Travel Guide – Napa Valley [pt. 2]July 21, 2020
If you have found yourself reading this blog post…you can sip with us.
To check out the first travel guide I wrote about Napa Valley, check out this post: https://downinthehollow.com/2019/05/10/travel-guide-napa-valley/
This was my third trip to the Valley and every time I go I bring more insight and expertise back home with me. By no means are my Napa travel guides comprehensive since I have not tasted at every single winery (what a task that would be) but I am racking up experiences every time I go and do have some particular tips, tricks, advice and recommendations.
Where We Stayed
If you read my first Napa travel guide post (linked above) you read that the last time we went, every hotel we really liked was crazy booked up. However, this time we were traveling during the coronavirus pandemic and things in Napa/Sonoma were just not as busy and booked as they typically are, which worked in our favor because we were able to book one of my “I have got to stay there one day” picks – The White House Inn!
I have a lot to say about this place. Not only is it total design goals and gorgeous everywhere you look, but they went *and I cannot stress this enough* above and beyond for us while we were there. I literally have never had such a great experience at a hotel/bed and breakfast/inn. One of my best friends lives in Sacramento so she was going to drive up and spend two days with us in Napa. Because of this, we booked the King Deluxe suite at White House Inn since it had a day bed in it that my friend could sleep in so she wouldn’t have to drive back home. Upon arrival, the women working at the Inn decided that my husband was too tall for that room because of the slanting roof ceilings so they put us in another room (overlooking the pool) and gave my friend her own room and COMPED the cost! Because obviously, she had not planned on paying for a room and their rooms are not inexpensive, it was so so nice that she got her own private room completely for free. Seriously that is above and beyond service! She even got two mornings of breakfast for free as well!
The hotel is steps from the Riverfront shops and restaurants. I can tell you that it’s exactly a 17 minute walk to Oxbow Public Market since we decided to get some exercise one morning and went for a walk down to the market for some coffee before breakfast.
And now for our agenda…
My husband and I arrive in San Francisco at about noon, picked up our rental car and hit the road for Napa – about a 45 min. drive give or take. Now, under normal circumstances we would have spent some time in San Francisco and had originally planned to head straight to the wharf to slurp down some oysters and hang out with the seals. But alas, coronavirus had her vengeance and San Francisco was completely shut down. Luckily for us, Napa and Sonoma County were still open for business, with a few modifications so we happily just drive straight there. We checked into the beautiful White House Inn and then flew to our first tasting of the day.
White Rock Vineyards
Of all the wineries I’ve been to in Napa, White Rock is aesthetically very simple and completely unassuming. Do not let this turn you away in favor of one of the more grandiose vineyards. In my experience, the vineyards that focus heavily on the grandeur of their estate do not focus as much on the quality of their actual wine. White Rock pours every ounce of their effort into their wine and the product they provide to their buyers. Their wine is, and I underscore this handedly, divine.
Funny story about White Rock: I actually have been to White Rock previously on my last visit. In all technicality. But…I haven’t been past the parking lot. The night before we visited was a little rowdy and I had quite the hangover. And while I got myself up and dressed and even tried to choke down some breakfast, by the time we got to the winery I could not even fathom the thought of drinking. Luckily for me, my friend also felt the exact same way. So the wives stayed in the car while the husbands went into the winery to taste. The gal that was doing the tasting for the guys asked where the girls were and after being told we were a little hungover said, “Oh okay so they’re sleeping it off at the pool, right?” And then found that nope, we were passed out in the car. Fast forward to about a month ago when I was making phone calls to book our tasting reservations. I called White Rock to make our ressie and while giving the girl on the other line our contact information she says, “Wait that name sounds familiar. Were you here before?” So I told her that yes, we had been but technically I hadn’t been past the parking lot. AND SHE REMEMBERED US!! LOL!! She literally started laughing and was like, “I haven’t even met you yet and I already love you.”
Anyway, she was the same one that greeted us on this trip and did our tasting with us. Here name is Tara and we are now BFFs. HAHA. But for real, she’s the sweetest thing and we had the best tasting experience with her. Honestly we gabbed about everything under the sun and drank exceptional wine. We got so lost hanging out with her that we wound up being 25 minutes late for our next tasting but thankfully, Tara called her connection at our next vineyard to smooth things over for us. Literally this could not have been a better experience.
We’re now proud White Rock Wine Club members. Our first shipment has already been delivered. In short: I’m obsessed.
Since we started tasting so late in the day we only had time for two wineries. But Alpha Omega is a tried and true for me. I’ve been every single time I’ve visited Napa and I will continue to visit on every subsequent trip. We actually went twice on this trip when we had some extra time to squeeze more wine in before closing time, which in Napa is around 4:30 or 5:00 pm.
My love for Alpha Omega grew a little bit more on this trip during a conversation with our wine educator (the person that conducts your wine tasting). He was new to Alpha Omega and explained to us that he had worked at Del Dotto for 7 years previously. We have been to Del Dotto and it definitely is one of those wineries I talked about earlier. They have an immaculate and beautiful estate and gardens. I mean…it’s so beautiful I could be convinced I’m in Italy when I’m there. But their wine, although yummy, wasn’t exceptional. We do, however, looove their port wine and always keep a bottle in stock. Shoutout to our friends who go there and bring it back for us when we can’t go! Anyway, back to my story. Seven years this guy devoted to Del Dotto. He explained to us how he increased his sales every year and was one of their top 10 sellers, easily bringing in millions of dollars to the brand. Yet he had never even met the winemaker, which he always thought was odd. And during the pandemic, they lowered the hammer on him. He lost his job along with a significant amount of other Del Dotto workers. He was selective in choosing where to go next – he wanted it to be a winery he respected where he loved the product and knew he could honestly sell it. Not only did this mean that he *wanted* to go to Alpha Omega, but more importantly Alpha Omega wanted him! During Covid, AO did not let go of a single worker and instead brought on more employees. You see what I mean? Respect = grown. Loyalty = established.
Dinner – Angele
Staying true to our theme of revisiting some favorite places on our first day in Napa, we went to Angele for dinner. It was literally right down the road from out hotel since it’s on the river front. Not even a three minute drive. Would have walked if I didn’t wear heels haha. Last time we were at Angele it was Bastille Day. We sat out on the patio and had a gorgeous, delicious dinner of oysters, white wine and pasta. This time it wasn’t Bastille Day, we sat on the patio since indoor dining was closed due to Covid, and we had a gorgeous, delicious dinner of oysters, white wine and…not pasta haha. I had the best steamed mussels I’ve ever had in my entire life. It was a beautiful night to sit on the patio, have a wonderful meal and just take in the glory of being in Napa. [I’ll save you the time in reading it, but my ideal retirement would be in Napa with a teeny tiny family vineyard where we make our own small production and have a small homestead..girl’s gotta have her chickens lol]
On our second day, we were joined by one of my best friends! Last time we were in Napa she joined for a day as well. It’s just so close to where she lives that I cannot imagine spending time there without spending time with her simultaneously. Plus she happens to adore wine the same way I do so it’s always fun tasting in any wine region with her! We met up at Boon Fly Cafe for breakfast before a full day of tasting. A word about Boon Fly..it’s so heart-achingly cute (yes that’s a thing) and is on the Carneros Resort and Spa property so there’s a lot of other beautiful things going on around it. But this little red barn beauty (famous for their homemade tiny sugar donuts) is the perfect start to any day in Napa!
And now for the tastings.
While doing my research on which wineries I wanted to include on this trip’s itinerary, Cuvaison kept popping up on a lot of wine blogger’s lists of “Best of 2020” picks along with some other regional accolades the wine had recently been racking up. Clearly, this meant I had to get me some of that. I typically would not seek out a very industrial aesthetic, which is exactly what Cuvaison possesses. But listen when I say the VIEWS here are literally more epic than any other view I’ve seen in Napa. Ya heard it here.
It’s insane, sweeping landscapes surrounding you and from any angle it is just breathtaking. But is the wine good? Yes. The wine is good. I will be the first to say that I gravitate towards reds unless it’s just a super crisp and yummy white. But for whatever reason (perhaps the heat and the fact that it was like 10:30 am?) the reds weren’t jumping out to me the way the whites and blushes were at Cuvaison. They were delicious and those were the bottles we chose to take home with us. Literally cannot wait to open those!
If you take a peek at that tasting menu, you’ll see one that says 2014 Warhol Chardonnay. This is because the Cuvaison vintner had a special relationship with Andy Warhol and he (Warhol) created a portfolio of wine label art for the estate! They’ve only used a few so far and this Chardonnay has one of them. The rest they’re saving to use throughout the future. I thought that was so cool – they’re the only winery in the world that can boast exclusive Warhol art on their bottles!
If you’re a Napa junkie, you might be picking up by now that this winery is extremely close to the previous one. In fact, when we left Cuvaison literally all we did was drive directly across the road (literally the entrances even match up) and we had entered Domaine Carneros. A good tip for anyone planning a trip to the Valley: plan out your tastings in clusters that are close together (i.e. wineries in Carneros, Silverado Trail, St. Helena, Yountville, etc.) otherwise you could potentially end up having a 40 minute drive between vineyards which..not preferable when you’ve been drinking and not preferable in general.
So Domaine Carneros is a Taittinger estate and if you know your stuff, you know that this means they do primarily sparkling wines although they do have a few red varietals. First and foremost, this place is known for their ambiance. They are one of those grandiose wineries I spoke about earlier in this post. It is sort of iconic Napa architecture. In fact if you’ve never been, I bet you have seen a picture of this entrance!
Just a sidenote about this photo. In normal circumstances, I would have LITERALLY never been able to snap this. There’s not a single soul in this picture. Usually it would be teeming with people. There were actually other people at the winery when we were there, it was just very minimal compared to what it normally would be. Actually, funny story..there was a couple girls walking very slowly up the stairs while I was waiting to take this picture (waiting for them to get out of the shot) and as soon as they did I raised my camera to take this picture and a this man goes walking up the stairs. Immediately his wife was like, “NO! She waited for this! You get off those stairs so she can get this picture!” And honestly, we just kinda need more of this in the world LOL
Anyway, back to wine. Each of us got a different flight to taste so that we could all taste each other’s and therefore get a sampling of 12 wines instead of just four! I was actually really impressed to taste so many variances in the bubbles and be able to compare vintages. This allowed us to pick a favorite to purchase! Again..can’t wait to open that bad boy up.
Oh and the view? Also great. Not surprising since it faces Cuvaison so the view is pretty similar, but yet not as impressive as it is across the road. That being said, you’d be hard pressed to find a view that doesn’t put anything back home to shame. But..I’m from Oklahoma so it’s easy for me to say that.
Our third and final tasting of the day was at the wonderful Artesa. I was so excited for this since, similarly to Cuvaison, it was sweeping some serious recognition for their recent harvests and I was wanting to get my hands on some of that. You might recognize this winery from the Netflix movie “Wine Country” since it was filmed there! Usually this would probably deter me from going, but I couldn’t get past the accolades I was reading. I’m glad we decided to put it on the itinerary. It was a great tasting experience! The ambiance, the fact that we were all a little buzzed and having fun, the cheese tray we got and the gloriously delicious wine!
While I’m sitting here writing this post and looking back at these photos, I’m remembering our adorable wine educator at Artesa and I’m wanting to write a little bit about the functionality of wine educators and wine tastings.
I firmly believe that your wine educator can really make or break your tasting experience and your overall appreciation of the estate they represent. I’ve had tastings that run the gambit of experiences and I could probably formulate some kind of rating scale for this, 1 being the only time we see them is when they’re coming over to pour a new wine and tell us what the wine is (ex: “This is a 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s aged for 17 months in the barrel, French Oak, and is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petite Verdot. Enjoy!”) and 10 being Tara at White Rock hahaha (ex: a wine educator that stays with you for the majority if not all of the tasting, has a discussion with you about life and also the wine that your’e drinking, offering new knowledge and education, answering any questions that you have).
I understand that there are people that go to Napa because it’s Napa and they’re like hey let’s go get drunk. But I literally love wine. I love everything about it and that includes the love and care that goes into creating it. I want to always learn more about it. If you pour me a glass and walk away, I know nothing about what separates this wine from others I’ve had other than what my palate can attempt to discern. I could probably taste if it was aged in oak or steel vats. I can attempt to break down the varietals that are in it. I can ascertain the acidity/tannins/etc. But I don’t know how much of your vines are exclusively estate or if you source from elsewhere to capitalize on the limestone-rich soil or the different climate on the other side of that mountain over there. It’s those details that make wines so unique and turn each into a living story.
All that being said, I judge a lot of what I take away from a winery on the experience I had with our wine educator. The one at Artesa was somewhere in the middle, although I suppose that could be due to the fact that we were a tiny bit tipsy and at that point weren’t trying to ask a lot of hard hitting questions! But I would encourage you to ask more of your educator if they aren’t sticking around a whole lot. Sometimes I’ll just barrage them with questions if they aren’t freely offering to teach me something new. And if you do this, I guarantee you will learn something new not just on every trip, but at every new winery!
By the time we were done at Artesa, it was probably around 4 and our dinner reservations weren’t until 8 pm so we had a lot of time to spend and wineries were closing so we decided to go sober up by the Inn pool. Except..sobering up turned into taking a bottle of some sweet red down to the pool with us. Because why not? My friend had brought a bottle she’d gotten from Castella di Amarosa. It was light..sweet..sugary…everything I’d normally hate in a red. But my palette by that point was exhausted by heavy bodied tannins and it was hot outside so…fill that cup UP!
Dinner – El Dorado Kitchen
For dinner that night, we scooted on over to Sonoma to try out a place that was in my top 5 must try restaurants, El Dorado Kitchen. It’s downtown Sonoma in the plaza surrounded by tasting rooms and shops. You could really make a whole day just hanging out in the Sonoma plaza. If you do, make sure to stop by Pangloss Cellars for a tasting!
El Dorado Kitchen is the brainchild of a former Executive Chef from the French Laundry (a Thomas Keller Michelin restaurant). When this Executive Chef branched off to open El Dorado, he also took the French Laundry pastry chef with him. In other words, this places is off the charts delicious. We started with some pork belly paired with watermelon that like I don’t even know how the flavor it produced was possible but I still salivate just thinking about it. Then I had a huge paella because apparently I could not stop eating seafood on this trip. Again..I’m from Oklahoma. It’s not like we have quality seafood there, ya know?
We started our day by getting our energy back and getting some exercise in! At the beginning of this post, I talked about the walk we took to Oxbow Public Market. This is the day we did that walk! Adding in some squats and lunges along the way, we knocked out a simple morning “workout” before breakfast and got some pretty cool sights in along the way. I had never been to Oxbow and was kind of obsessed with how cute everything was. On my next trip, I will definitely remember to allow for some picnic time in order to go grab some fresh supplies from Oxbow and enjoy a picnic somewhere pretty! Here’s just a few snapshots of our morning before we dive into the wineries.
Freemark had been on my list on our last trip, but we didn’t wind up going. I’m so glad we got around to going on this trip! This one is a pretty historic stop as it’s the sixth vineyard to ever exist in Napa Valley! But perhaps my favorite part of Freemark Abbey’s story is that the original vinter was a woman named Josephine. She was the first female vinter in the region and she slung some serious grapes, y’all. She had to be one fierce gal and I wish I could meet her. The current winemaker, who has been with Freemark for 40 years – which is a LONG time and quite remarkable which says a lot about this vineyard and their production (consistency) – honors Josephine every single year by continuously taking the best of each harvest and producing a wine just for her and they call it Josephine. It runs at $150 a bottle and yes you can bet your bottom dollar we bought a bottle. Typically in Napa, and most other places, the purchase of a bottle will mean that a tasting fee is comped. Our wine educator (who would rank at about a 7.5 or an 8 on my scale) was so kind and comped both our tasting fees, which in sum would have cost $100 anyway. So the price of the bottle wasn’t so bad! Apparently, we can age this wine for up to 30 years! But…will we go that long is really the question.
There is actually another reason why I really liked our experience at Freemark Abbey. To me, an experience tends to be in all of the little details. This is no exception. Freemark is a very Cabernet Sauvignon focused vineyard and their tasting is actually all Cabs. My friend that joined us is not a huge fan of Cabs and so she was going to save her money and sit out on the tasting. But our wine educator just couldn’t let her sit there empty-handed so she pour her a Sauvignon Blanc and continued to refill her glass…free of cost.
Ok the first thing to say here is that you usually will not catch me at a vineyard that produces wine I can get at literally any grocery store I walk into. On our previous trip, we did go to Sterling but that was a pick of the couple we were with. And, unsurprisingly, I didn’t like any of the wine I tasted. You also will not see me tasting at Robert Mondavi.
Have you ever wondered why there are 400+ wineries in Napa but you don’t actually see those labels in grocery stores or in liquor stores and you’re lucky to find them on a restaurant’s menu? I now know that answer thanks to Tara at White Rock (seriously if you’re reading this..you should come hang out with me in Oklahoma. Our wine sucks but..we can have tacos and tequila?). SO many of these wineries only distribute like 10-20% of their production. Meaning that a very small percentage of what they produce goes to liquor stores and restaurants and an even smaller percentage sells to grocery stores. While a winery can produce tens of thousands of cases of wine…literally the majority of it goes to wine club members and individual buyers after tastings. Yep. Can you even imagine? This means if you want the good stuff, you’ve got to go straight to the source. Oh, shucks. How AWFUL! Not. Sign me the wiggity whack up.
Where was I at? Oh yeah, Duckhorn.
Ok ok don’t get me wrong. I actually really enjoy Duckhorn wine and we buy a lot of it at our local stores to drink at home. More importantly, this entire franchise(?…brand?) has a lot of different vineyards including Decoy, Paraduxx (been there..loved it), Goldeneye, and more. They have a multitude of vineyards all producing pretty damn good wine. For this reason, I actually really wanted to taste at Duckhorn. And again, back to the point of picking out vineyards that aren’t far away from each other, this one made logistical sense because it was so close to the other two we picked out for this day.
Ladies and gentlemen…we were not disappointed. Holy amazing wine. Literally it seemed like every glass was even yummier than the one before. We really liked our wine educator here and while talked about everything from traveling to our dogs (yes dog pics were involved), he was also super informative about their wines and – best part – brought some extra tastings out including some juice from their sister vineyards. And that, my friends, is how you do a tasting. If by the end of your tasting you haven’t finagled some behind-the-counter product…you didn’t do it right.
Honestly, I feel like I’ve probably said all there is to say about wine tasting…
Well, my friends, we’ve come to the end of our tasting journey. Regusci was our last winery of this trip (sort of – technically we did go to Alpha Omega afterwards, but I’d already tasted those wines so I don’t count it)! I really thought that by the time we got there I would be “all wined out” and wouldn’t really be able to taste the wine as I should since my palette would be overworked. Surprisingly, I was wrong. It takes a very fine wine to break through tasting exhaustion and these did just that.
First, let’s discuss the property. If I remember correctly, Regusci is the 10th oldest winery in Napa (we really did a historic route on this day) and it has maintained all of it’s charm. The grounds are beautiful and their vineyards exhibit all kinds of terrain from valley soil to mountainside. I should have taken a picture from the road driving in. It’s tree-lined and really shows off how the estate sits at the base of a beautiful mountain. You’ll just have to take my word for it I suppose since I really only got this shot of the exterior haha.
Let’s discuss the wine and the experience. The tasting menu was heavy on the reds, which I obviously loved. The flavor profile was quite extensive with jammy bursts and deep oaky punches in the mouth. I really thought their wine was quite beautiful and probably could have bought a case of it, but I think we only came home with one bottle. Our wine educator was the actual sweetest and while she basically left us alone for the main tasting menu, I think she picked up on how much we were loving it so she offered us some extra tastings and started spending more time at our table talking about the history of the place, their production process, the wine profiles and then – my favorite part – offered us an impromptu, cheeky trip to the cellar!
Gosh just looking at that photo of their wine is making me drool. I will be honestly very floored if most of this wine survives in our wine fridge until next month without me drinking it!
If you were wondering, yes it was a bold choice to wear a white dress on a full day of wine tasting. And if you were also wondering, YES I did spill red wine on it. Ughhh. But also, worth it?
A few notes to wrap up this post…
- My first Napa travel guide ended with some GREAT tips and pointers for anyone planning a trip so I really encourage you to go check that out.
- In my experience, three full days of tasting is usually the best amount of time. The tasting fatigue sets in after that and so does the acid reflux. For this reason we actually spent the next two days of this vacation in Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea, which will be detailed in a whole other blog post so check back for that!
- This seems like such a silly note, but honestly trust me on this. If you plan a trip, create a specific playlist before you go and then just always have it playing in the car as you drive between different wineries. You’ll wind up tying some great memories to those songs. For instance, White Gloves by Khruangbin will never not remind me of driving through Napa with that warm fuzzy slightly buzzed feeling and the gratitude of being surrounded by people I love in one of my most favorite places in the world.
Thank you SO much for going on this journey with me through this blog post! I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!
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