In this 3-day weekend itinerary, wineries marked in green are open to the public. Wineries marked in red require appointments. Bullet point suggestions are drive-by viewing and/or optional stops.
OVERNIGHT STAY & MORNING COFFEE: BURLINGTON HOTEL, Port Costa
DINNER: BULL VALLEY ROADHOUSE
AFTER DINNER DRINKS: WAREHOUSE CAFE
- Salvestrin ~ Very nice Cabs over a decade of vintages. Historic location.
LUNCH: NAPA VALLEY OLIVE OIL MFG CO. (get a salami and cheese, and bread from the bakery in town to eat at your convenience during the day)
- Varozza ~ Long-time growers in a special location with an historic building. Using their own old vines to make some very nice Claret-style wines.
- Neal Family ~ On southern Howell Mtn. Third largest vineyard management company in Napa Valley. Relatively sophisticated, but ripe wines.
- On the Edge ~ Tasting Room in downtown Calistoga. Good wines from old vines in a valley next door to Araujo (now Ch. Latour).
OVERNIGHT: WINE VALLEY LODGE
BREAKFAST: PEET’S COFFEE
- HILL FAMILY VINEYARDS ~ Large grower with many properties in southern (cool) end of Napa Valley. Up-scale Tasting Room shouldn’t necessarily put you off 2nd generation’s prospects.
- RUTHERFORD GROVE ~ Long legacies on both sides of the family go back to beginnings of Napa’s viticultural heritage. I love the story, and feel the wines deserve objective evaluation every year.
LUNCH: La LUNA MARKET
- PIÑA ~ Large group of brothers (3rd generation from Malaga, Spain). Must have felt need to expand beyond vyd mgmt biz just to avoid control squabbles. Good properties, but they don’t give wine away.
- ROBINSON FAMILY ~ Small boutique winery in a special part of Stags Leap. Make personal request for an appointment.
DINNER: LA STRADA
TWO PLACES with NO PUBLIC ACCESS, but WORTH CONSIDERING A PURCHASE:
Chaix ~ This is a great property, with wines being made for them by Terra Valentine. Unfortunately they choose not to engage the public other than arm’s length sales. Good price though. Well worth knowing about to consider special events.
Ilsley Vineyards ~ Like their neighbors, the Robinsons, these long time Stags Leap growers have a property with excellent credentials. They all have real jobs, and young children. They don’t make much wine for their own label at present. So they don’t embrace interaction with the public … yet. Sign up for their newsletter.
Over the last 30 years Napa Valley has become very expensive. It was not always so. In the 1960’s and ‘70s older college kids would go to Napa Valley as readily as to the beach. Those days are over, although Mendocino and the Sierra Foothills do fill the role somewhat. Still, lots more people today would like to go wine tasting, and Napa Valley is the first name that comes to their minds. It certainly has the highest Q-rating (name recognition) amongst the California wine regions, so this connection is fairly automatic. Awkwardly, many casually interested individuals will be very unhappy when they discover the cost of dining, overnight accommodations, and wine tasting in Napa Valley, not to mention the cost to buy wine. Enter our 3rd Generation Farmers Tour, in which we intend to show a side of Napa frequently overlooked ~ let’s call it the ‘bargain’ side.
Think how you would design this kind of tour for yourself. You could camp out at Bothe State Park. Or spend a lot of time in used book stores. Another approach is to start by considering why so many wines are so pricey. There are several classes of winery owners in Napa. There are corporate entities buying up famous brands as the original owners seek to retire. There are investment groups adding some fun and prestige to their portfolio. And there are certainly plenty of very wealthy individuals living an artistic, if not quite agrarian, lifestyle. All these cohorts share a view of their product as being expensive. Let’s use three-digit Cabernet as our benchmark. Many bottles of Napa Valley Cabernets are priced at three digits. That is not based on sharp pencil cost-analysis as much as it is based on land cost. But it is also based on not wanting to appear less quality-oriented than other members of one’s social milieu. If you are a captain of industry, you expect to drink and entertain with Cabernets worth three digits. You do this in much the same way you use valet parking rather than driving around the block for 20 minutes to park yourself. Mass-market America thinks differently. Only 2% of the wine sold in the US today costs more than $20 a bottle. But Napa Valley today is not so much about commerce. From an image standpoint, it is about fine art.
One group in Napa Valley has an alternate perspective. People whose vineyards were purchased forty, or fifty years ago (or 80 years ago) don’t see a bottle of Cabernet in the same light as their more recently arrived, supremely well-heeled neighbors. Expenses are lower for multi-generational residents, and as farmers, their income has always been much lower. In the common parlance, they are land rich and cash poor. They drink a lot of Cabernet, and have done so their entire lives, but they sure don’t routinely pay three-digits for a bottle of it. They are not ignorant of their neighbors’ prices, but in general they would rather be out in the vineyard pruning than wearing a coat and tie, glad-handing strangers at marketing shows around the country. These people are neither rubes, nor bumpkins. They just have different personalities than do sales executives and Fortune 500 CEOs.
It is also important to mention this class of wineries often have extraordinary credentials in the wine field, usually has vineyard managers. They’ve had their own grapes for generations, and frequently employed themselves taking care of other people’s grapes. So, just as with the wealthy individuals’ wineries, you need to taste the wines and determine for yourself who makes the most impressive quality, and (of those) which ones are impressive values. Multi-generational residents usually have older vines and a great location. I know you will find a handful of Cabernets in the $50 to $65 range which beat the pants off a large percentage of 3-digit wines. And genuflection will probably not be expected in order to acquire three bottles. Let’s call these discoveries ‘under-appreciated.’ They are the focus of this particular Theme Tour.
We’ve applied this value theme to other aspects of our Tour as well. Our goal is to suggest a Friday evening through Sunday evening getaway from San Francisco to Napa Valley for two people for under $1,000 that would be loaded with fun and new experiences. To review: two people, three nice restaurant dinners, wines, drinks, entertainment, two nights accommodation, car expenses, lunches. >$1,000. That’s a bit of a trick: not in the Sierra Foothills, but certainly in Napa Valley. On average that sort of Weekend Getaway in Napa Valley probably costs closer to $3,000. So, if you have the type of personality which will put up with an occasional discomfort in exchange for an eye-opening new adventure, this is Napa Valley on your terms.
We start with a sophisticated dinner and night on the town at the trans-Continental train-ferry junction before bridges were built in 1930, i.e. Port Costa. That’s right. Whole trains bound for Chicago and New York crossed the Carquinas Straits on ferries. Sleepy little relic today, looking across the Straits at Benecia (once the Capitol of California). Mouth of the Napa River is on your left. You’ll just have to imagine Port Costa’s heyday (around 1895) when it was America’s largest wheat shipping port. Reserve a room in the Burlington Hotel, and try to leave San Francisco by 2:00 pm. It’s Friday; traffic will get hellacious. You could reserve a seating for dinner at the Bull Valley Roadhouse at 8:15, and leave San Francisco by 6:30, but all that traffic is such a downer. Better to leave at 2:00, go hike in the Contra Costa Headlands (or along the shoreline) for a couple hours, check into the Burlington, shower, and walk across the street for dinner at 6:30. Then have a couple exotic beers at the Warehouse Café after dinner. It’s an entertaining crowd.
Leisurely 20-minute drive into Napa Valley Saturday morning to keep appointments you’ve made with salt-of-the-earth proprietors who specialize in small lots made from older vines which have been in their family for a very long time. Take a cutting board and a knife so you can get some cheese and salami at Napa Valley Olive Oil Mfg. Co. to make a midday picnic among the vines. Put a couple glasses and a bottle of water in your trunk. Stay overnight at a motel in Napa next to the river. You’re probably only there long enough to shower and sleep, because you should have reservations for a wonderful meal of tapas and paella in downtown Napa. Catch some music after dinner.
On Sunday extend this concept of keeping appointments with property owners who have been in Napa Valley through several generations. See the type of assets this allows them to assemble. In Europe, the Catholic Church was the dominant factor producing great wine for much the same reason, gradual accumulation of things like the best vineyard parcels and the oldest vines, and the knowledge that comes from participating in 40 or 50 harvests using those vines. Have a comfortable meal in the bosom of the Italian wine tradition on your way out of town. I think you’ll be enormously satisfied ~ and energized that so many really valuable, enjoyable experiences were available to you riding completely below the radar screen. Even in a place as thoroughly investigated as Napa Valley.