Wine Snob? Perhaps. 10 Tips for Wine-ing it Up in Napa Valley (California)

“Either give me more wine or leave me alone.” – Rumi

Oh Rumi, I don’t think I could have said it any better. Since we’ve gotten all cozy in California reliving evenings at Eastwood’s ranch in Monterey, I’ll take a moment to blather on about the fabulousness that is wine. More specifically: the fabulousness that is wine from California’s Napa Valley.

An hour and a half north of San Francisco lies a valley. A great valley. This valley is home to acres upon acres of lush vineyards that produce bountiful grapes thanks to the valley’s fertile soil and perfect weather conditions. In the event you didn’t know, Napa is one of America’s front-running wine regions that has created award winning Pinot Noir, plucky Sauvignons and Zinfandel hybrids that will – I promise you – make you cry.

In the Pasternak cellar. AMAZING wine. (Yes, screaming capitals were required there).

In the Pasternak cellar. FANTASTIC wine. (Yes, screaming capitals were required there).

A wine-producing region since the 19th century, there now are over 450 wineries in the area. In addition to the wine that flows by the barrel, handfuls of high brow restaurants have opened up alongside the vineyards to cater to the every whim of wine-snobs and foodies hell bent on having transformative gastronomic experiences.

You see, Napa does her damnedest not to disappoint.

Perhaps the most important thing to do when considering a sojourn to Napa Valley is to sit down and draft a plan that factors in enough a) time (to visit the wineries), b) down time (to let your body deal with the influx of wine) and c) money. Once you’ve come up with your totals raise your ceilings/upper limits by at least 15 – 25%. While you shouldn’t go for broke during your time in Napa, I promise: you will spend a bit more than initially expected. This will happen because you’ll keep coming across wineries that tempt you with their liquid sin, and once you finish imbibing your 4th glass of Cabernet you’ll find a quaint rustic eatery that will charge you $12 for a (rather tasty, though that might be the booze talking) sandwich.

First stop! Eying up the wine list at Gloria Ferrer.

Day 1: Eying up the wine list at Gloria Ferrer.

This is perfectly ok.

Breathe. Go home and park your car. Grab a corkscrew. Pour a glass and enjoy.

When it comes to enjoying Napa Valley the following 10 tips are worth keeping in mind:

  • Take/rent a car and (unless someone is a teetotaler) rotate the designated driver. Doing this means you’ll be able to make your own schedule, and you won’t have wait for 5, 10, 16 other people who may be hell bent on downing every last drop they can get their hands on before getting back on the bus…and passing out in their seat.
  • Make a list of the types of wines you want to and/or are interested in trying and do some research on some of the best places where you can taste for a reasonable price. Ask people for their opinion, Google their suggestions, develop a draft map of places to try and then ask around again. Repeat this two or three times. This Intolerant is big into Sauvingnon Blancs, champagne/prosecco and white riojas; Mr. Intolerant  is a Zinfandel and Malbec kind of guy, and our resident Californian…well…he’ll drink just about anything (*editor’s note: I love this friend dearly). By spending a few hours on the Internet in the weeks leading up to our trip and asking around – at local wine shops in Brooklyn, sommelier friends, colleagues – we were able to get a cross-section of 4-5 places that were henceforth called: must visit places.
  • If you’re only tasting, plan for 2-3 days in Napa Valley. One day simply isn’t enough, though if you hit four days or more you start entering Sideways territory. Note: you do not want to go there.
  • As for the frequency of tastings: I think three wineries in a day is a perfect day. Four is great and doable if you’ve been generous with the amount of water you’ve ingested in between tastings. If you hit five you’re pushing it, and with six or more it all starts going downhill. Indulge in the drink of the Gods, but be wise about it.
  • Start early, like 10:00am early. This is because the bigger wineries get rather busy from 12:00 onwards, and since you want to pace yourself throughout the day, it’s best to start on the early-ish side so you’re not completely sloshed by sundown. PS – If you feel a bit awkward about consuming wine so early just repeat the following mantra: it’s #fiveoclocksomewhere.
  • That said, drink lots of water throughout the day. This is a no-brainer, but easy to forget.
  • Swirl, sip and take your time with each tasting. We noticed in most places (unlike in Europe) that there were few spittoons around, if they existed at all. Perhaps it’s not culturally correct to spit out your wine in California? I don’t know, but we had to adjust from our normal way of tasting and sometimes spend 2-3 times as long at a vineyard to make up for the fact that we were each drinking a half-carafe (occasionally more) of wine.
Day 2: Stopped at a local grocery/rest stop to pick up tapas for lunch.

Day 2: Stopped at a local grocery/rest stop to pick up tapas for lunch.

  • Try to get off the beaten track. There are so many wineries and vineyards in Napa that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the big name wineries that have the best PR machines behind them. One of the best wine tastings I took part in was at a small-family run vineyard that produced killer Chardonnay. I mean, the Chardonnay was so good I nearly threw Mr. Intolerant an elbow in order to secure his glass. Hey, don’t judge. I guarantee you’d do the same. 
  • Eat. Oh, sweet mother, make sure to dine out…at least once in Napa Valley. There are so many delicious places worth blowing extra money on (Morimoto, of Iron Chef fame, was a fantastic Japanese-American fusion restaurant). Along with fine dining in the evening, it’s important to eat regularly during the day for the sake of being kind to your stomach. There are plenty of roadside cafés and grocery shops where you can pick up tapas bites like sundried tomatoes, nuts, pickles, cheese, olives, rustic bread and other pre-made dishes that allow you to have an impromptu picnic in the sun with that bottle of Pinot you just snagged from the winery down the road.
  • Allow room for change and be flexible. Because it will happen: you will come across an additional/different winery you must try, or a restaurant to splurge at, or you might just find that after two days of sucking down wine like juice, you’re no longer interested in spending a third day in the valley.

napa valley

And with that, I’ll bring this wine frenzy to a close with the words of another great poet to sum up how you should approach a visit to Napa Valley…or any place for that matter.

“One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters…But with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you chose. But get drunk.” – Charles Baudelaire

Thank you Monsieur Baudelaire. I’ll raise my glass to that.

22 comments

  1. Oooh Napa!! I really need to get myself out there one of these days in the near future. I love my wine, and yet have never been to the California regions! It’s almost sacrilegious… lol.

    1. Ha! Well, as they say Amy…better late than never, no? 😉 You’d adore Napa and I’m sure she’ll love you. Keeping fingers crossed for a visit soon…

  2. JoAnna,
    What an insightful post. As a Napa native, I’m impressed with how much you were able to grasp on a quick trip. There are literally thousands of people that visit the Napa Valley each year breaking many of these common rules. Most notably, coming to Napa for one day, visiting their first winery after 1pm and trying to still visit 4+ wineries without drinking enough water. I’m hopeful that you’ve impacted several future tourists enough to take into consideration your wonderful tips.
    Cheers!,
    Kyle

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Kyle. I loved my visit to Napa and look forward to giving it another go in the future. There’s so many options though that it can be overwhelming to navigate! I’d be interested to hear suggestions on some of your Napa favourites if you feel like sharing… Cheers!

  3. Great post JoAnna! We have yet to make it to Napa but I’m sure it’ll happen some day.

    Also, I have fully embraced the European attitude to drinking, i.e., if you are awake, it’s ok to drink.

  4. Looooove Napa, even if I prefer the more low-key Sonoma. Great tips here (start at 10am, hit 3 wineries) – all so true. Can’t wait to be back there.

    1. You and me both Pola, thanks for the feedback!

  5. Great tips! I have yet to make my way to Napa Valley (I know, I know), but now I have all these great tips for when I do go. Great quotes too, by the way. 🙂

    1. Thanks Erin! Wasn’t Rumi terribly wise?

    2. And you’ll have a personal guide! Or at least, someone who might know someone 😉

  6. Love these tips! Being a Napa Valley local, I totally agree with getting off the beaten path. I’ve found so many lovely (and heavy pouring) wineries when I’ve venturee off of Silverado Trail or Highway 29. People often underestimate how long one tasting can last (especially if it’s a fun/tasty/free one!), so I, too, recommend more than one day if you’re planning on a few wineries. And finally, look into a car service! Totally worth it if you’re tasting with a few people and no one in your group will miss out (or suffer dangerous and expensive repercussions).

    1. Thanks for your feedback Natalie. I think you’re so very right about people underestimating tasting times and how long you can, in fact, linger around a vineyard both before and after a tasting. I think I’ll be looking you up the next time I’m in Napa. I sense you have some hidden gems up your sleeve… 😉

  7. Mik Casto · · Reply

    Love the post! Going to Napa in 5 weeks and you were very helpful. Would you mind sharing the actual wineries you went to? I especially am interested in the “off the beaten path” ones.

    1. Thanks Mik! One of the wineries was Pasternak. Amazing, AMAZING, wine!

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