Napa Valley Winery Tour

Napa Valley Winery Tour

One of the perks of being a sommelier is traveling to different wine regions. My last tasting tour was during last season’s harvest in the Napa Valley.

The first stop: Dominus Estate. I have been a fan of Christian Moueix for some time. As I started learning about wine, my mentor would often reference him not only for his Napa projects, but also for what he has done in Bordeaux. Christian is not what you would expect from a winemaker and owner with so much influence. Christian is a farmer. His vineyards are pristine, manicured to perfection and he knows them like a parent knows their children. I was disappointed to find out he wasn’t there, but the manager at Dominus gave an amazing tour and we tasted through a couple of vintages of Dominus, as well as some Napanook. The winery is stunning for the simplicity and beauty of its layout and this could not have been a better start to an amazing trip.


After leaving Dominus, I met up with Ryan Hill of Hill Family Estate to grab the keys to the cottage they share with the Jacobsen farm. Ryan gave a quick tour of the farm showing me everything in season that is used by chefs at The French Laundry and other Thomas Keller restaurants in the area for farm-to-table produce. I made a quick stop at Grgich Hills, tasting through their wines, and was then hoping to connect with Ryan or Doug Hill at one of their properties while they were in the middle of harvest. Unfortunately when I arrived, some of the worst winds the valley had seen in a several years were blowing and fire threats had everyone scrambling.

Day two was a little more relaxing. After getting up in the morning and grabbing coffee in Yountville, it was time to go to ZD Wines where I met up with Jill DeLeuze for a tour and tasting. I have been a fan of what ZD does for a long time so to see their property and operations was long overdue. We tasted through some of their chardonnay and pinot noir while they were punching down some cabernet trying to encourage fermentation to kick in. During the tour, Jill retold the story of how she was once helping in the winery, opened the wrong tank and was showered in ZD reserve cabernet (lesson: you open a tank when empty, not full).

After a stop at Bouchon for lunch, I hit Trefethen Family Vineyards and saw some of the antique wine production equipment and learned how the original set up of the winery had been adapted to today’s technology.

The next stop was Jarvis Estate. Jarvis wines have a lot of Napa heritage tied to them, but what Jarvis is best known for are their caves. Out of all the caves I have seen anywhere, theirs are by far the “fanciest.” The caves are amazing to look at with huge crystals imported from around the world, waterfalls, fiber optic lighting, and doors that make you feel like you are in Wayne Manor. The one thing that was pretty cool about Jarvis that I have never seen at a winery before was the first four rows of vines outside the cave entrance. There were 50+ vines that had varietal labels and you could pick some of the fruit and taste the difference between them right off the vine.

The last stop of the day happened almost by accident. I had heard about how beautiful and amazing Diamond Creek Vineyards is for years. They don’t make a lot of wine, and I buy all they offer to me every year. Last year from their production in three vineyards, I was given a total of 12 bottles for George’s. Not a lot of juice. So when I got a call from the winery the day before I left saying they could squeeze me in I got excited. When I arrived there was a golf cart waiting for me and I spent the next 45 minutes cruising around the vineyards, pulling petite verdot off of the vine and trying it next to merlot. I can honestly say it was just gorgeous, but I forgot to take pictures of any of it because I was wandering around like a kid at Christmas in a toy store. After a while I realized I should have brought food with me because there is a beautiful picnic area overlooking the lake that would have been perfect for dinner at sunset. Begrudgingly I put the golf cart back and headed out to find food and anything to drink besides cabernet sauvignon.

Wine tasting in Napa tends to get a little redundant. Here is our chard, here is our cab, and here is a barrel. So Failla Wines was a fun stop because all their vineyards are in Sonoma. We lingered in the tasting room sampling chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah, and picking the brain of the poor guy stuck in the room with us. It was a good break from the monotony. After that we were off to Sinskey!

Part of the reason I really wanted to stop at Robert Sinskey Vineyards is that I have been a big fan of their white wines for some time. In fact, I regularly use their pinot blanc as a pairing on our tasting menus. On the tour of their facility I got to see their caves, barrels and destemmer/sorters, and taste some of their whites and their pinot.

The last stop of the day was Hourglass. Thus far I was blown away looking into Dominus as the gate rolled open. I was enamored by the beauty and simplicity of the Jacobsen farm and cottage. I was mesmerized by the serenity and natural beauty of Diamond Creek. The house and the view at Hourglass topped all of those. You pull onto the property, located across the street from Duckhorn’s Three Palms Vineyard, and drive around the vineyards with a creek bed and wall of trees to your right, following an arrow on a sign post to the house. As you pull up it looks so rustic but so welcoming. You feel like you just got home. I was far too restless to just chill out before dinner and wound up wandering through the magical estate.

Napa

The next morning’s agenda was a meeting with Jeff Smith, a highlight of the trip for several reasons. Jeff has been into George’s and is a pretty cool guy – the kind of guy you want to hang out with – so I was looking forward to seeing him again, as well as seeing the rest of the property.

Nolan in Napa

A funny aside: it was a chilly morning and George had only packed shorts, so I loaned him my hoodie which reads “suffer” across the chest and has a child in flames and Bad Religion printed on the back. Not exactly George’s style, but he rocked it all morning.

Jeff took us into the winery and answered a lot of nerdy technical questions and told stories about the evolution of Napa from his shoes since he is, as he put it, in between the generations. We were able to taste barrel samples of some of his wines and then we noticed the “man cave.” Apparently during the construction of his cave there a half case of dynamite left over. The crew was going to take it to the next job site but Jeff said, “No way, I want to blow stuff up.” So he blasted an extra room out of the side of the caves.

After picking Jeff’s brain about alcohol levels, Parker scores, cult wines and more, we left him to continue with the harvest at Vineyard 29 – the polar opposite of what I’d seen up to this point in Napa. Yes, it was beautiful and the views were amazing, but it was such a neat, techy winery. Everything was built for a purpose.

Nolan in Napa 5

Moving on to Bell Wine Cellars, we met up with Anthony Bell, an amazing person and fantastic winemaker. He has played a bigger role in the evolution of Napa Valley than anyone really knows, and while he has never been the rock star winemaker on the cover of Wine Spectator or one of Robert Parker’s 100 point golden boys, he has always been one of the guys that made sure the wheels were still turning. He is the guy that filled out the forms to make Carneros an appellation. He worked with some of the biggest names and biggest wineries and helped to shape who and what they are today. Now he just makes good wine and does his own thing, and we got to see his vineyards and catch up with him a bit before we went to Staglin Family Vineyard.

The last night I got to hang out with Ryan Hill and his wife Nicole again (I was able to have dinner and drinks with Ryan and Nicole my first night). Ryan and his sister Carly, who is the namesake of the chardonnay we pour at George’s, are genuinely nice people that I thoroughly enjoy. Ryan brought a bottle of 1966 St. Emilion; I forget the producer but it was amazing to drink a bottle of wine that was that old and still alive. I was exhausted and enjoyed just sitting back and listening to George talk about business from his point of view and Ryan talk about what is new with Hill and what they are working toward as a family and as a business. It was enlightening and entertaining. You will be hard-pressed to find anyone sweeter than Nicole to have dinner with, and other than Ryan thanking George for carrying Hill wines through the years it felt more like a family dinner than a business dinner.

The next morning on the way to the airport, we made one final stop at Hyde de Villaine. As with many of the stops on this tasting tour, it was somewhat rushed and we could not see too much since everyone was in the middle of harvest.

On the journey home, I was thinking about how great it was to see these places. I enjoyed seeing where so many of the wines I work with on a daily basis come from, and meeting some of the people I work so closely with yet never speak to. I can go a year without seeing or actually speaking to Jill, Ryan or Holly outside of email and text, and I hadn’t seen or spoken to Anthony in years. But what they do every day is something I do not take the time to think about. It was nice to slow down, and go see what they are doing and how they are doing it. I was flattered that all of them set aside some time to spend, no matter how brief, and can honestly say it makes me a little prouder of the wines I keep on George’s list and offer to our guests every day.