By: John St. Mark
There are literally hundreds of wineries in the Napa Valley, and although I will be mentioning a few landmark wineries as points of reference, my goal here is not to make specific recommendations (we’ll leave that for future columns) but rather to offer some general information that should be helpful wherever you choose to go.
If you’re starting from San Francisco, driving to Napa should take roughly an hour and a half to two hours, assuming traffic isn’t too bad (allow more time if you have a scheduled appointment; it may take longer to get further up the Valley, and traffic delays are not uncommon.) The more scenic route would be to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and take Highway 101 north to Highway 37 east, and then Highway 121 through the Carneros District (where a number of notable wineries, such as Artesa and Domaine Carneros, are located) to Highway 29 north and the town of Napa.
An alternative would be to take the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge to the East Bay, then continue on Highway 80 through Berkeley and Richmond and take the bridge across the Carquinez Strait from Crockett to Vallejo, then take Highway 37 west to Highway 29 north which takes you to Napa. The distance is about the same; the fastest way to go would depend on your departure point (that is, which bridge you are closer to) and of course on traffic.
Once you reach the town of Napa there are two more or less parallel routes, Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, which can take you through the Valley. Highway 29 passes through the towns of Yountville, Oakville, Saint Helena and Calistoga, and it will lead you directly to several of the best known wineries located in the mid-valley area, such as the Robert Mondavi Winery, Opus One, Rubicon Estate, Beaulieu Vineyards, Beringer Brothers and Charles Krug. The Silverado Trail, on the other side of the Napa River to the east, is generally less-traveled, and of course there are also many noteworthy wineries located along the Trail, like Darioush, Regusci, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Robert Sinskey, Mumm Napa and Quintessa.
Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail meet at the northern end of the Valley, just past the town of Calistoga (important wineries in this area include Sterling and Chateau Montelena.) Many people enjoy taking one way up and the other back, forming a sort of oblong loop. There are several crossroads along the way if you wish to switch roads, shorten your trip, or visit destinations that are not on one of the main thoroughfares.
Whether you are driving up for the day or staying in the Valley itself, you will avoid a number of common mistakes if you keep in mind the following:
• Do a little research beforehand. Nearly all Napa wineries have good websites, and checking ahead will enable you to make better use of your time. For example, many wineries do not accept walk-in visitors. Many open for tasting only by appointment, and some charge substantial fees. If tours or other programs are offered, they may fill up ahead of time, so phoning ahead for a reservation might be a good idea. Hours of operation vary, but most Napa Valley wineries close around 5 p.m.
• Have a good breakfast before you get started. You don’t want to spend the day tasting wine on an empty stomach.
• Avoid wearing strong fragrances. Perfume or cologne will make it difficult for you and those around you to evaluate and enjoy the wine. You may even be asked to step away from the tasting area.
• If you smoke, please don’t do it in or near the tasting areas.
• Don’t chew gum or eat mints; you won’t be able to taste the wine properly.
• Bear in mind that a winery is not a public park. Don’t assume you can go anywhere you please; the vineyards and production facilities may not be open to the public. Footballs and Frisbees are probably not a good idea. If you have kids with you, make sure they understand what sort of activity is appropriate, and don’t force them to spend too much time waiting around.
• When driving on winery grounds please heed posted speed limits (even if you have a very cool car.) Dust can be a significant problem, and you may be sharing space with forklifts, children, dogs, or who knows what else.
Tasting rooms can be very different from one another. Years ago, just about everyplace that was open to the public offered free tasting; now that rarely happens in the more frequently visited wineries, for obvious reasons. Tasting fees vary greatly, and some wines may not be available for tasting at all (prestigious wines may sell out on release, so the winery has nothing to gain by pouring samples.)
The tasting room atmosphere can range from funky and friendly to quite posh, and so can the attitudes of the tasting room staff. You never know who may be pouring wine; it could be a winemaker, the founder’s grandson, or some guy who just needed a summer job and doesn’t even like wine. My point here is that it is a good idea to be polite to everybody and listen to what they have to say, but you shouldn’t feel intimidated by anybody either. Here are a few thoughts about how to act in a tasting room:
• Remember that you are there to taste, not to drink. Pay attention to what you are tasting. Look at the wine, sniff it, sip it, think about it, ask questions about it, but don’t chug it.
• Don’t be shy about using the spit buckets, especially if you’ll be driving. That’s what wine industry professionals do. It won’t hurt anyone’s feelings.
• Don’t move your glass when wine is being poured into it. I don’t know why, but some people pull up their glasses as a signal to stop pouring, and that can result in spills or chipped glasses.
• If you will be tasting several wines in sequence, start lighter then go to more full-bodied wines, and leave sweet wines for last.
• Feel free to engage in conversation, ask questions and make comments about the wines, but don’t be rude. You don’t have to like everything, but don’t insult the wine pointlessly. You won’t make any friends that way. If you don’t care for a particular wine, you might specify what it is you don’t like about it and ask for something different, or just smile, say "thank you" and leave it at that.
• Don’t try to impress the people around you. If you act as though you know more than you really do, you’ll probably say something silly. My observation, over time, has been that very knowledgeable people are usually pretty discreet, and loudmouths often don’t know what they’re talking about.
• You will almost certainly find the folks working in tasting rooms helpful and friendly, but occasionally you do run across someone who is having a bad day. Don’t take it personally; just move on to the next place. If you make a fuss it will only make matters worse, and they will be quick to attribute any sort of belligerent behavior on your part, justified or not, to alcohol.
If you feel strongly that somebody is giving you poor service, here’s what you should do: make a mental note of the person’s name or physical description and the time of your visit, and whenever it’s convenient just send a message (e mail is probably best) to the attention of the tasting room manager or hospitality director explaining what happened. You’ll be doing the winery a favor. In many ways, the Napa Valley is a small place and these things count.
• Don’t overdo it. Drunkenness is tacky. You may think you’re being funny or clever or whatever, but nobody else will.
It is definitely not worth getting a D.U.I. (or worse) so consider choosing a designated driver, or perhaps hiring a cab or a limousine, if you plan on having more than a few sips of wine. Bear in mind that highway safety is taken seriously and sobriety checkpoints are set up from time to time. Remember those spit buckets!
• You’re not under any obligation to purchase anything, so don’t let anyone pressure you. On the other hand, if you find something you really like, why not go for it? A unique bottle of wine makes a great souvenir (it also makes an excellent gift for the right person.) If it fits into your budget, consider having a case shipped home, and see how the wine evolves over time. Good wine has a remarkable way of evoking fond memories… and creating new ones.