Trying to choose the ten best Napa Wineries is a huge ask, as this little sun-drenched valley is dotted with more than 450 wineries.
So what’s all the fuss about and why are Napa Valley wineries so revered in the wine industry?
Before answering that with a brief introduction to the area, this post is aimed at providing wine wanna-be aficionados with just the right amount of foreknowledge to hold up your end of things with the Robert Parkers out there. After all, Parker is to American wine what Jancis Robinson is to British wine journalism!
What Makes The Napa Valley So Special?
The Napa Valley is the second most visited tourist destination in California and is known for its breathtaking landscapes, hillside vineyards, some very grand estates, a Mediterranean climate, fabulous food and fine wine.
It is one of the world’s most popular wine regions.
Firstly Napa Valley’s climate is very special. The summers are warm, the winters are mild, and it only rains for a few months a year. This is a classic Mediterranean climate which gives the vines a long growing season. The warm days allow the grape to ripen and develop deep flavour and sugar, that all-important sweetness that ferments into alcohol. A cool morning fog from the Chalk Hill Gap and the cool nearby Pacific Ocean allows the vines to rest and preserve acid in the fruit.
Secondly, the soils in Napa Valley are extremely diverse, with more than 100 types of soil. That’s about half of the soil types that exist on earth. Napa Valley is also unique because it contains volcanic soils giving the wines of Napa Valley a flavour that is entirely unique. Volcanic materials also create some of the world’s most fertile soils.
Napa Valley is a small winemaking region at just 30 miles long and 5 miles wide. In contrast, Bordeaux in France is eight times larger than Napa Valley.
Despite its small size, Napa Valley’s topographical diversity contributes to the diversity of wine it produces. Napa Valley wineries are nestled in mountain terrain, valley floors, and the flatter benchlands (flat terrain surrounded by high slopes).
These landscapes allow vineyards to produce a wide variety of grapes, including:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Pinot Noir
- Sauvignon Blanc
If you’re planning a trip to this region and keen on sampling the fruits of the vine, the best time to visit Napa Valley wineries is from March to May and August through to October. Many Wineries in Napa Valley are closed during winter. Bear in mind that the peak tourist season from August to October corresponds with harvesting the grapes. This is done by hand and mostly at night. This is the reason that so many vineyards require bookings and scheduled appointments.
Good places to sight see on the drive to Napa Valley include Sausalito, Oakland, Mill Valley, Palo Alto and Sonoma. But don’t tarry too long as a good wine tasting takes time and it’s best not to try and do too many tastings in a day.
Of course, if your budget allows, it would be best to overnight in the Napa Valley. Accommodation options range from self-catering Air BnBs and bed-and-breakfasts, mid-range establishments to over-the-top luxury hotels and spas. There’s accommodation to suit all budgets and tastes, and you can relax and soak up the atmosphere – and the local wine!
What Is The Most Popular Winery In Napa?
V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena is the most popular and most visited winery in all of Napa. The hours are 9am-5pm in the winter and 9am-6pm in summer. Unlike many Napa Valley wineries, no appointment is required, 7 days a week. V. Sattui continues to upgrade their guest experiences, recently adding a Concierge Service designed to custom tailor visits, based on guest preferences.
It’s a top favourite because it has old-world Italian charm, more than 60 different wines, including sparkling wine and Port-style wines, vast picnic grounds, personalised winery and barrel tasting tours, food pairings, a legendary deli with fresh food and cheese, and a friendly, knowledgeable and well-trained staff.
How Much Does It Cost To Go Wine Tasting In Napa?
Costs range anywhere from £25-£180, depending on the vineyard and whether your tasting is accompanied by food and cheeses.
Before we move on to a suggested itinerary of small boutique Napa Valley wineries, remember basic wine tasting 101. After your wine is poured into the glass, swirl the wine in the glass to release the aromas. Then tilt the glass and sniff the swirling wine.
Once sniffed and swirled in the glass, take a sip and swirl the wine around your mouth. Then either swallow the wine if its very delicious and irresistible, or if you’re scheduled for a few more tastings, spit it out in the dumb bucket as you don’t want to get legless.
10 Best Napa Wineries You Need To Visit
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So just how would one approach visiting wineries in Napa if you’re a newbie? It really depends on what you want to experience. If you don’t favour Chardonnays then you won’t want to visit a winery that only makes Chardonnay.
Some Napa Valley wineries are huge with some Vineyards covering 600 acres. One of these is Trefethen is the largest single-owner winery in Napa. It is a family-run business that features wine tours and tastings, including a historical overview of the winery, which has existed since 1886.
Many of the older ones sport palatial interiors, wine vaults and even caves and underground cellars. Some even hold annual and seasonal events, like music concerts and wine tastings. A substantial number of wineries are open for private events such as corporate parties and weddings.
There is something for everyone from the huge flashy wineries with architect-designed tasting rooms to small and intimate boutique operations. For the sake of brevity and your patience, dear reader, here’s a selection of smaller boutique wineries we recommend you put on your list.
Fantesca Estate & Winery
You won’t leave this winery disappointed with its professional staff and wonderful mountain views. Top wine maker Heidi Barrett and Tony Arcudi are responsible for this historical Cabernet vineyard. The winery offers tours and tastings, please note that booking is required.
With cave cellars, inside and outdoor seating, Fantesca produces wine in small batches including a Chardonnay, King Richards Reserve Pinot Noir, All Great Things, a red blend and a heavenly, but pricey at £186, Cabernet Sauvignon.
Situated on a naturally gravelly terrace, the Benessere vineyard is an ideal location for growing classic Italian varietals such as Sangiovese, Moscato di Canelli and Sagrantino as well as other non-Italian varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel.
Benessere have opened a stunning outdoor patio. There is a shop, a wine club and check online for their regular events. As many native salmon species are endangered, Benessere practises fish friendly farming and has done so since 2015.
People’s Wine Revolution
Matt Reid is the winemaker at Benessere by day, but he also makes wine at People’s Wine Revolution. He started the brand for a simple reason: to make good wine accessible to more people and not just the rich. PWR offers a range of wines for just over £13 and some of the best value in California. They don’t have a tasting room but if you contact them with a decent grace period, they will happily make arrangements to welcome you. Their 2015 Bea’s Knees Petite Sirah must have one of the coolest Soviet-style labels around.
Emerson Brown Wines Napa Valley
Another winemaker personal project, Emerson Brown is the combined effort of Vineyard 29 winemaker Keith Emerson and Round Pond winemaker Brian Brown. Together the vineyards combe some of the best Cabernet fruit in Napa an excellent gravity flow, geothermal powered production facility at Vineyard 29.
Raj Patel’s label burst onto the scene a year or two ago when Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate bestowed a 94 point score on their Cabernet Sauvignon. Patel brought Luc Morlet, the winemaker behind Morlet Family Vinyards, onboard and the rest is history as they say. Raj Patel produces no more than a few dozen to a few hundred cases of any one wine.
Their wines include an outstanding Malbec, which is actually exceedingly rare in Napa Valley in addition to their lauded Cabernet Sauvignon. They have a wine club, host private events in homes or a favourite restaurant or club, with Raj Patel himself serving his wines personally. They also offer a number of different experiences
A number of wineries in Napa have banded together to form Vintner’s Collective, a select group of boutique Napa Valley vintners who share tasting room space. It is located in a beautifully remodelled 1875 Italianate former saloon and brothel in downtown Napa.
Morlet Family Vineyards
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The winery that bears his name is Luc Morlet family’s project. A fourth-generation winemaker who was born in Champagne, he married an American and so ended up making wine in America. A decidedly old-world bent on Napa fruit, they make a few wines outside of the regular Napa varieties like a varietal Cabernet Franc as well as a late harvest (dessert) Semillon.
You need to plan for this one as tours and tastings at Morlet Family Winery are available on a limited basis by prior appointment only. Due to overwhelming demand and a limited Use Permit, priority is given to Active Members of our Mailing List. There is a waiting list. Weekday visits need about two months and weekend visits need about 3 months to book in advance.
Attune Wines Napa Valley
Attune offers one of the most luxurious and classy places to stay, if you can fork over the $2k per night for their five-bedroom chateau in the middle of their vineyard. It will make one of your most memorable stays imaginable. For us normal peoples, the winery itself makes only a few hundred of cases per year, selling much of their fruit to others, but the Pinot Noir is exemplary and priced fairly for the region at under £40.
Despite being one of the most awarded wineries in the Napa Valley, Larkmead isn’t the most talked about winery as some of the larger ones. Their wines are up there with the best that Napa Valley has to offer. Larkmead mornings see the vineyard covered in fog from the Chalk Hill Gap in Knights Valley. Afternoon temperatures tend to be the warmest in valley with quite cool evenings.
The winery advocates sustainable farming with practises that include : restoration of a creek running under the vineyard, using cover crops of red clover, vetch, fava beans, mustard and wild radish, solar panels which provide more energy than the winery needs, flame weeding which is an organic method of getting rid of weeds. Hives of honeybees provide biodiversity and delicious wildflower honey. Their picturesque old farmhouse tasting room is worth the visit alone.
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Showcasing their hand-crafted wines and artisanal approach to winemaking, Girard’s tastings in the village of Yountville include their current-release wines as well as seasonal collections. Their Sauvignon Blancs are excellent. A cellar Jam is coming up on 23 April, so RSVP soon to book your place.
Prime Cellars Napa
Prime Cellars Napa is Ted Henry and his partner Lisa’s family-owned project with a small tasting room in downtown Napa. With rich volcanic soils and healthy grapes with a fresh acidity, Prime Cellars produce exemplary wines.
Hopefully, after you finished reading this you’re ready to rock your Napa Valley winery tour. Do remember to have fun, wine tasting with friends and loved ones should be fun. It’s not a test. It’s your experience. Just relax, take in the view, enjoy the wines and eat some good food. Oh and enjoy that golden evening light which features in all the pictures of wineries in Napa Valley tourist brochures.