Help me be a typical tourist
July 24, 2012 11:01 AM   Subscribe

Specific tour recommendations for Napa Valley wine?

Heading to San Francisco for a week in late August, and we'd like to do the very touristy trip to some Napa Valley wineries. Issue is our group is entirely clueless about wine, so extrapolating, we have no idea what would constitute a "good" wine tour.

Asking for specific recommendations for tour packages/companies out of San Fran. Envisioning something like a limo/van/bus tour with a guide and itinerary planned for us.
posted by Patbon to Travel & Transportation around Yountville, CA (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Should have mentioned budget: not pushing for anything cheap, would be willing to pay for a good experience.

posted by Patbon at 11:05 AM on July 24, 2012

What kind of wine do you like? I ask because so many people assume that wine country = Napa.

Napa is great, but it's extremely crowded and much more expensive overall than it's more laid back neighbor Sonoma. Napa is big Cabernet country. Pretty much everyone in Napa grows/bottles Cab. Sonoma is Chardonnay and Pinot Noir country and there's a lot os people doing interesting things there. For me - I choose Sonoma hands down. I've been to Sonoma three times this year already.

If you know that Napa is the way you want to go I would highly recommend simply hiring a limo and mapping out your own tour. Typically tour operators have their favorites that they take clients to and there are kickbacks involved in some cases.

Can you describe a little about what you might like out of this experience? Small wineries/meeting the winemaker/owner? Big wine houses with well planned tours? Sampling wines you might be able to find easily or rare gems that you'll have to pay a pretty penny for? A little of each?

Give me a little to go on and I'll give you more info that you could possibly want.
posted by FlamingBore at 11:36 AM on July 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am not a huge wine drinker but my wife and I loved V Sattui Winery. Great winery.

Not sure about a tour but if you have time worth a visit.
posted by gregjunior at 11:52 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here's a nice page that popped up and it looks fine. Back in the day my folks would take us in the VW Microbus (Peace sign on the front) across the bridge and tour wineries. I've been to a zillion of them. To me, they're all alike. You never do get the smell of the casks out of your nose.

You learn a lot, get to taste a lot and it can be a nice way to spend the day.

Wine Country Tour Shuttle

This one includes V Sattui Winery, per gregjunior, and Rutherford, which I've never been to but I like their wine plenty.

Don't worry too much about being all schooled in wine, after a couple of tours you'll learn a lot.

Here's a page from TripAdvisor.

Have Fun!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:10 PM on July 24, 2012

Response by poster: Can you describe a little about what you might like out of this experience? Small wineries/meeting the winemaker/owner? Big wine houses with well planned tours? Sampling wines you might be able to find easily or rare gems that you'll have to pay a pretty penny for? A little of each?

As far as Napa vs Sonoma, I don't think that it's important to us to go to one over the other. I think, ideally, we'd be looking to sample a mix of everything you describe, as we really don't know what's going on.
posted by Patbon at 12:14 PM on July 24, 2012

Seconding Sonoma over Napa. Yelp is good for filtering out tour packages, which I also second, since the specifics won't matter much your first few times up there. A mix of large (Chandon or Korbel for a tour of a large-scale bubbly maker) and small (St Supery, Lynmar, Peju) would be great. Remember to *plan* food if you're interested - Addendum for world-class fried chicken in Napa, for example.
posted by kcm at 12:18 PM on July 24, 2012

Thirding Sonoma over Napa. Also consider Paso Robles, which is cheaper than Napa/Sonoma and has a (very) diverse selection of wine.

I strongly recommend Platypus Tours for both Sonoma and Napa tours - I've done both. If you are going with a group, it is much easier to have someone else take care of the tour while your group can talk about what's going on. Further, it avoids one of you having to either drive inebriated or not consume wine during the trip (neither of which are advisable). The tour driver will take your considerations into mind; basically all of the tours I've done with them have been on the whim of the group.

As a big full-bodied red wine drinker, I found visiting a sparkling wine winery (Mumm in my case) to be surprisingly interesting, so I second that recommendation as well.
posted by saeculorum at 12:22 PM on July 24, 2012

You really need to provide more out of what you want from the trip. From my few trips to Napa and Sonoma I've experienced: Small group tastings, Giant group tastings, Viewing beautiful grounds, Regimented tours of the wine making process, Wine cave tours and gourmet food tastings.

By far the most enjoyable thing to me was the small group tastings especially at the smaller wineries. Almost without exception, the people working these rooms were friendly, knowledgeable and people pleasers. You don't have to know anything about wine just have a respect for the beverage and make a comment about what you taste and how you like it compared to another sample. Almost always, they will say something like "Oh you liked that...then you must try this other wine" and they run off and grab a bottle for you to try.

At the big crowded rooms, you didn't really get any face time with the employees. Many more of the other attendees weren't making any attempt to conceal their primary desire to get obliterated so that leads to a certain amount of jaded employees.

V. Sattui is a winery as well as a gourmet deli so there is the nice prospect of drinking wine outside while nibbling on good food. That appeals to me and there are other delis out there as well where you can have this experience.

On update, I see you want a mix of things and as such I would suggest that you find a map of wineries with public offerings and pick 3 or 4 of them. Then hire someone to take you to them chronologically.
posted by mmascolino at 12:24 PM on July 24, 2012

Are you planning to stay up there? Or do it as a day trip?
posted by purpleclover at 12:26 PM on July 24, 2012

Best answer: I was hoping I'd still have the information on who I used to rent a limo in February, but no luck. Most any of the limo companies will hook you up with a somewhat knowledgeable driver. In our case we got a guy who doesn't drink, but was very in the know any way. And it turned out that he used to work in TV so he had lots of great stories.

At any rate, we enjoyed 8 hours in Napa at hit six wineries. They were willing to provide as much or little help as I needed, but I had specific places that I wanted to go so I did our own itineraries.

Here are some suggestions for Napa:

Inglenook - As first time visitors to Napa this is one of those places that you kind of have to take in. The history of it is pretty impressive and made all the more charming by Francis Ford Coppola's obvious passion for it based on his restoring it to it's historic grace. It's a bit spendy, but the service and wine are quite good. You can also choose simply to grab a glass of wine in the lounge. You will need reservations.

Chateau Montelena - You may have heard of CM from the movie Bottle Shock. They produced the Chardonnay that took top honors in the 1976 Judgement in Paris. Their tasting room is open for drop ins, but you'll need an appointment for a tour.

Grgich - Mike Grgich's story is as good as any other winemaker in the valley and the wines are pretty freakin' delicious too.

Modus Operandi - A small producer who is very hands on. You'll need an appointment and more often than not you'll be poured wine by the winemaker himself. I just opened the Pinot Noir that was included in my club shipment and was pleasantly surprised. I rarely enjoy a Pinot Noir from Napa, but while this wasn't my style, it was still delicious.

Now, Sonoma...

Scribe - I cannot recommend this enough. It is a wonderful experience both for those new to/intimidated by wine and those that are well versed. Situated on an old turkey farm in Sonoma the tasting room sits above their vines and provides the perfect mid afternoon place to take a break and sample their wares. You will need a reservation (they do not make exceptions to fit people in) but it is so, so worth it. They produce Pinot, Syrah, Cabernet, Riesling, Chardonnay and a couple of random experiments including Sylvaner! Go.

Sojourn - Their tasting room is just off the square in Sonoma and you will need a reservation here as well. A seated comparative tasting will really open your eyes to the importance of terrior. In my tasting they offered four Pinot Noirs and two Cabernets. All were wonderful, but two stood out and demanded my attention.

Dehlinger - Family owned and operated, the Dehlinger family welcomes you into their vineyard and will patiently answer question after question.

Ram's Gate - open less than a year this is generally speaking the first winery that you'll encounter on your way into Sonoma. They have done a great job with situating their building over the vineyards and make a very nice experience. The wines have been getting very nice reviews. I did not care for much while I was there, but recently opened one of their reserve pinot and was very happy with it.

Ridge - If you like Zinfandel you've got to go to Ridge. They also pour their famous Monte Bello in the Sonoma tasting room.

Red Car - This is just their tasting room, but my god, they make great pinot (In case you haven't realized, I like pinot noir) as well as Syrah.

Cline - Cline makes solid wines at good prices. They are located along the same stretch as Ram's Gate and are open to the public until 6 I believe, which is a bit later than most. The tasting is free, but they charge for some of their reserve wines. This won't change your life, but it's also nice to sample some wines you'll be able to have as a "go to" almost anywhere in the country. Across the road is Jacuzzi Winery, which is a sister property to Cline.

Francis Ford Coppola - This is Disneyland for Wine. I have been pleasantly surprised by some of the reserve wines, but otherwise find the wines simply drinkable. But I do think if you are a movie fan this is worth the drive up the valley.

Oh, I could go on and on. If you want more information please just ask.
posted by FlamingBore at 12:32 PM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yes! Cline was my hidden value secret, until now. The ancient vines are interesting, I learned to love carignan there, and as FlamingBore says it's a good go-to in a lot of retail settings. Being midway between a small and large house the people aren't always as chatty or knowledgeable but they are very friendly.

I promised myself not to get into details of specific wineries, but there you go. I'd avoid Ridge since it's become a go-to for the hipster scene on busy days, but it is worth a trip if you can stand the crowds.
posted by kcm at 12:45 PM on July 24, 2012

I did the Del Dotto tour several years ago. It was $50/person for a tour of the caves, but they were very generous with the samples, so I thought it was a reasonable value.
posted by slogger at 1:09 PM on July 24, 2012

Grgich - Mike Grgich's story is as good as any other winemaker in the valley and the wines are pretty freakin' delicious too.

Yeah, the Green Hungarian is a thing. A really great thing.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:40 PM on July 24, 2012

Sounds like you've got what you need but in case you'd like a little more information:

Sunset Magazine does this absolutely amazing guide to Sonoma wine country (with maps! divided by region! awesome annotation explaining why each winery is on their list! suggested places to eat included!) that my friend and I found invaluable when we planned our own budget trip up there.

They have a guide to Napa Valley wines but it's not as comprehensive nor as fun--I'm guessing Sunset, much like the rest of us, has figured out that Sonoma's a better deal all 'round.
posted by librarylis at 8:38 PM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Napa makes auto parts. Sonoma makes wine. I am speaking of the county, not just the town or the valley.

Sonoma is prettier, less touristy, less crowded, with more varied geography and beautiful scenery: redwoods, valley, Russian River, seashore.
posted by caryatid at 6:24 PM on July 25, 2012

« Older What are some thoughtful documentaries/long-form...   |   What's the most interesting political map you've... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.