Photography / See Hatsie Travel

Travel: Napa Valley – Where to Drink

Napa week continues here at Two Recipes!  We’re talking about where to drink, a subject that can be completely overwhelming when planning a trip to Napa Valley.

As we were planning our own visit, we researched different vineyards and wineries, asked for recommendations from friends who had recently been to the area, and ended just as confused as we began.  There is no shortage of wine makers in Napa Valley, so how does one know which ones are stellar and which ones to skip?

One doesn’t.  There’s no way.

Once we realized this, we began researching local companies that could provide us with some direction.  My mom found Napa Bee Driven, a company who uses your own car (which we had rented in San Francisco) to drive you to and fro, plans your itinerary, makes your reservations, and ensures that you have all the experiences you want, along with some that you didn’t know you wanted.  After a quick questionnaire which determines the type of trip you wish to have in Napa, they create an itinerary that is equal parts hidden treasures and well known establishments.

They were a lifesaver–we found gems at which we would never have stopped, and our driver Michael was incredibly knowledgeable about the history of the Valley and the wine we would be enjoying.  Michael drove us for two days which were chock full of vineyard tours, tastings, picnics, and incredible views.

We began our tasting tour at Pride Mountain Vineyards atop–you guessed it–Pride Mountain.  Pride straddles the Napa county and Sonoma county line and offers meandering caves, a great, informative, and funny tour guide, and delicious Merlot.

The lane between these two vineyards is actually the Napa-Sonoma county line.

Our tour guide was the wine educator for Pride employees and offered a wealth of knowledge about how the wine was made, how the cool mountain air affects the fruit, and what flavors we were tasting.  The 10:00am tour focuses more on education and how the wine is made, so if you want to learn about the ins and outs of the wine industry, definitely sign up for this early tour.

We all agreed that Pride was the perfect start to our trip.  We learned everything we could have ever wanted to know about wine and wine making which was the perfect primer for the next two days of tasting.

Our next stop was Barnett Vineyards.  This was highly recommended from my best friend Katy, who had recently visited the month before.  She said to allow ourselves plenty of time to enjoy this place, and she was not wrong.

Barnett is a private vineyard and so tastings are held only by appointment.  We were let in the gate and drove up the narrow wooded lane to the winery, where we met our tasting guide.  She was adorable and showed us directly to the outdoor tasting tables which overlooked the Valley below.  There aren’t enough synonyms for beautiful to describe this place.

 I am always aware of rattlesnakes.

Barnett was night-and-day different from Pride.  We relaxed, sipped, talked, and tilted our faces to the sun.  We made friends with the table next to ours, a recently engaged couple who was on vacation from New York, and met Riley, a German shepherd with an affinity for digging up rocks.  We chatted, took pictures, and took in the scenery.  Where Pride was informative, Barnett was relaxing.  The wine was excellent too–their Rattlesnake Hill Cabernet Sauvignon was heavenly.

Kelham Vineyards was hands-down our favorite place.  We drove into the parking lot and Kelsey exclaimed, “I see a tail!”  Michael was confused, but we knew.  There were dogs here and they were welcoming us to their home.

That beauty above is Miss Ellie.  She met us in the parking lot and followed us around the corner where we met Suzanna, the owner of Kelham Vineyards.  Suzanna, impeccably dressed and equally relaxed, was a delight.  She showed us to our table where a meat and cheese plate had been set out, poured us a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, and proceeded to charm our socks off.

Miss Ellie and her tiny counterpart, Chuy, were never far away.  Miss Ellie put her sweet little head on my arm, melted my heart, and then was rewarded with some salami because she’s such a good girl.

We luxuriated at Kelham.  There was a cool breeze blowing through the outdoor tent and we talked and talked.  We munched on the creamy cheeses and salty meats, we loved on some dogs, and we learned all about the Kelham family and how they came to make wine.

Suzanna’s sons now run the winery, and Ron, her eldest, explained their wine making style and guided us through the tastings.  At the end he left a bottle of 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon on our table, which probably wasn’t on purpose.  We chose to see as a sign.  They wanted us to stay, and so we obliged.

Ending the day with Kelham was a dream.  We stayed longer than we were scheduled to, missed our last tasting of the day, but didn’t care.  We were all in agreement–it couldn’t get better than that.  Do not miss Kelham Vineyards when you go to Napa.  If you hear nothing else, hear that.

Day two started with the Reynolds Family Winery.  It was a lovely sunny day–hot even–so we insisted upon tasting outside in the sun.  We settled in as our tasting began.  The grounds here are beautiful, and the outdoor tasting tables look out to a pond where a resident egret calls home.

The wine was great–I really loved their “Naughty” line of wines, which sounds silly but is actually a really great red blend with an even better price tag.  I took a bottle of that home with me, and my mom signed up to be a part of their wine club.  She’ll be getting a shipment of Reynolds Family Wine, and has already been invited to the “Wine Club Member Holiday Party” in January.  I’m gunning for a plus-one.

Next stop was another don’t-miss recommendation from my Katy.  She instructed us to factor in at least two hours at Frog’s Leap to enjoy the wine, explore the grounds, and smell the fresh herbs growing here and there.

Frog’s Leap has a storied past and a tongue-and-cheek atmosphere.  As we walked out to the patio where the tastings are held, both Kelsey and I felt as if we were walking into a J. Crew catalogue.  Beautiful, stylish people were sipping wine and chatting on the impeccably kept lawn, surrounded by even more beautiful scenery and it really was a surreal.  People live like this.

That said, nothing at Frog’s Leap felt stuffy.  The wines were poured all at once and our server explained each one periodically, but mostly we were left alone to kick back and enjoy ourselves.

The grounds at Frog’s Leap are worth a trip alone.  There is a working garden which was being tended to and a wiry-haired dog named Abby, who was much more interested in our neighbors and their cheese than she was our eager calls, who roamed in and out of the bistro tables like she owned the place.  (She probably does).

We loved Frog’s Leap because it was no-fuss, beautiful, relaxed, and for a brief moment offered a way of life to which Gatsby would have been accustomed.  It felt very Gatsby.

Chateau Potelle, what I’ll call the foodie tasting, was next.  This place is a perfect example of not judging a book by it’s cover.  The tasting room at Chateau Potelle is not attached to a vineyard, and is actually located off the main highway, amidst shops and restaurants.  We pulled into a shared parking lot which was partially occupied by noisy eighteen-wheelers and after a lovely afternoon at Frog’s Leap, I was ready to be unimpressed.  Something had to be less than dream-worthy, right?


The interior of Chateau Potelle is in direct contrast to it’s exterior.  We walked into an elegant tasting room decorated with white walls and fixtures, warm wood, and glittering stemware.  Samantha welcomed us and showed us to our table.  She told us the history of Chateau Potelle and it’s owner, Jean Noelle, a french man who was en route to Paris for the night because it was his mama’s birthday.

Samantha left us with a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc and went to prepare our food pairings.  The food was prepared especially for Chateau Potelle VGS wines by chef Ken Frank of La Toque, a Napa Valley restaurant institution.

Each bite was incredible and really enhanced the wines.  My favorite was the chilled pea soup with crumbled goat cheese, which surprised me because usually cold soup makes me turn up my nose.  We were instructed to take a sip of the wine, taste the food, and then taste the wine again.  It was incredible how much the food made a difference.

Chateau Potelle was another don’t-miss.  Samantha was welcoming, friendly, informative, and invited us to join her on a girls trip to Cabo.  We made a friend.  I joined the VGS wine club and received my first shipment two days ago.  We tore into a bottle last night and upon first sip I was carried back to that pink couch, enjoying delicious food and conversation with my favorite women.  I’ll be back to Chateau Potelle and I really can’t recommend this place highly enough.

Our final scheduled tasting was at Swanson Sip Shoppe.  This place had a boutique feel and reminded me more of a retail space than a vineyard.  We were welcomed with chilled rose in glasses that looked like plastic party cups.  That whimsy accompanied everything else at Swanson Sip Shoppe.

Swanson wasn’t our favorite, and we all agreed that we could have ended at Chateau Potelle and been perfectly happy, however they had some seriously stunning flowers and potted lemon plants that have me plotting next Springs Two Recipes garden.

I’m picturing giant pots of lemons on my deck.  I wonder if Pennsylvania weather will permit this?

We left our final day in Napa open for shopping and exploring, yet midway through the day we all decided we needed one last tasting, so we drove out to Rombauer Vineyards, a place my mom and I had missed during our last visit to Napa Valley.

Rombauer was the only place we went to that didn’t require a reservation, and so was very, very crowded.  It may have been because it was midday on a Saturday, too.  We had to elbow our way to the tasting bar to get our wine, and then retreated to a quiet area on the grounds to actually enjoy it.

The grounds at Rombauer were breathtaking.  Winding paths lined with trees, roses, and quiet nooks that provided a mountain look-out allowed us to get the same intimate atmosphere we had experienced at the other wineries in a crowded place.

Rombauer was a great way to end our week of tastings.  The chardonnay was delicious and is what they are famous for, and is readily available at wine stores, which is nice.  This place was absolutely beautiful.

We had such a wonderful, informative, and delicious time at all of these wineries. Each one was wonderful in their own right, and offered an experience uniquely their own.  Kelham was personable and those dogs and their owners stole our hearts.  Barnett was relaxing and provided breathtaking views.  Frogs leap was whimsical; Reynolds was like sitting down with friends.  Chateau Potelle was part spa day, part five star restaurant, part girl’s night.

Deciding which vineyards and wineries to visit is a big choice, so I recommend asking for help, getting a knowledgeable driver like Michael, and making it a point to visit some places off the beaten path.

Galileo said, “Wine is sunlight, held together by water,” a sentiment that is evident in all aspects of Napa Valley.  Sunlight, water, friendly people, beautiful vistas–it’s impossible not to feel full of joy and inspiration.  The next and final installment of Napa week is “Where to Go”  It’s basically a bunch of pictures of trees.  I’m excited.

*None of these restaurants/shops/vineyards know me; I just went there and liked them.  These Napa Valley posts are because when I was researching Napa Valley, I found it hard to find reviews and itineraries that I felt I could trust.  So, here you go, Internet!*

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