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Now's the time to come back to wine country to show support for some of the best wineries in the world.

Jonathan Cristaldi
November 28, 2017

Some of the best experiences in Napa or Sonoma counties require some extra planning, meaning you have to make an appointment. But they’re well worth the effort. A word to the wise—long before you travel to Napa or Sonoma, reach out for appointments at these wineries well in advance. Happy tasting.

Cain Vineyard & Winery

From their perch at 3800 Langtry Road high atop Spring Mountain, you’ll enjoy spectacular views overlooking Napa Valley. The focus here is on the classic five Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Guests will taste their Cain Cuvée—a blend of two vintages and a selection of vineyards; Cain Concept—representing the classic benchlands of the Napa Valley; and Cain Five— the product of their estate Cain Vineyard. Christopher Howell came to Cain as a winemaking consultant in 1990, becoming general manager and winemaker in 1991. His C.V. includes stints at Mouton Rothschild in France and Peter Michael. Tip: Ask for the vineyard hike experience, and hopefully you’ll meet Chris and tour with him through their estate vineyard, which offers mesmerizing views, and varying aspects, followed by a tasting of Cain’s three current vintages and a library vintage.

Appointments available: Monday through Friday 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., or 12:00 p.m.. Saturday 10:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m.
Fee: $75 for the vineyard hike and tasting; $50 for just a 45-minute tasting of current releases
Phone: (707) 963-1616

Ehlers Estate

This little treasure sits right off Highway 29 in St. Helena on a truly unique “bench,” in the narrowest part of the entire valley, smack between the Mayacamas and Vaca Mountains. The tasting room is incredibly eclectic—a rotating art exhibit graces the stone walls, and guests are seated in gathering spaces that boast an eclectic patchwork of vintage furniture. There’s also a tasting bar. Winemaker Kevin Morrisey is a bit of legend who can boast having worked a stint at the famous Château Petrus in Pomerol on the Right Bank of Bordeaux. He also made wine at Stags' Leap Winery and Etude. They make 100% estate-grown Bordeaux-varietal wines, including a dynamite rosé. Tip: Those visiting from the east coast might ask about their “Start Your Day” experience, and if you’re into bocce there’s a court to satisfy your competitive nature.  

Appointments available: Seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Fee: $35 per person up to six people.
Contact: or (707) 963-5972

Cliff Lede Vineyards

Come join us on the Darkside of the Moon 🌙 #stagsleapdistrict #yountville #sauvignonblanc #cabernet #clifflede 📸: @spacecadette77

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Just off Silverado Trail in Yountville, Cliff Lede is mecca for beautiful age-worthy Cabernet Sauvignons, while lovers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can taste FEL label offerings, making for an array of possibilities when visiting. The tasting room does accepts walk-ins, and guests can order a and enjoy a pristine garden experience with sculptures and terrific views of the surrounding Vaca Mountains. Inquire about their wines from Savoy Vineyard in the Alexander Valley, which is a world class vineyard now owned by the winery, with a Who’s Who of clients that source grapes including Failla, Peay and Auteur. Tip: book a reservation to taste in their Backstage Tasting Lounge where owner Cliff Lede’s classic rock music obsession is on full display in rotating exhibits of some incredible rock memorabilia.

Appointments available: Daily with limited times for certain appointments—inquire.
Fee: $35-$75 per person depending upon experience
Contact: or (707) 944-8642

Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery

A quick visit to the top of the world

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For one of the most authentic and old-fashioned experiences in Napa, make the winding  trek up Spring Mountain Road to visit with winemaker Charles Smith or his brother, viticulturist Stuart Smith. Take in dramatic views of the valley below through a corridor of 100-year-old olive trees and sample three current releases—Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon, all grown on the estate vineyards surrounding the winery on the top of Spring Mountain. You’ll be regaled with stories of Napa past and present because the brothers have been growing grapes for 46 years. Tip: ask about Smith-Madrone’s Cook’s Flat Reserve ($225, with each bottle initialed and numbered). Also, keep an eye out for Smith’s son, next-generation winemaker Sam Smith, who will debut his own label Curley St. James—a Cabernet-dominant blend—in the fall of this year. Having sampled it at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, I can attest that it's a tremendous wine from one of Napa's rising star winemakers.

Appointments available: Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.
Fee: $25.00 per person—waived with a purchase.
Phone: (707) 963-2283

Robert Foley Vineyards

Looking up to #howellmountain after last night's rain. #fall #napavalley #vineyard #blueskies

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Robert Foley is the undisputed king of Howell Mountain and until very recently it was impossible to visit his open-air crushpad and winery in Angwin, about about an hour northeast of Napa. Foley’s wines are the stuff of legend, imbued with exquisite craft of a winemaker whose C.V. is almost unbelievable. The founding winemaker at Pride Mountain Vineyards and Hourglass, his deft hands have also crafted Switchback Ridge, Engel Family, and Padis Vineyards in Napa and he’s even produced wines for Red Hook Winery, which is based in New York City. His portfolio spans the gamut from bold, rich, opulent reds like his flagship Claret (Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend), and his world-class Merlot and Charbono wines to a Carneros Pinot Noir, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, a Syrah and a luscious white Rhone-style Pinot Blanc. In the rare moments when he’s not making wine he plays a mean Gibson guitar and tours with The Robert Foley Band. Tip: guests should no this is a no-frills experience in working winery and tasting room. Come for the wines, not the show. If you visit in the next year, rumor has it Foley is releasing a winery-only Mt. Veeder Cabernet in 2018. Get in now.

Appointments available: Wednesday through Saturday at 10:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m., and 2:00 p.m..
Fee: $40 per person—waived with minimum purchase of $300


The last days of winter are near #ackermanfamilyvineyards #coombsville #napavalley

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This is special. Walking distance from most hotels in downtown Napa, at 608 Randolph Street, you’ll find Lauren Ackerman’s fully-restored Queen Anne Victorian mansion—a place so incredible that if you leave Napa without stopping off, you’ll regret it. Guests can book appointments to taste flights of  Coombsville appellation current vintages and library selections of Ackerman Family Wines made by Rob Lloyd, as well as flights of Lloyd Cellars. Tour the Victorian, taste in the gardens or spacious carriage house. A formal dining room seats 12 comfortably for multi-course meals plated on antique china, paired with wines. Or take in the state-of-the-art kitchen or grand sitting room, which can accommodate parties up to 50. Tip: ask to view (or taste) in the intimate mahogany-paneled library stocked with rare, old books, and if there’s availability for their food and wine class. Above all, inquire about three upstairs guest rooms.

Appointments available: Daily from 10:00am to 4:00pm.
Fee: $55 to $195 per person depending on experience.
Contact: or (855) 238-9463



For some of the most-refined, elegant, classic expressions of Napa Valley terroir, a visit to Steve and Jill Matthiasson’s farmhouse in the heart of Napa is a must. No matter how crazed your schedule, things slow down at Matthiasson where guests are invited to sit around a picnic table and sample a lineup of beautifully made, finely-delineated wines, typically lower in alcohol and ideal for food given their electric acid profiles. Steve was named San Francisco Chronicle’s “Winemaker of the Year” in 2014, and has made wine for Spottswoode, Chappellet and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Tip: The Matthiasson’s have a new winery, projected to open in 2018, which will also entertain small groups by appointment. 

Appointments available: Daily from 11:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for about one hour
Fee: No cost—maximum of 6 people per group


Tom Gamble farms roughly 175 acres of prime estate vineyards in Oakville, Mt. Veeder, Rutherford and Yountville, producing classic Bordeaux-varietal wines that are imbued with Old World structure and elegance, while delivering New World hedonism. His winery and tasting room is situated in the heart of the valley in Oakville, hidden from those cruising up and down Highway 29. Once at the winery’s door, you might meet Koa, the four-legged Gamble staff member and often Tom Gamble himself. The experience is casual, down-to-earth in an elegant setting, but the wines require serious attention—they are true gems. Tip: if you want an incredible lesson in agricultural heritage and the art of growing grapes in unique pockets around Napa Valley, Tom, a third-generation grower will wow you with knowledge. For instance, after tasting their brilliant Sauvignon Blanc (aged 20 months in French oak) ask how those grapes thrive in their valley-floor location to produce such uniquely Old World traits.

Appointments available: Daily—limited times for a tour and tasting. Inquire. Experiences typically last about 90 minutes.
Fee: $75 to $150 per person—waived with a six bottle purchase and/or membership sign up.

Contact: (707) 944-2999


Joe Donelan originally founded Pax Wine Cellars with Pax Mahle in 2000, with a focus on producing single-vineyard Syrahs from Sonoma County. In 2009, Joe rebranded and founded Donelan Family Wines with a focus on the production of Rhône and Burgundian varieties, sourced from small-parcel, cool-climate vineyard sites throughout Sonoma. A visit will introduce you to Donelan’s highly sought-after single-vineyard Syrahs, Rhône blends, and small-lot Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs, like the current release 2015 Donelan Cushing’s Block Pinot Noir from Barbed Oak Vineyard in Bennett Valley, which reveals elegant and subtle floral notes, smoky clove and sweet spice layered with complex black cherry, black raspberry and flamed orange peel notes, boasting a sublimely silky texture with a sweet tobacco and cedar finish. And that’s just the beginning. You can’t go wrong here. Tip: If Cushing is your host, and you’re a Matthew McConaughey fan, consider it your lucky day, as Cushing worked closely with the actor and his production company.

Appointments available: 7 days a week between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Fee: $35 per person for The Donelan Portfolio Tour & Tasting—fee waived with 3 bottle purchase per person. $60 per person for The Road Less Traveled Tour & Tasting—fee waived with 6 bottle purchase per person.

Rudd Oakville Estate

Everything about Rudd is inspiring — from the elegantly furnished tasting library to the stunning winery outfitted with concrete tanks inspired by those at Petrus and made by the same mason. Leslie Rudd’s vision of owning a small jewel on a lake, producing wines of impeccable quality, is a realized dream as he passes the torch to his daughter, vintner Samantha Rudd. Their breathtaking portfolio includes estate Oakville Cabernets and whites that range from $80 to $250—made to cellar for decades. An experience here is uniquely special as guests are hosted privately and each visit is tailored to the guest’s desires. You might spend time touring vineyards high up on Mt. Veeder and visiting RUDD Farms, or tasting in their boathouse, or lakeside greenhouse (designed by architect Howard Backen), in caves or in one of the most fashionable dining rooms in the valley. From casual to formal, no matter the experience, it will wow. Tip: They produce one of the greatest Sauvignon Blancs ever to come off Mt. Veeder, modeled after Bordeaux’s famous examples, which you’ll sample when you visit.

Appointments available: Monday through Saturday, inquire for times.
Fee: $150 per person

Inman Family Wines

Kathleen Inman is making some of the finest Pinot Noir right in the heart of Sonoma's Russian River Valley from her humble 100% solar-powered winery and tasting room in Santa Rosa, CA. Relaxed tastings are hosted in one of the two small salons or on her patio, and with a glass of mesmerizing Pinot Noir in hand, guests can take in views of perfectly manicured rows of vines. A typical tasting is of 5-6 current releases with breadsticks provided as a palate cleanser. A no-frills experience, the winery is pet friendly, and the focus is all on these beautifully made Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, rosés and a sparkling wine. Tip: The parking lot boasts two “Level 2” charging stations for electric cars. And visitors curious to stay the night for more Russian River gallivanting should inquire about the 3-bedroom Craftsman farmhouse that can be rented.

Appointments available: Thursday through Monday at 11:00 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 2:00 p.m.
Fee: $20 per person is waived with a minimum purchase of $100 per person. "Meet the Maker"  fees are $35 per person and are also waived with a minimum purchase of $150.
Contact: (707) 293-9576.

Patz & Hall

If you’ve never been to this iconic winery, or tried their Chardonnays and single-vineyard Pinot Noirs from Hyde, Pisoni, Dutton, Zio Tony, Hudson and Alder Springs vineyards, you simply are missing out. For a simple, refined experience and introduction, waste no time in booking a tasting in their Salon at the Sonoma House, which was unveiled in 2014. Tip: Tastings include pairings with locally sourced, specially prepared bites, like tea-smoked duck and sage chicken salad with rose petals.

Appointments available: Seated tastings Thursday through Monday at 10:30 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.
Fee: $75 per person for The Salon Experience, lasts approximately 60 minutes, and can accommodate up to 9 guests per tasting.
Contact: or (707) 931-2440

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

A stop at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is a must. From a purely historical perspective, founder Warren Winiarski’s 1973 S.L.V Cabernet Sauvignon helped catapult Napa Valley wines to the world stage when it took top honors in the famous 1976 Paris Tasting. Having beat out Bordeaux’s top First Growth wines, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars helped cement the valley’s reputation as a true rival and world-class wine producing region in its own right. Their stunning new tasting room offers a brilliantly-designed overview of the winery’s history. Tip: You’re going to ask about the Cellarius Kitchen Experience with Chef Travis Westrope, which includes a tour and tasting with seasonal and locally inspired dishes paired with the winery’s Fay and S.L.V. Estate Cabernets, along with the deeply profound and age-worthy Cask 23.

Appointments available: The Cellarius Kitchen Experience is offered Monday to Thursday at 1:00 p.m. for approximately 2 hours. Maximum of 12 guests.
Fee: $125 per person
Contact: or (707) 261-6410

Mending Wall

From all of us here at Mending Wall, have a Happy Thanksgiving. #napavalley #sthelena #napastrong

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Five partners including winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown built this winery in the spring of 2014 in time for that vintage’s harvest. With ample space for tanks and barrels, there is “no compromise on quality,” says Rivers Brown, who helped design the production space. The tasting room boasts an industrial chic atmosphere with a fashionable bar and plenty of space for small and large groups. Since Rivers Brown was named “Winemaker of the Year” by Food & Wine, he’s produced numerous 100-point wines and earned loads of accolades. Tip: Locals affectionately refer to Rivers Brown as “TRB” and in addition to tasting Mending Wall wines ask about his other projects, which include Tamber Bay, Outpost, his own label with his wife called Rivers-Marie, and others like Gemstone and their stunning Cabernets and tiny-production Stone the Crows with its line of beautifully structured, rich and age worthy Cabernets and Cabernet blends.

Appointments available: most days from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Fee: $35 per person; $50 per person for parties of 8 or more
Contact: or (707) 709-4200

Senses Wines

Wine Country is open for business, and beautiful as ever. We’ll see you in the vineyard! 👋🏼 #winewednesday

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From a truly stunning property situated just outside of Occidental between Sebastopol and Bodega Bay, a trip to visit Senses on the Sonoma Coast is a must. The wines are produced by Thomas Rivers Brown — a Food & Wine “Winemaker of the Year.” Small groups are treated to an elegant visit highlighting exceptional world-class Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays produced by “TRB,” who is known for his decadent Cabernet wines. Three partners — Chris Strieter, Max Thieriot, and Myles Lawrence-Briggs have been friends since preschool, grew up in town, and have built Senses from the ground up. Expect great things from this estate. Tip: fans of A&E’s Bates Motel and CBS SEAL Team might recognize a familiar face in actor Max Thieriot, who, if you’re fortunate during a visit might make an appearance. And Pinot lovers will be keen to know that TRB is owner of Summa Vineyard across the street, a Pinot Noir site planted even before Hirsch in the Sonoma Coast and that Strieter previously worked at iconic Williams Selyem. All pedigree and terrific wines.

Appointments available: Must be scheduled in advance of planning a visit
Fee: Inquire about becoming a member to plan a visit
Contact: or (707) 874-8550

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