I love the Napa Valley, its beauty, its people and of course its wines. But damn, is it ever expensive to check out its tasting rooms. When I first visited a dozen years ago, the $30 tasting of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ top three wines was a splurge, and an outlier. Now that barely gets you in the door at many places serving lesser juice.
Here are some Napa tasting rooms that I consider worth the visit, hang the cost:
• I’m not nearly a good enough writer to do justice to Kuleto Estate (707-302-2209), the house or the grounds or the view. It’s somehow both opulent and rustic, decadent and homey, and it flat-out seems to sit on top of the world. The tour and tasting are well worth the $40 — the pours are generous, the wines very tasty if not transcendent. Getting there is a bit of a haul, culminating in a harrowing mile-plus, one-lane driveway, but the drive takes you through a really cool, off-the-overly-trod track of Napa.
• Speaking of stupendous vistas after gnarly drives, my favorite destinations atop Spring Mountain are Barnett and Smith-Madrone, at least until I get to Cain. Even (sometimes especially) when fog is shrouding the valley below, the views are worth the drive. Knowledgeable but unassuming folks staff Barnett’s homey tasting room, and if you’re lucky, owner Fiona Barnett might stop in and recount how Rattlesnake Hill got its name (they found 33 when clearing the land). The wines are stellar exemplars of Spring Mountain’s bright but bold fruit. The boys (brothers Charles and Stu Smith, left) at Smith-Madrone make distinctive reds, too, and their riesling is one of America’s very best. The Smiths are the very definition of crusty and plain-spoken, but what a story they have to tell of their 40-plus years on the mountain.
• If you’re headed to one or both of these places, consider just spending the entire day on the slopes of Spring Mountain — and bring along a picnic lunch, as there are no eateries there. Robert Keenan, a “ghost winery” (built before prohibition, then reopened afterward), the wonderfully unostentatious Schweiger (where a humble family paid $250 an acre for the land) and the eponymous Spring Mountain (yes, that house is the one from “Falcon Crest”) have great wines and engaging tours.
• Back on semi-level land at the opposite corner of Napa, the tasting room at Robert Sinskey is classy, both warm and cool, and food-centric. The $25 flight with stellar, often unexpected wines paired with a plate of small bites from the Vineyard Kitchen is a screamin’ bargain compared to most of its brethren. A bonus: no appointment needed for groups of up to five.
• Sinskey sits squarely in the Stags Leap District, probably my favorite Napa AVA. Those planning ahead should absolutely make an appointment at Shafer, where the architecture is spot-on Wine Country chic and the wines are stupendous (including the amazing Hillside Select cab and Relentless syrah, a recent wine of the year at the Wine Spectator). I also love love love the wines and the setting at Chimney Rock, and the ever-improving portfolio and hilltop views make Silverado well worth a stop. And happily, the fee for those three top-notch wines at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars has risen only slightly, to $40, and is well worth it for cab lovers.
• Speaking of values, perhaps no Napa winery delivers more bang for the moolah than Frog’s Leap. A tour and tasting is 20 bucks, and either alone would be worth that. The grounds are gorgeous but not as over manicured as most Napa properties — it’s an actual farm — and the wines are expressive and delicious.
• Another singular experience can be had at Conn Creek Vineyard. While other wineries have started to offer blending experiences, this winery’s provides a bonus: cabernet sauvignon from a half-dozen AVAa, plus the other Bordeaux grapes, as you match and mix your own concoction. The convivial experience itself might not be worth $95, but the bottle you tote out of there more than compensates — and even a putz like me can make very tasty stuff.
• When wine and natural beauty won’t suffice, head for the mountain. Mount Veeder, that is, where Hess proffers not only swell fermented grape juice but also a superb art gallery. Bacon, Motherwell, Rauschenberg, Stella and others are represented, and the woman whose eyes follow you around the room is particularly enticing. Art and architecture lovers also should check out the Michael Graves edifice and outdoor sculptures (including a Henry Moore) at Clos Pegase.
• Love history? Inglenook’s stately building oozes it, from humongous barrels and beams to several grand rooms, plus a cave tasting. Up on Howell Mountain, Ladera is another “ghost winery,” with wonderful restoration done on the original building and 180,000 square feet of caves. Lovely wines, too.