our destination wedding in the dominican republic was in september and hubby and i had plans to head to europe for a honeymoon in january.. until we realized it’s winter in europe in january. although i’m sure the mediterranean coast is lovely in the cold, we’d much rather visit when it’s warm so our plans promptly changed.
we both love red wine and decided to book a mini honeymoon to napa valley! best decision ever (well except that now we don’t just like red wine, we like the GOOD wines… and, turns out, napa wines are expensive)!
we knew january was off season in napa which was perfect for us.. off season in napa is not like beach towns where every building is boarded up for the winter. off season in napa means sweater weather, a little rain and zero crowds to fight with at wineries and restaurants. the staff at each winery were so friendly and since it wasn’t crowded we were able to chat with them and pick their brains.. which wines to try, where to eat, what to do, etc. they said during the busy seasons (memorial day until new years), they are more like bartenders and there is no time for chatting. so, if you get the chance to visit napa valley, i highly recommend this time of year!
now, lets talk about wine. each morning we started our day with a quick workout and then headed to our first winery around 10am when most opened. we usually hit two before lunch and one or two after… and there were still SOOOO many we wanted to try that we didn’t have time for! the number of wineries and tasting rooms is endless and everywhere you turn are mountains and vines. it’s breathtaking.
our first day we jumped right in and each ordered our own tasting at each winery.. bad idea because by the time you get to the second or third place, you already have a little buzz and can’t really enjoy the wines.. especially because we usually sampled a few extra wines than we ordered (perks of chatting with the bartenders).. the next few days we smartened up and shared tastings..
before we headed to napa, we talked to a few friends that had visited to get recommendations for wineries to visit. this was super helpful because, like i said before, there are SOOO many and it can get overwhelming. and then, on the plane i searched so many and made a list of potential places to visit. we steered away from locations that required reservations because we didn’t want to feel rushed (another perk of off season) but did make two reservations for tours. many wineries offer tours but they can be lengthy and pricey.. choose 2 or 3 that look the best and then just do tastings everywhere else.
frank family vineyards: located in calistoga, this winery set the standards high for every one that followed. the owner, rich frank, is the former president of disney studios and has made quite a name for himself in the television and movie industry. the property is private and beautiful, there are multiple different tasting rooms and we even got a free tasting because our hotel was affiliated with them! i am not a big white wine lover but their chardonnay was amazing and we tasted one of our favorite cabernets during the entire trip. the best part is you can find this cab at home for about $50 a bottle (this is cheap for napa!) which makes it perfect for special nights.
castello di amoroso: as the name suggests, this winery is within a structure intended to look like a 13th century tuscan castle. this 107 room masterpiece took 15 years to complete with nearly one million antique bricks imported from europe. it’s absolutely beautiful with so many areas to explore including the moat, drawbridge, chapel, stables, an armory and apparently even a torture chamber (we didn’t see this!). this winery should be on your list to visit because of how vast and impressive the building is but, honestly, we didn’t love their wines. but, we did make friends with the bartender whose family is from naples and bought some imported pasta made by his uncle!
brasswood: during my research, brasswood was a place that looked so sleek and modern and made my to do list. since they have a restaurant and bakery, we stopped here for lunch and decided to each try a different glass of wine while we ate instead of a formal tasting. again, we made friends and the manager brought us over to the tasting room after lunch for a free tasting! the food was delicious and wines were good but not our favorite.
v. sattui: this winery reminded me of places back home.. the grounds were large for picnics and they host events on weekends. we did not actually go to try their wines but to check out their gourmet market and buy some snacks.. we left with truffle cheese which was amazing!
hall: the tasting room is modern and beautiful with multiple art pieces, floor to ceiling windows overlooking the vineyards and a large outdoor patio. we were told that the winery’s vintner, kathryn hall, told her husband she wanted to create the best cabernet in the valley and this is exactly what she did.. her cabernet has won multiple awards… and for good reason! all the cabernets were yummy.
there were two wineries with the name stags leap and, of course this caused some issues.. they ended up disputing the right to keep their name in the california supreme court. since they both first released their wines the same year, neither could prove who came first. the resolution was in the apostrophe.. one to come after the “s” and one to come before.
stags’ leap: although less famous than stag’s leap, (read below to see why) stags’ leap was my favorite winery by far.. the location was amazing and their wine was the best (we even joined their wine club). this was one of the tours we scheduled and it was so cool to hear the rich history behind this winery. they started planting grapes on the property in 1872 and constructed the beautiful manor house in 1891. during prohibition, the family snuck people into their basement through a hole in the floor to drink/buy wine. definitely plan a tour here.. they are small and intimate, you get to taste lots of wines and they even gave us cheese to accompany our tastings.
stag’s leap wine cellars: stags’ leap told us about the name dispute and so we decided we needed to judge for ourselves which winery we liked better. although stag’s leap wine cellars is more famous, hubby and i both liked the other wines better. the tasting room, however, was stunning with large windows overlooking the vineyard and outdoor seating. the cabernets were good but not great and they were very expensive!
so why is stag’s leap more famous you may ask? well, in the 1970s, french wine was the best and napa was a small area known for raising cattle and harvesting plums. in 1976, stag’s leap wine cellars entered a cabernet sauvignon into a blind tasting with french judges at the “judgement of paris.” their wine took top honors compared to renowned wines of bordeaux and finally put napa valley on the map!
mumm: we wanted to change things up and decided to head to mumm for some sparkling wine. the establishment felt very businesslike but the wines were refreshing and a nice way to mix up the day.
alpha omega: unfortunately it was raining while we visited because they have an amazing outdoor area with a large fountain pool. so instead, we sat inside their modern tasting room and sipped on really good red wines, a delicious buttery chardonnay and chatted with a the bartender who was originally from massachusetts!
freemark abbey: this cottage on the side of the road (which actually is much larger than a cottage) was home to lots of delicious cabernets. the wines were also affordable and the bartender talked about how much he loves treehouse beer and can’t get his hands on it! it was pretty cool to be on the other side of the country and hear someone talk about a local brewery down the street from our house!
robert mondavi: one of the oldest wineries in napa valley, their property was massive. we specifically had to check them out because while we were in the dominican republic for our wedding, this was one of the only red wines we could find that didn’t taste like flavored water. their wines were delicious, they are kid friendly, they have a large outdoor seating area and you are able to buy a glass to enjoy on their property.. most places you can only do a tasting. we were also told that their tour is one of the best but unfortunately we didn’t have time!
jarvis estate: we were told by friends to visit this winery and it made our list because of their caves! their entire wine production is underground and they offer reservation only tours of the property. we were the only people on the tour and we sampled multiple good red wines and a chardonnay which was also delicious. the drive to and from the property was also amazing because you have to drive up the mountains and are very secluded. this was one of the only wineries we visited which is still family owned and operated and is definitely worth a visit as it is unlike everywhere else we went!
i know it looks like we visited so many wineries but honestly we didn’t even make a dent in them! it’s crazy how many napa valley is home to! so now that we’re home, we’ve been having fun scouring local wine shops and finding bottles from places we recognize but didn’t have time to visit.. and we’ve been keeping our honeymoon alive by treating ourselves to one bottle a week!
before i end this extremely long post, i just want to explain a little about what to look for when shopping for napa wines at home. for starters, make sure to look where the wine was bottled.. for example, our former favorite wine bread and butter says “napa valley” on the front label but is actually bottled in another part of california. in order for wines to write “napa valley” on their label, they have to grow at least 75% of their grapes from the region. if the bottle says a particular region in napa valley (calistoga, st. helena, rutherford, oakvillle, etc), 85% of their grapes have to come from that region. so make sure if you’re buying “napa valley” wine that’s actually what you’re getting!