Wine Review: Trip Summary Napa Valley & Oregon October 2010
If you are ever planning a wine tasting trip to Napa Valley or Oregon, then this post will be helpful guide and save you time in planning. It is a detailed summary of our recent trip to Napa and Willamette Valley written by Jon Brodsky. Jon is a wine aficionado and did extensive research prior to this trip. There is a bunch of wine insight here and useful information about restaurants, lodging, and wineries. For a different twist to the Napa/Oregon trip, see this version– a story about a “wine maker in the making” from a social media perspective!
Napa Valley & Oregon:
Saturday – We had an early flight from Newark to San Francisco. Unfortunately one by one everybody in the wine group dropped out of the trip until norm and mariam backed out Thursday right before the trip. Really unfortunate not only because we wanted them to join us but also because we had a nonrefundable 2 bedroom suite at the westin. We had arranged winery visits to some places that we had already been but that were worthy of repeat visits and that we wanted to share with norm and mariam. Additionally, Norms friend Bob, who lives in San Francisco and works in the wine industry, had scheduled some special things for us. So here’s where we went on our trip.
Note – Having been to wine country several times now, one thing we learned is to share tastings. Primarily this is important because if you get your own you just end up drinking too much. Secondly, especially in napa, tastings can be very expensive. Some are up to $50 – Ridiculous unless you are tasting some of the really expensive cult wines, but even then for a 1 ounce taste this is very expensive.
Peju – We drove straight to napa after landing and had a little time before our cakebread appointment. Peju was nearby so we stopped here. The wine server was fantastic. We tried about 5 wines and he had a different rap song for each one. The wines were good and he was very entertaining. I think the tasting was $15. I bought a bottle because the wine was decent and they put the tasting fee towards a bottle, so the $30 merlot only cost another $15.
Cakebread – We had been here before. The tasting is by appointment and in the actual wine making facility. I didn’t really like the sauvignon blanc that much. The chardonnay was good but typical cali chardonnay, ie oak, though maybe a little less so. The cabernet was good, not great. I don’t think we tried the reserve cab or whatever they call it this year. Tasting was $15, somewhat boring, wines surprisingly only ok as I was expecting to love them.
Heitz – Tasting is free. This is the only one that I know of in napa where its free. We had been here before as well but we had time before dinner. The wines here, right down to the basic napa cab, are all really good. We got to talking to the server and she poured us Martha’s vineyard and another single vineyard cab that I wasn’t familiar with even though they weren’t on the tasting menu. Great stop in napa. They don’t make a bad wine.
Farmstead – Had dinner here. Its in St. Helena right across from Tra Vigna (our favorite), and though I wanted to go there I knew we were going the next night so I was ready to try something new. They grow all or most of the food on the menu right outside the restaurant. I had chili and a salad. It was excellent. Lots of herbs. Laura had halibut. She liked it. We also had the wine they produce there called Longmeadow Ranch. It was average, but they have a $2 corkage fee if you decide to bring your own. That’s right. $2. No, I didn’t leave off a zero. On top of that, they donate the corkage fees to the local school.
Westin napa verasa – Nice hotel, not fantastic, but it is a westin and it has those awesome heavenly beds. I tried to cancel the reservation or at least go to a regular hotel room (we had a 2 bedroom suite that we were going to use with norm and mariam), but they wouldn’t let me as we were past the deadline for canceling. I made a big enough deal about it though that they let me go from 4 nights down to 2 nights. Phew, because it was $700 a night. Le Toque, which I think is one of the best restaurants in napa, had recently moved to the hotel. We had been to the old Le Toque years ago and loved it.
Sunday We were going to run Dipsea today but it was raining way too hard. Dipsea is one of our favorite trail runs and its just outside san Francisco. We’ve run it many times and even named one of our cats Dipsea, but in the heavy rain it would have been too dangerous, not to mention not fun. Instead we ran on the treadmill in the fitness center. They had a decent fitness center with good machines, but who’s in charge of these things fitness centers? I’m not a fitness pro, but at least I could design and run one better than almost any are run at hotels. It must have been 75 degrees in the fitness room. I got to 3 miles and decided to bail on the workout even though I was going to do at least 5. I felt ok but it was way to hot. Laura showed true ironman spirit and persevered for about an hour.
Phelps – With time to spare now since we had cancelled our dipsea run, we decided to schedule the morning seminar at phelps. It’s $40 per person but free if you join the club. I’m usually against the club if it’s a wine you can otherwise easily obtain (what’s the point of committing to phelps when you can just get it at the local store), but getting the $40×2 tasting free convinced me. For the $40 you got a 1 ½ hr seminar on phelps history and in this seminar a lesson on the different smells in wine including a test on 12 different smells. It was very informative and the lady who led the seminar was very knowledgeable and really into it. I got 10 out of 12 by the way as did Laura (she claims). Also as wine club members we got to try all their regular wines as well as an older cab and the much hyped 2007 insignia (97-100 WA, the “best insignia ever” according to RP) and Bacchus (not rated but a little more expensive than insignia). I was very excited to try insignia and I liked it a lot, but I wouldn’t give it 100 points. Maybe 96-98. Either way, it was a great visit. I had to buy 5 bottles of regular phelps as part of the club, but it was only $140 on top of the tasting and as part of the club I am entitled to buy 2008 insignia for $119 on futures. They also do other seminars such as differentiating cabs from different regions. Phelps is a worthwhile stop.
Del Dotto – I had heard several people say the loved del dotto including Rick Veigh who had just been there the week before. We went to the newer St. Helena site as opposed to the older Napa site. They are known for their barrel tastings and their caves. The whole place is extravagant, all in marble, with piped in opera in the caves. Its $50 per person and you really can’t share because its part of a tour through the caves, so it cost $100 for the two of us. The wine is all tasted out of barrels. Just like the facility itself, the wine is over the top, and I almost never think a red wine is too much. I could barely tell one from another as they all had loads of oak. In some of their wines they used scored oak barrels which imparts even more oak to the wines. They were good but only if you like that style. They also give you pizza (very good and we were hungry by this point) and other snacks. The whole thing was so fancy they even scan the wines you tasted with a handheld bar code scanner and give you a printout when you finish. Overall I would say go if you want the experience of barrel tasting, to see the opulence of the caves and the facility and if you like huge oaky reds, but it was expensive. I did actually buy a bottle because it was so different from the usual.
Dean and deluca – Quick stop here for a little food to help offset the wine. Also Laura loves it here. It’s where we got the infamous kale on the last trip. They have tons of gourmet foods and wines, all retail or way overpriced. Laura got a salad so we were both happy.
Pride – We had been here before and I love it here. It is appointment only but well worth it. I think the tasting was either $10 or $15. The drive up spring mountain is steep, twisty and fun. The facility is clean and way up high on the mountain. The tasting is informal. The place is the opposite of a place like Del Dotto or Opus. There is no pretentiousness here, just awesome wine and regular people working in the tasting room. The caves are real, dug into the side of the mountain, and you really feel like you are in a cave. The barrel tastings were fun and the wines are great including even the merlot. I bought 2 bottles and we got a coaster as Laura wants coasters from some of the vineyards.
Tra Vigne – Ah, my favorite casual place for dinner. Unfortunately even though it was truffle season they didn’t have my favorite, the truffle risotto, on the menu. When I mentioned it though, the waiter went back to the kitchen and the chef said he would actually make it specially. It was $45, but they shaved white truffle all over it. It was awesome! I also had a half portion of the rabbit papparadelle, another of my favorites here. Laura had a salad and fish which she liked as well.
Monday Started off the day with another pathetic 3 mile run on the treadmill today. It was a little earlier and a little cooler, but glad I did it as this is going to be a big eating and drinking week. Thanks to Norm today we met Bob Wells and his girlfriend Cathy. Bob does something in the wine selling business though I’m not quite sure what. He seems to know almost everybody of note in napa. Without mentioning names, I was very impressed by his blackberry address book. I thought I might try to steal it when he wasn’t looking, but then I thought I wouldn’t get very far with phone numbers as those people don’t really know me and would just hang up if I called them anyway. Bob set up appointments for us that we never could have done on our own as these were not public tastings.
Nieman – First on the schedule we met with Drew Nieman. He is a fairly young winemaker who has made is own wine for a few years after having worked as a winemaker at Kongsgaard for 15 years. He doesn’t have his own facility so we met him at John Caldwell’s vineyard. As an aside, we tasted Caldwell wines there last year and John brings his wine to NJ to dinner with us and is in fact coming to dinner the week after we get back from our trip. The vineyard is in south eastern napa way up a mountain and the tasting room is deep within the caves. Drew has his own little tasting area where he has only a few barrels of wine. He takes obvious great personal pride in his wine. This is nothing like going to a place like phelps or even pride. This was an experience like no other. Drew went to oxbow and personally picked out 6 cheeses which he felt went best with each of the wines. And to top off the experience the wine was amazing. We had a white (or maybe 2, I forgot because the reds were so good) and 4 reds – merlot, blend, syrah and cab. The reds were $80 except for the cab which was $225. The syrah was off the charts great. It reminded me of run rig but a little more restrained. Big but not too big and balanced. The cab was outrageous. I put it against any cali cult cab. We tasted the 2006. The 2007 was still in the barrel but he claims it’s even better. We left with 6 mixed red bottles. The white was great as well, I’m just not a big white drinker. Can’t wait to share this wine. I am going to try to get Drew to come to dinner with us in NJ.
Kenzo – Next up we drove to Kenzo Estate. Kenzo is a multimillionaire who made loads of money making video games. He decided he wanted to make wine and do it as extravagantly as possible. He spent $240 million on a new vineyard and facility. Included in this was unearthing the top 3 feet of soil over lots of acres because Heidi Barrett who is consulting winemaker for Kenzo suggested this was the thing to do. The facility was very nice, but $240 mil?? He makes 5 or 6 wines. We had most of them as well as lunch from Bouchon catered in to the vineyard. After lunch, Laura and Cathy helped on the sorting line along with 5 or 6 other sorters who worked at the vineyard. This was the highlight of the visit to Kenzo. They had just harvested and this isn’t something you ordinarily get to do. Oh, almost forgot, the wines. They were ok. Overpriced. $60 sauvignon blanc that was good, not great. Also a few reds with Japanese names that were also good but not that noteworthy. We didn’t buy anything.
Quintessa – We stopped by since we had a little time between Kenzo and Kelly Flemming only to be turned around since we had no appointment. Napa really can be formal.
Auberge – Just stopped for drinks with the time we would have spent at Quintessa. The back porch by the bar area is gorgeous with fantastic views of the valley. We had a quick drink and Laura had her salad. It’s a great stop, but $1000 / night to stay there? I guess if money is no object its probably the nicest place in napa, but I would have a difficult time justifying the cost.
Kelly Flemming – This was another stop Bob arranged for us. Kelly is married to Paul Flemming of PF Chang. They have a lot of money and they built a gorgeous winery with amazing caves. It took several years to blast out the caves. The whole building is made of stone and is brand new. She doesn’t have a public tasting room so again we were private guests. We spent almost 2 hours there with her talking about her wine, the facility and her family and life in napa. The wine was excellent. I’m not quite sure it was as good as Niemans, but it was fantastic and we bought 2 bottles. It was reasonably priced at $90 (I think I’m becoming desensitized. I remember 20 years ago being unable to sleep after purchasing a $30 bottle of wine.)
Solage – Bob arranged dinner at Solage. There were 9 of us including Bob and Cathy, Ashley who we met at Kenzo, Michael and Keiko who own restaurants in NY and Napa including The Four Seasons in NY, and Herb and Jennifer Lamb. That’s right – Herb Lamb of Herb Lamb vineyards. If you are a wine guy you know of him. I couldn’t believe it. This guy is responsible for growing grapes that go into some of the most expensive and sought after wines in the world. They were some of the nicest people I have ever met. We spent 4 hours at dinner. As it turns out due to the rain that Napa had just gotten with more expected later in the week, they were going to finish harvesting all of their vineyard tomorrow. And if dinner wasn’t enough, they invited us over to the vineyard to help harvest. Wow. We had been planning on starting out toward Oregon to Willamette Valley after dinner, but an invite like that!! We had checked out of the westin, but decided to stay and find a room somewhere so we could join them in the morning. I don’t remember what I ate. Dinner was secondary to meeting the Lambs. I do remember that Bob brought a pinot noir and a nieman shiraz, Herb brought his own wine. All were great.
Rancho Caymus – We called around at 9:30 after dinner and got a room at rancho caymus. The front desk closed at 10, so we hurried over and checked in. It was under $200 which is a bargain in napa. It isn’t associated with Caymus but rather with Rutherford. The rooms were nice, atmosphere was good, its right by St. Helena which I think is one of the nicest spots in Napa (you might argue Yountville is as nice) and the price was good.
Tuesday – Since we didn’t have to be at the Lamb’s till 9am I let Laura talk me into running outside as it had stopped raining. It was actually a great morning, probably upper 40s and clear. It was too dangerous to run up and down Rt 20, so we ran the crossroad to Silverado Trail. We ended up doing about 6 miles at a decent pace and I felt good.
Herb Lamb – We got to the Lamb’s at 9am. The vineyard is way up a hill on the east side of Napa with views over to the mountains across the valley. It is remote and you would never find it if you didn’t have directions. Its also on a really steep hillside. Jennifer uses a 4 wheel drive atv to go around the property because the driveway is so long and steep. When we got there, she invited us into her house while we waited for the crew to come pick the grapes. They were a little late but I was just really happy to be there having breakfast in her kitchen and on their back deck overlooking the vineyard and the valley. They have a cat and 2 Labradors – one is older and follows her around including riding in the passenger seat of the atv, the other is younger and wants to play ball. You throw the ball off the deck and it rolls down into the vineyard sometimes 10 rows deep and the dog races off the deck and flies through rows of vines until it finds the ball and brings it back. What a life the Lambs have there. When the crew finally arrived, we spent the rest of the morning picking grapes for the 2010 Herb Lamb cab. It was a fabulous experience and we were promised a bottle. The next time out to napa can never top this.
Duckhorn – On the way out we decided to stop at Duckhorn as we were passing it anyway. We had been there several times before thanks to Marie Bonvicino telling me about it about 10 years ago. They have 2 tasting choices – for $10 you can get their “regular” wines that they distribute to the country, for $15 you can have the reserve tasting with a bunch of single vineyard wines. We shared the reserve tasting. It was well worth it. We sat outside on the deck and ended up talking to the server who basically poured us both tastings as well as some library wines. The regular wines are really solid, but some of the single vineyard wines were great and I bought a bottle of cab for about $100 that was fantastic.
The rest of the day we spent driving up towards Oregon. We stayed in Medford, about 250 miles south of Portland and had dinner in a very unremarkable brewpub. The beer sampler had 8 beers, I had my favorite bacon and hot pepper pizza and salad, Laura had her salads, we brought in a bottle of wine for $5 corkage and the whole bill was about $50. Financially speaking, it was good to be out of Napa! We stayed at a marriot near the highway which was also pretty inexpensive.
Wednesday – Not a huge wine tasting day. Woke up in southern Oregon and started driving up the coast which I had heard was beautiful. It was but I think the California coast between Monterey and Santa Barbara is even more beautiful. The unique thing about the Oregon coast are these huge rocks just off the coast jutting up out of the water. Some of them look to be 100 feet tall.
Sand dunes – Near Florence on the central coast they have vast sand dune. We ran through one to the ocean probably covering 2 miles each way. It was beautiful. You can actually sand board down them, but unfortunately the sand boarding area was closed on Wednesdays.
Sea lion cave – Biggest shore cave in the US, 2nd biggest in the world. Hundreds of sea lions hang out in here, though during the day they were mostly swimming around looking for fish just outside the cave. A worthwhile stop if not to see the sea lions then to check out the lighthouse just north of the caves, supposedly the most photographed lighthouse in the world.
Tidal Raves – Read about this restaurant in Depoe Bay in Fodors. Its known for the views from the cliff right out to the ocean. Food was below average, had a King Estate pinot and bought the bottle because it was only 3 times a glass in price, didn’t like it much, took the rest of the with us and never touched it again. Views were decent but nothing like Pacifics Edge in Monterey or Nepenthe in Big Sur. Highlight though – we saw whales right outside our window as they swam by.
Newmans at 988 – Dinner here was very good, not great, but definitely worth the stop. It looks like a house and only has about 10 tables. I was really looking forward to the pasta with foie gras and truffles. They gave you plenty of foie gras, only a bit of truffle flavor. It was good but I was not blown away. Laura of course had more fish and salad. I couldn’t get her to try the foie gras despite my best efforts including cash bribe.
Ocean Lodge – Stayed in Cannon Beach at the ocean lodge. Cannon beach reminded me of the Maine coast. It was a great little town, no doubt the most upscale on the Oregon coast. The room was first floor and walked directly out to the beach with huge Haystack rock just north. They had homemade cookies in the lobby which I loved and Laura even had as well. I would definitely stay here again.
Thursday – 2 big wine days to come in the Willamette Valley. To start though Laura was rebelling because eating and drinking was way overshadowing exercise. I agreed to run 8 miles on a trail in Ecola park in Cannon Beach. One thing about Oregon is it rains a lot. The trail was muddy and super hilly. We ended up running about 8 miles but it took 1 ½ hours since it was so difficult. There was a 1 ½ mile section with 1200 feet of gain which I mostly hiked to save my legs for the 50k in 2 days. I actually felt pretty good though and Laura was satisfied that we ran pretty long. Views from the cliffs up 1200 feet are beautiful. Theres something about the view that’s better when you hike there than when you drive there. I would recommend stopping here, ideally in good weather.
Elk cove – First winery. Had heard it was good through internet research. Pinots noir and some whites. Didn’t like them much. Fortunately tastings in Oregon run from $5-15 so you can taste all day for $100 unlike Napa where $100 might get you an hour depending on where you go.
Carlton wine studios – Michael and Keiko sent us here to meet Ellen and Bob Brittan from Brittan wines. There are actually around 10 small wineries that taste their wine out of this little wine bar. The server was very knowledgeable. We particularly liked Retour pinot (servers sisters winery), though it was $65 which is a bit much for Oregon pinot. We also loved Brittan pinot. It was in the $40s and really unique with a bit of a chalky, tobacco, coffee taste. Michael had called ahead and Ellen was expecting us. She talked about her wines as we tried them. We also had some Washington wines including Andrew Rich syrahs which were excellent as well. I had seen in Wine and Spirits that Andrew Rich made some of their top 100 wines. I think I may be becoming a Washington convert. You were right Duane. We bought a mixed case of these wines as well as some Ayoub. The server inadvertently signed us up for the wine club where you get about a case a year, but I had him reverse it. I have to get off some lists as I’m on too many and there’s so much good wine out there. I think this would have been a good one though because he would have sent some little known gems like the ones we tasted and hadn’t heard of before.
Eyrie – This was I believe the first pinot producer in Willamette so we stopped by. The tasting room is in a warehouse type building which was out of the way compared to most of the wineries we were going to visit. It was only $5 for about 5 wines. I didn’t like any of them very much and wouldn’t go back.
Archery Summit – Well known, good Oregon pinot, right? Well we got here at 4:05 but they closed at 4 and wouldn’t let us in. Damn. And its not like Napa where you drive down the main road and stop in at a winery here. In Willamette you go way off the highway on dirt road sometimes for a couple of miles to get to these places. Maybe we will come back tomorrow as a bunch of other wineries that I want to hit are right nearby.
Joel Palmer House – Dinner here was supposed to be great according to Fodors. Again it was good but not great. They were known for cooking with mushrooms so I got 3 appetizers with different mushrooms. It’s a fancy place but you can wear jeans. With wine it was $100. Not bad at all. We got an Oregon pinot and a Walla Walla syrah. I would go back. Maybe I had had just too many average pinots during the day today.
Westin, Portland – Instead of looking for a place to stay for the next 3 days we decided to make the 30 minute drive to Portland. At least we could be back in a Heavenly bed. The westin is decent, parking was expensive at $29/night, but the room was only $140.
Friday – Big wine tasting day in store and hoping to find some pinots that I would love. No workout today since we are planning the Autumn Leaves 50k tomorrow.
Bergstrom – Started out going for well known wines with high hopes. They were ok, not great. Didn’t buy any.
Beaux freres – Appointment only here. Winery owner is Parker’s brother-in-law and Parker in fact owns a piece of the winery as well. This had to be good, right? We tasted 4 wines including a library wine. Again we shared tasting this time for $15. The wines again were good but not great. I was disappointed. If Beaux Freres wasn’t great I might not like much here. Single vineyard wines cost $90, blend was $55. Didn’t buy anything as I am on the mailing list and you can get it at Bottle Shop anyway.
Ayres – Had read great things on the internet about this tiny winery. Also appointment only. Don, who owns Ayres, personally tastes the wine with you in the winery which is also his house. He spent about an hour with us. The wines were all really good. I had never seen this wine in the store before and we left with a case. There was no tasting fee and the bottles were only in the upper $20 to mid $30 range and he shipped to NJ for $50. What a great buy. As we were finishing the tasting the winemaker walked through the winery, which was really just Don’s basement. He had a bottle of wine that he had opened the night before. He walked by one of the fermenters, opened it and proceeded to dump the remaining wine from the bottle into the fermenter. I just thought this whole place was so cool. Definitely call ahead and stop here.
Archery summit – Went back after missing it the day before. High hopes here. Wine was again ok. Couldn’t believe it. I had had archery summit before and really liked it, now I thought it was good, not great. Told the wine server that we just missed yesterday and he said if he had been there he would have let us in. Some of the single vineyard wines are close to $100. I wouldn’t pay that much for them.
Domaine serene – Just down the street from archery summit, this was as close to a napa winery as there is with a big Spanish style winery. Tasting was $15. The wines were good but again I wasn’t blown away. The server got relieved for a few minutes by another guy who poured us a bunch of stuff not on the tasting menu including a 2002 single vineyard pinot. Personally I thought it was a little past peak but he and the other server raved about it. It was definitely different than the new vintage and interesting to try them side by side. I have to go through my wine and make sure I don’t have too much wine that’s too old. We bought a coaster, no wine.
Domaine drouhine – Right across from domaine serene. The great thing about this place is the view across miles of vineyards and valley. They make I think 3 wines. Had gotten Laurene single vineyard from JJ Buckley in the past and loved it. Tasting was I believe $10. I liked all the wines but the prices were retail and JJ Buckley was about 30% off, so we didn’t leave with any wine.
Cristom – Witness Tree and Cristom are far away from most of the other wineries, almost 20 miles south. I wanted to make sure I came here though because Cristom was the first Oregon pinot I ever had that I really loved almost 20 years ago. For $5, we tasted a bunch of their wines including single vineyard wines. They unfortunately recently had phylloxera and had to replant their whole Marjorie vineyard. The wines were good but again I was surprised I didn’t love them.
Witness Tree – This winery was named after a huge and beautiful tree on top of a hill that’s been there for over 200 years. It had been used as a survey marker since the mid 1800s. The tasting was $5. The wine was not great, the best I thought being the dessert wine, I think a Riesling. We didn’t buy anything.
Ned Ludd – Got recommendation for dinner here at one of the wineries. Its in Portland, not a great area. They have unusual things which I loved. I had braised rabbit, chacuterrie including duck bacon and some other interesting things. The wine list was full of Oregon pinot which I just could barely even think about any longer. We had one glass of pinot and a Walla Walla syrah which was a relief. Laura stuck to her fish and salad. This place was interesting. Glad we went but wouldn’t make a point to go back.
Saturday – Got up at 4:30 to run 50k in the cold misty Oregon morning. We drove the half hour to Champoeg Park, went to register only to be told that there was no day of registration. Damn. I was sure it said you could register day of on the website. When I asked them they admitted that it did but they posted during the week that it was sold out. I told them we came from NJ to do this race but was just told sorry, sold out. This would never happen at a jsrc event. We decided to run anyway as I had to get a long run in prior to jfk 50 in 3 weeks. We would just self support. We still had 6 little bottles of water in the car and some nuts and a piece of an energy bar. The race was 5 10k loops. We got through 3 when it started to rain harder and it was still under 50 degrees. Its so easy to dnf when you don’t register, so that’s what we did. Ran 18 miles, had a bad attitude over the race organization, froze, got wet and left. On the plus side we saved $65 each on registration. And I did eat 2 cookies from the aid station and had a cup of water. I will write the race director and tell him what I thought, that if it closes that’s fine, but at least say it might ahead of time.
South Park – Had dinner here based on recommendation from Anna at the westin front desk. Excellent food, had 2 flights of 3 wines, 2 ounces each, one flight from Oregon, the other Bordeaux blends. Played our little game where we both tasted the wines blind and were able to correctly tell which of the blends was Italian, French, Oregon and California. Love doing this. Its good to practice as it’s a useful party trick. The produce was all fresh and local. Anna even sent us a salmon and arugula appetizer compliments of Westin. The people are really nice in Oregon. Again, fancy dinner and only $100.
To end the trip we got thai food at a little shack on the roadside in the center of the city. Man, it was good and spicy. Got an extra to bring home. Also stopped at whole foods and got kale for the trip home. There you go David – yes we got kale. It was good too.
Wine Summary – Napa wine is great. If you ever get a chance, try Nieman. I will bring some to one of our dinners. The little producers in Napa take such pride in their wine, like an artist loves their painting. I hope to get Drew to come to dinner with us. Also Pride still rocks as does Duckhorn. 2007 insignia was excellent but not sure if its worth the hype, plus at $225 post release retail its getting pretty pricey. The Phelps seminar was worthwhile though, and it is certainly worthwhile to taste the wine parker awarded 100 points. If you are going to napa and want to really enjoy yourself, prepare to spend big bucks. Willamette on the other hand is a lot less expensive but I really didn’t love the wines all that much. It was nothing like napa in that it wasn’t nearly as built up and much more industrial. There were used car dealers and warehouses all around. It didn’t have the same charm as napa. As for the wines, I wish I had some Merry Edwards, Williams Selyam or Sean Thackery to compare to the Oregon pinots. I’m pretty sure the California coast pinots would win almost every time. If you go to Willamette, definitely go to Ayers and Carlton wine studios. There were a bunch of places we missed going to but ran out of time not to mention how much can you eat and drink in 1 week anyway. Next wine trip I really want to try Washington. You can add Italy and France to the list as well – maybe Bordeaux marathon next. The race had passes by at least 20 wineries and they sample the wine during the race at most or all of them. It would be more like a 26.2 mile wine drinking hike than a race. I think I like the bigger syrah and cab blend style more though I was really hoping to love some of the pinots. I would also consider staying in Willamette though I’m not quite sure where. The Allison was supposed to be nice. Also Cannon beach was a very worthwhile stop.
In summary if I was planning a trip to wine country, especially if it was a first wine country trip, here is what I would do.
1- Go to Napa. Don’t stay in Sonoma. Don’t bother with Willamette unless you really feel you have to go.
2- Consider Rancho Caymus. Price is right, location is good St. Helena is a great place to stay. Napa is a little more like a small city without a whole lot of napa valley character. Yountville is also really great. Calistoga is pretty far north and has a lot of older places that don’t seem as great.
3- For dinner, definitely go to Tra Vigna. Personally I also liked Farmstead. From a previous trip Bottega was a nice place in Yountville. If money is no object, go to French Laundry or Cyrus, though I have never been to either, just going based on reputation.
4- Wineries – If you can go to private tastings like Nieman, do it. The little guys make fantastic wine and take pride in doing it. For public wineries – must go to – Pride, Caldwell (private but you can make an appointment), Phelps. All are appointment only. If you are there for more than one day – Duckhorn, montelena, regusci, darioush, silver oak, heitz, caymus, shramsberg if you like sparkling wine. Skip overpriced tourist traps unless again you really have the urge – opus, del dotto. Cakebread, while not overpriced, was surprisingly boring. Don’t forget to call ahead to see if you need appointments. If you are in Sonoma, Merry Edwards wines are fantastic as are Williams Selyem. Both are appointment only. Chateau St. Jean and Arrowood are also good.
5- Tours vs tastings – If you’ve never been go for tours. If you just want to try the wine go for tastings. Tours are time consuming but can be educational. I took the mondavi tour years ago and it was the most complete of all the tours, but if you are there more for the wine why bother trying mondavi napa? And I don’t think they tasted reserve but cant remember. Some tours, if unique, are good – shramsberg for example.
6- Talk to the hosts at the wineries. They will often serve you extra wines not on the list. For example since I showed interest and had some knowledge, I tasted Marthas Vineyard at Heitz and probably 5 extra wines at duckhorn.
7- Share tastings.
8- Have a plan for shipping home. There are places that will ship for you. If you are getting a few bottles at a bunch of places you can bring it to a shipping company and they will pack it and ship for you.
9- If you can go with a big group I think it would be a lot of fun if you can all agree where to go.
Again, hope this helps. If somebody had written something like this prior to our first trip to napa I would have liked to have read it. If you go and haven’t been before, I would be happy to give you recommendations regarding lodging, meals and wineries. This was maybe our 6th trip to wine country in the last 7 years. Jon Brodsky
So now it’s your turn! Please share your thoughts or your experiences in the comment section below. Do you have any recommendations you would like to add? If you found this helpful, please do share this review with your friends if you think they will benefit from reading this! Thanks again to Jon for writing this review/summary.
To Your Adventure,