Outside Quixote (left) and outside Schramsberg (right).

Outside Quixote (left) and outside Schramsberg (right).

Imagine moving to the Napa Valley, and then going wine tasting almost every weekend for about four years. During the work week, you talk wine with your co-workers (and with visitors, if you work in a tasting room). After work, you attend hospitality parties at other Napa wineries. Or maybe it’s bocce night in St. Helena, where there will be even more wine (usually the day’s leftover bottles, which are typically taken home by tasting room staff). That’s what happened to me. At this level of immersion, you eventually get to know your favorites, and you also get to know Napa wines in general.

Wine is not to be feared, even though it seem like an intimidating subject to crack. Under ideal circumstances, a person can become fluent in wine pretty quickly. In 2005, for instance, I didn’t know a single thing about wine. Any wine. The subject was a complete mystery to me. Then, as part of my 21-month culinary arts program, I took the Wines & Spirits course at the CIA.

Although only three weeks long, this class was a total eye opener, and it established my foothold: Afterward, I was still a total wine novice, but at least I knew how to decipher a label. I also knew that I wanted to move to Napa for the food and for the wine. Upon graduating from the CIA, I returned to California, and I went on a bender.

With wine country literally at my doorstep, I attended hundreds of wine tastings over the next four years, not only in the Napa Valley, but in Sonoma and Mendocino, as well. Meanwhile, when I wasn’t working as a line cook, I was reading every single book that I could about wine. Having originally enrolled in culinary school to become a chef, I had become an accidental wino along the way.

In 2009, I won the Napa Valley Vintners Battle of the Palates, and I’m convinced it had everything to do with practice, nothing more. My taste buds aren’t magical — I had simply put in the work. Even in a room full of Napa’s servers and sommeliers, I knew that very few of them had actually tasted more Napa wine than I had (at least not in such a recent span as I had).

Since moving to the Napa Valley, I’d done my due diligence and pounded the pavement all throughout the North Coast. I had been nearly everywhere, with all sorts of repeat visits among my favorites. I paid attention and took notes. My opinion, though still only an opinion, is about as informed and first-hand as it gets, although my tastes may vary from yours (that’s okay, too).

But with that caveat in mind, I developed this list quite some time ago. The quality of wine was a primary consideration, with other important elements helping to narrow my selections. I should note at the outset that many of the wineries listed below do not offer any walk-in tastings — you’ll need an appointment. And while appointments do sound a bit elitist, let’s face it, your experience at any winery won’t be that memorable if you’re just another face at the tasting bar, elbowing for position on the weekend.

I must also note that this list is certainly not my list of “top wines” in the Napa Valley. Some of the “best” wines simply aren’t accessible without a personal connection or a black AmEx. However, in terms of the wineries I’ve selected, my following recommendations are pretty safe, even by snobby standards. Each of these properties produces wine that is eminently approachable and drinkable. Trust me, I wouldn’t point you towards any swill. Life is too short for lousy wine. Nobody knows that more than someone who lives in wine country.

1. Chappellet

Choosing the first winery in this list is essentially answering the question: “If I could visit just one winery in Napa, which one would it be?” Of course, that’s a tough one, but if I was forced to actually make a decision, I would probably choose Chappellet. The winery scores well in all of the important areas, and when I was working as a wine educator, it was the winery that I would recommend the most.

Chappellet boasts a formidable history that easily rivals that of any pre-Prohibition winery, including Schramsberg. Here in Napa, the “hangover” from Prohibition was a lengthy one, lasting several decades after its repeal in 1933. Founded in 1967, Chappellet was just the second post-Prohibition winery built in Napa, with the Robert Mondavi Winery being constructed just one year earlier. But unlike Mondavi, Chappellet is still family-owned, and it boasts a killer portfolio at attractively low prices. The winery itself is incredibly scenic, located atop Pritchard Hill in the Vaca Mountains.

Read more about Chappellet

2. Schramsberg

There has to be at least one sparkling wine producer on this list, and Schramsberg is by far the natural choice. In terms of quality, it is a cut above Domaine Chandon, Mumm, and Domaine Carneros. In terms of its history, Schramsberg’s inclusion in this list is an obligatory nod to Napa’s pre-Prohibition era. Hundreds of wineries were in operation in Napa in the 1880s, and only a handful of them exist today.

Schramberg’s system of caves, which covers one mile and contains over two million bottles, is a trip back in time. The Chinese railroad workers excavated the first half-mile of caves over a century ago, while machinery added another half-mile to the labyrinth in 1982. While most caves in Napa Valley are coated in gunnite (the same material used for swimming pools), Schramsberg’s caves still feature bare mountain rock (look close for the chisel marks) covered with lichen.

Read more about Schramsberg

3. Pride Mountain Vineyards

Straddling the Napa-Sonoma County Line at the peak of Spring Mountain, Pride is arguably more of a Napa winery than a Sonoma winery, simply by virtue of its portfolio. Pride offers exquisite Cabernets alongside one of the most breath-taking picnic grounds in the Napa Valley.

My routine is to visit Sunshine Market in St. Helena, which offers a terrific deli sandwich. There are no stores nor restaurants — not even Starbucks — at the top of Spring Mountain, so picnicking means planning.

Read more about Pride Vineyards

4. Ehlers Estate

There have been many times when I’ve proclaimed that Ehlers Estate is my favorite Napa Valley winery. It’s usually the lithe Merlot that gets my attention, although Cabernet is still the “destination” wine. In truth, each of their wines are rich with great character, and the Ehlers tasting room, a refurbished pre-Prohibition winery from 1886, seethes with charm.

At face value, Ehlers already earns a high ranking on my list — the winery earns its place strictly on this criteria. However, there is another aspect to Ehlers that is worth noting: Ehlers is a non-profit winery, with all proceeds going to benefit heart research via the Leducq Foundation (thus, the subtle heart motif in the Ehlers logo).

Read more about Ehlers Estate

5. Behrens Family

Formerly known as Behrens Hitchcock, the recently re-branded Behrens Family winery is yet another terrific Spring Mountain destination. The winery is a relatively undiscovered gem with great wines and, naturally, a killer view from Spring Mountain. The tasting room at Behrens Family is a vintage Westcraft trailer, which adds to the winery’s eclectic charm. Although packaging doesn’t influence my taste buds (at least in terms of labeling), I must say, as a pastry chef, the line drawing of the vintage KitchenAid does speak to me.

Read more about Behrens Family

6. Heitz Cellar

Over the past 10 years or so, single-vineyard wines have become all the rage here in California, and why not? The great wines of Europe have focused upon small, specific plots for centuries. Here in the Napa Valley, Joe Heitz bevame the fist winemaker to designate a vineyard when he released his 1966 vintage of Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet. Although Heitz helped to establish California’s reputation for Cabernet, he also had a penchant for Grignolino, which the winery still bottles as a dry varietal wine, as well as a Port-style wine.

Over all, what impresses me the most about Heitz Cellar is its combination of terrific consistency and its great prices. People often say that established wineries will offer lower prices because they remember the lean years. It’s the farmer’s conservative practicality at work — taking the long view — and it makes some sense. I’d also point out that established wineries can afford to keep their prices lower, since land in the Napa Valley cost next to nothing 50 years ago, and the overhead has long been paid.

Read more about Heitz Cellars

7. Terra Valentine

Obviously, with three Spring Mountain wineries in my top 10, I have a penchant for that particular appellation. For me, the Spring Mountain AVA is perhaps the most consistent within all of Napa Valley, although Oakville and Rutherford are also tough to beat. Anyhow, Terra Valentine produces fantastic wine, so it fits well within the neighborhood.

When I taste wine on Spring Mountain, I’ve learned to budget plenty of time to get to each appointment, but more importantly, I try to visit two or three wineries on the mountain, just to make the effort worthwhile. It’s not like you can’t drive back down to St. Helena between tastings for lunch, it’s just much more relaxing if you bring your lunch, so that you don’t have to make that same trip twice.

Read more about Terra Valentine

8. Kuleto Estate

Few properties in the Napa Valley seethe with as much personality as Kuleto. Like the many successful restaurants he has owned and designed, Pat Kuleto’s winery features his signature style, which seems to be universally adored. When it comes to design, Kuleto certainly has his formula dialed in, so it should come as little surprise that the Kuleto Estate tasting room feels like a mountain-top, satellite vestige of the Martini House, Kuleto’s former restaurant in St. Helena (now Goose & Gander).

Beyond the personality of Kuleto’s design, the surrounding property itself is stunning in its raw beauty. Austere, steep and rugged, Kuleto Estate operates at significant elevation, and offers terrific views from the Vaca Mountains. For me, the view at Kuleto trumps the view at Chappellet, which is no mean feat. In terms of Kuleto’s wines, I tend to prefer the Syrahs and the Zinfandels.

Read more about Kuleto Estate

9. Palmaz Vineyards

Until something more inspiring comes along, Palmaz Vineyards easily boasts the most impressive winemaking facility in the Napa Valley. Built into the base of Mt. George, along the southern tip of the Vaca Mountians, Palmaz Vineyards has only been open since 2003.

Without going into too much detail, Palmaz’s impressive “carousel” of fermentation tanks — coupled with its 18-story gravity-flow system — definitely earns the winery a deserved spot on this short list. For the record, the wines at Palmaz are very well made, and the sit-down tasting is accompanied by cheeses and other wine-friendly snacks.

Read more about Palmaz Vineyards

10. Far Niente

Many people who are new to the Napa Valley don’t realize that this area has had two specific eras of wine production: pre-Prohibition and post-Prohibition (and I suppose Prohibition itself should count as an era, since winemaking still occurred, to a small degree). For me, the pre-Prohibition era is fascinating, and no discussion of 19th century Napa is complete without a mention of Hamden McIntyre, the architect behind Far Niente’s historical stone building, which was completed in 1885.

Formerly a Scottish sea captain, McIntyre was the visionary behind several of Napa’s pre-Prohibition landmarks, including the CIA’s Greystone Campus (originally constructed as Bourn and Wise Cellar) and Inglenook Winery. But Far Niente, with its lush landscaping, its placement on the lauded Oakville Bench, and its system of caves, remains a true crown jewel of Napa Valley, and I feel that the property stands above McIntyre’s other architectural contributions.

Read more about Far Niente

11. Quixote

Read my other entries that mention Quixote.

12. Crocker & Starr

Read my other entries that mention Crocker & Starr.

13. Turnbull

Read my other entries that mention Turnbull.

14. Viader

Read my other entries that mention Viader.

15. Plumpjack

Read my other entries that mention Plumpjack.

16. St. Supery

Read my other entries that mention St. Supery.

17. Summers Estate

Read my other entries that mention Summers Estate.

18. Failla

Read my other entries that mention Failla.

19. Elizabeth Spencer

Read my other entries that mention Elizabeth Spencer.

20. Inglenook

Read my other entries that mention Inglenook.

21. Robert Biale

Read my other entries that mention Robert Biale.

22. Vincent Arroyo

Read my other entries that mention Vincent Arroyo.

23. Stony Hill

Read my other entries that mention Stony Hill.

24. Quintessa

Read my other entries that mention Quintessa.

25. Hope & Grace

Read my other entries that mention Hope & Grace.

44 comments to My Top 25 Napa Valley Wine Tours

  • Thanks for sharing this!
    I have to say that I love Schramsberg too, but I have one problem with it. They only let you taste the wine if you do the 1.5 hour tour. Last weekend, we drove all the way to Schrams in hopes of tasting the new Brut Rose and nixing the tour. Well, the guy at the bar very rudely stated that you can not taste without doing the tour. I politely said I’ve done the tour–two times actually. All I wanted to do was taste the new Brut Rose before buying. He said the winery does not have a true liquour license–just an educational license. This means they can only pour wine after “educating” you on their tour.
    Schrams is great, but only once…

  • David

    Wonderful list! That just means I have more to explore in the valley!
    I’ve been to Conn Creek, and their AVA room tasting experience is quite unique which allows you to draw wines out of barrels and blend your own cab yourself. Would you rate them? thanks, David

  • carly

    Napa has been selected one of the top 10 U.S. retirement locations for 2013 partially because of its wineries.


  • My name is Buzz Vieau nad I am the owner of Napa Wine Tours & Drivers in Napa CA. I just wanted to say about Les Behrens winery. What a great little winery. I have met Les personally and what a hard working Son-of-a-gun. Defenantly dirt under those nails. I have brought many guests to his winery and they all have bought lots of wine. The view is incredible. Let me know if you would like to go there. Napa Wine Tours & Drivers

  • Kevin

    Thanks for the great info. We just did a sampling of your list…. Terrific! We had a great time and felt that we got to some special places as a direct result of your list (Chapellete, Pride Mountain, Behrens and Schramsburg were truly enjoyable).

  • The Accidental Wino

    Glad my recommendations worked out!


    it’s great information. thanks to all.
    But I’ve tasted very good Cab 2009 of Buccella wine in Napa on my last trip 2011. I think this is one of the best Cab in Napa.

  • JEN

    Thank you for the detailed info. I’m heading to Napa on Tuesday and have added your recommendations to my list . I’m in the wine industry in VA and am looking forward to touring and sipping instead of pouring for a full week!

  • If you visit any of the wineries on this list, pleas tell me what you thought…

  • Laura

    What do you think of Caymus?

  • Four or five years ago, Caymus had a reputation for below-average hospitality. I experienced this first hand when I visited them around that time, and I also heard similar remarks from other wine industry professionals.

    Since then, however, I’m almost certain that things have improved because I know that Caymus has made personnel changes (my former boss at Nickel & Nickel is now in charge of the Caymus tasting room, and I’m sure she has turned things around). But I still haven’t been back to Caymus since being so underwhelmed by their staff the first time.

    I remember the Caymus wines being good, but in Napa, that’s all too common. Quite frankly, with so many good wineries out there, making a nice wine is simply not enough anymore. Especially for folks who are spending their valuable vacation time at a sit-down wine tasting, the hospitality component is a must, just as it would be at a restaurant.

    Anyhow, I’ve disregarded Caymus for several years now. I’m due to give them a second chance, though.

  • Hello,

    I made your pork belly recipe. I’d love to be able to submit a picture to you of the wonderful creation. My fiance has not liked several versions of pork belly due to the fat. She LOVED this and so did I. We put it over sticky rice and made an Asian slaw. It was glorious. Is there a way to post pics?

  • Jan Warmund

    Great information here. Just back from second trip to Napa. I did visit a few wineries on your list. Loved Pride Mountain Vineyard. Thought it was a total package. They give you a tour and you get to taste from the barrels inside of caves. All this for $15 which can go towards purchase. The man who led the tasting was very engaging.
    Disappointed in Robert Biale. I went wanting to love it as I do enjoy a good zinfindel.
    Did the tasting outside which was nice however the girl pouring the wine was so detached and left us for so long between each pour at times we wondered if she was coming back. I was so frustrated by this experience that I could not enjoy the wine.
    Vincent Arroyo is always good to visit. They are so layed back and easy. Good wines too. We were there once in April and got to do barrel tastings in the back (of wine that was not offered in the initial tasting) and buy some futures. Don’t know if you have ever been to Henry Vineyard (had tasting by George Hendry himself…this one was my favorite), Trefethen Vineyards or Crane Family Vineyards. These were also among my favorites. I should also add that tasting fees were waived upon purchase.

  • Thanks for reading! I’m actually in the process of revisiting this list myself (so I can finally complete it along with some tasting notes), so I appreciate your report. I’ll have to check on Crane Family. I’ve never been there…

  • Eduardo

    Thanks for the list. I took some friends from abroad to Chappellet. We loved the family-owned feel of the winery and the location is really gorgeous. Highly recommended!

  • Duoc Nguyen

    Hi Costner,
    Do you tasting the Buccella – Cab 2010? It’s nice if you can give me some information (comment) about this vintage. Because I’m in Vietnam and would like to order some of them for Chines new year.
    Thanks. Duoc

  • Sorry, I haven’t tasted that one, but I will keep my eye out for it. Do you have access to anything else from California?

  • Chris

    Hi Tim, thanks for the great list. My wife and I will be visiting in April and are set to check out some of the wineries you’ve identified. One that isn’t listed that I’ve heard good things about is Shafer, I also enjoy their wines. Do you have any feedback on them that you can share? Thanks!

  • Shafer has an amazing tasting, and they probably have the strongest portfolio in the Napa Valley. I may have left them off because they are only Monday thru Friday? Or maybe because there’s not enough “tour” element for an appointment-only winery? I’m in the process of amending and updating this list, so I might consider adding Shafer.

  • Esteban Azevedo

    Do you have recommendations for the best tastings of Napa cabs. I’ve heard Nickel and Nickel has a good 5 single vineyard rating for $65 so I reserved a time for that. I’m looking for big cabs–bit would like some less well-known (and less expensive) cabs. I love big Napa cabs and will be there for just one day and want to make the most if it.


  • I gave the tours at N&N for three years actually. It’s a cool tasting, and I did have N&N on my list at one point. Ultimately, I gave the nod to their sister winery, Far Niente, for its history. I didn’t want to list them both, but you should go. Is that tasting really $65 now?!

  • I have been to many houses in Napa. I do love Schramsberg as they are the oldest, and do still wines as well. I like Storybook Mountain at the top of the valley. We went to Crocker and Starr before most people knew about them. I still like Domaine Chandon as it was one of the first I ever went to.

    For all the rest, my next trip out west

  • Crocker & Starr is a hidden gem. I was able to visit them several years ago as well, maybe 2007 or so, as part of a Martini House staff trip. It was awesome — their prices have gone up though. Bummer!

  • J. Finch

    Hello, in two weeks, I am going to Napa with 3 visitors from Japan (afternoon trip). Their English is ok, but, not perfect, do you have a suggestion for a winery that we could have a tour of that may be good for these visitors. (if it was only one or two wineries)?

    Thank you

  • Hmm. If language is an issue, I’m inclined to recommend places that have visual appeal in one way or another. I would consider maybe Quixote (for its iconic architecture) or something on Spring Mountain, like Behrens Family, (for the views). Keep in mind, if you tried to visit both of these places, you would need about 30 minutes of travel time between the two.

  • Linda U

    Love Sherwin Family Vineyard for a wonderful different tasting!

  • Len

    Thanks for the great list! I went to Napa last year and loved Chappellet and Ehlers enough to join their clubs. Kuleto was really nice but I did not love their wines as much as others. Ladera and Hess also have great tours, spectacular views and good wine. I’ll be back to Napa in a few weeks (gotta get away from the snow) and I’ll try a few more. Love all your food suggestions too. You run a great blog.

  • Thank you so much for reading!

  • margaret

    There are 4 men in their early 20’s from Switzerland visiting this Sunday (March 3, 2014) and they are on a budget. What wineries would you recommend? They have a designated driver. Years ago, I went to Sterling, Cakebread, and Mondavi. (Budget friendly at the time) What would you recommend so they can get a flavor of wine and Napa? Thank you!

  • They should definitely visit Heitz Cellars. The tasting is still free there and the wines are bargains.

  • margaret

    Oh thank you!!! Any other ideas?

  • They’ll have the most relaxing time if the stay on the main part of 29. So Cakebread and Mondavi are good suggestions. Maybe Elizabeth Spencer. For lunch, Rutherford Grill doesn’t have corkage. Or even cheaper, La Luna Market offers true local flavor right across the street.

  • Jen

    Can you recommend a tour for a person traveling solo? I will be staying in the San Francisco area for a few days and would like to do a day trip. Thanks for any input.

  • Well, if you’re not set on visiting Napa, I would probably visit Sonoma on a day trip from SF.

  • Hi Tim,
    I am coming for a trip with my family in August. We are bringing our grown children who have never been to Napa. If you only had one long day in Napa and wanted to highlight the most unique and unusual tasting opportunities what would you pick? Our kids have never been to Napa and we have (5 times), so we want to include many different opportunities. We may end up with 2 full days and are renting a house in Napa.


  • Hi Judi. That’s always a tough one, but I would maybe consider Schramsberg (for the caves and an informative tour), Behrens Family (for great wines and a view), and maybe a tasting at Del Dotto. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get to each winery. Schramsberg is up in Calistoga and Behrens is up on Spring Mountain.

  • Judi Wright

    Thanks Tim! Those were on my list too! Is there anywhere if we want to do an outdoor picnic lunch that you would recommend?

  • I would definitely picnic at Behrens, since it’s way up on Spring Mountain with killer views.

  • Brandon B

    Hi Tim,

    I will be visiting sonoma/napa region this summer with my girlfriend. We are both in our 20’s with an intermediate level knowledge of wine. Can you give us any recommendations for excellent vineyards that aren’t too costly?


  • In general, Sonoma has lower-priced wine than Napa. Some of my favorite Sonoma wineries include J Vineyards, Ridge, and Papapietro Perry. As for Napa, check out my list of the best Napa Cabs for under $50.

  • Clare W

    We have a visitor coming from Japan who wants to see the wine country. We are not able to take her ourselves as we are working. Can you recommend a day tour leaving and returning to San Francisco that will give a her an introduction to the area and/or visits some good wineries? I do not know the level of her knowledge or interest in wine, but the fact that she wants to go there suggests that she is interested in wine. Also, her English is not great. If there are tours that include a Japanese speaking guide, even if it were pricier, I would love to know about them.

  • Unfortunately, I’m not too familiar with guided tours, but I have seen tour guides translate from time to time. However, leaving and returning to SF I’m not sure of. I can only recommend google in this instance…

  • Clare W

    Thanks for your reply.

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