When it comes to planning a bucket list wine trip like California it’s easy to get swayed into wineries that will take you from one side of this wine blessed state to another, all the while missing out on the best bits. Having recently returned from a week in the sunshine state, traveling up and down to find you the best winery experiences to check out, ( we know it’s not easy but we love our readers ) we’ve compiled our top ten to pop on you radar if you find yourself on this journey of “Grape to Glass”.
Ram’s Gate is Sonoma personified, big and impressive yet warm and convivial. It is by far one of the most impressive tasting rooms we had the pleasure to visit. If you find yourself here for the weekend, this is where you want to while away your Sunday by the open log fire tasting some of Chef Taylr Behnam delicious plates.
Designed as a labour of love and a private club where wine aficionados can “press pause, to stop and savour what we love most” they also produce some top class wines blends from some of the high marquee vineyards of Sonoma and Carneros. Strolling through the rear of the property you can see the many vines, each row named after a different member, one can but dream.
Our top pick to sample is an elegant Ram’s Gate 2013 Chardonnay, Green Acres Vineyard, richly textured with a zesty cream finish, this is a beautiful example of the new breed of Chardonnays breaking through.
Almost 50 years in business, 13 of which in Napa, Trefethen is a 100% estate grown operation with a big focus on sustainability and a huge respect for the land. An earthquake in 2014 saw a huge amount of damage to the estate but thankfully most of the 2013 vintage had been already been bottled and shipped. Today the tasting room and original residence of the family have been renovated in the style they originally stood and continue to host wine lovers from all over the world.
Trefethen is ranked as one of the Top 15 Best Things to do in Napa Valley on TripAdvisor and having been there we can see why. Apart from being a beautiful estate, the house itself is filled with history on the winery over the past 48 years. Tasting start from €25 where you can sample many of the varieties of world-class wines grown on this family estate, including limited releases and some rare older vintages. The family has spent many years focusing on producing wines that have a real finesse and elegance abut them.
Our top recommendation is the 2013 Trefethen Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon which is a superb example of ripe luxurious fruit on the palate, a blend of 86% cabernet, 6% Malbec, 6% Petit Verdot and 2%, this recently scored 93 points in Decanter Magazine and is alone worth the trip.
Set high up off the Silverado Trail is a real hidden gem overlooking the Napa Valley, Rombauer is one of the most scenic vineyards you will set foot in these parts. As you stroll through the picturesque gardens you will see a plethora of stunning sculptures including a cast iron vine amongst the many eye catching works of art.
We had the chance to enjoy their “cave tour” which is a wine geeks paradise, 1900 feet of underground caves to explore, all housing a long history. With a fun and knowledgeable host you will be guided on a journey of discovery as you enter Romsbauer’s barrel shaped entrance to learn about the winemaking experience.
You cannot visit Rombauer and not sample their legendary Chardonnay we recommend tasting the 2015 Carneros Chardonnay – plenty of brightness on the palate with melon and apple pie notes, yet only a tiny hint of butter, it is however the delicious acidity that makes this a defining wine.
Many wineries in California operate wine clubs where members enjoy exclusive tastings and blends, limited releases and preferred members pricing. For members it is also an amazing social scene where like minded people share their love for these cool climate kings.
Peju Winery is a great example of the lighter side of Napa wine making. Family run, the day we stopped by we were greeted by co-owners, the glamorous Herta Peju and her charming daughter Lisa who is leading the charge to reach the younger wine audience ripe for the picking. Like many of its neighbouring wineries sustainably farmed estates are of huge importance to Peju and the family have invested heavily in organic and energy efficient programmes.
For €35 you can experience their classic tasting with no reservation required where you will not only learn about the winery’s history and taste through some of their range but you will also learn in a relaxed setting the story behind each one. Make sure your try the 2013 Peju Cabernet Franc, aged for over 24 months in 60% French oak and 40% American this interesting tipple has some fantastic savoury notes and is definitely one to smuggle back on the plane as it will definitely benefit from some ageing.
It would be a cardinal sin to visit Napa and not take the time to stop by this historic estate which dates back to 1879. Bought by the Oscar winning director Francis Ford Coppola in 1975, Inglenook and returned to its former glory. Today its wines are considered to rival the very best in Europe. The chateau itself is the epitome of grandeur, with hundreds of turn of the century antique wine memorblla dotted through the ground floor and unique tasting rooms to suit all tastes, this truly is a must see.
You can savour a seated tasting in their impressive Pennino Salon with one of their wine educators where you get to sample their Estate wines in addition to their flagship Rubicon wines all for just €45. the highlight for us was the Inglenook 2014 Blancaneaux, this Rhone style beauty was a refreshing change from many of the whites we tasted. Lots of tropical fruit with an intense minerality on the finish, only problem is one glass just isn’t enough.
When you think of California you can often have polar impressions – on one side, the slow paced countryside, very in tune with the land and nature like you have probably never seen before with casual Friday being an everyday sort of thing. Then on the other the fun side, the partying and a lot more bling.
Well Raymond Winery embodies both, from the outside it looks like any other winery with a striking “theatre of nature” garden which is a living educational exhibit of biodynamic farming that showcases how nature plays a decisive role in the winemaking process. But step inside and prepare to be amazed.. for you are about to enter a winery unlike any we have ever seen. Think leopard print barrels, mannequins in sequenced trapezing from the ceilings, and “Red Room” tasting experience Christian Grey would be proud of.
All joking aside Raymond wineries is an amazing experience, each room designed to heighten your wine senses in the most frivolous ways possible. The “corridor of senses” where you can see, touch and smell all the charactericts found in wine was a real highlight, however meeting the flamboyant and charismatic Jean-Charles Boisset who is the President of Boisset Family Estates which owns Raymond was the most memorable highlight for us. A private winery tour and tasting is available form €55. One to try is the Raymond Reserve Anniversary Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 a supple wine with lots of black fruit and subtle hints of coffee running through its fresh texture.
For those who love the exclusive scoop and want to seek out wineries a little more off the beaten track than Ovid Vineyard is well worth the detour. Perched over the valley floor is this striking location high up in St.Helena. Peering out from their porch you can enjoy enviable views that even stretch as far as San Francisco Bay.
They are the only winery in Napa to house permanently designed concrete tanks, it is the mixed use of concrete and wooden tanks along with their gravity flow innovation that has made them a cult wine in these parts. This exclusive winery has quite the waiting list so wise to get your booking in early.
Our top pick should you have the chance to sample is Ovid Hexameter 2013 at €250 a bottle you may not get the chance to taste something as impressive as this for quite some time. It is a full bodied cabernet franc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon blend, with silky luxuriousness and a structured balance that surprised us all.
Situated in the heart of Russian River Valley is an historic barn that has been carefully transformed into a slick destination for wine education and exploration. Set over three floors with a beautiful outdoor terrace overlooking the vineyard, La Crema Estate was one of the most laid back, fun and informative tastings we experienced in our time in California. Make sure you ask for Pedro, not only is he the most entertaining host but he also has the best tips on where to eat while visiting this neck of the woods.
Part of the California icons that are Jackson Family Wines you will be spoiled for choice trying to narrow down a favourite but we fancied the sweet wine (which you don’t see much of in these parts ) a loveable 2013 La Crema “Sweet As” Gewürztraminer, honeycomb and tangerine flavours with a juicy acidity that leads to a memorable finish .
Another Sonoma superstar is the terroir driven Littorai Wines, spearheaded by Burgundian trained Ted Lemon. There is probably no better example of wine growing at harmony with nature. This tour allows you to see first hand all the diverse bio dynamic principles that are used here day to day, from bee keeping to encourage pollination to estate produced compost which acts as a natural fertiliser.
Only producing 5,000 cases a year this low quantity, high quality reputation is highly regarded in wine circles. Much respect must be given to the level of work that can be seen in the vineyard that goes into maintaining all the sustainable farming practices that we witnessed. These are wines designed to age, to improve, open up and evolve. For those bio dynamic doubters and there are many, seeing is believing.
Our top pick is the 2014 Littorai Cerise Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, a subtle spice bomb with big tannins for a Pinot but an intriguing drop that we would love to sample again over a generous haunch of venison.
Technically not open to the public but well worth chancing your arm for a tour of this one of a kind location. Steeped in the heart of the Russian River Valley, MacMurray Ranch Vineyard is surrounded by rolling hills, rivers and mountains in a homestead seemingly frozen in time. Dating back to 1850 as a farm ranch, the property was bought by Hollywood sliver screen star Fred MacMurray back in 1941. A keen fisherman and hunter, Fred loved the ranch life and the unique setting. Still to this day his ranch can be viewed with all the memorabilia and decor of a 1950’s ranch.
It is without doubt one of the most breathtakingly, peaceful places in this state. The property was bought over in 1996 by the E & J Gallo Winery, one of the largest exporters of California wines worldwide. Fred’s daughter Kate MacMurray is still involved today and continues his legacy on the property and tells the story of the MacMurray heritage like no other.
Even if you don’t make it here, raise a glass of refreshing, silk textured 2013 MacMurray Estate Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Gris in Fred’s honour.
San Francisco – Hotel Vitale
Located in San Francisco’s Embarcadero area, this luxury hotel enjoys the best of both worlds. A five minute stroll to the Waterfront and food markets or a ten minute walk to the shopping mecca that is Union Square.
With rooftop Spa, comfortable and contemporary accommodation and stunning views of the Bay Bridge this is an ideal location to tour the city on foot. Make sure to leave time for one of their signature cocktails from their popular Americano Restaurant and Bar.
Only 40 mins from San Fran airport this is a well positioned location to see both sides of the city.
Prices from €320 per room per night, for more information click HERE
Napa Valley- The Andaz
Located in the heart of Downtown Napa and within easy walking distance to an abundance of cool wine bars and exciting restaurants this is the ideal boutique location for touring Napa and Carneros. One of the smoothest check in’s ever with a welcome wine included, the lobby is kitted out in a wine theme and the hotel bar offer many excellent Californian wines by the glass.
Rooms are well appointed and modern, with comfortable facilities and all the mods cons. Tops marks for free soft drinks and snacks in the minbars. The breakfast is excellent with super options for the health conscious in addition to those who love to indulge. Staff are friendly and knowledgeable and are happy to give you lots of advise if you are touring around.
Prices from €300 per room per night, for more information see HERE
Sonoma County – MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa
MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa is the kind of place Californians go for some serious downtime and R&R. This beautiful retreat is just 15 minutes from Napa and a super place to stay while touring Sonoma or Los Carneros, steeped in old world charm.
Rooms offer huge open fireplaces, the most comfortable king sized beds, hydrotherapy tubs and surround sound. They also offer some of the most spacious accommodation in the State. The bustling Sonoma Plaza is a short distance by foot and after a long day touring vineyards you can return to one of their 40 massages available in their “Garden Spa” with glass of wine in hand of course !
Prices are from €303 per room per night, for more information click HERE
Flights to San Fransisco are available direct with Aer Lingus start from €640pp
Keith & Jules Mahon are the founders of TheTaste. We want TheTaste to be a culinary kaleidoscope to champion every taste, food, wine, cocktails, whiskey, etc. We are delighted to be part of such a creative and fast moving industry and are very passionate about sharing with you our unique journey around Ireland finding the best culinary hotspots.