Where to go with only 2.5 days in Napa Valley?
By Jennifer Primrose & Dathan Kazsuk
It's Wine Capital of the World. Napa Valley. Home to 460-plus wineries. Some of those top notch wines we have all heard of – Opus One, Stag's Leap, Silver Oak, Del Dotto and Screaming Eagle – to name a few. And it's so overwhelming. You can't do them all. You have to pick and choose. But which ones? Do you make appointments the whole time, or play it by ear and crash the party of those non-appointment wineries such as Peju, Sterling or Chateau Montelena?
We were fortunate enough to have some contacts with a few of the wineries here in Napa, which made our experience a little more enjoyable. But contacts or not, you probably can't go wrong visiting any of these spectacular wineries.
We were in Napa Valley for two-and-a-half days – and here is a recap of our adventures. Be sure to click on the links inside this recap to view the full length reviews on many of our stops at each of the wineries.
Here we go!
JaM Cellars: 11:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.
Our first stop of day one took us to JaM Cellars to test out our Downtown Napa Wine Tasting Cards we picked up at the Napa welcome center. If you're a fan of Chardonnay, you've probably seen or tasted JaM's Butter Chardonnay before, or even its Cabernet Sauvignon titled Jam. We were familiar with the winery, since we've poured some of its wine at one of our wine club events. The atmosphere in here was very cool and hip – with music icons plastered all over the walls, and the urban-style tasting room looking more like a recording studio.
With the tasting cards our drinks were essentially two for the price of one! You can't beat that. We enjoyed a flight of 5 wines. With the Butter and Jam, they poured the grocery store versions (both good wines, we might add) and then the special reserve that you can only buy at the shop, to compare the two. We had a great time there, and actually went back the following night since they're open later than all the other downtown Napa tasting rooms.
Plumpjack: 1:00 p.m. - 2:30 p.m.
Plumpjack was next during our two-and-a-half day romp through Napa Valley. Prior to our visit, Dathan was corresponding with Plumpjack’s Rick Ratliff via Facebook about the wines we liked and the best time to arrive.
Rick led us through the winery's current releases at the tasting bar. There we sampled 5 wines on the list. Rick also offered us a trio of additional wines from Plumpjack’s sister wineries Odetta and Cade (everything was delicious). After the tasting Rick gave us a quick tour of the winery and told us a little history about the area – which included pointing out Screaming Eagle Winery atop a hill in the distance.
Before we left, we asked for a few nearby recommendations which didn’t need a reservation. In case you didn’t know, more than half of Napa Valley's 460-plus wineries require advance notice prior to arrival. Two of the more popular wineries in the Oakville-area include Caymus Family Vineyards and Miner Family Wines. Rick suggested out of the two he’d pick Caymus. So off we went.
Caymus Family Vineyards: 3:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.
The Caymus brand of wines are all great. From the white table wine, Conundrum, to those very dark and fruity Cabs – we like them all. And since we didn’t need a reservation to taste, we got in our car and traveled right down the road to end up at our second winery of the day.
We sampled that day’s wine flight, which consisted of two Emmolo wines, one Mer Soleil wine and two Caymus selections. Our favorites were the 2015 Cab and 2014 Special Selection Cab from Caymus. All this while sitting outside during a perfect day while our server kept the wine flowing. The only thing we had to be mindful of was the mamma bird perched above us keeping people at bay from her nest of two baby birds.
Gott's Roadside + Oxbow Public Market: 6:15 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.
Sure this is our first time to Napa, but we have a feeling that the Oxbow Public Market will be one of our favorite stops. Wine. Beer. Cheese. Coffee. Distillery. And one of the best burgers we've ever had! Eat your heart out In-N-Out and Five Guys – Gott's Roadside is the place to eat! The burgers there have everything from fried eggs, kimchi, blue cheese, onion rings and grilled Anaheim chiles (which Dathan had on his burger). Imagine eating a mouth-watering burger with a great glass of local wine or beer.
Italics Wine Growers: 10:00 a.m. - 11:30 a.m.
After a quick breakfast at our hotel in downtown Napa we made our way to Italics Winegrowers for our 10 a.m. appointment. We were greeted by David Gunkle, who just moved from Garner, North Carolina, to Napa three weeks prior to our visit. David started us off with a white table wine, as he told us the history behind the Taylor family who owns the winery, and about their winemaker, Steve Reynolds, of Reynolds Family Winery.
We did a tour of Italics' wine caves and were able to sample a Chardonnay from one of the barrels before heading to a table to conduct our tasting. There were five wines on our tasting menu, but David poured us a couple others not on the list including an incredible Cabernet Franc.
We ended up talking a lot about N.C. including a couple of our favorite Raleigh-area breweries and us having a couple mutual friends back in town as well as our memberships to Jones Von Drehle Winery in Thurmond, North Carolina. It really is such a small world.
Reynolds Family Winery: 12:00 p.m. - 1:00 p.m.
Us and Reynolds Family Winery go way back. Well, at least the past 5 years. We first met owner/winemaker Steve Reynolds in Raleigh during the annual Triangle Wine Experience weekend that raises money for the Frankie Lemmon School. From the Sip and Signs, to wine dinners, to the big Gala, we always seem to run into him. It doesn't hurt that he has some great wines and is such a good person.
So we decided to return the favor and say "hi" to him at his winery in Napa Valley. We both decided on the Red Lovers tasting which consisted of a 2012 Pinot Noir, 2015 Merlot, 2015 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, 2014 Persistence and a 2013 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. While we drank we enjoyed the sun and waited for Steve. Unfortunately, he was out running errands for his Cinco de Mayo celebration at the winery later in the week. Maybe next time.
Mark Herold Winery: 1:20 p.m. - 2:20 p.m.
Mark Herold Winery was another downtown winery that was a part of our Downtown Napa Wine Tasting Cards. The winery is right next to the Oxbow Public Market. We took a couple seats near the front window and enjoyed the wines. Brie told us the story behind Mark and all the wines we sampled. We enjoyed the Flux Grenache Blanc and Grenache Rosé to begin our flight. But our favorite was the bold taste of the 2014 Acha Grenacha with its hints of Créme de Cassis and black cherries. We also learned that Brie was at one time the tasting room manager at Reynolds Family Winery – where we just came from.
After leaving Mark Herold we crossed the street to Trade Brewing were we split a flight of beer and had a soft pretzel with beer cheese.
Wines on First: 6:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.
Wines on First was a nice little find downtown that features wines by
Mitch Cosentino's PureCru label as well as J. McClelland wines from Steele Canyon Cellars. And as part of the Napa Wine Card we got our tastings for half off. For $10 each (which included the half off card), we were able to sample through all 8 of the PureCru. That included the likes of a 2014 Chardonnay, 2014 Pinot Noir, 2013 Sangio Vetta and the 2012 releases of the Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah.
By this time, a lot of the wines were tasting the same – good. But we really enjoyed the 2012 CFM (Cabernet Franc/Merlot blend). After we finished our tasting our server didn't want us to leave until we tried a couple more of Mitch's wines, the 2010 MCoz and the 2012 Secret 7 both at $125 a bottle.
Chateau Montelena: 10:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m.
If you're a fan on the movie Bottle Shock, or know anything about the Judgment of Paris, then you probably know what Chateau Montelena means to Napa Valley. Without Steven Spurrier Napa might not be all that it is today. And because of these, we drove to the northern most part of the valley to walk the grounds here and taste some wine.
Because this is such a tourist attraction, no reservations are required, so we walked right in and took part in the day's tasting. It's funny that the gift shop even sells copies of the movie Bottle Shock that stars the late Alan Rickman as Spurrier.
Vineyard 36 (via Vineyard 29): 11:30 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
We enjoy our hockey, but lately the Hurricanes haven't given us much to cheer for. But goalie Cam Ward has teamed up with ex-Hurricane Tim Gleason and a few others to create some good wine in the form of Vineyard 36. Taking their name from Ward's #30 and Gleason's #6 jerseys, the two don't have a vineyard/tasting room, but with the help of their winemaker Keith Emerson at Vineyard 29 they're making a handful of select wine.
We reached out to Vineyard 36 and were able to get a private tour and tasting thanks to the winery's hospitality/sommelier guru Scott Barber. After just leaving the old, castle-like structure at Chateau Montelena, it was quite a eye-popper to see the modern-day twist of Vineyard 29 after coming through the front entrance gates.
Barber showed us around the winery and the state-of-the-art equipment before leading us to the nice, cool caves where we tried some V36 releases that won't see the light of day until 2019. We were also fortunate enough to try and buy several bottles of the winery's new release, Resilience Rosé, which is already sold out!
We said our goodbyes to Scott and realized it was time to finally end our time in Napa. We had a 2.5 hour drive back to Atwater as well as a layover at the Jelly Belly Candy Company in Fairfield. Until next time, Napa. I'm sure the two of us will see you again!
And thanks to all the wonderful people that helped make this experience one to remember!