- Sandra Meyer
My 10 Favorite Wineries in Napa and Sonoma...Not Only for Their Wines
My husband and I love wine and we love to spend time in the various wine regions around the world. While we lived in Australia, we visited the Hunter Valley, Yarra Valley and the Margaret River region on the west coast. During our honeymoon, we spent time in the Mosel region in Germany, and of course we had to taste our way through Italy and France.
Now that we live in California, Napa and Sonoma are relatively easy for us to get to, and because we love heavy Cabs (and they have fantastic Cabs), we try to go at least once a year.
Over the years, we have tried famous and inconspicuous wineries, big ones and little ones, reasonably priced and expensive ones.
On this last trip, I finally decided to put together a list of my ten personal favorites. All of them make fantastic, heavy Cabernet (because that's my favorite) and really yummy Chardonnay (my second favorite), so I won't go into too much detail on the wine itself. (Believe me: they are all really, really good!). Instead, I want to focus on the other reasons you should visit them, the little "something special" add-ons, the emotional hooks, the memory makers!
Here we go:
Cardinale: Favorite Wine Maker
We love Chris Carpenter wines! As my hubby likes to say,"Everything this guy touches turns into liquid gold". The last time we visited Cardinale, Chris was hosting a group of guests and invited us to be part of the conversation. Truly interesting person, huge hands, down to earth, big accent, loves what he does and does it so well. He had just released a wine made from Australian grapes, the Higginbotham, and told us all about the history, why he went there, how he got to the end result, etc., and by the end I thought I had somehow been a part of the process. Besides that, Cardinale has a very pretty viewing deck and the tastings are so well done. As soon as you enter, you will feel special. The glasses are lined up perfectly, the bottles are lined up right behind them, the local cheeses and pastries are waiting, and you know you will have a fantastic tasting experience.
In the entry area, look for the really cool photo on the wall by a German photographer. It's a stitched photo that represents the same vine over a twelve month period. And lastly, I should mention Anne Hawley, who is always ready to help with any wine related or Napa related requests.
Lokoya: Favorite Tasting Room
No secrets here! This wine is spectacular (as is reflected in its pricing), and the tasting room matches the wine, all of which are 100% Cabernet from one of four appellations: Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain. (Did I mention....these are also all under the care of Chris Carpenter?)
Just recently opened, the setting of the estate is spectacular, in the middle of the woods and overlooking the vines. The tasting room itself with its oversized dining table makes you wonder about your next special birthday. If you come here for a private tasting (all tastings are by appointment only), expect to be blown away. Everything about this place is top-notch, which makes for a tasting you will remember for a long time.
Kamen: Favorite Views
This is another one that is great for heavy Cabs, and it has an interesting story. It is owned by Robert Kamen. Originally a screen writer (his most famous movies being The Karate Kid and Taken), he turned to the wine industry in the 1980s after visiting Sonoma to celebrate the sale of his first screenplay. He fell in love with a 280 acre piece of land that yielded views all the way to the San Francisco Bay, decided to buy it, turned it into a winery, and the rest is history. The views are unparalleled, so if you make an appointment for a tasting, make sure you don’t visit the tasting room downtown, but try to get the tour up to his property. When we went two years ago, both he and his wife were there and spent some time with us. Great memories!
Seavey: Favorite Conservation Effort
Seavey makes great cabs (we love their Caravina and Seavey Cabs) but also really good Merlot (Yes, really, Merlot....it's totally okay again to love Merlot!), but what really stuck with me was the conservation effort the family put into making sure Seavey remains as it is forever. Bill and Mary Seavey bought the land in 1979 and turned it into a nature preserve, ensuring that no more than 40 acres of the property can ever be farmed or be otherwise touched. It's a beautiful piece of nature, and they ensured that it will stay like this! Check them out @seaveyvineyard and make sure to ask for Andrea to show you around!
Spring Mountain: Favorite History
Another memorable place to visit. Again, the wines are spectacular. But the other interesting thing is the winery's history (most of which I managed to verify, minus the ghostly parts that were conveyed to us during the tasting). The winery came into being through Tiburcio Parrot (Mexican mother, American father, hence the interesting name) who originally began visiting Napa because of his interest in the mining business. After starting to grow vines, he became close friends with his German neighbors, the Beringer Brothers, nicknaming them "Los Hermanos", a name that stuck and later turned into one of the Beringer Wine brands. Now here comes the part I couldn't seem to be able to verify: During our tour we learned that Tiburcio was married to the woman who used to be his housekeeper, but apparently he did not treat his wife very well, and her ghost is rumored to still haunt the house to this date. In fact, the lady who hosted our tour claims she had felt her presence several times, maybe even while we were there.....
Long after Tiburcio's death, the winery had another brush with international fame: It happens to be the filming location for the TV series Falcon Crest. Remember Lorenzo Lamas riding his horse through the vines, the horse's mane and Lorenzo's hair seamlessly blowing in the wind? It was here on Spring Mountain. The funniest little detail for me is that the series which uses the famous "Falcon Window" in many of its episodes chose its name after a bird which was really a parrot and not a falcon (Tiburcio's last name).
Having said all this: The grounds of the property are beautiful with stunning views of the vines in the sunset, and their wines are fantastic!
Far Niente: Favorite Tour
We have had many great winery tours in Napa and Sonoma, but for some reason this one was particularly memorable for me. For starters, Far Niente is a very old winery, first established in 1885, and although it was deserted for almost 60 years after the prohibition, there is a lot of history in this place. Secondly, it is one of the few wineries that has actual wine caves that have been dug into the side of the hill and expanded three times since 1980. (A special drill had to be brought in from the UK. ) And thirdly, I just remember learning so much about wine and the process of making it on this tour. It was very educational without getting boring. I wish I could remember who actually gave the tour, but it's been a while..... Far Niente makes excellent Chardonnay and Cabernet....so don't drive through Oakville without visiting here!
Domaine Carneros: Favorite Gardens
You come here for the bubbles and to make up for that France vacation you didn't take. Established by the Taittinger Family in 1989, the Domaine Carneros Château was inspired by the 18th century Château de la Marquetterie in Champagne, France, home of Taittinger champagne. You will see the building driving by as it is a landmark among the vines. The gardens are beyond beautiful and lunches/tastings on the patio are a treat (especially involving those bubbles). Domaine Carneros also introduced Pinot Noir and some other varietals in 1992, but I am personally not a fan of Pinot and can't speak to those.
De Loach: Favorite "Crazy"
I don't even know where to begin. From a mere experience perspective, nothing beats this place if you are lucky enough to meet the owner, Jean-Charles Boisset (aka JCB). Originally from Burgundy, the birth place of Pinot and Chardonnay, JCB grew up as part of a family that started with one winery in 1961 and now owns 28 wineries in France, California and Canada.
Visiting De Loach is a very different experience from what one would likely expect from a winery tour. Entering the first tasting room, one is greeted by a large mural inspired by Da Vinci's "The Last Supper", only that JCB himself is the center piece of the art, wearing a wig and a red ball gown.
If this is not your thing, you should enjoy a tasting on the beautiful grounds surrounding the winery. My favorite is their Chardonnay, which also happens to be at a very good price point. And if JCB happens to be there, he might invite you to dance with him...
After your visit to the winery, you should definitely also visit JCB Village in downtown Yountville. They have a cozy bar and the adjacent gift store will give you a sense of how they roll where JCB rules....
Alpha Omega: Favorite Outdoor Seating and Atmosphere
Another winery with fantastic Cabernets and Chardonnays, but we mostly love Alpha Omega for the tasting experience. Relax on the outdoor couches in the shade, either on the building's covered deck or under the trees below, and be entertained by several water fountains on the property (they might even provide some cool air). For larger groups, we have ordered cheese and charcuterie platters to accompany the tasting. Many hours have been spent with friends on these couches, and occasionally new friends were made.
This is probably our favorite place to go to at the end of a long day of wine tasting!
Baldacci: Favorite Family Feeling
This is my number one winery in all of Napa Valley. I love this place for its wines, but even more for its family atmosphere. Every time we come here, we see at least one family member on property. Helping out, greeting guests, conducting tastings. Family members are so easily identified by their full red hair, and Baldacci wines are named after them. The place is truly family run: Grandpa Robert and Mom Brenda, Son Michael being the main wine maker, and Dad still running the place together with him. I feel welcome here! I love coming here because of that!
One caveat in the last few year: there has been a lot of construction. Baldacci has been constructing a brand new tasting room that should be open now. The last time we went, the tasting experience was slightly compromised because of the makeshift tasting room, but I can’t wait to go and experience the new one.
Honorable Mention for its Chardonnay: Three Sticks
Three Sticks used to make Cabernet but now solely focuses on white wines and Pinot Noir. The tasting room is in downtown Sonoma, set in an old and original Adobe building. The tour of the building alone is worth a visit.
Once you understand where the name "Three Sticks" comes from, you also understand why only fantastic wines could come from this place....the owner Bill Price III has a history of doing everything exceptionally well (Stanford and Berkeley education, career at Bain and working for Jack Welsh at GE, and eventually co-founding the successful PE firm TPG) . The III behind his name gave him the nickname "Billy Three Sticks" growing up on the beaches of Hawaii, and that's how the winery's name came about. The attention to detail is striking, the tours are lovely, and the wine offers everything you'd hope for! Definitely worth a visit!
On the Horizon for Next Time: Napa Valley Reserve
When you have friends that love great wine and they tell you to go (repeatedly and enthusiastically), that means you should definitely go. For some reason, we have never made it there, but it's in the plans for the next trip.
There are so many wineries in Napa and Sonoma, we have only visited a thin sliver of them, and yet it was hard to pick only ten for this article. But these ten delivered something special and one way or another, we end up going back to them over and over again. You should try them all!
Please reach out with questions and see you in Napa!