Most people visiting Napa Valley stay on the main Highway 29. That's understandable as the highway is lined with big name wineries all in a row. But parallel to Highway 29 is The Silverado Trail, the road less traveled but certainly no less rewarding for those looking for scenic travels and great wineries along the way.
In a way this is Napa from 25 years ago when you could take a slow drive in the country and stop along the way at any winery that looked interesting. Try slowing down on Highway 29 during the Summer and you might get run over! There are some big names here as well, such as Stag's Leap and Mumm's. But there are also some smaller wineries just waiting for you to discover, including one where you taste in a natural cave and toss your leftover wine on the walls! So come with me and let's explore The Silverado Trail. Don't forget your coupons and Wine Pass (use promo code "localwally" to get a discount).
Don't get lost! Follow along in Google Maps!
You're driving along the Silverado Trail and taking in all the beautiful scenery, from the rolling hills to the natural countryside, and POW, what the hell is that? Why it's Darioush, a winery whose architecture you either love or hate - there is no in-between on this one.
Designed to look like something from an ancient Persian Empire, you half expect to see Lara Croft jumping from column to column with a machine gun blasting, or perhaps Cleopatra lounging near the front door. Are we in Vegas?? Take a picture of the outside - you friends will not believe you without one.
Inside, the architecture calms down and turns into a chic retail store environment, sort of like something you might see in LA. And yes, there's plenty to buy here, from cookbooks to Persian-inspired clothing. Darioush tries hard to be another Opus One and succeeds on one level but misses the boat when it comes to blending in with the countryside. Nothing subtle here, that's for sure. I guess they said the same thing about Clos Pegase when it first opened but somehow I don't think Daroush will ever fit in until someone builds a winery with an Eiffel Tower or roller coaster on top - hey, maybe that's next! Think of it as a sidetrip to Vegas but like Vegas, a little Darioush goes a long ways so stop for the photo op, share a tasting, hit the restrooms then get back on the road.
Don't get confused. There are two Del Dotto wineries in Napa Valley, both with cave tours. The original is the one off The Silverado Trail and the new one in St. Helena. Both are good, but the original is best.
What makes Del Dotto unique is their cave experience. Lit only by candlelight, you'll barrel taste yoiur way through the caves as 70's music echoes on the walls. Taste the impact that different woods have on the wine, it's an educational experience that's made all the more fun by their generous pours, earning them the name "Del Blotto". Along the way you'll taste and taste and taste, tossing your leftover wine on the stone walls and grabbing the labels of the ones you might want to purchase later. But a bit of warning - this is really good wine so don't be surprised if that wine you've been tossing over your shoulder was from a $100 bottle. I almost ran back into the cave to lick the walls after I found this out!
While the atmopshere is clearly fun, you can't help but leave with a deep appreciation of the winery and their wines. You'll get to taste wines aged in French barrels next to wines aged in American, and while the tour cost might seem expensive at first, no one leaves feeling like they got shortchanged after all the tastings and snacks at the end. Don't cheap out and just do tastings at the bar or you'll miss the main attraction at Del Dotto.
Tip: You'll want to make reservations for this one or risk not being able to barrel taste.
Del Dotto Winery (Website) (Map) (Reservations )
1055 Atlas Peak Rd, Napa, CA (707) 963-2134
Cost: $30 tastings, or $60 for wine cave tour with barrel tastings
Local Wally Tip: Appointment only, the caves are candle lit only Fri-Sun.
Signorello has long been known by wine lovers for their big reds, especially their cabernet, but Napa has a lot of great wines so why here?
Do I smell pizza?
That's right, Signorello offers a great pizza and wine tasting menu during the weekends on the gorgeous patio overlooking the valley. Made with ingredients grown on the estate and locally produced cheese, it's a great compliment to great wines.
For those who are looking for a more intimate experience, Signorello offers the Enoteca, a private food and wine pairing that features five wines and four extravagant courses made by the Estate’s own Executive Chef. From locally raised lamb to Kobe beef, the Enoteca tops the list of gourmet pairings available at wineries. Of course there are also the tasting room options, but you’ll regret not upgrading once you smell the food!
Clos du Val was part of the famous 1976 Paris wine tastings and though they didn't win, just being selected to compete was a big deal. But don't worry, there's no wine snobbery here. In fact, Clos du Val is one of the friendliest wineries to visit, especially for wne newbies.
Some wineries are more interested in educating you on their wine clubs, but at Clos du Val they'll teach you about wines. They'll have you try a newly opened bottle and compare it to one that's been aerated. Taste the difference? Don't be afraid to say NO if you don't, it's that kind of place.
As for the Judgement of Paris, Clos du Val won the rematch in 1986 and beat the French again in 2006. Will they ever learn?
Clos du Val (website) (map)
5330 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA (707) 259-2200
Cost: $15 for basic tasting
Local Wally Tip: Nice picnic area in front, intimate cabanas, call to reserve on a busy weekend. Tasting room can get packed on touristy days so try to visit on weekdays.
Driving up the dusty road lined with vineyards, you can't help but wonder if you've made a wrong turn and somehow ended up in Tuscany.
Built in 1878, Regusci occupies one of the oldest winery buildings in all of Napa and the setting is stunning. Outside the laborers are harvesting the olive trees and a lazy corgi is basking in the morning sun. Look, there's picnic tables beneath the trees, how perfect for later.
Inside the tasting room is large and open and the feeling is festive, thanks in part to their entertaining and knowlegeable staff. Outsite is a new patio and the entire setting is so relaxing, so much like the Napa you've been dreaming about.
Uncommercial and unpretentious, Regusci is a welcome respite from the large and flashy wineries that have become so popular in Napa Valley. It's "appointment only" but a quick call when you're on your way is all it takes.
The 1976 blind tastings in Paris were a big deal. Besides beating the French at their own game, it also put Napa wines on the map and started the American wine craze that's still going strong today.
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars was there, winning the #1 spot for their cabernet. You know you want to try it.
Now pay attention or you might end up at the wrong winery because there are two "Stag's Leaps" on The Silverado Trail. Let's make it simple - Stag's Leap Wine Cellars is the winery that made the winning cabernet. Stags' Leap Winery is up the street and while the first to use the name "Stag's Leap", did not. Now look at the photo above. This is the winery you want if you want to taste the wine won the Paris competition.
While the grounds are beautiful, the tasting room is small so try to visit during non-rush hours for the best experience. And since you've come this far, make sure at least one of you upgrades to the Estate tastings so you can taste for yourself the legacy of the wine that beat the French.
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars (website) (map)
5766 silverado trail, Napa, CA (707) 944-2020
Cost: $15 Standard, $$0 Estate Tasting
Local Wally Tip: Make sure you also visit Chateau Montelena, who won for Best Chardonnay, for your complete wine education!
Located at the top of a hill, Silverado Vineyards has one of the prettiest views along the Silverado Trail.
Whether you're in the large tasting room with huge picture windows or on the scenic outdoor patio, you're surrounded by sweeping views of the valley. Honey, go back and get the camera!
Silverado Vineyards also has some of most varied wine tasting options, from single vineyard tastings paired with cheeses to sitting in the vineyards next to the grapes that went into the wine you're sipping. You can even hang out on the patio until 8pm on Fridays during the Summer, sipping wines with small bites in a sensational setting. But even the basic tasting is great, mainly due to their enthusiastic pourers who seem more concerned with you having a good experience than they are with measuring ounces of wine and counting pours. A nice stop at the end of the day.
Silverado Vineyards (website) (map)
6121 Silverado Trl, Napa, CA (707) 257-1770
Local Wally Tip: Silverado Vineyards has lots of tour options, including one that take you into the vineyards to sip. Those looking for a more basic and tasting tour can find it here for $35 at 10:30AM and 2:30PM daily though reservations are required.
With a vibe that feels more like a hip Northern California bar than a winery, Robert Sinskey Vineyards is a great stop for those looking for wine and food pairings.
With a chef for a wife, the winery takes its food offerings nearly as serious as its wines. Tastings come with small nibbles but those who want the full tasting experience should reserve the Farm to Table tour. You'll visit the gardens where you'll pick some fresh veggies for the chef, a peek in to the caves, then a sit down at the farm table to taste the delights of the day paired with their wines.
Come on a busy day and service can get a bit impersonal, but visit at a less busy time and you just might walk away with one of your best Napa memories, especially if the tasting room kitchen is open. Tasting fee is discounted if you buy two bottles.
Even newbie wine tasters get tired of pushing their way to the bar, waving to get the pourers attention, and standing on your feet all day. Plan ahead and instead of fighting the crowds you'll be sitting in a comfy lounge chair under a shady tree sipping wines and snacking on cheese and crackers.
The modern tasting room has no stand up bar, the owners believing that the only time you should be drinking wine standing up is when you're cooking. All the wines arrive at once - no begging for the next pour - with cards to describe each one. The Riedel glasses certainly add to the classiness of the affair. This is nice!
Paraduxx is an offshoot of Duckhorn Winery (pair of ducks, paraduxx, get it?) focused on creating new blends so it's cool that they offer The Blending Experience, a tasting where you get to create your own blend? And food lovers will love the food and wine pairing option. No matter what tasting you select, you'll be treated like a VIP at Paraduxx.
Paraduxx (website) (map)
7257 Silverado Trl, Napa, CA (707) 945-0890
Local Wally Tip: I'm not kidding that you'll need a reservation! Plan ahead or you'll be one of those disappointed people at the door.
Imagine yourself sitting on a patio overlooking the vineyards. Now imagine someone putting a row of flutes of sparkline wine in front of you. Really, does winetasting get much better than this experience at Mumm Napa?
Those just popping in to taste are best heading to either the patio or the enclosed tasting area but serious wine lovers will want to be on the Oak Terrace, a reserved area set aside from the crowds. Either way you'll find the prices reasonable - $8 to $25 per person, it's a great deal for a great experience.
But there's more! The winery also features an art exhibit where you can actually stroll through with a glass of sparkling wine. I like art, I like wine, this is great! And what's not to love about a patio with colorful umbrellas overlooking the vineyards? There are also daily tours at 10am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm. Alas, the era of the free tours is over but at $25 - which includes a flute of wine - it's still a pretty good deal.
The vibe on a sunny afternoon borders on Happy Hour so serious wine lovers might want to upgrade to the Oak Terrace tasting area where there are comfy lounge chairs and premium tastings. A perfect start to your day, a perfect way to end it with the sun setting, even if you forget your discount coupon you're going to have a great time.
Mumm Napa (website) (map)
8445 Silverado Trail, Rutherford, California (707) 967-7770
Cost: Starts at $8 for a flute of wine
Local Wally Tip: Plan your day to be in the area for your last relaxing tasting experience.
Any winery that is built on what was once an old frog farm has got to be a bit quirky. Back in the late 1800's, tasty frog legs were harvested here and sold for $.33 a dozen, jumping off the plates of the sophisticated diners in San Francisco.
Later a winery took over the spot, went under during prohibition, and was reborn as Frog's Leap in 1994. The old original red barn is from that era.
For those of you who don't think wine tasting should be so serious, you'll love the tour at Frog's Leap. You'll start the tour with a glass of wine in hand, which I appreciate. Too many winery tours are like timeshare presentations, forcing you to listen to the presentation before you get a taste. And the tour itself is lighthearted and fun, taking you to the fruit trees where you're encouraged to pick something, to the chicken coop and frog pond, and ending in the barrel room where you might have to toss a basketball before you get a taste. Don't worry if you were the last kid picked in gym class, no one is shooting straight after all this wine!
Frog's Leap Winery (website) (map)
8815 Conn Creek Road, Saint Helena, California (707) 963-4704
Cost: $20 for tastings or tour
Local Wally Tip: Basic tastings cost as much as the tour so call ahead and reserve your spot to get the full experience. They also offer a super casual Garden Tasting for $15, a great bargain for a great wine and experience.
Seems like everyone is looking for that ultimate picnic spot in Napa Valley but very few people know about Rutherford Hill. With a large number of tables under oaks and sweeping views of the valley, this one has to be one of the best.
Located above the 5 star Auberge du Soleil resort, Rutherford Hill offers more than just a good picnic area. With some of the more impressive caves it's worth calling ahead to make a reserviation. So here's the plan - go to Rutherford Hill, do some tastings, visit the caves, and end with a nice bottle and picnic lunch. That's a good plan!
Rutherford Hill (website) (map)
200 Rutherford Hill Rd, Rutherford, CA (707) 963-1871
Cost: $20 tasting
Local Wally Tip: Want a picnic table? Just go inside, do a tasting, buy a bottle (they'll open it and give you some glasses), and you're set to go. If you're coming with friends consider their Premier Picnic Grove packages where they'll open up 3 bottles for you and set you up with a tablecloth'd picnic spot for $100 to $150, depending on the wine selection.
You say you like your chardonnay "rich and buttery"? Well, you've come to the right place. Rombauer Vineyards is the classic example, maybe the best example, of a California chardonnay with that big, oaky flavor.
OK, I know that for a time every winery in the world was trying to imitate the buttery deliciousness of Rombauer but no one succeeded. Forget what you think you like about chardonnays and taste the one that inspired all the copy cats. One sip and you'll understand why its a favorite with chardonnay lovers.
Pay attention when driving there. Located high on a hill on a twisting road, the tasting room doesn't look like much. Model planes on the shelves reflect Rombauer's past life as a pilot, a few celebrity photos on the walls. It's all very low key and unassuming, you wouldn't even know you at the winery responsible for such premier wines. But step outside and it's pure bliss. Lush views, beautiful landscaping, take some time to wander along the trails. Is this still Napa Valley? And for those of you might not favor whites, Rombauer puts the same care into their reds - surprisingly delicious at a price point that might have you taking home a case.
Psssst - looking for a the ultimate picnic spot? You'll be hard pressed to find one this pretty and this secluded. No worries bringing in your own snacks, they even encourage it.
Rombauer Vineyards (website) (map) (Make Reservations)
3522 Silverado Trail North, Saint Helena, CA (707) 963-5170
Local Wally Tip: These guys darn near invented the buttery chardonnay and no one does it better. Even if you think you don't like buttery chards, you have to try this one.
I used to avoid Clos Pegase. Not because they don't make great wines but the winery sort of reminded me of those modern appliances where form definitely did not follow function - you know, like a sofa with no arms. What good is that?
Of course, it all made sense once I learned that the winery was designed by Michael Graves, best known for his eclectic home furnishing designs and architecture. The grounds are surrounded by eclectic art, a giant thumb next to an Italian statue, it's all fun once you figure out that you shouldn't take it too seriously. Of course, the wines are seriously delicious and the cave tour a great way to beat the heat. So OK, I like it already!
Whether you like the style of architect Michael Graves or not, you have to admit the winery's exterior is distinctive. Once considered outrageous, it now blends nicely into the vineyards. With a friendly staff and interesting frounds, Clos Pegase is a nice stop at the northern tip of The Silverado Trail.
WHERE TO NEXT?
DISCOUNT COUPONS AND NAPA ON A BUDGET
SPRING 2015: In just a few months the vines will be budding but for now take advantage of the small crowds and personal attention you'll find in the wineries and restaurants. Remember, if you're stuck just send me an email and I'll help you out... for free!
Need a driver? Lately I've been getting a lot of requests for tours or personal drivers, which is smart if you want to drink lots of wine and not risk getting pulled over. I have a few friends in Napa who can really show you the local spots so reach out to me and I'll connect you to them.
And this is way off topic but if you love Maui you should check out my latest guide, Local Wally's Guide to Maui.