Napa Valley- The Ultimate Tasting Room Guide

As many of you already know, I’m basically obsessed with Napa Valley. I make a point to go once a year, and when I return I eagerly begin planning my next visit. If I could pick one place in the United States to spend my time, it would almost certainly be Napa Valley. Given this well known state of affairs, I get a lot of questions about what wineries people should visit when they make trips out to wine country. Since I’ve visited a lot of them, I decided it might be worth it organize all of my experiences on this blog. Let’s assume you start driving through Carneros, cut over through downtown Napa, head north all the up Highway 29, and then come back south down the Silverado Trail. Here are some of the choices you’ll be forced to make with a seemingly infinite number of wineries in Napa Valley:

ARTESA

Tasting Experience: The tasting room isn’t the easiest to find, but it’s well worth the effort. Once atop the hill where the winery sits, visitors can enjoy the best panoramic view of the valley that any winery in the area offers. (below, once with the Matty, and once without) The modern decor includes a fountain and infinity pools and is a considerable achievement in architecture. The tasting room is large and inviting, but the real draw here is the amazing view and modern architecture. My most recent tasting experience here was great, with friendly staff and gigantic pours. Open 10-4:30, tasting fee $10. GRADE: A

Wine: Artesa specializes in Pinot Noir, and this is where they excel, especially with their reserve bottlings. Attempts at making Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot leave something to be desired, but they do bottle a few interesting varietals such as Tempranillo and Albarino. Recent attempts at Chardonnay have been improving. GRADE: B

TRUCHARD

Tasting Experience: Truchard is appointment only and quite off the beaten path, but certainly worth the visit. The tasting is conducted in a small office-like room that is somewhat cramped and uncomfortable, but our host was friendly and poured us a large selection of wines. The highlight of this tasting is heading into the much more spacious barrel room, which is one of the very best winery caves I’ve ever seen (below). Open 10:30-5 by appointment M-F. GRADE: B+

Wine: The star of the show at Truchard is Syrah, which is consistently a standout in the region. The winery also produces impressive Chardonnay and Zinfandel that often fly under the radar, all for a very reasonable price. GRADE: B

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JOHN ANTHONY 

Tasting Experience: In downtown Napa, this brand new tasting facility makes for a perfect stop while walking around town at any time of day or night. John Anthony Truchard has taken his winemaking skills to a new level with this venture. The sleek, modern tasting room offers table service in a relaxed, upbeat environment. We received four large tastes, which our hostess was happy to split between the two of us for no added fee. Open daily 10-midnight, tasting fee $20. GRADE: B+

Wines: The Sauvignon Blanc is always worth seeking out, but the Cabernets are where John Anthony is currently hitting its stride. The 2007 example (93 points) is the perfect archetype for how a Napa Cabernet should taste. The Syrah is still a work in progress, but shows promise. GRADE: B+

O’BRIEN

Tasting Experience: West of Highway 29 tucked in off of Orchard Road, O’Brien Estate is a down-to-earth tasting stop. They serve their wines out of a lively garage set-up (below), and the surrounding vineyards are very scenic. The friendly servers gave us large pours and were happy to waive our tasting fees after we bought a bottle. Open daily 10-5, tasting fee $15. GRADE: B+

Wine: I was very impressed with the elegant texture of their Meritage blend, the 2008 Seduction, but the white wines seemed rather ordinary. GRADE: B

ROBERT BIALE

Tasting Experience: Positioned on the outskirts of downtown Napa, Biale makes for a perfect first stop when heading into town. The staff is happy to seat you outdoors on the rocking chairs and bring the wine to you as you sit back and soak up the scenery (below). We received seven large tastes of the winery’s Zinfandel and Petite Sirah at a relaxed pace and our server could not have been friendlier. Our tasting fees were waived with a bottle purchase. Open daily 10-5, $15. GRADE: A

 

Wines: The star of the show here is the Petite Sirah. The bottle of Thomann Station 2008 (93 Points) remains my highest scoring Petite Sirah to date. There are many different single vineyard Zinfandels produced here as well at various levels of quality. The best, and most expensive, is the Aldo’s Vineyard from the Oak Knoll District. GRADE: B+

DOMAINE CHANDON

Tasting Experience: This elaborate facility has become a major tourist attraction for its beautiful grounds, modern, almost trendy tasting room atmopshere and tasty sparkling wines. The tasting room offers flights that seem a bit overpriced and controlled, but is certainly upbeat and the service is congenial. It’s open late as well, and once you are in they don’t kick you out, so it is a great choice to end the day with. In good weather, your best bet is to avoid the crowded tasting room and buy a bottle to enjoy in the large yard behind, and if you’re up to it, get lost in a vineyard like I did (below). Open 10-6, tasting flights $10-20. GRADE: B+

Wine: I have to admit, these guys make better wine than I had expected, although it isn’t quite on par with some of the better producers in Carneros. Still, for the price, all of the sparkling wines here are a lot better than they need to be for the amount of traffic this place gets. GRADE: B-

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GIRARD

Tasting Experience: This recent addition to Yountville’s Washington Street is an impressive one. A modern, upbeat atmosphere and a very relaxed tasting staff creates an almost wine-bar style experience. This would be a great place to do for drinks before dinner, as the room is open after most wineries close. If it’s beautiful vineyard views you are looking for, this isn’t your place, but for a change of pace, this is an excellent stop. Open 10-6, tasting fee varies depending on choice. GRADE: B+

Wine: The top-level Cabernet here has recently risen to among Napa’s best in the $80-$100 range, and there is depth among other varietals as well. Zinfandel and Petite Sirah continue to shine here, and the blended Artistry isn’t shabby either, especially in 2006. GRADE: B+

OPUS ONE

Tasting Experience: Opus One is among Napa’s most serious tasting experiences. We opted to skip the tour and head straight to the tasting bar, where you can buy a 3.5 ounce pour for $30 and take it up to the beautiful terrace area. The entire place has a different, more professional air than I am accustomed to in Napa tasting rooms, but the staff is very friendly and helpful, if not overly serious. The architecture here is impressive as well. Open 10-4 by appointment, $30 per taste or $35 for a tour and taste. GRADE: A-

Wine: Opus One makes only one wine, its famous Bordeaux-style blend, each year. I was impressed by its texture and seamlessness but surprised by its overall softness. This is truly a wine made in the French style, and carries itself with a unique elegance that is difficult to find elsewhere. At the price point, it is difficult to recommend, but well worth tasting and enjoying the atmosphere here. GRADE: B+

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ROBERT MONDAVI

Tasting Experience: There is so much history here and so many tour options that it is almost overwhelming. We opted to simply browse the grounds and take it all in, as there are three separate tasting rooms here that offer different levels of wine quality. Only the reserve room looked to be worth a trip, and since I’d already tasted the most recent vintage of the Reserve Cabernet I opted to avoid the $30 tasting fee. It’s really a shame that the tasting rooms are set up in such a stiff format, because the architecture is so unique. You can almost feel the sadness here. Open 10-5, several different tasting and tour options from $10-30. GRADE: B

Wine: The breadth of Mondavi’s offerings is so massive by now that it is hard to give a grade, but the Oakville and Reserve bottlings have certainly been at the top of their class recently. The grocery store lable “Private Reserve” wines are a horse of a different color, but let’s assume that if you are here to taste wine, you won’t choose to taste anything you could find at your local supermarket. GRADE: A-

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TURNBULL

Tasting Experience: I’ve been here on two occasions. The first time I left because it was so crowded and I noticed that their tasting list didn’t include any of the wines that I wanted to try from them. The second time, I went early on a Monday to try their 2004 Cabernet. I was the only person in the entire tasting room, and as I tried to make small talk, neither of the two people working in the winery would look in my direction or even respond, even to collect my tasting fee, which I had no choice but to walk out on. Maybe it was my intense note-taking, but I haven’t been treated that way at any other winery while doing the same thing. Very bizarre. The tasting room itself is nothing special, and they only offer three wines to taste. Open 10-4:30, tasting fee $10. GRADE: D-

Wine: It’s unfortunate that the experience here seems to be such a let down, because the wines are quite good. Turnbull makes especially good Cabernet year after year and is usually in the $40 range, which is pretty reasonable in Napa. GRADE: B

CAKEBREAD

Tasting Experience: This is one of those famous wineries that requires the tour and tasting to be combined in one. You check in as if you were at a restaurant and you join the tour, which takes you through the grounds and into the cellar to taste. Wines are served while you stand around in a circle, which isn’t always my favorite way to taste since others usually pound their wine before me and I’m hurried along, although I have to say it was pretty cool to be standing there with barrels and barrels of Cakebread wine surrounding me (below). It was also quite cold in the cellar. Open 10-4 by appointment, tasting fee $20. GRADE: B

Wine: Cakebread is one of the flagship wineries of Napa and continues to produce great Cabernet Sauvignon, although there are better producers at the price point. They also produce a wide range of other varietals well, including Chardonnay, Merlot and Zinfandel. GRADE: C+

RUBICON

Tasting Experience: This used to be a madhouse when it was Niebaum-Coppola. The owners of the winery and the wine are much the same, but the setup took a complete 180-degree turn. The place is essentially on lockdown, by appointment only, and operates more like an elitist hotel than it does a winery. You certainly feel special, as you’re given a “tasting passport” to enter the grounds, which you enter via a red carpet. It’s probably a bit much, but the personalized tasting appointment maintains the integrity of the winery I suppose, and I probably prefer the new style to the zoo that it used to be. It’s just almost too quiet, but the grounds and chateau are still breathtaking (below) Open 10-5, by appointment, tasting fee and tour $25. GRADE: B

Wines: The flagship wine, Rubicon Red, is always a standout. Recently, the winery has been making some delicious examples of Syrah and Zinfandel as well, and offers some decent values on top of it all. A lot of these wines are only available at the winery, which is a strong selling point as far as visitation is concerned. GRADE: B+

ST. SUPERY

Tasting Experience: This is a clean, slightly trendy tasting room that doubles as a gift shop, and which has a friendly staff to help you through your tasting of about five wines. We enjoyed chatting with our server and liked the decoration of the room and the setup. It’s conveniently located and worth a stop. Open 10-5, tasting fee $10. GRADE: B

Wine: St. Supery is most famous for their Virtu and Elu blends, which are good but not fantastic. They make above-average Cabernet most years as well. GRADE: C+

BEAULIEU

Tasting Experience: This historic winery offers a relaxed, friendly tasting experience with several tasting options at the indoor bar. Their website offers a 2 for 1 tasting coupon. We opted to taste in the main room, but if you are here strictly to try the Georges de LaTour Reserve, you’ll need to head to the reserve room. Open daily 10-5, tastings $15-20 in main room, $35 in reserve room. GRADE: B

Wine: While the LaTour Reserve is the wine that keeps BV among the most famous in the region, I think recently they’ve had more success with their Tapestry, a Meritage blend. The Maestro collection offers several more above average options. GRADE: B

GRGICH HILLS

Tasting Experience: We were very happy with the friendly, laid-back service here. The tasting room is quaint, the portions are substantial and the staff is genuinely interested in its customers. I showed interest as I always do, and was given some additional tastes of reserve wines. Open 9:30-4:30, tasting fee $10. GRADE: B+

Wine: The white wines here are stellar year after year, especially the Sauvignon Blanc, and the Chardonnay has been drinking quite well also. The Cabernet is inconsistent but can be great in more successful vintages, such as the most recent 2006 release. GRADE: B

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PROVENANCE

Tasting Experience: The ladies serving us wine here were incredibly friendly and were so interested in how we’d chosen to visit them. They were very attentive and informative, and we really enjoyed discussing the wines with them. I even bought a reasonably priced bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from them because they were so kind to us. The grounds themselves are above-average, with a nice garden outside and a well-decorated, large but not overcrowded tasting room. Open 10:30-5:30, tasting fee $10. GRADE: B+

Wine: Their Rutherford Cabernet has been one of the best mid-priced wines of the last two vintages, and their Sauvignon Blanc is among the best in the Valley. They also make a wide selection of limited production single vineyard Merlot that are consistently great, and I don’t ordinarily get too excited about that varietal. GRADE: B

ALPHA OMEGA

Tasting Experience: This is the former Esquisse space, and was still under some construction when we visited. There is still a beautiful picnic area with a fountain in the background. We were greeted by a friendly host who poured us several wines, including a barrel taste. The place still has a bit of an awkward feel since there is so much construction going on in and around the tasting area, but I felt that the service was great. Open 10-6, tasting fee $10. GRADE: B

Wine: I really wanted to love this place, but the wine is simply not up to the same standards set by the rest of the valley, at least not at this point in time. The Cabernets suffered from shortness of length across several vintages, and all of the wines seemed overpriced for the quality even for Napa wine. Recent reviews have shown that the winery is beginning to hit its stride, so perhaps I visited too early in its lifetime, but I’ll refrain from re-rating them until I get a chance to taste them. GRADE: C

FRANCISCAN

Tasting Experience: My wife talked me into checking this place out because the decoration is so pretty on the outside. Boatloads of flowers and an inviting fountain seem to indicate a certain quality. (below) I guess it wasn’t actually a bad experience, and the guy pouring the wine was trying to be friendly, but he came off as bizarre and not very knowledgeable. One of those guys who seemed to want you to know that he wasn’t really enjoying himself. He did comp my tasting though, but who doesn’t? Open 10-5, tasting fee $5-10. GRADE: C

Wine: Ehh…they aren’t terrible but there are so many other better producers in the Valley. Average Cabernet for the most part and the famous Magnificat Blend doesn’t stack up to other blends in the same price range. GRADE: C-

FLORA SPRINGS

Tasting Experience: This spot isn’t a winery but just a tasting room, although they do have picnic tables out back. If it’s beautiful grounds you’re looking for, this isn’t the spot, but this is one of the better places to taste wine in the Valley. The staff is helpful and the wine selection is vast and unique. Open 10-5, tasting fee $5-$10. GRADE: B

Wine: The selection is very wide and interesting, with everything from the ordinary Cabernet to Sangiovese and barrel-fermented Chardonnay. Their Trilogy Meritage is always a standout and their Chardonnays and Cabernets are always impressive for the price point. GRADE: B

RAYMOND

Tasting Experience: This lively tasting room has a friendly and informative staff. The grounds aren’t anything spectacular, but this was one of my first tasting experiences and I enjoyed it. One staff member actually poured me an additional taste of the Generations Cabernet when he saw how interested I was in the wines, which was greatly appreciated. Open 10-4, tasting fee $5-10. GRADE: B+

Wine: Raymond is most famous for their Cabernet, which stacks up pretty well against the best in the valley at this price point. Their other wines are mostly straightforward, but quaffable. GRADE: B

HALL

Tasting Experience: This is a quaint little tasting room with a great staff that is often looked over. The grounds are also underrated, with a long tunnel passage to the winery underneath green foilage and between gardens. UPDATE: The winery has now expanded and built a brand new tasting room, and the grounds are still very beautiful for being right off of Highway 29. Our young server was very accommodating and poured us whatever we wanted to taste once he noticed our extreme interest in these wines. I even got my tasting comped with a bottle purchase, but I am under the impression that this is not the normal policy. Open 10-5:30, tasting fee $10. GRADE: B+

Wine: I was very impressed with their top level Cabernet in a very difficult 2003 vintage; it seemed to stack up with other high level producers. This winery had a spectacular 2006 vintage across the board, as the Cabernet shines brightly and the Merlot is very impressive as well. On a recent visit, the Sauvignon Blanc was my favorite of that varietal that I tasted. Surely a Cabernet specialist, this is a winery that it really hitting its stride right now. UPDATE: New highs were reached in the 2008 Vintage, with several fantastic Cabernets. Notably, the Kathyrn Hall earned a #2 Wine of the Year accolade from the Wine Spectator in 2011.  GRADE: A-

HEITZ

Tasting Experience: This is one of the few places in the valley (especially right off of Highway 29) that still offers free tastings, but that isn’t because the wine falls short. The tasting room is spacious and friendly but can tend to be quite crowded for obvious reasons. They break out two reserve Cabernet bottlings along with Chardonnay and Port, the latter of which was especially interesting. The grounds are small but do feature a sitting area with a great view of the surrounding vineyards. Well worth a stop, and extra points for the no frills attitude of the server while pouring me a bottle of $100 wine for free. Open 10-5, free tastings. GRADE: B+

Wine: The Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet was consistently one of Wine Spectator’s highest rated top-level Cabernets throughout the 90s, but they stopped reviewing it this decade until slapping the deserving 2004 vintage with a 93. They don’t pour it here but the other wines are diverse enough to make the tasting experience an enjoyable one. I especially enjoyed tasting some vintage 1998 Cabernets in the $80 range, as well as a high quality port-wine made from Zinfandel grapes, which you don’t see much of in Napa. This has become my main stop for port in the area. GRADE: B+

ORIN SWIFT

Tasting Experience: One of the quirkier tasting endeavors in Napa is to seek out cult favorite Orin Swift, who pours their wine out of a tiny room in a historic old building in downtown St. Helena. Our tasting guide E.J. was helpful and informative and did not charge us for tasting after some of our party made bottle purchases. I do wonder whether finding street parking and wandering up to this strange tasting room is worth the effort though, as they don’t pour anything that you can’t find readily available at most wine outlets, and you certainly aren’t coming here for the scenery. Open Monday through Friday by appointment. GRADE: B-

Wines: The spicy Prisoner blend is a winner year after year and continues to be a real steal at this price point. Quality is consistent as well through the winery’s other affordable offerings, including the D66 Grenache Blend, the Saldo Zinfandel, and the Abstract and Papillon Cabernet Blends. GRADE: B+

(taking a brief detour up Spring Mountain, which is well worth the trip…)

PRIDE

Tasting Experience: This vineyard boasts one of the most impressive views of the entire valley from its vantage point high above Spring Mountain. During the basic tasting, our tasting guide was somewhat of a space cadet and couldn’t keep track of what wine we were on or when we needed more, and many times I was left standing there for several minutes with an empty glass. This isn’t a deal breaker, but when I dedicate over an hour to a tasting appointment, taste six wines and almost miss my next appointment, I get a bit irritated, although she didn’t charge me for the tasting (not sure if that was because of my notebook or if she simply forgot). Still, the service was friendly, and for a picnic lunch, there isn’t a better spot in all of Napa (below).   UPDATE: If you are going to drive all the way to the top of Spring Mountain to visit Pride, be sure to get there for the once-a-day 10:00 am tour, which offers a much more personal experience, and a standout one at that. Our tour guide Russ was spectacular, as he poured us Viognier on the terrace and then walked us through the cave to taste the current vintages of the Merlot and Cabernet, while providing interesting information about the vineyard and winemaking process. We even got to taste a barrel sample of the highly sought after Reserve Cabernet before walking through the vineyard and up to the highest peak on the property, and then back into the tasting room for some dessert wine. To me, this is a can’t miss way to start your day. Open 10:30-3:45 by appointment daily, tasting fee $10, 10 a.m.tour fee $15 (usually comp’d with purchase). GRADE: A

Wine: Truly, this is one of Napa’s finest red wine producers year after year. I was even blown away by the Merlot here, which is a rarity for me in any tasting room. The Syrah and Cabernet are in the top tier for this price range, and the Viognier is also a can’t miss varietal. GRADE: A-

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SHERWIN FAMILY

Tasting Experience: As long as you are up on the mountain visiting Pride, why not swing by the lovely setting at Sherwin Family? Our host Donna was as gracious as can be, and poured us three large tastes of their Estate Cabernet, Syrah, and Cellar Scraps blend. She sat with us on the lovely vista overlooking the vines and a small pond with a fountain (below) and walked us through all the wines while engaging in genuine conversation about our lives and interests. Meanwhile, we sat back and enjoyed the serene, yet homey ambiance of the estate while enjoying her gracious pours. Amazingly (especially considering the size of the pours) there is no tasting fee, as the staff puts their trust in you that after tasting these delicious wines and enjoying this sort of hospitality, you won’t be able to leave without buying something, even at these prices.  Open by appointment, daily, no tasting fee. GRADE: A

Wine: Sherwin Family concentrates on its flagship Cabernet made solely from estate fruit, but also sources grapes to produce Syrah and blends. I noticed that these wines are very terroir driven with primary flavors of elegant red currant fruit above earthy notes, and all in perfect balance. The Syrah, sourced from Dry Creek Valley, is very understated in style, with a streak of black pepper running throughout.  GRADE: B+

DOMAINE CHARBAY

Tasting Experience: We had a serious connection at this tiny, low-production winery nestled atop Spring Mountain. They specialize in port wines here and we certainly got our fill at a spectacular tasting in the barrel room (below). Open by appointment. GRADE: B+

Wines: Lots and lots of port here, which was all delicious, and the low yield Cabernet showed a lot of potential, especially the stuff from barrel. Not a whole lot of people know about this place, but they would probably be surprised. The selection of wine isn’t very diverse, but it is certainly very well-made. GRADE: B-

PALOMA

Tasting Experience: Before it’s too late, make a special effort to make the drive all the way up Spring Mountain to visit the legendary Barbara Richards at her home. The Richards’ carefully picked this property many years ago to grow Merlot and Cabernet grapes, and listening to her stories and winemaking philosophies are truly a revelation. She did, after all, receive the Wine of the Year Award from Wine Spectator in 2003 for her 2001 Merlot. After spending some time on the backyard deck admiring the steep vineyards below, we tasted two wines with her at her dining room table. The pours of both the 2008 Merlot and 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon were basically full glasses. I bought a bottle of each and didn’t ever want to leave. Tasting complimentary, open by appointment only. GRADE: A

Wines: The experience is made whole by the sheer quality of these wines. To hear Mrs. Richards explain her meticulous winemaking practices while viewing her vineyards and then to taste the wines at the same time truly puts this special place into perspective. The 2009 Cabernet (96 Points) earned my highest score for that varietal in 2011, and the 2008 Merlot (94 Points) remains my highest scoring wine for that varietal as well. GRADE: A

SCHWEIGER

Tasting Experience: We traveled here during a trip up Spring Mountain and tasted indoors at the bar as it was raining outside. We were armed with a Groupon that may have been a turn-off to our pourer, who seemed stressed by the anticipated length of our stay. Nevertheless, we enjoyed five relatively tiny pours of their Estate wine, as well as informative dialogue from our tasting guide. Open daily by appointment 10-4, tasting fee $20, tour and tasting $35. GRADE: B

Wine: The Cabernet and blends are the star of the show, as is the case with pretty much every winery off of Spring Mountain Road. The Meritage Dedication wine was the highlight, although on the whole I find the quality to be better nearby at Pride, Sherwin and Paloma. GRADE: B

(back onto Highway 29)

MERRYVALE

Tasting Experience: The tasting room itself seems over-commercialized and is quite dark, although I was intrigued by the private dining room. Our server was friendly and helpful as well. This place would surely be a wild visit later in the day, as its closing time exceeds every other tasting room in Napa. Open 10-6:30, tasting fee $10. GRADE: B

Wines: The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were quite enjoyable here, but the Merlot and Cabernet was noticeably short relative to their peers. I wanted to sample the Syrah, which is supposed to be much better, but it was sold out. GRADE: C+

BERINGER

Tasting Experience: I actually had a coupon for a free tour at this famous winery, but when we decided we didn’t want to spend that much time here and preferred to just jump into the tasting, they applied the $20 coupon value to our tasting, and we found ourselves in the reserve room (below). They were very accommodating. The grounds are large and very well landscaped. Open 10-5, tasting fee $10-20. GRADE: A-

Wine: The reserve Cabernet tasting was great. They lined up four vintages of the $110 Reserves and marked each glass with its vintage. The 2002 and 2004 vintages were standouts. Beringer makes a ton of wine at various price points, but the reserve bottlings, while expensive, are tops in the valley. GRADE: B+

ST. CLEMENT

Tasting Experience: This is my favorite spot to taste wine in all of Napa, as the winery sits in an old country house high on a hill just north of St. Helena (below). The outdoor tasting area has picnic tables and a fantastic view of the valley below. The friendly, informative staff brings the wines to you at your table and walks you through each of them. They have even added a single vineyard tasting at a new patio bar that provides massive pours of the winery’s highest end Cabernet and blends. I loved this place so much the first time I visited that I joined the wine club, which along with great wine, gets me free tastings and tours here. I visit every time that I’m in Napa. Open 10-4 daily, tasting fee $10 for current releases, $25 for single vineyard wines. GRADE: A

Wine: Their flagship Orropas blend is consistently phenomenal, and the Howell Mountain Cabernet is always one of my favorites of the year even after switching their source vineyard in 2004. I’d even say that the taste of the 1999 Howell Mountain Cabernet I had on my first visit here played a huge part in my eventual fascination with wine, and recently the Star Vineyard from Rutherford have been exemplary of the potential of that region. They make solid entry level Cabernet every year as well as good Merlot, and recent attempts at Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are better than ever. GRADE: A

LARKMEAD

Tasting Experience: This was a relaxing stop, as the host seated us outside on the quiet patio overlooking the vineyards behind the quaint building (below).  Our host poured us four wines while telling stories about the family history and it was quite enjoyable. The pours were about average, and it was almost eerily quiet and somewhat formal, but certainly worth the stop. Open 10-4 by appointment, tasting fee $20. GRADE: B+

Wine: The highlight here is the winery’s flagship Firebelle blend. The more expensive Cabernets we tasted after didn’t live up to that one, but the Sauvignon Blanc was above average. GRADE: C+

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STERLING

Tasting Experience: Oddly, for a winery that for most is a love it or hate it type of experience, I find myself squarely in the middle. It has a reputation for being touristy and “the Disney World of Napa Valley”, but it actually serves as an informative and entertaining start for beginners in Napa. Being afraid of heights, I struggled with the ski-lift/ tram that takes you up to the winery, but for others I am sure this is a huge selling point, as you get some great aerial shots of the valley (below). Once you arrive at the top, you walk station to station and get a taste of wine at each different stop. Worth doing once, but after that, it might seem like a bit of a hassle. Open 10-4:30, tasting fee and tour $20. GRADE: B

Wine: The trip to Sterling is mostly for the experience. Once you’ve spent a good amount of time in Napa Valley, this isn’t by any means a can’t miss stop, as the entry-level, grocery store wines leave a lot to be desired. I hate writing that about a place with such nice grounds and customer service, but there it is. GRADE: C-

CLOS PEGASE

Tasting Experience: This is an almost gawdy, art deco building (below) that is quite visually dominating on the Silverado Trail, but the grounds are very beautiful. Inside the tasting room, we were guided through a tour of about five wines by our pleasant servers. The tasting options are very flexible, and while you visit it is worth taking the time to walk around and enjoy the art. We didn’t have time to take the tour, but it appeared very informative if you have an hour to spare. Open 10:30-5 daily, tasting fees $10-15. GRADE: B

Wines: Nothing here jumped out of the glass or rated off the charts for me, but these wines are very well crafted and affordable. They make a very old world style Merlot here that was probably the highlight for me, although their Estate Cuvee at $28 a bottle is a very good bargain. GRADE: B-

BENNETT LANE

Tasting Experience: At the north end of Calistoga, this winery is one of Napa’s best hidden gems. I met sales manager Keith at a wine tasting in Chicago, and he assured me that he would take care of my group when we came to visit the winery, and did he ever keep true to his word! We enjoyed a private but casual tasting outside on the porch (below) where we had a beautiful view of the vineyards behind us. We tasted five wonderful wines, including the Reserve Cabernet, before Keith insisted that we step into the barrel room (don’t have to tell me twice!), where we sampled three more young wines from the barrel. High marks here for service and unexpectedly pretty grounds. Open 10-5:30, tastings $10-$15. GRADE: A

Wine: Even if you don’t have a connection here, the whole vibe of the place is incredibly relaxed given the stellar quality of the wines that they are currently pumping out, especially for the price point. Their Napa Cabernet is in my top three for the $50 and under range for both the 2004 and 2005 vintages, their 2005 Reserve Cabernet is currently my favorite Cabernet of 2008, and their Maximus Blends (both red and white) are packed with flavor and in the $30 range. Underrated and not to be missed. GRADE: B+

CHATEAU MONTELENA

Tasting Experience: They are friendly here, but quite full of themselves. My tasting host was informative to almost an obtrusive level and I was hardly able to take accurate notes on the wines. I suppose I can’t hold that against them, but it was a bit much; I would have liked ten seconds here and there to evaluate what I was tasting privately. The grounds themselves are stunning, from the iconic ivy on the doors of the winery to the elaborate pond, complete with bridges and swans. This is worth a stop for the history and the grounds alone. Open 9:30-4 daily excluding some holidays, tasting fee $20. GRADE: B+

Wines: I am always a fan of their expressive, terroir driven Estate Cabernet, but I had trouble getting into the rest of the wines here, even the world famous Chardonnay. Everything was quite quaffable, but nothing besides the aforementioned high end bottle blew me away, and at its price point, there are better places to look. GRADE: B

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……..onto the Silverado Trail now, heading back South………

FRANK FAMILY

Tasting Experience: I found the staff here to be incredibly friendly. We rushed into the winery, a bit behind schedule, to sample a taste of the Cabernet and hopefully buy a bottle. I informed the bartender of this and he gladly poured eight glasses of the wine for my party. I managed to sneak in an additional taste of Zinfandel and bought a bottle of each. This tasting room is known for its free tastings and as a result can be a bit of a madhouse, although they have changed their policy and now charge a small fee on the weekends. I was of course comped thanks to my purchases (and aggressive note-taking). UPDATE: Sadly, it appears this winery has changed its tasting format which is now very rigid and formal. It is appointment only and you are asked to pay before you taste.  Open 10-5, tasting fee $20. GRADE: B+

Wines: I wish I’d had more time to sample everything here, but the two wines I tasted here absolutely knocked my socks off from an innovation standpoint. The Cabernet tasted like Zin and the Zin tasted like Pinot. But in a good way, at at very competitive price points to boot. Very unique style, and the Zinfandel especially seems to outdo its peers on a consistent basis.  GRADE: B+

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BURGESS

Tasting Experience: This winery is quite a bit off the beaten path on Deer Park Road, and requires advance reservations. It’s famous for its canyon-like view of the valley below, and we arrived here at the opening hour to take full advantage, where we were promptly greeted by a friendly gentleman and led immediately into the barrel room. This is a very boutique experience compared to some of the masses of tourists on Highway 29 and a welcome break. The view alone is worth the trip (below), and the service merits a return visit. Open 10-4, free tastings. GRADE: A-

Wine: Burgess specializes in red varietals and makes very expressive Cabernet, Zinfandel, Merlot and Syrah. They border on earthy to an extent, but one has to respect the care and seriousness that goes into making wine here. Additionally, the prices are very reasonable for quality Napa wine. GRADE: B-

VIADER

Tasting Experience: While driving on Deer Park Road past Burgess, if you keep going higher up the hill you will find yourself at the gated property of Viader, which offers and even more impressive view of the valley below from its tasting terrace (below). Our host Chanty was quite the character and very informative as he poured us six of their wines from the winery’s DARE and Estate labels. He certainly took his time going into the house to retrieve the bottles to bring them back out to the terrace, which was fine with us considering the view, but if you are on a schedule you might want to be aware of that, and prepare to spend at least 90 minutes here. Sadly, the expensive tasting is only comped if you purchase a bottle of their $100 Red Blend. Open by appointment M-S, 10-4:30, tastings $35. GRADE: A-

Wine: Viader produces a wide spectrum of unique varietals from both estate fruit and sourced grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranillo, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Sauvignon Blanc. The wines under the DARE label showed good fruit but seemed a bit tight, while the expensive Estate bottles, while elegant, seemed to require quite a bit of attention for delivery. The highlight here is always the Viader Red Blend, as the innovative but even more expensive V seems to strive and struggle for depth. GRADE: B

ROMBAUER

Tasting Experience: The view from up here is incredible, and we really enjoyed the no frills attitude of the tasting room. Our server was a bit on the strange side, but was very talkative and poured me all kinds of wines before waving my fee. A very upbeat and relaxed tasting room. Open 10-5, tasting fee $10. GRADE: B+

Wines: Rombauer is famous for its Chardonnay, and this was indeed the star of the show for me as well. The Cabernet was about average for the price point, while the Merlot failed to impress. GRADE: B-

DUCKHORN

Tasting Experience: Duckhorn is unique among Napa tasting rooms as you actually have to book a table as if you were going to a restaurant. You are seated at a table when you arrive, where your waitress pours you tastes of the wines (about five) and offers information about each. The whole thing seems very unnecessarily formal, but I will say that it keeps things organized. This country house property offers an impressive view for this area of the valley, and is spacious enough to meander through the vineyards after you finish tasting. (below) Open 10-4, tastings $20. GRADE: B

Wine: Generally, the top level Cabernet and Merlot here is pretty solid, and they make very crisp, fruity Chardonnay and Sauvigon Blanc as well, which may be the most impressive of the wines made here. It doesn’t stand up against the best in the valley, but it offers value at the price range. GRADE: B-

JOSEPH PHELPS

Tasting Experience: This might be the only winery that has ever carded me in my entire life. The formality here is a bit over-the-top, but on a nice day, you’re allowed to taste at your own pace and sit on the patio outside overlooking the vineyards. The only downside to this is that you don’t have a server, so when you’re ready for another taste, you have to walk back inside to get it. This is certainly not optimal for a compulsive note-taker like myself, but the service inside was very friendly and informative, and I really enjoyed the serenity of the setting overall. This was a great last stop for our most recent trip. Open by appointment 9-5 M-F, 10-4 weekends, tasting fee $20. GRADE: A-

Wine: The highlight here is obviously the world famous Insignia, a $200 bottle of world class wine that for most is not in a feasible price range. The chance to taste this blend is worth the trip in and of itself, but the entry level Cabernet is also a top-performer in its price range year after year. As whites go, the Sauvignon Blanc here is also a standout. GRADE: A

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RUTHERFORD HILL

Tasting Experience: They offer a picnic area here, although there is no denying that the real draw to these grounds rests just above, as the views offered by the famous Auberge de Soleil resort are a short walk up the hill (below). As far as the tastings go, there is an outdoor tasting bar, which is usually a bit crowded, but the service is laid back and friendly. The tasting fee gets you five tastes and a souvenir glass. Open 10-5, tastings $10. GRADE: B

Wine: The Merlot here is usually top notch for the price, but aside from that, attempts at Sangiovese and Cabernet are just average. GRADE: C

MUMM NAPA

Tasting Experience: This winery is always very busy due to the surging popularity of sparkling wine, and as a result is forced to seat visitors in a restaurant-like manner. The good news is that once seated, (especially outside on the patio) the views overlooking the vineyards and the western mountains enclosing the valley (below) are breathtaking. This is a relaxing stop to just admire the scenery and enjoy some bubbly and life in general. Open 10-4:45 daily, tasting fees vary from $6-$25 for flights of wine. GRADE: B+

Wine: Mumm specializes in sparkling wines but does produce still wine as well, and has a vast array of choices. I wouldn’t place this producer in the same category as Schramsberg or the great Carneros producers like Gloria Ferrer and Domaine Carneros, but the Brut Prestige is quite enjoyable on a sunny day. GRADE: B-

(detour onto Conn Creek Road and Rutherford Road)

CAYMUS

Tasting Experience: A reservation at Caymus is a highly sought after commodity. This is a very formal seated group tasting that fills up rather quickly. Four wines are poured and are explained one by one by a knowledgeable tasting guide and group questions and interaction is encouraged. Some of the wines poured at the tasting are very difficult to find elsewhere, such as the 2005 Sauvignon Blanc and 2008 Zinfandel. Of course, the tasting also includes the winery’s flagship wines, the current releases of the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Cabernet Sauvignon Special Selection. $25, reservations required, open daily 10-4. GRADE: A-

Wines: I was impressed with all of the wines here, but it is the Cabernet that attracts most of the interest. Year after year, Caymus can be counted on to make some of the best Cabernet in Napa. Stylistically, Caymus red wines are known for their rich, ripe, in-your-face black fruit flavors which tend to polarize the tasting community with their intensity. GRADE: A- 

HONIG

Tasting Experience: I was very pleasantly surprised with the service at this quaint, secluded spot. We had the place all to ourselves on a Sunday in July, and were seated outside at a picnic table. Something about the mood here was just incredibly peaceful. Our server brought us about six wines to taste at a very relaxed pace, and after we were finished she asked if we would like to re-taste anything. Then they comped our tasting, presumably just because they are very nice people. We enjoyed chatting with the staff, who were all very friendly and almost grateful for our presence. Open 10-4 by appointment, tastings $10. GRADE: A-

Wine: Honig makes very solid Cabernet every year, often with a unique dustiness and chocolate element. The winery does not produce any Chardonnay but takes great pride in its crisp, light-bodied Sauvignon Blanc. The late harvest Sauvignon Blanc is a delicious treat at the end of the tasting as it is crafted in a dessert wine style. The wines here certainly have a lot of character almost like that of a smaller boutique winery, although many are available nationwide. GRADE: B

ROUND POND

Tasting Experience: This is a very formal but well presented tasting, as you are served three generous tastes, one of Sauvignon Blanc along with two different vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon in a seated environment, each paired with an appetizer from the kitchen. (I actually received a bonus pour of reserve Sauvignon Blanc as well). The outdoor terrace features a spectacular view of the vineyards below and the large fireplace creates a relaxing, cozy ambiance. The service was professional but very friendly, and the place didn’t feel pretentious to me despite the formality of a mandatory reservation, a no children policy, a concierge in the lobby area and purchases being processed along with the tasting fee. $30, reservations required, open daily 11-3:30. GRADE: A

Wines: The quality of the Cabernet here tends to vary quite a bit by vintage. I tasted the 2005 and 2008 and purchased a bottle of the more highly acclaimed 2007, scoring the three 88, 91 and 94 respectively. The Sauvignon Blanc is quite refreshing as well, and the Boudin Blanc Reserve was one of the best white wines I tasted on my most recent visit. GRADE: B+

(big time detour onto Sage Canyon Road)

CHAPPELLET

Tasting Experience: Let me start by saying that this place is a real bear to actually get to. It is way, way off the beaten path. The tour and tasting is by appointment only, which usually means that the experience is somewhat intimate. It was nothing of the sort at Chappallet. Crowded into a pack of about 20 people, we were led by our eccentric and extremely uptight tour guide through the barrel room and outside to see the crush while she passed the bottle around and tried to split it 20 ways. You can imagine me standing trying to take notes (which really, really bothered her- at one point she asked me “Are you an only child? Because you seem to like taking up a lot of space.” I am not kidding). When the pour on the Reserve Merlot ran out, we were out of luck and didn’t even get to taste the wine! The whole thing was so unorganized and chaotic that we were running behind and in jeopardy of missing our flight, so we were forced to leave before tasting the highest end Cabernet, but at that point I wasn’t sure there would be any left for us anyway. The only thing that made this experience anything short of horrific was the up-close and personal view we were allowed of the grape crush. Other than that, this was probably the most time and money I’ve ever wasted in Napa Valley. Open 10:30 and 2:00 by appointment, tasting and tour $20. GRADE: D-

Wine: Amazingly, despite the unbelievably bad tour here, the wines still shine. The dusty mountain fruit makes for a perennially delicious and affordable Cuvee, and the Napa and Pritchard Hill Cabernets are among the best in the valley year after year. Attempts at Merlot and Zinfandel are respectable as well, but this place is all about the Cabernet. GRADE: B+

NEYERS

Tasting Experience: It’s well worth the drive off the beaten path to find this winery, which is tucked back behind Lake Hennessey off of Sage Canyon Road. Our tasting guide Tiffany was very accommodating as she walked us through the diverse offerings of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. We tasted in a small, office like room. Our tasting fees were waived with a one bottle purchase. Open daily by appointment, tasting fee $10. GRADE: B+

Wine: The highlight here is usually the Old Lakeville Road Syrah, which is perenially a dark, muscular wine. Single vineyard Cabernets and Pinot Noirs also deliver high quality, as does the reasonably priced Chardonnay. GRADE: B+

GROTH

Tasting Experience: The building is remarkable from an architectural standpoint, and despite the seemingly formal setting I found the tasting to be very down to earth and informative. My main complaint was that the quality of three wines that they poured (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and entry level Cabernet) was a bit below what I was hoping for. If they are going to be strict about the reservation policy, the least they could do is pour a few more wines. The barrel room was beautiful though (below). Open 10-4 by appointment, closed Sunday, tasting fee $10. GRADE: B-

Wines: The higher end Cabernets here are stellar, but alas, the tasting room doesn’t pour those. The Sauvignon Blanc was easily the best of the wines I tasted here and probably was among the best of that varietal I tasted my whole trip, but the entry level Cabernet (still $65) left a bit to be desired. I understand that they can’t be pouting $200 bottles of wine left and right in the tasting room, but if there isn’t anything else under $100 that they can afford to pour, that’s saying something right there.  GRADE: B+

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PLUMPJACK

Tasting Experience: This lively tasting room is usually on my “can’t miss” list every time I’m in Napa, despite the fact that I’d like the boycott it all together due to the fact that left-wing nutcase San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom owns the place. However, putting that out of my mind, this is one of the busiest and most fun tasting rooms around. It’s also a quick stop, as they only pour three wines, but they don’t skimp on the pours and will almost always give you additional tastes or pours. It can be hard to get a spot at the bar, but the scene is a nice change of pace from some of the stuffiness along the rest of the Silverado Trail. I am very rarely ever charged here. UPDATE: I am currently boycotting this winery for political reasons. Open 10-4, tastings $10. GRADE: B+

Wine: It may be a tad overpriced, but I’m still of the opinion that these guys make killer juice, especially the high end Cabernet, which is in my top five in the region year after year. I was also impressed by their Syrah recently, and generally every red they make benefits from a length that lasts for minutes. GRADE: B+

SILVER OAK

Tasting Experience: This is always my favorite place to start a day of wine tasting when I am staying in Yountville, as Silver Oak is one of the only wineries to open at 9 am every day. For such a big name in the wine world, the tastings here have never come off as pretentious, as the staff pouring is always very down to earth. The long drive to the tasting area eludes to an atmosphere of grandeur, but the tastings here are a great time. You only get two pours for the tasting fee, but the pours are generous and keep in mind, these are $100 bottles of wine you are tasting! And you even get a souvenir glass. And it’s all totally worth it to have your picture taken next to a legendary Napa Valley logo (below). Open 9-5, tastings $10. GRADE: B+

Wine: In my opinion, Silver Oak is certainly in the category of big name Napa wineries that charge way too much for the quality of their wine. Not that their Cabernets aren’t good, but I could name a handful of better ones off the top of my head while sleeping for about half the price. Still, this is serious stuff, especially the more expensive Napa Valley Cabernet (the other taste is of the Alexander Valley Cabernet). Believing that the wine is overpriced makes this even more of a can’t miss stop, as I’m not likely to ever actually buy an entire bottle at these prices when I can still buy 2005 Bordeaux for $60. Quality seems to have taken a step down over the past few vintages.  GRADE: B

CLIFF LEDE

Tasting Experience: Let me start by saying that this winery has perhaps the prettiest grounds on the entire Silverado Trail (below). It’s a good thing, because on my first visit here, the actual tasting experience here was not from enjoyable. I don’t mind paying up for a decent tasting, but $15 for two tastes of wine, one of which was a Sauvignon Blanc and one was a Cabernet that while stellar, I’ve tried many times, was asking a lot. The service wasn’t very friendly either in the empty tasting room (the same one I had been absolutely forbidden to go to the day before with a group of seven when I called ahead; that turned out to be a blessing in disguise). In the course of the fifteen minutes I was there, I had the female server inform me that my note-taking was making her nervous, that she had nothing left to pour me because everything was sold out, and that I was crazy to only buy one bottle of the $50 Cabernet, which wasn’t even enough to comp the ridiculous tasting fee. Wow, these guys weren’t intimidated by me at all! The grounds and the decor are top notch and do a lot to save the experience at the bar. Next time I’ll be taking my glass outside.  UPDATE: I made it back here recently and had a much better experience. I got three large pours for $20, which they didn’t even charge me, and both of my male servers were very friendly. The same lady from last time was here but I stayed away and had a much better time. Open 10-5, tasting fee $15. GRADE: B

Wines: I wish I’d gotten to sample more wines, but the two that I had sample were tops for my most recent trip in their respective categories. Enough said. Cliff Lede continues to make some of the best Sauvignon Blanc in the Valley year after year, and the Cabernet Sauvignon is among the best around at these price points. GRADE: B+

SILVERADO

Tasting Experience: The view from the balcony of Silverado (below) is pretty much unparalleled in wine country, and the spacious, open tasting room adds to the above average experience. The ladies serving us here were very friendly and eager to teach us about the wines and even offered some additional tastes on top of the five they already served us when they saw how genuinely interested we were in the wines. Open 10-4:30, tasting fee $10. GRADE: A-

Wines: The wines are all decent, but nothing sticks out as extraordinary. They make about everything that you can imagine and even experiment with Zinfandel, Rose and Sangiovese, but the focal point of the winery, the Cabernets, fail to amaze, often possessing an overwhelming cola flavor throughout. Nothing is downright bad, but nothing is incredibly memorable either aside from the hospitality and the view. GRADE: C+

SHAFER

Tasting Experience: This is among the best and most important tasting trips in all of Napa Valley. The property itself is stunning, especially the fruit growing on the steep hillside vineyard. The elevated landscape offers a view that extends for miles. After a brief and informative tour, we were taken into a patio area that looked over the entire valley, where we were served generous pours of five wines, including the $215 Hillside Select, which you aren’t going to find anywhere else but here. Afterwards, we were served a “bonus” pour of a Chocolate Port made from Cabernet grapes. Everything was very relaxed, friendly and unpretentious here despite the prepay requirement and the reputation of being one of the best wineries in Napa, if not the world. For one of the pricer stops in Napa, Shafer was worth every penny. Tasting appointments at 10 am and 2 pm M-F, tasting fee of $45 required at the time of reservation. GRADE: A

Wines: Everything here was incredible. The Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay received my highest rating that I have ever given to that varietal. I’ve tasted the Relentless across several vintages and it is always a full-bodied, smokey monster of a Syrah (my favorite kind). But what really separated Shafer’s wines from the rest were the Cabernets, the One Point Five as well as the famous Hillside Select, both made from Stags’ Leap fruit. These wines offer a combination of finesse, elegance and balance that is rare indeed. GRADE: A

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PINE RIDGE

Tasting Experience: Heading down further south on the Silverado Trail, the Pine Ridge tasting room offers a large selection of mostly Cabernet from the Oakville, Rutherford and Stag’s Leap Districts in a crowded tasting room. Service is moderate at best, and the pours are small for such an expensive tasting, but the room is lively and exciting and worth the trip for the fantastic wine, and you get to sample quite a few wines here. Our server added an additional taste of Cabernet Franc when he saw my notebook, but I did have to pay. Open 10:30-4:30, tasting fee $20. GRADE: B-

Wine: All of the Cabernet at Pine Ridge is stellar, and they compete well with the best in the valley at each price range. GRADE: B+

CHIMNEY ROCK

Tasting Experience: I wish I could remember the name of the enjoyable woman who served us here, as she was quite the character and really added to our experience. The whole place had the feel of a group of people who were really passionate about wine but who also were not pretentious about their knowledge. I had to deal with a moderately drunk taster next to me who simply could not believe that I was taking notes on all the wines, which was annoying, but not the fault of the winery obviously. The worthwhile, if expensive, tasting experience features a vertical tasting of several reserve bottlings that are all in the $100 range. Open 10-5, tasting fee $20. GRADE: A-

Wine: All of the Cabernets here are well above average, as is their Elevage blend, but there are certainly better wines in Napa for the money. The Reserve bottlings stack up with the big boys like Silver Oak, but probably aren’t quite as good as Mondavi or Beringer’s top level wines recently. GRADE: B

SIGNORELLO

Tasting Experience: I was completely unprepared for how beautifully an afternoon can be spent at this winery. Make sure you exit the tasting room and ask to sit out back on the patio, were an infinity pool overlooks the valley behind and is surrounded by relaxing fountains which combine to create an unbelievable atmosphere on a sunny day. We were even served complementary kobe beef to go with our wine here, as our tasting host brought us each of our five wines while we sat on the patio. I felt a bit of pressure to buy here as we were leaving that I did not appreciate; I suppose our host felt that we were obligated after we made use of the scenery for such a long time. That attitude was unfortunate in my opinion, as we all paid the rather hefty tasting fee and were not planning on buying any wine at this point in our tour. Aside from that minor drawback, we really enjoyed our time here. 10-5, tasting fee $15. UPDATE: It appears that our first experience here may indeed have been somewhat of a coup. On a return trip, we were not allowed to taste by the pool area but were forced to stay in the tasting room area… which isn’t a deal breaker but does take some of the luster away from the experience.  GRADE: A-

Wine: I came here in search of Cabernet, and was certainly pleased with the two I was poured and with the high end Padrone Estate blend, but the wines that stole the show here were the whites, especially the Seta Estate, a shockingly delicious blend of Semillion and Sauvignon Blanc. I wasn’t as impressed with their attempts at Zinfandel, Syrah or Pinot Noir. GRADE: B

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DARIOUSH

Tasting Experience: The Persian influence is immediately evident in the decor of this immaculate establishment, which recently went perhaps a step too far with its valet service. Nevertheless, the interior is one of the most gorgeous tasting rooms you will find in all of Napa, and the service is much friendlier than the winery’s generally elitist attitude would suggest. I happen to have the entire staff here scared of my notepad and I, which continues to amuse me; I haven’t paid the rather expensive tasting fee here in years. Although, if I had to, I still would. Open 10-5, tasting fee $25. GRADE: A-

Wine: I continue to be amazed by the quality of Darioush’s wines each time I taste here. Somehow, the winemaking precision here has created a noticeable separation from the rest of the valley. Darioush excels especially with its Syrah and Syrah blends, but also makes top notch Cabernet, Chardonnay and the best Viognier around year after year. Stylistically, these wines are definitely very heavy, ripe and loaded with spice in a new world style, but in my opinion this is certainly a can’t miss stop for the serious taster, as you aren’t likely to find higher quality wine for the price anywhere in the Napa area. GRADE: A

ANDRETTI

Tasting Experience: This was a great place to go when I was still a wine novice, but the last time I was here around closing time the whole atmosphere felt like a drunk fest. The servers were inattentive and knew absolutely nothing about wine; they couldn’t even answer my basic questions. I still give the place points for its laid back and friendly demeanor but it’s possible that Andretti goes a bit overboard in that respect. The grounds outside add to the positive attributes (below), and it’s one of the few wineries open until 6 pm. Open 10-6, $10 tasting fee. GRADE: B-

Wines: I got suckered into joining this wine club on my first trip to Napa, but canceled it long ago after the realization that most of these wines weren’t worth the price of shipping. Occasionally the top level Cabernet is fairly quaffable and the Zinfandel usually stands out thanks to an intriguing cinnamon quality, but overall the wines don’t stand a chance against most of the producers in this area. GRADE: D+

LUNA

Tasting Experience: Luna specializes in strictly Italian varietals, and the friendly tasting staff is eager to discuss the winery’s mission of transporting the taste of Italy to Napa Valley. On the south end of the Silverado Trail, the vineyard is secluded and lovely. Worth a stop for a bit of a different flavor than the rest of the Valley. Open 10-5, $10 tasting fee. GRADE: B

Wine: The Luna Merlot is the flagship wine and is consistently solid. The Reserve Sangiovese was great on my visit, while the entry level Sangiovese was above average. GRADE: C+

ROCCA

Tasting Experience: I’d like to give this place the benefit of the doubt since we went here after a long day of tasting with a large group that may or may not have been on their best behavior. Still, the negative vibes were shooting our way immediately as we walked into the empty tasting room. The rigid hostess insisted that we first pay for our tastings. None of the wines I was interested in tasting were being poured, and after being essentially ignored for most of the tasting, I was still refused a pour of the 2004 Syrah despite buying three bottles of the stuff, nor was my tasting comped after doing so. Very stiff! And really, when you’re in Napa there’s no reason to go to these winery tasting rooms that aren’t really wineries, but just rooms on the side of the road. There’s too much pretty scenery to enjoy elsewhere. Open 1-6 M-S, tasting fee $10. GRADE: D

Wine: Everything I tasted here was great, and the 2004 Syrah I opened later that night was one of the best I tasted all trip, and was a great value to boot. At least I ended up happy with that leap of faith! Next time I’ll just order the wines from the website and skip the tasting room. GRADE: B

I’ll continue to add to this as I make successive trips to Napa, which at this point doesn’t look like it will happen until next July :(.

Enjoy your trip!

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