Napa Valley, California: Wine Country
Famous across the world for its wine, most notably its Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley vineyards produce less than a half percent of the world’s wine. Napa Valley may be one of the smallest wine regions, but the geographic area where it lies is one of the most diverse for wine growing in the world.
Napa Valley’s location lends a unique grape growing climate. The dry Mediterranean-like weather, varied elevations, and diverse soils make it an ideal place to produce some of the world's best wines. Geologic events over millions of years have added volcanic and marine elements to the soil, lending enough diversity that half the world's soil types are represented in Napa Valley.1
Ultimately, the award-winning wines keep this wine region's business humming, but the stunning landscape, and nearly 500 open wineries keep visitors coming year round. On a recent trip to Napa Valley, I visited many wineries. I have thoughtfully narrowed the list to seven that I believe are must-see wineries, whether for their beautiful architecture, unique histories, educational tours or mostly for their amazing wines. Cheers!
Nickel & Nickel Winery
Nickel & Nickel Winery earns a spot on this list for its top notch wine, highly educational tour, stunning property, and salute to a bygone era. Driving up to this gated vineyard, you are instantly transported back in time. A grand Queen Anne-styled farmhouse greets you and if you arrive a bit early, you can relax with a glass of Chardonnay in the beautifully and historically decorated parlor. Sign the guest book and check out the historic Sullinger family picture in front of the old farmhouse.
Although our group was larger, the entire tour and tasting felt very intimate and our host was exceptional. The tour leads you through an educational journey of the property, fermentation barns, soil samples, and the vineyard's impressive collection of wines. Later, artisan cheese plates and premium Cabernet Sauvignon pours wait for you in the formal dining room, dripping with historic charm. All wines produced from their vineyard collection are single-vineyard, a unique quality that sets Nickel & Nickel apart.
Nickel & Nickel Winery Location
The Hess Collection Visitors Center & Art Museum
Atop the hills at Mount Veeder you'll find the Hess Collection known for its sustainable winemaking practices. The location is beautiful and more remote than many of the vineyards dotted along St. Helena Highway. Hess offers a long menu of tour options from a simple bar tasting to an ATV ride through the vineyards to an elaborate three-course organic dinner with wine pairings. A basic tour and tasting will provide you with a thorough and educational tour through the grounds, cellars and vines and includes wines not offered on the public tasting menu.
Arrive early or stay after to enjoy the Hess Art Museum on site. Swiss entrepreneur, Donald Hess, founder of the Hess Collection, has built an impressive modern art collection for over 50 years with works from just 20 living artists. About a quarter of his collection is housed here. There is no admission charge although you can take a walking tour of the museum with wine tasting for a fee.
The Hess Collection Location
Robert Mondavi Winery
Established in 1966, many say that Robert Mondavi Winery essentially put Napa Valley on the map. Mondavi's philosophy was not only to create excellent and exclusive wines but to put wine on dinner tables across America. He hired talented winemakers early on, one of whom later gained notoriety creating a wine that earned best of France in the famous "Paris Tasting of 1976." The winery, located off Highway 29, features beautiful mission-style architecture and original vines planted in the 1870s, some of the oldest in Napa Valley.
The tour and tasting list is expansive and includes everything from walk-in tastings to a four hour-long "Four Decades Dinner" pairing library vintages from over four decades. We chose the "Twilight Tour & Tasting," which begins at 5:00pm and depending on the time of year, may feature a Napa sunset. The 90-minute educational tour leads you through the expansive To Kalon Cellar and aging rooms. It ends with a tasting of Reserve and exclusive wines and cheese in a charming, private bar room.
Robert Mondavi Winery hosts at least five concerts each year featuring nationally known artists. It offers a spacious gift shop and visitors can see art on display from the current featured “artist in residence”. Off site, Robert Mondavi Winery hosts exclusive wine travel events such as its hosted "Cruise to Tahiti" and "Cruise through Bordeaux."
Robert Mondavi Winery Location
Grgich Hills Estate
Miljenko "Mike" Grgich gained recognition making the Napa Chardonnay that beat France in the infamous "Paris Tasting of 1976." It was a blind tasting matching up established French whites with Napa Chardonnay upstarts. To the shock of the French judges, Grgich's 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was chosen. Since then, he earned the title of the "King of Chardonnay" sporting his stylish beret in pictures and person. This beret along with the suitcase he brought to America from Croatia, and a bottle of his winning 1973 Chardonnay are on display at the Smithsonian's American History museum.
Just off Highway 29 in Napa, Grgich's largest American Canyon vineyard primarily grows Chardonnay but also grows Sauvingnon Blanc, Merlot, Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Tastings include wines made at their various vineyards. They offer a variety of tours and tastings including a special wine stomping experience package. And while you are tasting, you might just run into Mike Grgich, now in his mid-90s, who sometimes makes a surprise visit.
Grgich Hills Estate Location
Foley Johnson Winery
Foley Johnson Winery offers an intimate experience in modern elegance unlike some of the larger wineries. On my visit, it was just our small group visiting with Platypus Tours. Tastings are both inside and outside the visitor center, a 1920s converted redwood barn. Inside is a quaint open bar and wine library. Outdoors is a wine patio overlooking postcard perfect acres of vineyards with comfortable lounge arrangements and picnic accommodations. And beyond the barn is a gravity-flow cellar and underground barrel room. A special resident is the house dog, a yellow Labrador Retriever named "Nala" that readily greats guests.
Don't let the smaller-sized experience fool you though as Foley Johnson Family Wines is the 20th largest American wine company.2 Additionally, if you are hockey fan, you might know that Bill Foley, Foley Johnson's founder, is owner of the first year NHL Las Vegas Knights hockey team. Yes, the rookie team that was in the 2018 Stanley Cup finals.
Foley Johnson Winery Location
Hall Wines St. Helena
At the base of the Mayacama Mountains off Highway 29, you'll find the Hall Wines St. Helena vineyard. You cannot miss the Bunny Foo Foo sculpture right off the highway and as you get closer to the visitor center, you are greeted by John Baldessari's sculpture Camel (Albino) Contemplating Needle, a biblical reference to passing through the eye of a needle. This 150-year-old vineyard offers some of the finest wines with over 170 scores of 90 and above (four at 100 points) along with modern art dotted throughout, architecture, technology, and history.
"The Hallmark Tour" begins with a splash of Sauvignon Blanc and a walking tour rich in historic stories, modern art, and winemaking philosophy. The historic Bergfeld building, once used for winemaking with slanting inward floors, offers stunning, picture-worthy vineyard views. The final tasting takes place in one of the wineries modern salons. Various levels of tastings and tours are offered including a platinum experience that includes barrel sampling and a private seated tasting of Hall's highest rated Cabernets.
Hall Wines St. Helena Location
Del Dotto Estate Winery & Caves
Del Dotto deserves a special note as the most "lush" tour on our journey to Napa, with an old-world Italian-style elegance that cannot be matched. The Del Dotto family heritage dates back to 12th Century Venice, which is evident in the Venetian Estate and hand dug caves complete with opulent glass chandeliers. The estate encompasses founder Dave Del Dotto's philosophy that wine tasting should be a sensory experience.
Bar tastings include five samplings along with cheeses. The upgraded and signature cave and barrel tasting includes an initial welcome glass plus six to eight tastings directly from caved barrels. Our native New Zealand guide provided a thorough, small group tour through the caves with both winemaking education and generous barrel tastings. Our tour concluded in the estate with more tastings and a selection of cheese, meats, artisan pizza, and chocolate.
Del Dotto Location
Favorite Wine To Taste
1Geiling, Natasha. “Why Earthquakes Make Napa Wine Taste So Good.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 25 Aug. 2014, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-earthquakes-make-napa-valley-wine-great-180952466/.
2 Winebrenner, and AP. “WineInk: A Winemaker Goes for the Cup.” Post Independent Citizen Telegram, Swift Communications Inc., 31 May 2018, www.postindependent.com/news/entertainment/wineink-a-winemaker-goes-for-the-cup/.
- “California Wine Sales in U.S. Market Hit $35.2 Billion in 2017.” 2015 Annual Economic Impact Grows to $57.6 Billion in California, $114.1 Billion in U.S. - The Wine Institute, The Wine Institute, 23 May 2018, www.wineinstitute.org/resources/pressroom/05232018.
- Singer, Paola. “36 Hours in Napa Valley.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 June 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/06/21/travel/what-to-do-in-napa-valley.html.
- “Napa Valley Fast Facts.” Napa Vinters, Napa Valley Vinters, napavintners.com/press/docs/napa_valley_fast_facts.pdf.
- “The Hess Art Collection.” The Hess Collection, The Hess Collection, 2018, www.hesscollection.com/art/.
- Dunn, Mike, et al. “10 Things Every Wine Lover Should Know About Robert Mondavi Winery.” Wine-Searcher, Wine-Searcher, 14 May 2014, www.wine-searcher.com/m/2014/05/10-things-every-wine-lover-should-know-about-robert-mondavi-winery.
- McIntyre, Dave. “Fifty Years Ago, Robert Mondavi Transformed Napa Valley - and American Wine.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 23 July 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/fifty-years-ago-robert-mondavi-transformed-napa-valley--and-american-wine/2016/07/23/615d4a06-4de3-11e6-aa14-e0c1087f7583_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.a45e89cf1d43.
- Orlin, Mary. “Five Awesome Things about Winemaker Mike Grgich.” The Mercury News, The Mercury News, 23 Sept. 2016, www.mercurynews.com/2016/04/20/five-awesome-things-about-winemaker-mike-grgich/.
- Winery Websites
Questions & Answers
Question: What is the cost of tastings at wineries in Napa Valley?
Answer: It varied based on the winery and the tour we chose. Most were below $100 and included an extensive tour and tastings. You can find prices on the vineyard's websites for specific tours.
Marcelle Bell (author) on July 06, 2018:
Thanks, Linda! It was my first visit to Napa and I was surprised how impressive and thorough all the tours were. It's not just about tasting fantastic wine, it's the entire experience. Nala was so sweet when we met her and I also thought that was a perfect way to end the article!
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on July 05, 2018:
The wineries and the tours sound very interesting. I didn't realize that there was so much to see and do at the wineries. I love the photos. The one of Nala is a great way to end the article!
Marcelle Bell (author) on July 04, 2018:
Thanks, FlourishAnyway! I'm definitely a wine lover but I must say that most anyone would appreciate the fantastic tours we enjoyed. The wineries all have a unique personality and such interesting stories. Glad you enjoyed the article. You would have loved Nala!
FlourishAnyway from USA on July 03, 2018:
Although I’m not a wine lover, I enjoyed this rich and in depth description. I would really love to meet Nala and see Bunny Foo Foo. They have some unique ways to draw attention to their businesses.