Either give me more wine or leave me alone. Oh Rumi, how I echo that sentiment.
Before you ignite a passionate affair with California Wine Country, there are some things to take note of to maximize your Napa (and Sonoma) experience.
1) See, swirl, smell, sip, and savor (or spit). Wine tasting is both a science and an art and there IS a proper way to evaluate your vino–taste the wine, don’t just drink it. First, observe the color and clarity of the wine. White wines vary from clear to all shades of yellow to deep golden brown, and they naturally gain color as they age. Red wines range from crimson red to garnet and brick. As they age, they lose color and begin to brown. Then, swirl the wine in the glass so it’s exposed to a larger surface area. This increases the wine’s contact with air and intensifies its aromas (in chemistry terms, it’s known as volatilizing the esters). Swirl your wine by holding the glass by the base or stem (body heat from your hands could alter the taste). Then, smell the wine for its varying notes — common aromas include different fruits, spices, herbs, and flowers. Smell it a few times and the more complex the wine, the higher the likelihood that you’ll get different scents every time. Then, take a small sip, paying attention to the four taste zones of the tongue: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Don’t forget the smelling part, as the taste is a combination of smells and flavors. Finally, savor the wine (or spit it out if it didn’t agree with your tastebuds or you’ve surpassed the buzz phase), asking yourself: How balanced was the wine? How did you react to it? What did you notice about the body? How long did the flavor linger? Marry the science of fluid mechanics with the art of sensory swirls, and watch your inner sommelier spring to life.
2) Research and shortlist the wineries beforehand.There’s hundreds of wineries in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, which means while you can play eenie meenie miny moe, some require appointments, some have a minimum purchase, etc. so do some homework beforehand. Make a broad list based on your preferences, ask people for suggestions, Google the hell out of their suggestions, and shortlist your must-visits. For a qualitative over quantitative experience, don’t try to visit too many wineries and vineyards in one day; I’d say 2-3 per day is perfect, as long as you start your day fairly early (think 10am) and avoid many of the mid-day crowds. And I think 3-4 days in the region are perfect. By all means, indulge in the drink of the Gods, but use good judgement. And if it’s that same good judgement that’s making you feel like an alcoholic drinking so early in the day, keep chanting this to yourself: it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere! It works for me. Every. single. time.
3) Explore downtown Napa (and Sonoma). The downtown area of Napa is in the midst of a renaissance, replete with many wine tasting rooms, world-class restaurants, charming Napa hotels and inns, local art exhibitions, live music and theater shows, and nightlife options. Visit Oxbow market to taste local delicacies — fresh, local, sustainable produce from area farmers and an amazing assortment of Napa Valley wines are celebrated seven days a week. Sample the beloved English muffins from Model Bakery. Watch an intimate showing at the Napa Opera House. Enjoy a glass of local wine on the terrace of Andaz Napa. Though its known as Napa’s sleepy cousin, Sonoma also has an up and coming charming downtown area full of delicious restaurants, small mom-and-pop shops, and local artisan parlors.
4) Rent a car or hire a chauffeur-driven vehicle. The last thing you want to worry about when enjoying the wine tastings is deciding who’s going to drive at the end. The most economical option is to rent a car and designate a driver (or switch off). But to do Napa in style, especially if you’re with a group, hire a limo bus, enjoy yourself, and pass out in the back seat, if need be. This also gives you the flexibility that you’ll want, so you can work on your own clock.
5) Get off-the-beaten path. There’s so much more to do than straight wine tasting in Napa and Sonoma. Add some pizzazz to your itinerary by opting for lesser-known activities such as learning about the interplay of food and wine in a pairing seminar at Beringer Vineyards, making your own wine combination at a varietal seminar at Chateau St. Jean, supporting local Bay Area artists at the art gallery at di Rosa, and/or touring through the historical corridors at Stags Leap Estate.
1) Don’t forget to drink LOTS of water. As common sense as this sounds, it’s commonly overlooked. Whether it’s before, during, in between, or after your tastings, make sure you consume lots of water. Try a one-to-one ratio by consuming one 16-ounce bottle of water for every tasting you do.
2) Don’t overlook the winery’s shipping policy as it might not ship to your state/country. Most wineries will allow you to purchase and ship the wines directly, but every U.S. state and country has its own rules when it comes to alcohol, meaning not all shipping policies are alike. There’s always third-party vendor options, which can be much more expensive, but they do provide a way to those willing.
3) Don’t skip the local food indulgences. Embrace yourself for small bites, but big flavors. It’s easy to forget that the culinary delights of Napa extend past its wine; fresh produce and cheese are also the region’s crowning glories. Eat at a local restaurant (French Laundry for a culinary extravaganza or The Thomas for a farm-to-table experience) for truly transformative gastronomic experiences. Grab quick bites along the way and have a picnic–there’s endless scenic spots for picture-perfect moments. There are so many hyperlocal grocery stores, so not only will your food be incredibly fresh, but you’ll also be helping local farmers and small businesses.
4) Don’t ask for the best champagne winery in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. After speaking to some of the winery owners, one question that gets under their skin is, “What is the best winery here for champagne?” Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is no champagne grown in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. In fact, there’s no champagne grown outside the Champagne region of France. Anything outside of that region is called sparkling wine (or Prosecco in Italy or Cava in Spain). Know this, so even if this is the extent of your knowledge of wine, you can fake it ’till you make it. But that’s not to say you can’t find champagne tasting rooms.
5) Don’t just stick to the well-known wineries. You can’t go wrong with the trusted wineries of Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, but for a more intimate experience, opt for small family-owned and -operated wineries that have evaded the mainstream radar. Thankfully, today there are still quite a few family-owned boutique wineries and while they don’t enjoy the big marketing and PR budgets as the bigger wineries, they’re equally, if not more, amazing and absolutely merit a detour from the main road. There’s Robert Mondavi, Mumm Napa, and Domaine Carneros, but there’s also Revana, Ceja, and August Briggs.
5 DOs and DON’Ts in Napa (and Sonoma)
Do you have any other DOs and DON’Ts for Napa and Sonoma?
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I’m Nyssa. I started The Cultureur in August 2012, almost a decade after contracting the travel bug while on a Model United Nations conference in Russia and Finland.
And from there, when I took the first step in solo international travel and decided to study abroad in college,
there was no looking back, and I ended up living, studying, working, and volunteering in 6 countries (the U.S., the UK, France, Iceland, India, and Germany) and traveling to 50+ others.