Somewhere along along the way, the oft-repeated statistic that more people make the sojourn to Napa Valley each year than to Disneyland became part of the area’s oral history. Whether this is legend or tall tale, the excitement of touching down in Wine Country for the sole purpose of fun in a fantastical setting is exactly akin to the anticipation of that childhood adventure. There are the tourbus-friendly wineries made in the image of kitschy castles, it’s true. But those are the few, and the winemakers crafting a more nuanced story are the real cast members in our idea of the happiest place on Earth. This is a guided tour of our favorite wineries, vineyards and tasting experiences – magic always included in the price of admission.
Main Street, USA: Big, Beautiful Reds in a Storybook Setting
1100 Larkmead Lane, Calistoga | (707) 942-0167
Ambling up the walkway toward Larkmead‘s wholesome front porch, you just know you’re in for a dreamy afternoon. Established in 1884, the sprawling, family-held estate spans the entire valley floor, and is one of the few where you can see the very fruit-bearing vines from which you’re tasting in every direction as you enjoy their bounty. The estate-grown wines are a sumptuous expression of the land: the full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, sprightly Firebelle and top-tier Solari are the rich, classic reds for which Napa and its storied Larkmead are famous. Walking through the lovingly landscaped grounds and Howard Backen-designed structures will fill your dream house idea bank.
Frontierland: The New Establishment
The Rudius story began when Alabama native and aspiring attorney Jeff Ames began to feel a bit restless. Having come from a long line of lawyers, it was a surprise to everyone when Ames took his love of wine to the next level and moved cross-country to study the craft under 2010 Winemaker of the Year Thomas Rivers Brown. Today, Ames and wife Brittany turn out a stellar stable of wines guided solely by the “sense of the land” they cultivate. Our recent visit with Jeff found us deep in the Hunnicutt caves sampling Gaelic-named 2014s still in barrel. This was a stainless steel inauguration for the crowd favorite Farrella, an approachable, cool-drinking cabernet we can’t wait to serve with, well, everything.
Also a Thomas Brown acolyte, Myriad helmer Mike Smith took a similarly fortuitous route to winemaking, working harvests before making the full-time move from Portland to Napa with his family. In the years since, Mike has risen to prominence producing bold, hearty reds and Robert Parker-anointed 100-point darlings for the likes of Carter Cellars. It doesn’t hurt that he starts with some of the most sought-after fruit in the Valley (Beckstoffer Dr. Crane and George III to name two) and lets it shine, while offering it to his list members at a friendlier rate than most. As an added bonus, Mike is one of the most down-to-earth dudes you can imagine – his tastings are always a fun and informative treat.
Adventureland: Howell Mountain Heaven
2075 Summit Lake Drive, Angwin | (707) 965-1718
The ascent to Outpost and the very top of the Howell Mountain AVA finds you, quite literally, leaving the rest of the world behind for awhile. The vineyard’s otherworldly vantage point is an awesome way to experience the region’s distinctive terroir, its sweeping 28 acres host to both old vine Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon in addition to Petite Sirah and Grenache. And after all this talk of Thomas Rivers Brown, Outpost is your chance to taste the winemaker’s prowess for yourself, his talent on decisive display in the glass. Rich Smock proves an able guide on this particular wine journey, and whether the rim-of-the-world view finds you hovering above the clouds or absorbing all 2,400 panoramic feet in technicolor, you’ll take it all in from an unparalleled peak.
Tomorrowland: The Next Chapter
French-born and French-trained, Benoit Touquette brings a sophisticated and colorful energy to his wine projects. He’s making his mark at Realm Cellars and Hartwell Estate, but his own fledgling label is quite possibly his best yet. Fait Main (‘handmade’ in French) is a powerful but balanced effort, a tour de force from a cool rising star you’ll want to watch.
Fantasyland: The House of Sparkling
Schramsberg is home to some of our most beloved bottled bubbles so naturally, we couldn’t wait to see where the magic happens. A captivating cave tour offers insight into their 125-year-old history which of course ends in the tasting of California’s loveliest sparkling wines. This is a one-of-a-kind tasting experience in Napa Valley.
New Orleans Square: Eat, Drink, Enjoy
Robert Sinskey Vineyards
New Orleans is America’s pleasure center, a continuous parade of good timing in the form of fine food and excellent drink. Robert Sinskey Vineyards offers the tasting room version of this tradition, their program centered on bites that complement and highlight the varietals’ subtleties. The experience takes on an especially jovial tone as Maria Sinskey’s menu choices play up specific tasting notes that surprise and delight, giving you a new appreciation for the interplay of pairings.