Planning a California wine tasting trip can be pretty intimidating. Which valley? which vineyards? How to avoid big crowds? How to find wines and wineries worthy of your precious time? Well, after a whirlwind weekend in California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys, I have gained a whole new perspective on this region. I met some amazingly talented vintners, chefs, and artists, and I tasted more wine than I care to admit! Here are my “tasting notes” from my time getting to know California Wine Country with our Virtuoso Partners: Revealed America, Meadowood, and Farmhouse Inn:
Even if you are only planning to see San Francisco (but why would you deprive yourself like that?), I still highly recommend booking a helicopter tour. This is a city worth seeing from the sky! The highlight was going under and then over the Golden Gate Bridge – what a rush! It was an exhilarating start to the trip and something I would highly recommend to clients visiting San Francisco! A helicopter transfer to the vineyards is extravagant in price, but a short helicopter tour from San Francisco is a bit more accessible and well worth the expense.
Photo courtesy of Meadowood, because my own photos just did not do it justice
Since my visit back in 2012, I’ve been a big fan of Meadowood. With their continued improvements, especially the newly built spa, I remain a loyal supporter – in both personal and professional travel! The resort itself has a light and airy feel; it is a classy country club tucked away into a lush hillside property. The spa brings a new depth and richness to the architecture, design, and energy of the property. Each treatment suite features two rooms, the treatment room with the spa table, and its own bathroom area with steam shower. So, each treatment is designed to allow you prep time in the steam room with body scrubs or scented oils and then you progress into the actual treatment. The relaxed pace and private space is a true luxury! Virtuoso Amenities at Meadowood include a $100 Spa credit, so you can try the new treatment rooms for yourself. This was a welcome change of pace after a day of California wine tasting!
Virtuoso Amenities at Meadowood Napa Valley:
- Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
- A $50.00 credit towards daily breakfast in The Grill or via room service for up to 2 in-room guests
- $100 USD Equivalent Spa Services credit, to be utilized during stay (not combinable, no cash value if not redeemed in full)
- Welcome amenity of a box of handcrafted Napa Valley Chocolates
- Early check-in/late check-out, subject to availability
- Complimentary Wi-Fi
Persephone Ranch, owned by the Peju Winery, is in Pope Valley, tucked away well off the beaten track; it is not open to the public. But, in order to showcase the winery’s culinary creativity, we were invited to Persephone Ranch for an afternoon picnic. Chef Alex Espinosa is a real asset to the Peju winery and he created a delicious BBQ lunch featuring salmon, prime rib, lobster tail, pesto pasta, and grilled vegetables.
Anybody can visit the main Peju property, which is located between Yountville and St. Helena. It can sometimes get quite crowded, but don’t let that discourage you. This winery is absolutely worth a visit and we have some tricks up our sleeves for how to make it a comfortable and memorable experience during your California wine tasting itinerary. Leveraging Revealed America’s access to the Peju kitchen and chef, the best way to experience the Peju winery is to book a private garden tour and cooking class with the chef; you’ll avoid the crowds in the tasting room and get unique access to the grounds, staff, and wines.
Through our partnership with Revealed America, we can leverage our access to Persephone Ranch and create a unique camping (or glamping) experience for guests looking to live amongst the vines at for a night or two. The property features multiple ponds were you can swim, kayak, and fish and the famous Peju wines will, of course, be on hand for the tasting!
It took great restraint not to buy massive quantities of wine on this trip! Most wineries will have some sort of club membership or “wine subscription” and I had to protect my bank account from my love of wine! But, there was one vineyard where all bets were off, and that was at Chappallet. I am completely enamored with their wines, the Chappellet family, and the beautiful setting. There’s no way, I could leave the winery without a promise that there would be more to come. So, I put my pocket book to work and joined the club!
Chappellet is located at the top of Pritchard Hill, which is a unique geographic feature for Napa Valley. Most wines are grown on the valley floor. In the 60s, when Chappallet was established, growing grapes in the hills was not the norm. The result of thinking outside the box, is a unique flavor profile that is arguably more French than Californian.
I had never been to Healdsburg prior to this trip, and it wasn’t a town that was really on my radar. Now Healdsburg is on my watch-list big time. I was impressed by the variety and quality of dining options in town. This town serves as a sort of gateway into the Russian River Valley, and, if you are short on time, heading to the tasting rooms around town is a sure way to taste a bunch of wines without a lot of time wasted moving around! Highlights from our tour include charcuterie tasting at Valette, tapas at Bravas, and an unexpectedly incredible roasted beet and greek yogurt dip at Shed.
For any self-respecting foodie, no trip to California’s wine region would be complete without a dinner or even a stay at the new Single Thread. This restaurant and inn is incredibly unique in its format and cuisine. It had the honor of earning 4-stars right out of the gate from the San Francisco Chronicle and there’s plenty of buzz about a few Michelin Stars in the near future.
Novice diners may be turned off by the reservation process. Single Thread is following the lead of Alinea in Chicago and French Laundry in Yountville, CA (among other top restaurants) and requiring pre-payment at the time of reservation. If this level of dining experience is on your bucket list, don’t let this new reservation process scare you away. Think of it as if you were buying tickets to a theatre production. Your seat in the theatre is a perishable commodity. As such, you are expected to pay in advance and you are expected to show up. If you don’t that’s your loss, not the theatre’s. The same goes for these restaurants with chefs who are in high demand! Ourisman Travel can of course help you plan out your itinerary and coordinate the dining reservation. The benefit to booking early is that the restaurant now has the added ability to learn about each diner and curate the menu individually – what a treat!
Guests at the Farmhouse Inn have a unique opportunity to book a California wine tasting tour with the hotel’s resident sommelier. A peek at their wine list will give you an idea of the type of talent they work with; The Farmhouse Inn is serious about wine! We can curate a tour customized to your tastes and the Estate Wine Director will guide you through tastings throughout the Russian River and Sonoma Valleys. During my visit, unfortunately, we did not have the time to travel around, but we were able to recreate the experience in the beautiful garden courtyard at the Farmhouse Inn. Our tasting was lead by James Cerda and emphasized the incredible wines from the local area and providing perspective on how to discern the differences between grapes, regions, and techniques. The individual attention from the sommelier was such a treat! Our tasting included:
- Kistler “Stone Flat” Chardonnay, 2011: This vineyard is doing something really unique and interesting study of terroir; they are growing identical vine clones in different plots! I want to go back for a lesson in terroir!
- Kosta Browne “Amber Ridge” Pinot Noir, 2009: Very popular with Revealed California and any pinot lovers looking to do a “horizontal tasting”
- Kinsella “Spencer Vineyard” Zinfandel, 2013: A rich and luscious wine that had a mouth watering acidity, but was still dry and earthy – my kind of wine!
“Have Sommelier, Will Travel!”
During our tasting, the sommelier planted an idea that my mind has really latched on to. Imagine you’re celebrating a milestone birthday or you want to treat yourself after a big promotion, business win, or even retirement. Why not use this as a great excuse for finally starting that wine collection you’ve always wanted? So, you head to the Sonoma Valley, book your stay at the Farmhouse Inn, and spend some quality time with the sommelier working on a “starter kit” for your collection! You’ll return home with a brag-worthy inventory of wines, new knowledge about your taste in wine, and a new investment in your future wine-drinking enjoyment! Personally, I’m working on an idea for a “40 cases to celebrate 40 years” theme for a big birthday I have creeping up in a few years. Given my expensive taste, I better start saving up now!
In northern California, fresh produce is abundant and can easily be taken for granted. Amidst all the dining hype in the Napa and Sonoma valleys, Chef Cindy Pawlcyn keeps things grounded and celebrates every vegetable she cooks with! We were so fortunate to be able to watch a demonstration by Cindy and learn more about her culinary philosophy. She has a personal culinary library of nearly 2,000 books and she has famously travelled around the world to find new flavors and techniques to introduce to her cooking. As a book lover and a travel advisor, I can’t help but be a super-fan! I absorbed as much as I could from her cooking lesson, which was more about the philosophy of food and eating than it was about how to actually cook something and I was sure to get an autographed copy of her latest cookbook! I highly recommend a visit to Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen or Mustard’s during every visit to the area. I’m certain I will be making several return visits!
This was a last-minute addition to our itinerary and I am so glad we made the stop. This vineyard is breathtaking! I loved the mix of the old barn next to the new building, the swings in the tasting room, the antique tractors, the poppies in bloom, and the super exclusive members-only tasting room with lalique glass sculptures… not to mention, the wine! Davis Estates, the new kid in northern Napa Valley, was a fabulous addition to our California wine tasting itinerary.
At Rutherford Hill, you can blend your own wines in their wine cave! The setting is stunning and the blending process allows you to isolate the flavors of certain grapes, understand how the grapes compare, and learn a lot about your own palette along the way. I learned that I’m a big fan of Merlot and Petit Verdot blends. I got to bottle my own blend, cork it with an antique hand corking press, add my own label (special reserve, of course), and take it home to enjoy with my friends. What a unique souvenir!
WOW! This Winery is very special (and extremely exclusive); the vineyard itself is even harder to access (more because of challenging geography than anything else). Will, the son of enormously famous Bill Harlan, is passionate about this land and the fruits of his labor. While not quite as refined as the coveted Screaming Eagle, Promontory wines are extraordinary and a MUST taste for any collector of fine California Cabs. The winery is designed for lavish parties, interactive “Master Chef” style cooking demonstrations, and simply enjoying the views while sipping a glass of the velvety cabernet. As I’ve learned over the years, I am drawn to the younger, more volatile vintages, and the 2014 suited me just fine. But, as it began to open up, I could not deny the incredible depth of personality flowing from the 2009. It was an honor to get a preview of this new property and meet Will and his team. This was a truly magical experience for me and one I can’t stop bragging about to my wine-loving friends!