Northern California’s idyllic Napa Valley is home to around 400 wineries and tasting rooms, so choosing just five to highlight is a challenging task. I decided to make it easier by choosing my own personal favourites, starting with Sterling Vineyards in Calistoga.
Sterling sits high above the valley and visitors are transported up to the winery by aerial tram. The breathtaking pastoral views along the way are in stark contrast to the imposing white façade of the winery itself, which was inspired by the architecture of the Greek island, Mykonos. Having disembarked, you are greeted with a glass of wine to enjoy while taking the self-guided tour of the winemaking process, all the way through from grape to glass. It’s both interesting and educational, and once you finish this part of the Sterling experience, you will be more than ready to taste some of their wines. There are a few options to tempt you, depending on your pocket and your palate, but I can recommend the food and wine pairing, which matches your wine to cheeses and charcuterie.
If sparkling wine is more to your taste, you can do no better than a visit to the Schramsberg estate, tucked into the densely forested slopes of Diamond Mountain. It is home to the oldest hillside vineyards in the Napa Valley and is a registered historic landmark. Schramsberg has also played a role in world history. One of its wines was used for President Nixon’s 1972 ‘Toast to Peace’ with China’s Premier Zhou Enlai, and its sparkling wines have been served at official State functions by every U.S. President since.
Winetasting is by appointment only, in conjunction with an educational tour through the caves. A tour guide shares the rich history of Schramsberg and its 125-year-old caves, introduces you to the classic method of producing sparkling wine, and then invites you to sit and taste five limited production wines paired with specially selected cheeses.
Still staying in the northern end of the Valley, and if you would like to enjoy some spectacular art along with your wine, try Clos Pegase. The architectural design of the winery was the culmination of a competition instigated by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and both the winery building and the grounds are replete with dramatic sculptures and paintings.
The connoisseur cave tour and tasting offers visitors a splash of wine while they learn about the history of the winery, visit the production area and taste wine directly from barrel. The tasting culminates in the Cave Theatre with a seated tasting of current and library wines paired with selected artisanal cheese and charcuterie. I have attended opera evenings in the atmospheric Cave Theatre with its wonderful acoustics and naturally cool environment.
In complete contrast to the postmodern feel of Clos Pegase, Castello di Amorosa is a winery modeled on a thirteenth century Tuscan castle. I was living in the Napa Valley when this was under construction and it stirred mixed feelings. For me it seemed both wholly out of place but also tantalizingly, and in many ways, admirably audacious.
Castello di Amorosa was a labour of love for its owner, Dario Sattui – a renowned wine entrepreneur with a fascination for medieval architecture. He set out to make small lots of primarily Italian-style wines and showcase them in an authentic, medieval castle setting. There are 107 rooms on eight levels above and below ground, covering over 120,000 square feet. Key details and building techniques are architecturally faithful to the 12th and 13th century time period so admired by Sattui and the castle boasts a moat, a drawbridge, defensive towers, an interior courtyard, a torture chamber, a chapel, a knights' chamber and a great hall. In many ways the wines are almost incidental – the supporting act to this extraordinary replica out of time and place. Castello do Amorosa has to be seen to be believed.
My first three recommendations are all located between Calistoga and St Helena, but if you head further south along Highway 29, you can see the iconic Opus One winery on your left. The building literally rises out of the earth and through a conflation of classical European and contemporary Californian elements, gradually discloses its distinctive beauty. The winery, like the wine, joins New World and Old World aesthetics. Modern materials – California redwood and stainless steel – are juxtaposed with cream-colored Texas limestone.
Visits to Opus One are by appointment only and there are two tours to choose from: the Estate Tour and the Double Vintage Tour and Tasting. The former offers an overview of Opus One's history, aesthetics, vineyards and winemaking, and leads guests through the winery, winery production areas, and concludes in the Grand Chai with a taste of the current vintage of Opus One. The latter offers a more intimate experience. Beginning in the Salon, guests are escorted through the winery and then into the Private Library with a formal seated tasting of two vintages. A visit to Opus One is a sublime experience that it hard to follow.
My final recommendation is Domaine Carneros, a few miles outside of Napa. It was inspired by the classic 18th century Château de la Marquetterie in France - home of Champagne Taittinger – complete with a grand staircase, formal gardens, expansive outdoor terraces, a marble-floored fireside salon and magnificent views of vine-covered hills.
Domaine Carneros is a hugely popular venue and there are many tasting options to choose from, all of which are listed on its website. My personal favourite, available exclusively by reservation, is a visit to the Sparkling Suite, which offers couples an opportunity to book their own private château balcony overlooking the splendidly verdant vineyards. The Sparkling Suite includes a private tasting for two of Domaine Carneros sparkling wines and Pinot Noirs, paired perfectly with caviar, charcuterie and all the necessary accouterments. You will leave feel spoiled and special and possibly a tiny bit amorous.
But the Napa Valley has more to offer than wine - it’s a cycling destination of note. There are two roads that run through the Valley: Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Highway 29 is a main thoroughfare and gets particularly busy at weekends, whereas the Silverado Trail is much quieter, with specifically designated bike lanes. Having cycled both, I confess to preferring the gently rolling rhythm of the Trail.
And if you prefer to slow down the pace you can opt for the quiet backroads, or go off road altogether onto the dirt tracks that traverse the vineyards. An exciting project is the construction of the Napa Valley Vine Trail, a walking / cycling route that will begin at the Vallejo Ferry boat terminal (bringing passengers from San Francisco) and extend 45 miles to the northern tip of the Napa Valley. The trail will run roughly parallel to Highway 29, and allow visitors and locals the chance to hop on a bike, walk or jog through this iconic wine-growing region.
The Napa Valley is a small but perfectly formed destination for wine lovers and cyclists alike, offering abundant sunshine, friendly locals and some of the best food I have ever eaten. Enjoy!
My debut novel Learning to Speak American published by Twenty7 (£7.99 for an original paperback) is based on my experience of renovating a derelict house in California’s Napa Valley.
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