As California wine has risen to prominence on the world scene, the number of wineries here has grown from a few dozen to several hundred. But rather than visit mass-production wineries to pick up a bottle you could buy at home, a tasting tour through Napa Valley and Sonoma County gives you a chance to check out some of the region’s smaller, charming boutiques — ask to try something that’s only sold at the winery. The GuideAdvisor team spent a number of days in the Napa region recently, interviewing bike guides, such as Frieda Lewis of Ace It Tours, and wine guides, such as Don Rikard of Platypus Tours and Derick Martin of Concierge of the Valley, and we realized that hiring a guide for this particular area makes sense because: a) Who wants to drive themselves around a wine tasting region? and b) A number of the smaller, out-of-the-way wineries require reservations in advance. Here are eight of the best on our list:
1. Pride Mountain Vineyards
This vineyard, with its wooden-beamed winery and stunning views of Mount St. Helena, specializes in big, bold red wines “on the black-fruit side of the ripeness spectrum.” Its Pride Mountain Vineyards red wines tend to have a darker character than its neighbours from the valley — which the owners attribute to the vineyard’s mountaintop setting.
4026 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena
2. Honig Vineyard & Winery
What was once a “garage” winery is now a family enterprise, focusing solely on the production of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. This allows the winemakers to get creative; they offer a classic Sauvignon Blanc, but also one aged in oak for a creamier taste. The Honig family is also known for their leadership in sustainability, with eco-conscious practices such as using nesting boxes and perches in their vineyards to attract predators that control rodents and insects.
850 Rutherford Rd., Rutherford
3. PlumpJack Winery
This quirky winery named after one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters (Sir John “PlumpJack” Falstaff) has a cult following, and for good reason. In 2003, Wine Enthusiast declared its 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon the best wine in the world. Though PlumpJack was established in 1995, the winery building and vineyard date back to the 1800s, sitting in Napa’s Oakville region on a 42-acre estate. Known for producing full-bodied wines, PlumpJack currently offers Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve Chardonnay, Napa Valley Syrah and Napa Valley Merlot. Many of its bottles are screw-cap, which the winery says represents its “spirit of approachability.”
620 Oakville Cross Road, Oakville
4. Trespass Vineyard & Winery
With only five acres of grapes, this boutique winery — a collaboration between husband and wife team Dana and Don Gallagher — can be found at the base of Spring Mountain in Napa Valley. Because of its small size, almost every aspect of winemaking is done by hand, lending to the unique character of its Trespass Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. While you’re here, pick up one of Trespass’ renowned vintages.
1859 Hillview Place, St. Helena
5. Terra Valentine
In a tranquil mountainside setting you’ll find Terra Valentine, with picturesque views and a castle-like cellar. This winery is known for blending cutting-edge technology with Old World techniques, which the winemakers say is a “meticulous process to extract the flavour and intensity of the fruit, careful to ensure that the wines reflect the sense of place where they are grown.” It has two estates in the Spring Mountain District and is known for producing quality reds.
3787 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena
6. Navarro Vineyards
This family-run vineyard in the Anderson Valley of coastal Mendocino has been growing grapes since 1974 — and you probably won’t find its wines in your local liquor store. During the 2013 Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition, 12 of its wines received gold medals; it was also recognized for its sustainable farming practices, which includes using sheep instead of chemical herbicides. Pick up a bottle or two of its award-winning wines, including Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Edelzwicker and Pinot Grigio.
5601 Hwy 128, Philo
7. Artesa Vineyards & Winery
Owned by the Raventos family of Spain, the winery’s name comes from the Catalan word for “handcrafted.” Artesa focuses on producing small, premium lots — particularly Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s also worth a visit for its hilltop location with panoramic views of the Napa Valley and San Francisco Bay. Try the Estate Pinot Noir, which received rave reviews from Wine Enthusiast.
1345 Henry Road, Napa
8. Burgess Cellars
This family-run winery believes the varietals planted should match the vineyard’s soil composition and micro-climate, so it produces wine out of three distinct vineyard sites. Its flagship wine is Cabernet Sauvignon from the western slopes of Howell Mountain; another vineyard, on the valley floor, produces an award-winning Merlot. Currently it grows eight varieties, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and a red blend in the lineup.
1108 Deer Park Road, Deer Park (near St. Helena)