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Help a wine neophyte traveling to Napa Valley


bilrus
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I am going to confess my total ignorance about a subject most of you know quite a lot about.

My wife and I are wine neophytes. I have just acquired a taste for it very recently and she is still coming around. We know little about wines, generally trusting the sommelier (or waiter) to guide us in the right direction.

That said, we have reservations at the French Laundry next month and are planning on spending one day and night in the Napa Valley and want to do waht is done there - i.e. go to wineries.

We want to learn a little about wine, taste some good wines and see some interesting scenery.

But we have no idea what to expect or where to go. I am looking to find out the basics here. What is the typical winery experience? How long do you spend at each? Do they offer tours or just tastings? What are the costs involved?

And what are some suggestions for wineries that would work for what we are looking to do. (And if you have any hotel suggestions that would be helpful too.)

Our only time commitments are that we are spending a Tuesday night somewhere in the Napa Valley and have 9:30 reservations at The French Laundry.

As you can probably tell from this post I need some help.

Bill Russell

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Bill,

If you have 9:30 reservations at FL, count on being done somewhere around 1AM. That might cut into the next day....... There are scores of great wineries on Highway 29 , the main route through Napa Valley. Don't plan on seeing more than 2 or 3 - the wine has a way of sneaking up on you. The fees involved are nominal. The larger wineries have the more elaborate tasting rooms and tours. Think Mondavi, Beringer, Opus.

Mark

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I really enjoyed visiting various wineries in Dry Creek Valley. That might be a bit of a drive for you, but if you're interested I can produce recommendations.

There are two good restaurants in Healdsburg, which is where the valley starts (more or less).

Bruce

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While not a tour, I found the tasting at Joseph Phelps to be worthwhile and educational. You get to taste several different types of wine and the guide helps you identify the different flavors you are tasting. I believe you need to make an appointment.

The best tour and tasting we ever went on occurred from just pure luck. We stopped in at Plumpjack right when they were closing. While the staff at the actual tasting room and store was not very accomodating (they wanted to go home) a winemaking staff person (his jeans were soaked with juice) noticed us and offered to show us around. He took about an hour with us and spoke with a tremendous amount of passion about the wines being made and provided tastes, some right from the barrel. Made for a great late afternoon.

"These pretzels are making me thirsty." --Kramer

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My wife has to be at a conference the next morning after the FL - so we are going to be driving to San Francisco that night. Needless to say, she is not very happy that we got the available last reservation that night.

Our winery time would be during the day that we are going to FL.

Are the bigger wineries completely overrun with unspohistcated tourists (like us)?

Bill Russell

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If you can give us a little more info it would make it a lot easier to provide recomendations. Are you driving up the same day or are you staying in the valley the night before? Do you need ideas for where to have lunch?

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My wife has to be at a conference the next morning after the FL - so we are going to be driving to San Francisco that night.  Needless to say, she is not very happy that we got the available last reservation that night.

Call them and tell them your predicament. Ask that you be moved earlier if something comes available.

Sometimes something does.

Call again the day of your reservation.

Good luck.

Bruce

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I would go along with the 3 winery maximum. As a neophyte, what you're going to find is that a lot of the stuff they're talking about will make as much sense as if they were explaining the canning of Spam (not that it's the same quality-wise, but certainly process-wise). I mean, even the biggest wine geek (blushing), can only see so many bottling lines, so many bladder presses (not as fun as it might sound).

I would go someplace where they are used to dealing with neophytes and where you will be surrounded by people at your level. a) you won't feel stupid asking questions; b) the presentation will be geared for your level. When my daughter started getting interested in wine, I took her to Mondavi and that was a great overview, from vine to barrel, and presented on a level she could understand. Then I took her to a small winery to get the poetry. I chose Sinskey, partly because they so much believe the poetry and do such nice work and partly because Rob is a great, patient teacher. There she got to taste Pinot Noir made from teh same clone, vinified in different barrels and Pinot Noir made from different clones vinified in the same barrels. All of which made her a hit at all of her college social events, I'm sure.

So, I'd pick one biggie: Beringer and Mondavi are the two most obvious suspects, then I'd pick a winery you're just nuts about. Because in the end, the personal connection between producer and product is something you'll remember far longer than hectoliters per hectare.

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I arrive in Oakland midday on a Tuesday and we are staying somewhere in Napa that night. Then all day for wineries. French Laundry on Wednesday evening. Then back to SF.

Other than that, no specific plans at all right now. Someone recommeded Taylor's Refresher for lunch. I was looking at ZuZu in Napa for dinner on Tuesday.

Bill Russell

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Since you're going to be in Yountville, indulge and stay at the Vintage Inn, down the street from the French Laundry. It's exquisite. Be sure to have lunch across the street at Domaine Chandon and enjoy as many tastings and wineries as possible, especially Clos Pegase with all their art. Brix Restaurant is delightful. There are many good eateries in Calistoga as well.

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I arrive in Oakland midday on a Tuesday and we are staying somewhere in Napa that night.  Then all day for wineries.  French Laundry on Wednesday evening.  Then back to SF.

Other than that, no specific plans at all right now.  Someone recommeded Taylor's Refresher for lunch.  I was looking at ZuZu in Napa for dinner on Tuesday.

My current favorite place to eat (aside from tfl) is the martini house in St Helena, Terra is also outstanding. ZuZu is good, and if your staying down valley in the city of Napa it's likely to be close to your hotel.

For your day of wine tasting/tours I'd agree with russ on a large winery tour for the basics, St Supery is nice for that since they have an informative tour without being as packed full of tourists as mondavi/beringer/etc are. I'd stop there in the morning before lunch, continue up 29 until you get to St Helena, either have lunch at taylors or pick up picnic supplies at Dean and Deluca and head up the hill to Pride for a picnic and some of their wine (the viogner is seriously good) or just a tasting. After lunch and a visit to Pride come back down into the valley, go across to the silverado trail and do the patio tasting at Phelps. The wine, the view, and the people at phelps are all great. You'll need to call and get reservations for Pride and for Joseph Phelps, and it never hurts to call ahead at St Supery, PM me if you need the numbers.

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For touring I think you might like Merryvale. For tasting I have had great experiences at Cuvaison, Whitehall Lane, Clos du Val, Beaulieu, Cosentino and Alexander Valley Vineyards. I hated Beringer's tour guide and tour very scripted, " One day in a land far away Jacob and his brother.....blah blah blah..........". Forget about Sterling and thier stupid tram ride. Back in the day the best deal was at Inglenook where you could taste older vintages for a nominal fee and suck in the best history in the valley. BTW the places that charge a small price for glasses etc. are the best because they discourage the people who are there just to get free wine.

Don't worry about being a neophyte, if you know anything about wine you will seem an expert compared to the tour busses full of the un-washed masses.

David Cooper

"I'm no friggin genius". Rob Dibble

http://www.starlinebyirion.com/

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On weekends, there isn't a winery on the main drag that DOESN'T have a tour with some background.

Honestly, if you get to any of the 'smaller' wineries off the beaten track and you engage any of the amiable-looking pourers in conversation, most of the time he/she will be happy to offer insight into how to taste, what to taste, etc. I never feel put upon when a guest says that they are neophytes or are just learning. I'm happy to do Tasting 101 with folks IF the tasting room is not too packed. But it is the folks that chat back with me that I am most willing to assist -- not just those there to get drunk.

Also, I don't believe there is a free tasting to be had in the valley... Most places charge these days. Some give away the glasses, some don't. Most of the time the glasses aren't worth having anyway.

A dozen years ago, Beringer was a nice tour - at least for a newbie like me (then!). It was informative even though it was a bit campy. It was also nice to taste the difference between a $5.00 bottle of wine and a $60.00 bottle of wine (although you have to pay extra for that).

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My wife and I spent a few days there a year ago for our honeymoon. I would also limit the number of tastings to three, they do start to catch up with you. We stumbled upon a great tour at Silverado, lots of information and the tour guide was extremely helpful and the tasting is extensive and done well with options to taste the limited edition wines (we were given those for free). Sinskey is right up the road from there and is another excellent site. The other one that we were able to get into that was excellent was Viader, highly informal, you sit around Ms. Viader's desk, the tour was short but the view is incredible and the wine is amazing, we were able to taste the 1999 Cab. Franc by itself which wasn't released, though she didn't have much to sell. It was free though. But I would call now to try to set that one up, they are quite limited.

Another good resturant is Mustards, I believe it is on the main strip. A hike or bike ride off of the main highway with a stop for bread and cheese or sandwiches at the Oakville Deli is fun as well.

We too had 9:30 reservations at the FL, and we did not leave until 1:30 AM. It was a stunning night. When you are there, tell the sommelier that you are neophytes he will help you out considerably, we had friends do the same thing and they sampled numerous wines which were matched around the meal.

ENJOY!

Jay Doyle

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I'll add more later, but, when tasting at wineries, remember to spit. Do not consume the wine, unless you only plan on hitting one or two wineries. If you spit, you can, time permitting hit up to 4 or 5 depending on how dedicated you are. Also Highway 29 regularly backs up with tourists. You can go off the beaten path (say Silverado trail or over into Sonoma county) and get around much easier.

A favorite lunchtime spot is the Waippo Grill in Calistoga. Outstanding.

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I'll add more later, but, when tasting at wineries, remember to spit. Do not consume the wine, unless you only plan on hitting one or two wineries. If you spit, you can, time permitting hit up to 4 or 5 depending on how dedicated you are.

Lightweight! I don't start spitting until my tenth or eleventh winery (and usually not even then!!!!)

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Since you're going to be in Yountville, indulge and stay at the Vintage Inn, down the street from the French Laundry.  It's exquisite.  Be sure to have lunch across the street at Domaine Chandon  and enjoy as many tastings and wineries as possible, especially Clos Pegase with all their art.  Brix Restaurant is delightful.  There are many good eateries in Calistoga as well.

If you like art, Clos Pegase and Hess have nice collections. If you like the films of Coppola, there's lots to be seen about him at Niebaum-Coppola. If you just want to taste some good wine with the winemaker, call White Rock Vineyards and make an appointment. I think there's details at whiterockvineyards.com. (707) 257-7922. The winery has the simple virtue of making only 2 wines: claret and chardonnay.

I'm hollywood and I approve this message.

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We spent a night in Napa this last August and had a wonderful time. The highlight for us was a hot-air balloon ride over the valley (suggested by KatieLoeb). It was spectacular. The pilots was knowlegable and the experience was just awesome. There are 3 companies who do the rides, we chose the one with a champagne breakfast. they'll pick you up at your hotel. - The only place we could find in Napa that would take a one night stay was the TravelLodge. Have a great time. I can't wait to go back.

Stop Family Violence

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  • 3 weeks later...

Bilrus (and others),

i always recommend stopping in at Prager Ports in Napa for a fun time and a chance to taste 6 or 7 ports. your host will most likely be the owner and portmaker, jim prager, who is about as nice as, and resembles, santa claus. just don't touch the 50 year old cobwebs on his kitchen window, as mrs. tommy tried to do. mr. prager doesn't take too kindly to that. :biggrin:

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