Archives Travel

Napa Valley Wine Tour

Napa Valley Wine Tour: Vineyards in the Napa Valley

For serious wine lovers, a Napa Valley wine tour becomes almost a pilgrammage. You can drive up and down the Silverado Trail and tick off the famous names in wine production as you pass their gates and vineyards. Because there are so many, however, you must plan your visit carefully. Here, you’ll find some of the best Napa wineries to visit.

Long gone are the days when you could pop into a winery and sample their wines for free. If you want to visit a particular winery, reserve to guarantee your spot. Some do accept walk-ins, however. Since each winery has different rules and options, make sure you visit web pages to scope out what you want to do. Some offer wine experiences, often with food, while others allow you to belly up to the tasting bar. Regardless, expect to pay for your tasting.

Note: Because of the pandemic, call ahead to make sure your planned stops are open. Websites are updated as rules change.

Best Winery for High-End Cabernet: Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Most Beautiful Setting: Artesa

Best Winery You Haven’t Heard About: Bell Wine Cellars

Visit for Sparking Wine: Domaine Chandon

If You Love White Wine: Cakebread Cellars

Most Interesting Property: The Hess Collection

The One Everyone Talks About: Castello di Amorosa

What To Know Before You Go

I’ve visited the Napa Valley and nearby Sonoma County six or seven times, and I’ve learned from past mistakes. In general, especially if you love fine wine, avoid pre-packaged tours that decide for you which wineries you’ll visit. Unless you have no knowledge yet of Napa wines, you’re better off choosing on your own. If you don’t want to drive yourself, then hire a driver. Or you can do what we do and limit ourselves to two wineries a day. I know that doesn’t sound like many; however, you will burn out if you try to fit in too many. Make sure you include food during the day, whether as part of a tasting experience or to stop for a meal.

If you plan to take wine home, you have two options: have the wineries ship bottles to your home (if your state allows) or pack bottles in your checked luggage. Be advised that shipping can be costly. Because our frequent flier status allows us free checked bags, we take an empty suitcase with us, complete with bubble-wrap wine bottle holders. Many wineries will waive tasting fees if you join their club or buy a certain number of bottles. They never waive shipping.

When you chart your itinerary, use a downloadable map of Napa Valley. You’ll want to supplement that with routing from Google, Waze, or Apple maps to determine driving times between stops. I tend to book my must-go and difficult-to-reserve wineries first, then work around those. Keep in mind that many wineries, especially during slower times, may extend your visit with them by pouring a little extra and chatting. If you visit during an off-month or during the week, you might want to allow extra time between appointments.

Choosing Your Wineries

Napa Valley Wine Tour:  Some of the wines you can find
Napa Valley Wine Tour: Some of the excellent wines you can find

Napa Valley is known for its high-end cabernet sauvignon, although most wineries also produce whites and other reds, usually in smaller quantities. Some of the best American sparkling wines also come from Napa: Domaine Chandon, Mumm Napa, and Schramsberg. Even though I love cabernets, I try to insert a few vineyards that excel in other types, just to break things up. As a return visitor, I also try to book at least one new winery in addition to some old favorites.

If you are new to wine, then you’ll want to visit some of the big wineries that excel in teaching about the winemaking process during their tours: Beringer, Charles Krug, Inglenook.

Since so many wineries dot the landscape, I usually ask locals, “What is the best Napa wine I’ve never heard of?” That’s how we discovered tiny Bell Wine Cellars that produces some of the best cabernets in the Valley. I’ve never successfully been able to book a tasting at Spottswoode, another small but famous winery with limited hours. Leave a tasting spot open for a surprise like this.

Below, I’ve organized the wineries not by specific area but by what they have to offer.

Where Cabernet Sauvignon Rules

Well, okay, many of the wineries fit this description. But those in this category don’t depend on scenic properties or eye-catching buildings to draw people in. Their tours, if they offer them, fall in the nuts-and-bolts category rather than catering to large numbers of tourists. People reserve tastings at these places because the wines are famous for being among the best in the world. Not surprisingly, tastings also cost the most and usually require advance reservations. But, oh, the wines!

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Napa Valley Wine Tour:  Stag's Leap Wine Cellars
Napa Valley Wine Tour: Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Not to be confused with the similarly named Stags’ Leap Winery, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (with the apostrophe before the “s”) gained instant respect following the famed Paris Judgment, when a blind-tasting elevated it above the best French reds. The staff is knowledgeable and attentive, and they often take a break from production duties to give tours.

During the tasting, I found it fascinating to compare different Stag’s Leap cabernets. Each cab tastes unique, and you may prefer one while your tasting neighbor prefers another. It’s all about personal taste. My favorite? The elegant, complex 2017 S.L.V. cabernet sauvignon. If you want to take home a more affordable wine, the 2018 Artemis cabernet delivers a medium-bodied wine with a long finish.

For white wine lovers, the Karia chardonnay offers a budget-friendly price and the buttery flavor you’d expect.

The Fire and Water tasting experience at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars
The Fire and Water tasting experience at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Freemark Abbey

Napa Valley Wine Tour:  Tasting room at Freemark Abbey
Napa Valley Wine Tour: Tasting room at Freemark Abbey

Another historically famous winery, Freemark Abbey offers a tasting room and a small restaurant. Because production happens elsewhere, this Calistoga tasting room does not offer tours except of their first-class wines. They take both reservations, particularly for groups, as well as walk-ins. If you want to sample a cabernet to die for, try the Sycamore Vineyard, any vintage.

Bell Wine Cellars

Napa Valley Wine Tour: the property at Bell Wine Cellars

Probably the most unassuming winery we visit, Bell Wine Cellars produces some of the best Napa cabernet sauvignons as well as excellent merlot. They specialize in single-clone cabernet sauvignon, with the Clone 6 the most in demand. Still, I find both the Clone 337 and the Clone 7 exceptional no matter the vintage. These top-end wines are worth the splurge.

Because it’s so small, you’re unlikely to find the wines on sale anywhere in the world but here. The tasting experience is intimate, casual, and informative.

Best Wineries For White Wine

Even though Sonoma is better known for its whites, Napa has several wineries, particularly those that have vineyards in the cooler microclimate of Carneros, that excel in chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and white blends. Keep in mind that even wineries known for their cabs also produce whites, some of them excellent. Many tasting menus allow you to mix the two types.

Cakebread Cellars

Napa Valley Wine Tour:  Steel fermentation tanks at Cakebread Cellars
Napa Valley Wine Tour: Steel fermentation tanks at Cakebread Cellars

Even though, as a lover of red wine, I like Cakebread Cellars‘ cabernet sauvignon and merlot, the winery is best known for its whites. The Cakebread Reserve Chardonnay can be counted among Napa Valley’s best with its medium-bodied, creamy flavor with just a hint of oak. Because of the particular experience we booked, our guide gave us a tour of the facilities, then sat us down at a table for a leisurely tasting.

My favorite red was the 2015 Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon.

Clos Pegase

Napa Valley Wine Tour:  Patio behind the Clos Pegase tasting room
Napa Valley Wine Tour: Patio behind the Clos Pegase tasting room

Again, although my favorite wine from Clos Pegase is Mitsuko’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, the winery also produces award-winning chardonnays and sauvignon blancs. With the exception of their Hommage cabernet sauvignon, Clos Pegase tends to produce wines that are more budget-friendly than many in the valley. Here, the person leading our tasting seemed somewhat uninterested in us, even though we were the only people in the tasting room. Fortunately, we reserved only a tasting and not any kind of elevated experience. And, of course, we enjoyed the wine.

Display of Clos Pegase wines instead the tasting room
Display of Clos Pegase wines instead the tasting room

Other Vineyards Known For Whites

I have yet to visit Grgich Hills, Frog’s Leap, and Saintsbury, but I enjoy their chardonnays and sauvignon blancs. Simply because I know that they produce quality wines, I urge you to check them out if you seek white wine.

Most Beautiful Setting

Napa Valley Wine Tour:  View from the entrance at Artesa
Napa Valley Wine Tour: View from the entrance at Artesa

I have a soft spot for Artesa Vineyards, not so much for the wine (which is still good) but for the whole tasting experience. The main building, perched high on a hill, looks like it’s buried underground at the peak. Ponds, fountains, and rolling hills surround the building. Here, you can take some of the best photos of the Napa Valley. This winery doesn’t offer production tours but instead provides a relaxing atmosphere, both inside and out, to sample its wines. Every guide we’ve had provided a knowledgeable explanation of the selected wines and their pairings.

I consider Artesa wines priced in the mid-range for Napa Valley. Not cheap, but not super expensive, either. They produce wine in the Spanish style rather than the American, and this shows in their excellent tempranillo and red blends. We usually book a tasting to include either a tapas assortment or a cheese board. Wine club members can enjoy a glass on the patio overlooking spectacular scenery, but even the tasting room has a special feel to it, with large windows giving you that same view. Unless you’re a club member wishing to bypass the menu, you must make a reservation.

Best Winery to Break Up the Day

Napa Valley Wine Tour:  Tasting set-up at The Hess Collection
Napa Valley Wine Tour: Tasting set-up at The Hess Collection

I always love my visits to The Hess Collection. Not only are the wines excellent and the tours informative, but also you can find a small contemporary art museum to wander through at your leisure. Oh, and the food pairing options, while expensive, can be a foodie’s dream. Hess offers several different tours and food pairings, although you can always go into the bar for a straight tasting.

The Hess Collection’s top and by far most expensive wine is The Lion Cabernet Sauvignon, although you can still buy excellent cabs for less here. The 2015 Mount Veeder Cabernet and 2016 Small Block Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon deliver balanced wines with good structure. For white lovers, try The Lioness Chardonnay or the Small Block Mount Veeder Grüner Veltliner.

The Hess Collection is perhaps the most out-of-the-way winery we visit, and you may feel that you must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, especially since phone and data service is spotty as you drive up the mountain. You might want to write down the directions before you go.

The contemporary art museum at The Hess Collection
The contemporary art museum at The Hess Collection

If You Love Sparkling Wine

Napa Valley Wine Tour:  The entrance to Domaine Chandon
Napa Valley Wine Tour: The entrance to Domaine Chandon

Located outside of Yountville, Domaine Chandon is our go-to winery for sparkling wine. They don’t offer tours or any kind of instruction, but they do offer walk-in tastings. Pay for the upgraded experience if you want to sample Domaine Chandon’s wonderful étoile. The sparkling wines, except for the étoile, are reasonably priced.

Although Domaine Chandon doesn’t offer tours, the property itself invites relaxation and wandering. The approach to the main building takes you over a pond and through gardens.

The One People Always Ask About

Napa Valley Wine Tour:  Castello di Amorosa
Napa Valley Wine Tour: Castello di Amorosa

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve returned from Napa Valley to hear, “Did you go to The Castle?” At first, I had no idea what people meant, so I looked it up. Although I strongly suspected that Castello di Amorosa was a tourist trap, especially since, pre-pandemic, it sold wine only to visitors, I decided that we had to go anyway. I expected kitsch and bad wine.

First, you do have to go, if for nothing other than to see the Tuscan castle that Dario Sattui (yes, of that wine family) built using the materials and techniques used in the Middle Ages. Sattui chose a beautiful, landscaped setting for his brainchild. Second, the tour through the castle, culminating in a tasting, was informative, lively, and lots of fun. Third, the wines themselves tasted much better than I had expected. Some have even received accolades from the canonical The Wine Spectator. I recommend upgrading your tasting if you think you might want to purchase wine. If you are just learning about wine, you might want to purchase just the basic tasting.

But, of course, the whole enterprise does reek of tourism, and yes, you do exit through the gift shop. While I didn’t experience the kitsch I expected, I had the feeling that we had joined a production line of tours. I’m glad I experienced it once, but I have no intention of returning. I can now say, “Yes, I’ve been there.” Even those who have only a marginal interest in wine will find the tour entertaining.

The Verdict

Napa simply has too many wineries to visit in one trip, so you may as well start with the above. You can pick and choose to align your Napa Valley wine tour with your own interests. I recommend clustering your visits geographically; however, even if you don’t, you’ll find it easy to move through this largely agricultural district, especially during slower times.

By Debbie Lee Wesselmann

I am a world traveler, foodie, and the author of three works of fiction: Captivity, Trutor & the Balloonist, and The Earth and the Sky.