Last weekend, I spent 3 nights in Napa Valley with a friend for a girls’ getaway (reviews of hotels and restaurants to come in later posts). From what I have read, there are around 400+ wineries in Napa Valley. The valley runs north/south and is about 2 hours north of San Francisco. Napa gets very warm during the growing season so it’s principal varietals are cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc and some chardonnay though many others are grown as well. As you’ll see by the photos, we were bummed that the weather was grey, damp, cool or downright pouring rain the whole time but we made the best of it! Many wineries require reservations to do wine tastings and don’t take walk-in visitors. During our short weekend stay, we decided to do two reserved tastings and then we ended up doing two walk-in tastings as well.
Our first reserved tasting was at Hall Winery in St. Helena. We chose the Ultimate Cabernet Experience which got us tastings of 6 different reserve cabernets plus a pour of their white and a pour of an unreleased wine from the barrel for $125 per person. The facility at Hall was built in 2013 and is a modern design with large floor to ceiling windows that take advantage of the valley views but also functions as a working production facility (i.e., it’s not just a tasting room). Outside the building is a picnic seating area, an upstairs terrace with fireplace, outdoor bar area overlooking the vineyards, beautiful gardens and flowers and animal-inspired artwork everywhere.
We were greeted at the reception desk and immediately given a glass of their TBar sauvignon blanc which is blended with a little viognier to start, which was lovely. Our tasting guide, John, met us and we chatted while we waited for our other group members to arrive (two other couples that were also from Dallas and were all very nice and charming). We stepped outside where he gave us a small tasting of an unreleased 2015 vintage Hall cabernet that came straight from the barrel and wasn’t ready to be sold just yet. We got the history of the winery and the Halls and an explanation regarding the locations of their vineyards and types of varietals grown.
We were then led upstairs to our private tasting room that was already set up with our wine tastings and a small cheese plate and breadsticks to accompany. We went through each of our tastings and he then gave us one extra pour of a reserve wine they called The Bishop. Being the ultimate cabernet experience, we naturally tasted all cabernets and cabernet blends. Most of the wines were typical Bordeaux style blends of 80% or more cabernet sauvignon, some merlot and maybe a small percentage of petit verdot and/or malbec. I personally really enjoyed the wines and I should disclose that cabernet sauvignon is not my favorite varietal. I typically find it to be too heavy, too oaky, too high in alcohol content – it can be very good but it’s just not what my palate prefers. That being said, these were delicious and I ended up buying a bottle of their 2010 cabernet blend. The wines on this tasting were very pricey, which is why I only bought one bottle which Steve and I will save for a special occasion.
Our next reserved tasting was the following day at Opus One Winery located in Oakville. Opus One is what I call a Cadillac label wine and is a name-dropping wine due to its price and cache. Opus One is by appointment only – a basic tasting is $45 per glass and they only offer tastings of two vintages. They have no wine club so forget about any discounts. We did a full winery tour that was $75 per person and included a tasting of a non-vintage blend and a glass of their 2013 Opus One. The tour lasted about one hour. Our tour guide started by taking us into their private lounge area that was reminscent of a French chateau living room with huge fireplace and paintings and gave us a small tasting of a blend with no vintage as it mixed several different vintages together. She explained the history of Opus One which started in the late 1970’s and was a collaboration between Robert Mondavi and the famous French wine-making family – the Rothschilds. Their sole purpose was to make a powerhouse Bordeaux style blend wine in California. Opus One only makes one wine a year – their name label and that’s it. They plant 170 acres for this one wine and nothing else.
After our initial discussion in the lounge, we received a tour of the production facility, the fermentation tank room and then the barrel room, where we heard all about how they make their wine and their aging process. Frankly, I was surprised to learn that they do a secondary fermentation in the barrel and let it then barrel age for 18 months in all new French Oak with constant top-ups as the wine leaches into the barrel and also evaporates. After that, they remove the wine from the barrel, rinse out the sediment and then return the wine to the same barrel for another 18 months of aging before finally bottling it. Based on that alone, I knew I wasn’t going to be a huge fan of the wine and I was right. It was way too bold, heavy, oaky, spicy and leathery for my taste. I think of it as a 1980’s style of wine making – it’s excessive in my opinion. I know it’s a very expensive wine but if you don’t like it, you don’t like it and I won’t pretend that I think something is amazing if it’s not my thing. However, the tour of the production facility and barrel room was very interesting and the winery itself is gorgeous – they spared no expense.
We also did two walk-in tastings during our short stay in the valley. We stopped into Rutherford Hills Winery, which did not impress me. I found their wines to be very blah (and I upgraded to the premium tasting at $40) and the wine pourer couldn’t answer many of my questions regarding their wine making process and aging process. He was very nice but pretty clueless. Our last day we swung into Silver Oak after we finished at Opus One and I really enjoyed their tasting, which consisted of 3 different red wines – 2 cabernet blends and one 100% cabernet. I found all 3 wines to be delicious and well balanced. Definitely a stop worth making at Silver Oak which also has a beautiful facility resembling a European style castle.
When you visit Napa, be sure to check the online information of any individual wineries you want to visit to confirm whether or not you need an appointment. My recommendation would be to set up one or two appointments as the private tastings are great experiences but you don’t want to over schedule yourself and feel like you’re rushing from winery to winery.