Posted by: Travis | March 17, 2008

A day in Wine Country

Since we only had a weekend to spend with Katie and Beth on their visit, we asked them what they wanted to do with the weekend we had. Since Katie is from Scottsdale and Beth is from Denver, the mountains of Tahoe, Yosemite, and the Sierras didn’t sound as exciting as wine country. Last week i spent most of my free time doing research on where we should go. Since i had never been there myself, yelp was an essential tool in my attempt to pull the rabbit out of the hat and create a fun day in a place Rachel and i had never been.

Sunday morning while the girls were showering i headed to the bank to get cash, then stopped by the grocery store to pick up a few baguettes, cheese, and other snacks to eat while we were out. Just shy of 8:00 am we loaded up the car and headed out on our adventure in the hopes of hitting the wineries just as they opened for tasting at 10:00 am. Katie, Beth, and Rachel had never really done any wine tasting, so my goal was to hit a few big, traditional places first (so they get a feel for what most of the valley is like), then jump off the beaten path and hit some super small, family owned places.

Here’s where we went (in order), with a little description of each place (click on the winery name for a link to the website):

  • Robert Mondavi – This is one of the better known wineries in Napa Valley. They had a class on how to taste wine for beginners that started at 10 for $15. I figured it would give everyone a little intro to wine tasting and also give them a taste of a larger winery. Since we got there right when they opened there was no one there, so it didn’t have that theme park feel yet. The class was actually lots of fun and pretty informative. They didn’t talk a whole lot about how to taste, but spent lots of time talking about the different kinds of grapes and what climates they like and what grows best where. The whole class was only 7 people, so the personal feel was nice and somewhat unexpected. The grounds were pretty, the merlot was surprisingly good, and they had some cool stuff in the gift shop, but since you can buy Mondavi at your local grocery store, we decided to hop in the car and move on.
  • Opus One – After being told about this place last weekend by my Dad, and how it goes for $400-$600 per bottle in restaurants that serve it, when we passed it right after leaving Mondavi, i had to go check it out. I guess you should know that when you do a tasting at most wineries it usually consists of tastes of 4-6 different wines and costs $0-$10. Back in the day everything was free, but now that its the cool place to go, finding a place that does free tastings is pretty tough. Anyway, when you visit Opus One you have to schedule an appointment to do a tasting or a tour. Not only that, but when you do a tasting you only get a 2 oz pour of a single wine. It costs $30. No thanks. This place just oozes pretension. From the silly modern architecture, to the perfectly manicured grass, to the ambient classical music being played that made me feel like i was at a country club, to the tasting room that was blocked off with a velvet rope, to the receptionist desk that felt like a spa. We strolled into the main building thinking we would find some sort of information about the history of the place or something. Nope, just a pristine (and naked) receptionist area. When the overly made up receptionist asked if she could help us (because obviously we didn’t have an appointment, see Cakebread Cellars for the correct way to handle the problem), we quickly responded that she couldn’t and promptly left the building, chuckling as we returned to the car. $30 for a single tasting? You’ve got to be kidding me.
  • Cakebread Cellars – I didn’t find Cakebread through my research, but when Katie told her folks that we would be in Napa for the day, they recommended that we check out Cakebread. The building was a really neat, simple, open, wood barn style building. That description doesn’t really do it justice, but check out the website for a picture. They also required an appointment for a tasting a tour, but unlike Opus One it was reasonably priced at $10 and they had some really neat stuff in their main tasting room. Every year they have a photo contest, with the winner getting a free case of wine or something. They put the winning pictured up on the wall, so the place was covered with people drinking their wine in Antarctica next to penguins while wearing tuxedos, or drinking while river rafting, or the Eiffel Tower, etc. They also sell bike jerseys here, how cool is that? After we walked in, one of the staff members asked if we had an appointment for a tasting, and after we said no, she offered us one later in the afternoon. We ended up turning it down because it just wasn’t going to work with our plans, but she continued to talk to us and told us we were welcome to walk around and check out the fermentation room, cellar, etc. The hospitality was really nice. Next time we go up to Napa, i will definitely call ahead and make an appointment at Cakebread.
  • Heitz Cellars – I really liked Heitz. Its on highway 29, which is the main stretch of road that runs through the Napa Valley where all the huge wineries are. Even though it lies right next to some wineries many people have heard of, philosophically its about as far away as you can get. The tasting operation is in a little stone building that looks more like the English countryside than Napa Valley. They opened at 11:00, but when we arrived at 11:05 there was no one there. We waited for about 5 minutes because the girls wanted to take pictures of the ‘cute’ building, then a guy in a hawaiian shirt pulled up and opened the door. We decided to give him some time to set things up, so we wandered around a bit. Then we made our way inside and were following the perimeter of a room that wasn’t much bigger than our apartment looking at t-shirts, bottles on the wall, and framed newspaper clippings. During this time the owner, an older guy who was casually dressed and showed an immediate affinity for talking arrived. After a few minutes he finally joked “So, are you guys just gonna loiter or are you here to taste some wine?” He got out four glasses and poured a few sips, then engaged us about we were from, what kind of wine we liked, and why we chose to come to his place. The tasting was free (the way it should be), and the two guys were really nice and open to our being pretty ignorant about wine. Everything we tasted was really fabulous. Unfortunately spending $100 on a bottle of cab isn’t something im capable of doing right now, so we bought a bottle of the chardonnay that Rachel really liked. It had a really vivid fruity flavor that was mostly citrus, but with some melon as well. Not too dry. Im not a big fan of white wine, but i really liked it. The port was the only other thing in my price range, and i really liked it, but it was just too early to buy two bottles at the same place. Next time im in Napa, i will be going back.
  • V. Sattui – I had a bad feeling when we pulled in and i saw the huge parking lot with buses in the back a this huge European style stone castle. We saw a sign for the ‘private cellar’ so we followed it to this cool (thats temperature, not ‘neat’) room with concrete floors and a few empty barrels stacked up behind some card tables. It was totally a sham. You could rent this room out for corporate meeting and stuff. It felt like Disney Land, and it didn’t stop there. Families with kids were everywhere. I guess i have to give them credit for not being pretentious, but in this case that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. It felt like Walmart. Tasting was $10 and was conducted around this huge central bar in the middle of the room with staff running to a fro, just pouring a sample and then running to serve someone else, no time to talk about the wine. They carded everyone for the tasting. Thats ridiculous. We passed on the tasting, figured my $10 was better spent elsewhere. They did have a huge deli attached to the side of it though, so we raided it for samples of mustard, bread, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. I had an allergic reaction to the place, so we left without spending a dime. Only 15 minutes wasted. I read on yelp that the wines are actually pretty good. I wouldn’t know. Don’t feed the fire, please don’t go here.
  • Frank Family Vineyards – We arrived here to find that they had ‘complimentary’ valet parking (many of you probably know that i can’t stand valet parking), and that the owner is (or was) on the board of Disney. Oh God, this place is actually going to be Disneyland. Turned out i was dead wrong, it was one of my favorite places on the day. Its off of highway 29 a bit, so no one ever really wonders in, they are either brought here or sent here. In fact, when we walked in, we were asked within about 30 seconds how we found out about the place. They had never heard of yelp.com. We started off doing a champagne tasting with this huge guy that was really funny and sociable. I don’t even like champagne, but i was impressed. Everything we had was great. After we that we headed down the hall to the wine tasting room. We tried a chardonnay that tasted like creme brule. It was really great. Unfortunately Rachel and i already had 2 bottles of chardonnay in the fridge and another one that we just bought in the car. Maybe after we finish these bottles, we will order a bottle of the Frank family stuff. After that was a Pinot, which was good, but not what they’re known for, then a cab. The cab was pretty unimpressive. After we sampled the recent cab he poured us a sample of the 1998 vintage to show us how the wine aged and it was incredible. The place was under construction so we did the wine tastings in these double wide trailers, but i really enjoyed it. The whole thing was free, and i really enjoyed many of the wines we tried, so i felt bad about leaving without buying anything, but the cab was out of my price range and given the amount of chardonnay that we already had, there just wasn’t much i could do. If you are up in Napa, this is definitely a must stop place.
  • Graeser Winery – This was easily our favorite stop of the day. I had been looking forward to it all day, i was hoping that that i twas going to be a hidden gem. We saw the modest sign and turned onto the one lane dirt road that snaked up a hill and through some trees. We came to a clearing and there were vines everywhere. We continued on the road until we came to a house with a hand painted sign pointing to the tasting room. This was going to be great. We followed the sign and parked the car only to be greeted by two rambunctious great danes yearning for attention that were obviously unaware of how big they were. Then all of a sudden this older guy with boots, a cowboy hat, and a gray mustache comes around the corner scolding the dogs for scaring the visitors. After he realizes that we aren’t scared of the dogs he introduces himself as Mr. Graeser and invites us back to the tasting room attached to his house. There were only two other people there tasting so they pulled out another plate of almonds and pistachios and got us started on our tasting. Mr Graeser in one hell of a character. I could have easily sat there for the rest of the afternoon and just talk to him. After we had finished the tasting we walked outside to play with the dogs and sit at some picnic tables and just enjoy what an incredible day it was. We didn’t buy anything here because the only thing under $35 was a rose, and im not too big a fan of those. They were all quite good, i just couldn’t bring myself to buy anything. Plus, paying $10 for the tasting made me feel a bit less guilty about not buying anything. I guess its kind of ironic that we didn’t buy anything from our two favorite stops, but im sure Rachel and i will be making more trips up there in the future and will have plenty of time to buy wine from them. If you visit one place in Napa (ok, this place is actually 20 miles north, in Calistoga), i would recommend hitting this place. I imagine this is what Napa was like 20 years ago, before it was to cool place to be. I really can’t put into words ho much i loved this place.
  • Imagery – If V. Sattui was Wamart, then Imagery was Neiman Marcus, but with a touch of holistic yoga-ness to it. We knew going in that this place was going to be kind of goofy, but apparently they had really good wine, and it was one of the only tops we planned in Sonoma, so we decided to hit it even though expectations had been lowered by some of the other big places we went. They had a separate parking lot for limos, town cars, and small buses; it was full. We parked and walked in to find the place full of guys wearing goofy embroidered dress shirts with designer jeans, greasy hair, perfectly groomed facial hair, expensive sunglasses, with some blond bimbo on their arm. This place also employ the concept of the huge tasting bar in the center of the room with staff members running all over the place like ants. Tasting was $10 per person, and they card everyone. Ugh. They hand us a menu of about 15 wines and tell us that for $10 we can sample any 6 we want to. In a way i like this freedom, however, i also wish they could select 6 of their best wines for me based upon what they think they do well. The wine was okay, but nothing really blew my socks off. I guess i was also a bit distracted by all the silly people running around. The port tasting came in this glass that had a glass straw coming up from the bottom that you suck on. Imagine if Reidel made a kids sippy cup and you’d likely be right on target. The idea was to dump the port on the front of your tongue where all the sweet taste buds are. If it sounds really gimmicky, its because it is. I wasn’t impressed. For the first half of our tasting our server would pour our sample, tell us only the name of the wine and then run off to someone else before we could ask a question. About half way through she figured out i was from Houston and stuck around for a while. Turns out she grew up in Memorial, went to Mem High, and was just kind of a stereotype suburban rich girl who decided to move to Napa and live the wine life. At one point she said “I live in Napa and i drive a nice convertable, what more could i ask for? I’ll never move back to Texas.” Obviously i don’t really share those sentiments and we have drastically different views of the ideal life. Normally i’m excited to meet people from Texas out here, but this was not one of those times. This place was really crowded and yuppie, but with a hedonistic new age-y feel to it. Not really my thing, won’t be going back.

Over all our trip to wine country was a huge success. We had lots of fun and visited some really neat places. It also gave Rachel and I a chance to figure out what type of places we like. Now we have a few anchors for future trips where we can visit 2 or 3 of our favorites and then try new places whenever we go up. Most of all, i realized that Napa has enough wineries to be whatever you want it to be. If you want to ride in a bus and go to the super touristy places, you can do that. If you want to rent a limo and go to some posh, exclusive places, they’re there for the taking. And even though its reputation precedes it, if you want to find some guy making wine in his barn who will pour you a sample of wine himself and spend an hour talking to you about his passion for wine, you can do that too (assuming you do a little bit of research and some recon ahead of time). The latter is the Napa i plan on returning to quite often.

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