This past weekend, we were in the East Bay of San Francisco for a wedding. No better time, we thought, to go ahead and add on an extra couple days in order to get back up to one of our favorite places on Earth… So, we decided to add an escape to wine country!
We organized our flights out to SFO so that we would be able to spend the afternoon on Thursday, as well as all day Friday in Napa with my parents-in-law. My wife (an IHG employee) was able to secure some great employee rates at the recently-renovated Hotel Indigo in Napa, a VERY convenient location for the majority of our planned activities. While the hotel seemed a bit dated from the outside, the inside was comfortable and clean. It falls very much in line with the other corporate hotel franchises in wine country which are somewhat limited on exterior design limitations (and typically are renovating an existing 3-4 story structure already in place), something that is governed by county regulations.
We visited Del Dotto on Thursday, and then went to Seavey, Chimney Rock, and Saintsbury on Friday. For dinners, we enjoyed meals at FARM for dinner on Thursday, Farmstead at Longmeadow Each for lunch on Friday, and Ad Hoc for dinner on Friday.
As far as the winery reviews:
Del Dotto – 8 out of 10. Very similar to our last visit, albeit somewhat less heavy on the volume of pours. This could be attributed to the fact we paid $60 instead of $75, but either way – it still felt like a hefty fee even though the experience is great. We all agreed, though, that it was very unique to actually taste estate wines in a cellar, straight from the aging vessel. Interestingly, this time I was able to taste Missouri Oak barrel aged wine (and, being from Missouri – that’s cool!). They even had a cross-over barrel called “MO/FO” – because it was both Missouri Oak and French Oak.
Seavey – 9 out of 10. Such a great experience! Although the drive was a bit out of the way, and took several miles off the beaten path on winding backroads, we did really enjoy the quaint secluded estate. We had a private tour, got a chance to see some of the local farm animals (goats and cows), and enjoyed a very personal tour of the bottling/aging facilities. It really simplified the overall process and helped us get a great sense of the care they take in their bottling process.
Chimney Rock – 6.5 out of 10. This was a somewhat corporate tasting, standing at a tasting bar. What was nice about this place, though, was we got to see their indoor private event space, which doubles as an aging shed. My parents-in-law were so impressed, they decided they would do their 25th wedding anniversary there. They clearly enjoy Chimney Rock wine a bit more than we do, though, as we thought most of the varietals (besides the Cabernets) were just OK.
Saintsbury – 10 out of 10. We are still so in love with this place. Now, as a member of their wine club, you can really tell how much they appreciate your business. We got a private tasting seated near the private library reserve tasting room. Our guide (Galen) is the same guy who runs all of their customer contact, so I had been in touch with him many times previously. He doesn’t generally do tastings anymore, so I could tell it was because we were members that we received such special treatment. We will definitely be back!
On our third day in Napa (a Saturday, and our friend Jamie’s birthday), we decided to venture over to Sonoma. It was Katy and I’s day to plan, and we really wanted to expose the group to a side of wine country they had likely never seen (i.e. the less snooty, more affordable side!).
Something different this trip: we had a limo taking us around all day. It was the first time Katy and I had done this and it was definitely a much safer alternative that allowed us to focus more on our time with friends (instead of navigating, losing cell service, etc etc). This did present some challenges, though, in terms of staying on schedule. Admittedly, the group was a bit more relaxed and leisurely than we predicted, so missing out on one tasting wasn’t the end of the world.
We originally aimed to do Cast, a possible flex option before lunch, Imagery, Eric Ross, and Saintsbury. We only ended up getting to Cast, Eric Ross, and Saintsbury. It was still a blast!
The reviews from day three:
Wine Score: 9/10
Property/Tasting Room Score: 9/10
Notes: Very consistent with our priortrips (this was at least our 3rd visit to the vineyard).
Wine Score: 8/10
Property/Tasting Room Score: 8/10
Notes: While it was very enjoyable (similar to our prior visits), we were a bit turned off this time because we were not greeted as favorably because we were a large group. Considering this is the type of place that doesn’t really accommodate large groups, we shouldn’t have been too upset about it, but the fact that we did reserve in advance left us a bit sad. Once the owner came over though and put two-and-two together – they did seem to be much warmer with us.
Wine Score: 9/10
Property/Tasting Room Score: 10/10
Notes: We actually rated Saintsbury higher this time. Not because it was less enjoyable the first time around (we scored it overall 8/10). But more so because the experience as a group was so enjoyable. Everything from our new best friend Jacob (who poured us delicious wine), to the fact that we signed up for the wine club (because, admittedly, this is still the best Pinot Noir we’ve ever had and only realized that much later after our first visit), everything just seemed right. And, to top it off, the owner and head vintner/winemaker was there. They even autographed the magnums I purchased. How cool!!
All in all, we had an amazing trip and were very fortunate to get to spend it with so many of our friends. Can’t wait to go back next March!
On our second day in Napa (a Friday), we decided to primarily stay on the Napa side of the valley, although Katy and I lobbied hard to get everyone to Sonoma (more on that during Saturday’s post, though, as we were given the chance to plan that whole day’s itinerary!).
We were actually rather pleased with Napa for once, and the wineries, tasting rooms, and prices didn’t feel quite as exorbitant as other places we’d been on that side (with the exception of one – more to come on that in a moment!). We started the day at Del Dotto, and then migrated to Paraduxx, which was actually all we were able to do that day. Why, you may ask? Well, we actually scored a hard-to-get reservation at the French Laundry, and six of us decided that would be an ideal way to have a once-in-a-lifetime meal at one of the country’s most famous establishments. I’ll have to dedicate a separate post just to the meal, though, as there are so many details that it would get distracting (and I’d start to get hungry as I type).
The reviews from day two:
Wine Score: 9/10
Property/Tasting Room Score: 9/10
In full disclosure, I would usually avoid recommending somewhere like this due to the tasting fee ($75). However, it was simply the best barrel tasting experience I have ever experienced, and the uniqueness with which they customize your group’s tour is unparalleled. Barrel tastings are where you get the chance to taste wine directly from the small batch barrels in which it is aging (sometimes even before they would claim a wine otherwise “ready” to be drank – so that you can see how the wines age with time and how that impacts their aromas, flavors, and tannins). One drawback, though, was the price of the wine itself. While it is some of the best Cabernet I think I’ve ever had – the going rate for most bottles was $100-200 (with some selected bottles like a really cool one they have – THE BEAST – ringing in closer to $300). That’s steep. Plus, even though our group of 8 purchased several thousand dollars worth of wine (mostly all attributed to one of our DINK friends – dual income no kids), they still didn’t refund the tasting fees. This had previously been almost customary, so it’s a bit of a shame that they try to bleed you so much from a financial perspective. Everything else about this stop was incredible!
BONUS: They serve you some delicious pizza, homemade sausage and cheese, as well as chocolate at the end of the tour (most likely to help you avoid early intoxication if you’ve got other tastings on the horizon!)
Wine Score: 7/10
Property/Tasting Room Score: 7/10
This was a cool spot, and had some great wine. It’s a part of the extended Duckhorn family, so you know you’re getting a good, quality product. Our tasting table outside, on a very nice day, was a great way to relax the afternoon away, all while enjoying the elixir of the gods.
Stay tuned for the review of the day we planned (Saturday). It’ll have a lot of familiar names that I’ve written about before. Spoiler alert: they did not disappoint at all!
At least that’s what I’ll call it, since I think I’ve now been on serious trips to wine country (i.e. more than one day) around five times. And this will be my commentary for day one.
For our first time ever, we decided to fly into Sacramento (SMF) instead of San Francisco (SFO) or Oakland (OAK). I’ll spare the details, but suffice it to say that this airport was an enjoyable (and much less crowded) respite from the bigger city airports. While we had to wait just a bit for a shuttle to the rental car facility (mind you, this was a huge weekend out there so it was abnormally busy), we found everything else about the experience to be quite pleasant. And, given that it is roughly equidistant from our target destination, it was totally worth it!
On the first day, we landed just after noon, and decided we could still meet up with a few of our friends who were either there early or driving up from the Bay Area that morning. So – with limited time, we opted for somewhere that we knew we would enjoy, and wouldn’t mind spending some time at in case it was our only vineyard of the day. As such, we picked Caymus, a label that we were all somewhat familiar with in advance due to their national distribution and availability.
As far as a “rating”, I’d say:
Wine Score: 7/10
Property/Tasting Room Score: 6/10
Once I get a chance, I’ll be sure to update with pictures as well as additional posts/commentary for Friday/Saturday stops!
I figured I would start off my review of vineyards from the trip in sequential order, starting with the first afternoon we spent in wine country – over on the Napa/Silverado Trail side of the valley. I’ll try to give as much relevant information as possible while not being too grossly overwhelming. I feel like any time people start trying to nitpick the wine itself, something is lost. I’m just trying to share information I would want to know prior to going (in other words – “is Vineyard XYZ worth the trip”… which is much more than just “is the wine delicious/economical/etc” as far as I’m concerned).
Day 1… Four Wineries in Napa/Silverado Trail:
Frog’s Leap (Mid-Napa):
Pros: Beautiful grounds, comfortable atmosphere, snacks provided with tastings, and extra stuff to see and do around the property (e.g. The Barn, garden area, etc)
Cons: Requires appointment, only selected wines are not distributed (i.e. you can get majority of their wines across the country in retail environments)
Fun Fact: their corks say “Ribbit” (a nod to the other frog design and brand aesthetics)
Overall Score: 7/10 – worth the trip
Round Pond (Mid-Napa):
Pros: Great rooftop patio, scenic views of the whole Napa Valley
Cons: Requires appointment, very limited tasting capacity (i.e. They often will not even allow all of their tables to be filled if they are at all short on servers/employees)
Overall Score: 6/10 – worth the trip, but not a “must”
Robert Sinksey (Silverado Trail):
Pros: Recently completed patio construction and other related property updates, good lesser-known varietals and blends of wine
Cons: Not a ton of “wow” factor, tastings are fairly expensive, a bit dark/void of light on the inside if that is where you do your tasting
Overall Score: 5/10 – I’d go back but not unless I was already over in that part of the Silverado Trail
Regusci (Silverado Trail):
Pros: Dog-friendly property, laid back atmosphere, very helpful and friendly staff
Cons: Not loaded with memorable wines, a bit of a hike out of the way unless you are deliberate about wanting to get over to the South end of the Silverado Trail
Having been to wine country a number of times now, I always find myself coming back with modified opinions on the age-old debate of “which is better” – Napa or Sonoma. I initially fell in love with Napa, but then cheated on it with Sonoma – and am admittedly probably still more attracted to the new kid on the block. But they both really are magical and I would never turn down a trip to either. Below, I’ve listed an updated set of thoughts and reactions for each.
More expensive tastings ($15-30 apiece)
Less picturesque, aside from the Silverado Trail, where the topography starts to yield better views of the valley
Generally yuppier clientele
More hidden gems than I recall (e.g. Saintsbury)
Bigger and more famous vineyards
Much more corporate and quick to push product on tasters
Upscale, recently-reconstructed downtown area
Less residential areas (more of a Bed-and-Breakfast scene)
Best Pinots around, with other varietals the compliment the portfolio (but don’t hold a flame to the Pinots)
Less expensive tastings (mostly $20 and under)
More picturesque, with rolling hills, and a generally “greener” landscape
More laid back clientele
More hidden gems than I recall (e.g. Cast)
Smaller and more quaint vineyards
Less corporate, more independent, and you feel less pressured to purchase product
Older, more quaint downtown area
More residential areas (more ideal for an Airbnb)
Less impressed with their Pinots, and more impressed with varietals I didn’t previously associate with the area (e.g. Zins, Cabs, Syrahs, blends, etc)
All in all, I think Napa probably still has a higher ceiling, with more of the top-end names (both wineries and restaurants, like French Laundry). It definitely has more money invested in it, and it shows – as evidenced by comparing the town squares. But I still prefer Sonoma because of the quaint and less arrogant feel.
Much more to come as I review some of the stops along the way!
This will start a mini-series of (non-work) posts stemming from a recent trip to wine country. I’ll go over a little bit about my thoughts on Sonoma vs Napa (I’ll call this my “updated view” since I’ve already been to both before and reviewed them previously), and list some of my “must see” places and favorite vineyards. Some of the information will resemble a beginner’s guide to wine country, while other areas will dive deeper into trade secrets I’ve learned (mostly from the hundreds of dollars I’ve probably lost due to poor decisions) over the years. Hope you enjoy it!
As a teaser, here is a list of the wineries I was able to get to on this trip (pictures coming as well):
Chateau St Jean
*a lot of my “Sonoma” wineries aren’t really in or near Sonoma proper – but since they’re all Sonoma County, I’m going to count them as being Sonoma even if they’re really Dry Creek, Healdsburg, or some other town not named Sonoma