Planning to go wine tasting in Napa (or elsewhere) soon? Jeffery Schiller, author of Wine Hack, gives us his top pro tips for making the most of your trip!
Start with bubbles
Your start time in most tastings rooms is 11 am and there is no better breakfast than bubbles. Seemingly by design, you have two excellent options standing guard at the gates of Napa. Gloria Ferrer is, I believe, the 4th tasting room you pass on your way into wine country from the Golden Gate bridge, and it has a terrific view and terrific sparkling wines. Take your time and taste through a flight, or just buy a bottle for a proper toast to start the day. I typically hold out for another 10 minutes and stop at Domaine Carneros, home of Champagne house Taittinger’s California outpost and my favorite sparklers at the southern entrance of wine country.
Take your time
The biggest mistake I see people make is trying to hit as many wineries as possible. These people end up spending more time in a car than they do tasting wine. I could argue that 3 is too many, but if you’re starting at 11am, 3 stops can be perfect. Don’t go all Type A on a perfectly relaxing, delicious weekend.
Pack a picnic
Yes, there is some of the finest casual dining in California available to you in Napa, Yountville, and St. Helena, but so much of that dining can be found in SF and NYC too. So why not eat in a vineyard? Dean & Deluca, Sunshine Foods, and even a Whole Foods have the supplies you need to pack a perfect picnic. After you finish a tasting, buy a bottle of something you like, grab some glasses from your friends at the tasting room, unfurl a blanket, and unleash your fruit-cheese-charcuterie-baguette shock and awe upon your friends.
Plan your route
Did you know that Napa Valley has 16 distinct growing regions within it? American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) are demarcations in the land that exhibit differences in climate and soil, differences that show up in the wines you drink. If you only plan to go to Napa once, a shotgun approach across all 16 is fine. But if you plan to get acquainted with Napa, select 3-4 wineries a day from within one of the great AVAs of Napa Valley. Spend one day hitting Stag’s Leap, and another day in Rutherford, Oakville, or St. Helena. Not only is this a delicious strategy, you will also get a sense for how different the wines from within Napa can be.
Refuel at a taco truck
Dollar for dollar, there is no better wine country meal than one from a taco truck, and stuffing your face with carnitas is highly recommended. Corn tortilla, roasted pork, diced onion, cilantro, squeeze of lime, mandarin Jarritos. Now get back in there, champ.
It is tough to walk into a mobbed tasting room on a Saturday and learn much about the winery, the wines, and the people that make the wines. The best experiences – where you get to taste a variety of wines, interact with an educated staff, and make a personal connection with the winery – are likely to happen only when you make an appointment for a tasting (if they offer a “reserve tasting,” I would highly recommend those). I can guarantee you that the best part about the wine business is the people. Their passion, their stories, and their philosophies – sometimes warped and entertaining, sometimes brilliant and pioneering – are what take wine from a beverage to an experience.
Pack a cooler of bottled water
I promise this will make you a HERO around 4pm.
Get a BLT from the Boon Fly Café
Just do it. It’s awesome. And they generally have a great Carneros Rosé to accompany it.
Most tasting rooms close promptly and annoyingly at 5pm. What, were you going back to the hotel for a nap before dinner? We’re not quitters. Do like the professionals do, and mush. Hidden on the other side of the Boon Fly Café is the FARM, a solid restaurant in its own right, and simply brilliant in that there are two bocce courts where you can BYOW or order a bottle from the restaurant bar.
Bring a friend from the industry
If you have a friend that is a distributor, tasting room manager, cellar rat, winemaker, server, bus boy or wine shop guru – tell them to bring some business cards and challenge them to see how much free wine you can drink. I would not advise abusing this trade perk, but you can usually get comp’d tastings and discounted wine. Truth be told, my Catholic conscience compels me to buy a bottle or sign up for a wine club when given something for free (these are mostly family businesses, after all, not charities ), but it’s a great way to cut out some cost.