Napa and Sonoma's Best Winery Tours
Reservation-only tours at wineries in Napa and Sonoma offer ample rewards for type-A travelers who make an appointment ahead of time: unique experiences like visits to historic caves, sit-down lunches and up-close-and-personal visits with winemakers.
BY PAUL FRANSON
Jarvis, famous for both its classic Cabernet and Chardonnay, built its entire winery—including the press, barrel room, aging cellar and tasting room— in a huge, doughnut- shaped cave, complete with underground stream and waterfall. The tour also includes access to hidden rooms that display the family's collection of giant cut amethyst geodes.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The dark purple 2004 Petit Verdot, with blackberry jam flavors ($41 for a half-bottle), and the 2002 Cabernet Franc, with lavender and cassis aromas ($70).
DETAILS $30 for tour and tasting. 2970 Monticello Rd., Napa; 707-255-5280 or jarviswines.com.
When the Huneeus family purchased 280 acres to create Quintessa in 1989, they planted organic, biodynamic vineyards on the last major estate available for development in Rutherford. The tour explains how the gravity-fed winery works and ends with a sit-down tasting of two vintages of Quintessa wines with local cheese. Best tour to sign up for: a 10:30 a.m. session early in the week during harvest (September through November), when the winery is not crowded but there's a lot of activity.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The 2004 Quintessa, a dense Bordeaux-style blend ($120), and the 2006 Illumination Sauvignon Blanc, Rutherford ($40), made primarily from grapes grown in a secret vineyard on the estate.
DETAILS $25 for tour and tasting. 1601 Silverado Trail, Rutherford; 707-967-1601 or quintessa.com.
Pride Mountain Vineyard
Pride Mountain Vineyard bridges Napa and Sonoma counties at the top of Spring Mountain: A brick marker indicates the county line, and grapes crushed on either side must be labeled differently. Tours visit both sides and offer a taste of winemaker Bob Foley's highly extracted, dense and chewy wines.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The 2005 Cabernet Franc, with ripe blueberry flavors ($60), and the 2005 Syrah, with allspice notes ($57).
DETAILS $5 for tour and tasting. 4026 Spring Mountain Rd., St. Helena; 707-963-4949 or pridewines.com.
Joseph Phelps Vineyards
One of Napa's oldest postwar wineries, Joseph Phelps is known for its Rhône varietal wines and California's pioneering Bordeaux-style wine blend, Insignia. Views of bucolic Spring Valley are amazing, and the seated tastings are expertly run.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The famous 2003 Insignia, with dark chocolate and coffee notes ($165), and the 2005 Le Mistral, a blend of Rhône varietals ($40).
DETAILS $30 for tour and tasting. 200 Taplin Rd., St. Helena; 707-963-2745 or jpvwines.com.
Ladera is known for its hillside estate Cabernet Sauvignon from the top of Howell Mountain and from Mount Veeder at the other end of Napa Valley. Tours of the historic 1886 stone winery are led by owners Pat and Dan Stotesbery or other family members. Tastings include wines that are sold only on-site. If you arrange in advance, the Stotesberys will lead a tour of their prized Lone Canyon Vineyard on Mount Veeder, followed by lunch and a tasting of Ladera wines.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The appellation-designate Cabernets—the fruity 2004 Howell Mountain ($70) and the intense 2003 Mount Veeder's Lone Canyon ($65).
DETAILS Regular tours free; Lone Canyon Vineyard tours $50 per person (four-person minimum). 150 White Cottage Rd. S., Angwin; 707-965-2445 or laderavineyards.com.
With five family members working at Viader, visitors are likely to run into one of them on a tour. Call to set up a visit that includes hors d'oeuvres, picnics or full meals (call two weeks in advance for the full meal) prepared by executive chef Mariela Viader and served in a private dining room.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The 2004 Syrah, made with grapes cloned from vines in Australia's Barossa Valley and France's Hermitage ($50), and the earthy, concentrated 2005 Dare Tempranillo ($40).
DETAILS $35 for tasting. 1120 Deer Park Rd., Deer Park; 707-963-3816 or viader.com .
Schramsberg is the grande dame of America's sparkling wine estates. The tour ventures into mile-deep caves that were hand-dug in the 1870s; tours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m. include food and wine pairings.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The top-notch 1999 J. Schram brut ($90) and the lively 2004 Querencia Brut Rosé ($40).
DETAILS $25 for tour and tasting; $50 for pairings tour. 1400 Schramsberg Rd., Calistoga; 707-942-4558 or schramsberg.com.
Frank Family Vineyards
One of the few Napa Valley wineries that don't require an appointment or charge a fee, Frank Family makes some of the most in-demand wines among insiders, especially its Cabernet. Call ahead and you can request a private session with tasting room manager Dennis Zablosky, a skilled raconteur.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The chocolaty 2003 Winston Hill Cabernet ($125) and the jammy 2005 Zinfandel Napa Valley ($35).
DETAILS Free. 1091 Larkmead Ln., Calistoga; 707-942-0859 or frank familyvineyards.com.
Food is important to restaurant owner and designer Pat Kuleto, so his winery is also a working farm that raises goats and cows and grows vegetables used in the appetizers served with wine tastings. The vineyards have stunning views of Lake Hennessey and other great wineries, like Chappellet and Colgin.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The licoricey 2002 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($85) and the smoky 2004 Syrah ($45).
DETAILS $35 for tasting with food pairings. 2470 Sage Canyon Rd., St. Helena; 707-963-9750 or kuletoestate.com.
Spring Mountain Vineyard
Best known for the Victorian mansion that served as the face of the 1980s soap opera Falcon Crest, Spring Mountain only opened to visitors four years ago. The tour includes a visit to the caves, vineyards where a variety of grapes are grown for educational purposes and a horse barn filled with winemaking artifacts, then ends with a tasting at the mansion.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The fruity 2005 Pinot Noir ($50) and the 2004 Co-Ferment Syrah, a blend of estate-grown Viognier and Syrah ($50).
DETAILS $25 for tour/tasting. 2805 Spring Mountain Rd., St. Helena; 707-967-4188 or springmountainvineyard.com.
BY LINDA MURPHY
Using grapes transported from vineyards throughout California and Oregon, Adam and Dianna Lee make an astonishing 27 different Pinot Noirs under the Siduri label and 12 Syrahs for Novy Family Wines. Their winery is in a bare-bones warehouse in not-so-sexy Santa Rosa, but the appointment-only tours—usually given by one of the Lees—include a sampling of wines aging in barrels for a preview of upcoming vintages.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The ripe 2005 Sonatera Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($45) and the intense 2005 Novy Page-Nord Vineyard Napa Valley Syrah ($32).
DETAILS Free. 980-C Airway Court, Santa Rosa; 707-578-3882 or siduri.com.
Related: Sonoma County Wineries to Visit
The only way to visit this established producer, which made some of the first Chardonnay to be fermented in stainless steel, is to book one of two tours, which are often led by Ben Sessions, son of winemaker emeritus Bob Sessions. The "Heritage" includes a tasting of two current releases; the "Wine Library" adds at least two decade-old wines.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The rich, powerful 2004 Sonoma Valley Chardonnay ($65) and the tight, minerally 2004 Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir ($90).
DETAILS $45 for Heritage tour; $150 for Wine Library. 18596 Lomita Ave., Sonoma; 707-996-3860 or hanzell.com.
This small estate winery puts nearly all of its efforts into one great wine: a Bordeaux-style red blend called Lancaster Estate. Owner Ted Simpkins, a wine distributor, purchased the former Maacama Creek Winery in 1995 and has transformed it into a star. Private tours are followed by a tasting of three wines in the caves. Tip: Lancaster and Medlock Ames are neighbors, so schedule appointments together.
MUST-BUY BOTTLESThe polished 2003 Lancaster Estate Alexander Valley ($65) and the 2003 Lancaster Estate Nicole's Proprietary Red ($100), available only at the winery.
DETAILS Free. 15001 Chalk Hill Rd., Healdsburg; 707-433-8178 or lancaster-estate.com.
Medlock Ames is so young that it has produced just six vintages, yet its Merlots, Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons show fine depth of flavor and balance. Owners Ames Morison (who's also the winemaker) and Christopher Medlock James give tours of the eco-friendly 350-acre ranch and its 50-acre organic winery by appointment only, via electric car and on foot. Stops include the gravity-fed winery, organic vegetable garden and viewing points for wildlife corridors, where deer, coyotes and mountain lions can move freely across the property.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The 2003 Medlock Ames Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($50), with its chocolate-covered cherry lusciousness, and the ripe, plummy 2002 Medlock Ames Alexander Valley Merlot ($35).
DETAILS Free. 13414 Chalk Hill Rd., Healdsburg; 707-431-8845 or medlock ames.com.
Gallo Family Vineyards
Secretive Gallo has pulled back the curtain a bit by opening its first public tasting room, on the plaza in Healdsburg, and offering appointment-only tours of its 650-acre Barrelli Creek Vineyard. After a touch-this, feel-that walk through the rows of Zinfandel, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and seven other varietals, visitors get to sample some local cheeses and then taste six wines back at the tasting room.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The suave 2003 Gallo Family Vineyards Estate Northern Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon ($85) and the fragrant 2004 Gallo Family Vineyards WM Signature Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($28).
DETAILS $45, which includes transportation from the Healdsburg tasting room to Barrelli Creek. 320 Center St., Healdsburg; 707-433-2458 or gallofamily vineyards.com.
Seghesio Family Vineyard
Seghesio offers a fantastic appointment-only Family Table program, in which guests gather in private dining rooms to enjoy the winery's famous Zinfandels (it makes five kinds) paired with Italian dishes from chef Jon Helquist (an alum of Chez Panisse, Oliveto and Martini House). Helquist might serve a creamy risotto with pancetta or a zucchini- and-tomato frittata using vegetables grown in the winery's garden—and the four appetizer-size portions are enough for a light lunch.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The big, muscular 2004 Seghesio San Lorenzo Alexander Valley Zinfandel ($42) and the fruity, medium-bodied 2006 Seghesio Russian River Valley Fiano ($20).
DETAILS $25 for the Family Table, offered Friday through Sunday. 14730 Grove St., Healdsburg; 707-433-3579 or seghesio.com.
Dave and Patty Rafanelli's heralded Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignons (now made by their daughter, Shelly Rafanelli Fehlman) are available only at the winery and on restaurant lists. Chances are, a member of the family will lead the tour and talk about the influence that Italian immigrants have had on grape-growing in Dry Creek Valley, home to some of the oldest producing vines in California. There are no bells, no whistles, just outstanding wines sold from a rustic barn— old-school yet still cool.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The spicy 2005 A. Rafanelli Dry Creek Zinfandel ($32), the winery's flagship, and the elegant, supple 2004 A. Rafanelli Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($42).
DETAILS $5 per person for tour, six-person minimum. 4685 W. Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg; 707-433-1385 or arafanelliwinery.com.
Emerging superstar-vintner brothers Nick and Andy Peay, together with winemaker Vanessa Wong (Nick's wife), make amazing Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne/Marsanne, Pinot Noir and Syrah in the chilly northwest corner of the Sonoma Coast region, just four miles from the Pacific Ocean. The vineyard is an hour's drive from both Healdsburg and Santa Rosa, but it's worth the trip to get an inside look at a mom-and-pop operation—and to see vines planted on hillsides so steep that tractors tip over. Tip: Go online and join the winery's mailing list while it's still open.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The minerally 2005 Pomarium Estate Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($50) and the dense, meaty 2004 Les Titans Estate Sonoma Coast Syrah ($45).
DETAILS Free. 33201 Annapolis Rd., Annapolis; 707-894-8720 or peayvineyards.com.
Chateau St. Jean
Guests who book an appointment here can have unusual experiences, including a seminar in which they blend their own wine with the varietals used in Cinq Cépages Cabernet Sauvignon. The visitor center (where walk-in tastings are held) sells good panini, charcuterie and cheese for picnics.
MUST-BUY BOTTLES The toasty 2004 Reserve Sonoma County Chardonnay ($45) and the juicy 2004 Cinq Cepages Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($75).
DETAILS $60 for blending class. 8555 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood; 707-833-4134 or chateaustjean.com.