable priced wine was the one we liked the most.

May 2 greeted us with lots and lots of rain. We decided that tasting was probably not the best idea given the less than optimal road conditions. So, we set out on a drive around the northern portion of the valley just to sightsee. We had a great time looking at all the vineyards and observing the various methods employed to support the grapes. At least one method has no external support for the fruit. This process seems to be prevalent in the old vine zinfandels. Some of the trunks on those old vines must be 8 to 10 inches in diameter. The photo album has examples of all the different vine support systems we saw. However, I am unable to discuss the benefits vs. disadvantages of any except to say that the old vine zinfandels do not produce the volume of fruit as other vines. However, I am not sure if that is an age issue or a support issue.

As we drove around the valley, nature had its way with us and we eventually had to stop for a restroom break. The first place we came to where we knew there would be a public restroom was a winery. I could not use a wineries restroom without tasting the wine; that would just be gosh. The establishment was, Martinelli. I thought I had heard of this place, but when I saw the wines, I was no longer certain. We sampled six wines and found them all to be fabulous. However, we couldn’t buy any because of the Canada issue. Our travels through Canada really saved us from ourselves as we could have spent an entire month’s income on the wines we liked. Martinelli was our only stop of the day.

May 3 was to be our last day of tastings. We didn’t want to overdo it, so we initially picked only two establishments. The first would be Sterling, one of my favorite wines. As was the case in too many of the wineries, the wines we tasted at Sterling are not available on the open market. Sterling is built on top of a steep hill. To get to the winery you have to buy tickets and ride a cable tram to the top of the hill. Once at the top you get your first sample of wine and a glass to carry with you for the self guided tour and on to other sample stops. If you have paid for the reserve tour, you get a guided tour and a sampling of much more expensive wines. We took the open tour and spent a lot of time enjoying the many views from the hill top setting. We enjoyed the tastings, but passed on any further purchases. Again, the photo album contains several images from Sterling.

Our second planned stop of the day was Frank Family Winery. We stopped here because it is the property which used to be the Hans Kornell Winery. My former wife, Mary Ann Tasker-Thompson, worked at Hans Kornell when we lived in Napa some thirty plus years ago. I took some pictures of the original buildings to send along to Mary Ann to see if she remembers the place. I have to admit I only barely recognized the original cellars, but I had only been there once before. While trying to get some information about the transition from Kornell to Frank we learned that Hans passed away in 1992 and his family sold the property to the Frank family but kept the name so no one could bottle sparkling wine under their father’s name. We also learned that the original cellars are now used for high end parties. Last year the winery hosted both Oprah Winfrey and Senator John McCain, obviously on separate dates. The fellow we were talking to said the Mc Cain party was really something to behold. It was a fund raiser for his campaign war chest and had a who’s who of the rich and famous as a guest list. Former President George Bush the senior was in attendance and for security reasons he and Senator Mc Cain arrived together via helicopter. The road was closed at both ends and there were secret service agents in the vineyards. It remains a talking subject at tastings.

Anyway, we sampled the wines being made by the Frank family and enjoyed a wonderful conversation with a San Jose, California police sergeant and his wife who we shared a place at the bar with. It was fun to talk about other things for a change and just enjoy the wines without the science.

While at Sterling I must have taken a dozen photos of a winery across the valley and on another hill by the name of Castello di Amorosa. We had heard a little about this property from an off-duty tour guide we had encountered at Valley of the Moon Winery. She said it was a must visit. By all accounts this was the most expensive winery tour we had ever signed up for. To get the tour and the non-reserve tasting we had to shell out $30 each. I was able justify the expense because we were about to get a real education not only in wine making, but in ancient European castles as well. The winery is privately owned by a man who made his fortune in another family owned winery just down the road. Castello di Amorosa seems to be his toy. He has toured hundreds of castles in Europe and gathered a wealth of information about how the Europeans built their castles and why they built into them some of the features unique to each castle. He also used his wealth to purchase building materials from former castles and estates in Europe and then ship those materials back to Calistoga, CA where he has used them in his castle. The castle serves two primary purposes in Calistoga. The first being it is an ideal structure for the aging of wine. The lower levels of the castle are used as caves are in other wineries. He has installed a state of the art environmental control system that ensures the atmosphere in the lower levels of the castle remains perfect for the aging of wine. The second purpose of the castle is to provide Americans an opportunity and a facility to learn a little about European castles without having to travel to Europe.

The wines produced at Castello di Amorosa are excellent wines. Unfortunately, the only place to purchase them is on the premises. The wine maker wants people to buy his wines because they have tasted them and like them. He would rather sacrifice several cases of wine to tasting and then sell only what is wanted rather than allow chance to sell his wines on the open un-tasted market. The wines are priced appropriately for the rarity and quality, which means they are out of my normal range by a good bit. We really enjoyed the tour and our tour guide was fantastic. His knowledge of the castle and the materials from which it was built plus his knowledge and pride in the wines left no doubt that he is a valuable employee. Of all the pourers, stewards or whatever you want to call the people who introduce the wines at a winery our tour guide at this last of our list of wineries was the only one to be a long term employee. He has worked for the same boss for some eighteen years.

Our tour of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys came to an end with this last tour, but we finished on a high note and the entire experience was just wonderful. I am certain that if we were to come back to the valley and do it all over again we could visit another dozen wineries and have an equally wonderful time. I could summarize the experience by saying that each of the wine makers we sampled had something we liked. Many had offerings we did not care for. If money were not an issue, there are a lot of wines we would drink on a regular basis. The wines we currently purchase routinely satisfy our pallets sufficiently that we do not need to find ways to adjust our family budget to include more expensive and harder to find wines in our traveling wine cellar.

Enjoy the photo album before you leave. Be sure to click on the photo below to be transferred to my web album.

Napa Valley Wineries

The next stop was the California Redwood Forest. You are going to love the images.


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