napa valley: wineries

At the beginning of June, my family took a long weekend trip to Napa Valley in celebration of both of my siblings graduating from college (and because everyone was available, which can sometimes be the biggest barrier for our family trips). Except for my mom, none of us had been to Napa before. Our goal for the trip was to learn more about different types of wines and enjoy wine country, though we quickly realized that most people traveling to Napa Valley already know a lot about wine and are going for the winery hopping experience. After asking questions and expressing to the people giving our wine tastings and tours that we wanted to learn more about the wines, grapes, and pairings for each type of wine, they opened up and were happy to impress their vast knowledge on us. We left with a better understanding of how different types of wine should be enjoyed, what to pair with them, why they have certain tasting notes, and ultimately that we should listen to what we like and not what the sommelier says we should like – wisdom almost every sommelier and wine tasting guide expressed.

Napa Valley is made up of a few towns that extend from a main road. We visited four wineries in Calistoga, Yountville, St. Helena, and had great, but such different experiences at each one.

Schramsberg Vineyards

Our first winery stop was Schramsberg Vineyards for the cave tour and sparkling wine tasting. This was the only bubbly tasting we tried, but it certainly seemed like the place to do it.

In 1972, President Richard Nixon served Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs at a state dinner, marking the first time an American wine had been served at any White House event. Schramsberg’s sparkling wines have been served at state functions under every U.S. presidential administration since. As we learned while we were on our tours, Napa wasn’t well known as the wine country that we are all familiar with until the 1960s and 70s. Serving American wine from California at White House functions brought more attention to the region as a wine producing area and helped put Napa on the map as a destination for wine lovers.

On our Schramsberg tour, we learned how sparkling wine (basically champagne that doesn’t come from the Champagne region of France) is made, why they store it in caves (the slight humidity keeps the temperature more constant), and what foods to pair with the different types of sparkling wine. All of the sparkling wines we tried were white, rosé, or white and red blended. Some of the pairings included popcorn, caramel, and kettle chips, all foods with some fat to balance the acidity of and bring out the flavors in the bubbly wine. While we went for the sparkling wine experience, I found the best Cabernet Sauvignon I’ve ever had. At $110 a bottle though, needless to say I didn’t come home with it. ;) This is a unique and great experience for anyone who likes sparkling wine, or is just interested in learning about how sparkling wine is made.

After Schramsberg, we popped down to St. Helena for a bite to eat on the cute downtown Main Street. We filled our stomachs with Model Bakery English muffins and local deli sandwiches and stopped by Woodhouse Chocolates (with a name like that, how could we pass it up? ;) ), and popped in a few galleries and shops before making our way to Frog’s Leap.

Frog’s Leap

Frog’s Leap was the first Napa Valley winery to grow certified organic grapes and focuses on dry farming and other environmentally friendly initiatives, such as using solar power to run their winemaking process. Some of the tour guides and sommeliers at the other wineries smiled and kindly called Frog’s Leap the hippies of Napa, but everyone had good things to say about the vineyard and the wine. While we didn’t find our favorite wines here, the atmosphere was absolutely the best and we all agreed that we would come back to relax at the picnic tables under the trees again while trying a different selection of wines. The grounds are beautiful and the self-paced outdoor tasting allows you to enjoy the environment in the many Adirondack chairs, or as a group at an outdoor table under the shade of umbrellas. It was the perfect stop for winding down (or wine-ding down ;)) at the end of our first full day.

Peju Winery

On Saturday, after a delicious brunch in St. Helena (I’ll touch on food in another post), we visited Peju Winery and Jessup Cellars. Our family was large enough to have our own guide at both of these tastings, which allowed us to ask questions in the privacy of our own naïve group ;) Out of all of the wineries, we like the most wines during our tasting at Peju, and we learned the most about different types of wine during our time there.

Jessup Cellars

Jessup was the only tasting we tried that was not located at the vineyard, but they set themselves apart by offering a wine, cheese, and chocolate pairing inside a curated art gallery. Trying wines with different types of cheeses was something we were all excited to do, and to replicate when we got home. The dark chocolate matched wonderfully with the red wines, the salty nuts went with reds and whites, and each of the 6 cheeses was carefully selected to go with the flavors of the different wines. We were surprised that, not only were the cheeses good with the wines, but some of the wines tasted even better after a bite of the cheese. The sommelier explained that the different amounts of fat in the cheeses balanced out the acidity and tannins in the different wines.

Jessup was located in Yountville, one of the cutest towns in Napa Valley. After our tasting ended we walked down the paved paths to adorable shops and wonderful gourmet grocers, including the famous Bouchon Bakery. Everything closed fairly early, otherwise we would have stuck around, but I absolutely recommend moseying around Yountville during the day if you visit Napa Valley.

There are so many wineries and vineyards in Napa Valley, all with different experiences to offer. In the two full days we spent in the valley, we toured the main areas of Napa, Yountville, and St. Helena and went to two wineries a day. We spent the last day split between brunch in St. Helena and Berkeley before heading back to the airport. Based on our flight schedules (we took a red eye back to the east coast), we could have fit in another winery on Thursday night or Sunday afternoon, but we liked the slower pace where we didn’t feel rushed. Even though it was only a four-day trip, it felt much longer, which is always what you want on vacation :).

I’ll be back with some tips for visiting Napa and our food experience and recommendations!

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