Tasting Rooms with a Twist
More than Simply Sipping: wine, food and travel writer Carey Sweet shares some of her favorite winery adventures
Standing at an indoor bar sampling wines while listening to a host describe the flavors can be fine for first-time tasters. Instead, I prefer an experience.
I want to sip wines while strolling the very vineyards where the beautiful grapes were grown. I love enjoying a delicious meal where I can embrace how wonderfully wines and food go together. And I relish discovering a rich sense of place, bringing alive this wonderful world we call Napa-Sonoma Wine Country.
For a Lavish Immersion: Joseph Phelps Vineyards
Founded in 1973 by grape guru Joseph Phelps, the family-owned winery estate sprawls on what was formerly a 670-acre former cattle ranch.
Now overseen by Joe’s son, Bill Phelps, and extensively renovated in 2015, the stunning destination is one of Napa Valley’s most exquisite, appointed with rich woods, unique Nepalese rugs and glittering chandeliers. Be sure to focus on the flagship wine, Insignia, a silky, Napa Valley blend of red Bordeaux varieties.
I like to do it justice with the opulent Chef’s Tasting Menu, a nine course, 3.5 hour pairing indulgence held one weekend a month June through September.
For an Urban Adventure: St. Clair Brown Winery & Brewery
The postage-stamp-size boutique winery, nano-brewery and culinary garden is the dream of co-owners Laina Brown and Elaine St. Clair, and it’s an extra delight to discover it hidden in downtown Napa’s Rail Arts District (a tiny, greenhouse-style wine café backs up to the Napa Valley Wine Train tracks, and guests wave at passengers as the locomotive chugs by).
Winemaker-Brewmaster St. Clair makes a wide variety of wines – Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Muscat, Rosé of Syrah, Rhône Blend, Zinfandel, Merlot, Estate Syrah, Red Blend, and Cabernet Sauvignon – but keeps total production at under 1,000 cases, all sold only at the winery.
She makes around 14 beers at any time, but each is under 4 kegs per batch. I always add in perfect, small bites, like a velvety rillette of rustic pork layered with estate-garden fig-pear-fennel mostarda and scooped with sel gris flatbread.
For a Legendary, True-to-its Roots Field Trip: Preston Farm & Winery
Here’s a storybook setting, as organic farm and vineyard owners Lou and Susan Preston also produce olive oil from their own trees, bake crusty brick oven bread from heirloom grains grown on-site, and offer seasonal fresh and pickled produce from their organic gardens and orchards.
I love to make a full picnic from their farm store/cottage, and if I’m lucky, they’ll have their seasonal apple cider for sale, too.
Before I settle in at a rustic table under the shady walnut trees to savor compelling wines like a Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre-Cinsaut-Carignane blend, I stop and say hello to the friendly farm cats, chickens and sheep wandering nearby.
For a Magical Taste of Italy: Orsi Family Vineyards
Estate owner Bernie Orsi discovered that his heritage Italian grapes thrive in the Dry Creek Valley vineyards surrounding his hillside home, so now he gifts us with rare and ravishing wines like Schioppettino peppered-plum red, and Biancolella d’Ischia fruity-almond white.
He bought a tasting estate last year, so now everyone can sample the ravishing selections, while playing bocce, and, my favorite pastime, scarfing wood fired pizzas while lounging in a shaded, private cabana alongside the emerald lawns.
We might see Orsi himself at the tasting room, which is a delightful thing indeed, as he shares his colorful stories about sustainable farming and living life to its fullest.