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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
12. Crocker & Starr
Read my other entries that mention Crocker & Starr.
16. St. Supery
17. Summers Estate
19. Elizabeth Spencer
Read my other entries that mention Inglenook.
21. Robert Biale
22. Vincent Arroyo
23. Stony Hill
25. Hope & Grace