Navigating Napa Valley

Traveling to Napa: Just do it.

Hello everyone! It seems @smashleythegrape is a tad occupied with her studying for WSET Level 2, so you get my voice and insight for this post. Let me introduce myself. I’m Greg, the man behind the camera (aka “Instagram husband”), the one usually holding Walter’s leash, and full-time Naval Officer. Nice to meet you all! Thank you for joining us. Today we’ll be putting my military experience to good use and exploring a very important subject:  logistics! Hopefully I can share some tips that will help everyone make the most out of a visit to Napa.

Photo taken outside our patio at Wine Country Inn & Cottages

Make a Plan and Crush It!

The first time Ashley and I visited Napa, we drove up the coast from SoCal and made it to the Valley after stops in Monterrey (otters!) and San Francisco (clam chowder in bread bowls!). Driving to Napa can be great for a couple of reasons. First and foremost:  plenty of trunk space to bring home some fantastic wine. On that first trip, we joined a couple of wine clubs and were able to take home our first batch of shipments (plus a few extra bottles our hosts threw in). Second benefit:  flexibility. There’s nothing worse than getting a great recommendation for a winery from someone and not being able to take advantage of it because you have to catch a flight. Driving allows you to keep an open schedule and that’s the best way to take advantage of the hospitality of Napa and social aspect of wine-tasting.

Our second trip to Napa was our first time flying up and renting a car. We booked flights into San Francisco International Airport (SFO) from San Diego. After checking in and getting through TSA, we learned that our flight was delayed due to the weather in San Francisco. The rather well-known bay area fog was limiting the number of flights that were being routed into SFO… and this was in July when the skies are generally clear and blue! After a delay of a couple of hours on the tarmac, we were finally on our way. The last hurdles we overcame were the slowness of getting our rental car and then having to navigate through “The City” to get out to the valley. After finally getting to Napa several hours after we had expected to, we swore to ourselves:  never again.

Since that first fateful airline trip via SFO, we have probably flown in and out of Sacramento (SMF) at least half a dozen times. We. Love. That. Airport! Sacramento is much smaller and sooo easy to navigate. There are NEVER lines at TSA or the check-in kiosks/counters. It’s a quick shuttle from the terminal to the rental cars and then about an hour drive into Napa. The drive in through the Davis area always renews my appreciation for the agricultural aspect of wine-making. Plus, there’s virtually no traffic going into the valley from the east. So easy. Highly recommended by these social grapes. We’ve heard that Oakland is a comparable experience just with a little more Bay Area traffic involved, but we’ve never tried it so don’t quote me.

Hotels so nice, you’ll want to stay twice!

Let me start this section by being as up-front as possible… Napa is an expensive place to visit. There are some very pricey hotels that I can tell you very little about because I have never been to them, let alone stayed there. What I can tell you about are some of the pros and cons of staying in town or farther north in the heart of the valley.

The city of Napa has some great options for hotels, restaurants, and bars. We’ve stayed at the Westin Verasa and the Andaz. The Westin Verasa was great because it is walking distance to the Oxbow Public Market (tons of amazing food, drink, and shopping options) and also had complimentary tastings in the lobby on Friday and Saturday. We have gone back to the Andaz a few times now – they always welcome with a glass of something great and we usually get upgraded thanks to the AMEX. While we think the Andaz is a better value, we also like how close it is to some great restaurants (Ca’ Momi and Allegria come to mind) and bars (lobby at the Archer Hotel and Stone Brewing). The Andaz also has a great outdoor patio bar for when the weather is nice (any time except winter). The only downfall to staying downtown is the 20-30 minute drive to the wineries. This makes getting around between wineries and back at the end of the day somewhat challenging (see more below).

About 30 minutes north of downtown Napa is the town of St. Helena, centrally located in the heart of Napa Valley. There are several hotel options in the area including Harvest Inn and the Wine Country Inn and Cottages. Usually these spots are a bit pricier than the downtown hotels, but we love how accessible all of the wineries are. Like downtown, this area boasts some great restaurants (Cook, Farmstead, Archetype, and Gott’s Roadside) and bars (Goose and Gander, Saint). Harvest Inn gave us a half-bottle of wine in our room when we checked in and both of those hotels invite wineries to provide complimentary tastings on the weekends. Of the two, Wine Country Inn and Cottages is our favorite with a great breakfast spread in the mornings and coffee in the lobby 24/7.

Another great hotel we plan on returning to soon is Senza, which is conveniently located about halfway between downtown and St. Helena. Right around the corner from there is Don Giovanni (legendary Italian cuisine) and it’s a short uber/drive to Brix or Mustards (two great contemporary American options).

Photo of @smashleythegrape taken at SENZA Hotel

Hotel Highlight Reel:

  • Wine Country Inn & Cottages:  very nice pool area, surrounded by the vineyards of Duckhorn, super quaint/quiet, you can walk to Freemark Abbey (worth a visit), dog friendly (they even supplied Walter with a huge/fluffy dog bed and treats), rooms/cottages are spread out so you don’t feel like you’re at a hotel, complimentary wine tastings on Fridays/Saturdays.
  • Senza:  nice pool, discount for Hall Winery members, plenty of vineyard views, much like Wine Country Inn the rooms are spread out and you don’t feel like you’re at a hotel, breakfast buffet included bubbles/juice for mimosas/hibiscus, dog friendly, fireplaces in most rooms.
  • Andaz:  hospitality is great, cool vibe/atmosphere, lobby bar/coffee stand, outdoor mezzanine bar, breakfast/lunch restaurant is quite good, fireplace and freestanding bathtub in the suites.
  • Harvest Inn:  quiet/quaint setting in the midst of large trees but super close to St. Helena, two pools/jacuzzis were open late, nice lobby bar and restaurant, complimentary wine tastings on Fridays/Saturdays, spread out rooms so you don’t feel like you’re at a hotel, some rooms have vineyard views (but not all).
  • Westin Verasa:  really great lobby bar, the restaurant – La Toque – has a Michelin star, complimentary wine tastings on Fridays/Saturdays, we got upgraded for joining SPG rewards club, nice pool.

Getting Around

Let’s face it:  driving and wine-tasting do not mix. Especially if you’re fully embracing your inner “social grape” like we tend to do. Usually when we are visiting, I will drive to the first couple of wineries and after that we go into uber/lyft mode. That’s why we love staying up near St. Helena; with shorter distances to wineries, we can get to more tastings and ubers are much more affordable. When we stay downtown, we start our day with the wineries that are farthest north. After we drop the car off at the hotel, we can then usually uber to one or two more that are farther south in the valley. The great thing about downtown is the option to continue tasting wine at one of the many bars or restaurants – including Restoration Hardware Wine Vault which is beyond trendy and has incredible wine offerings (they offer wine tasting all night). While the wine is still enjoyable in a setting like that, for us nothing can compare to the experience of tasting a wine while looking out on the vineyards where the grapes are grown or next to the crush pad where they are brought during harvest or in the cellar where the recent vintages are still aging in oak barrels.

Live Your Best Wine Life!

When planning your visit, make sure you have a strategy and map out vineyards by AVA (American Viticultural Area). This will allow you to make the most of a trip to Napa and maximize your inner social grape. Hopefully some of these tips and pointers have given you a few ideas and will lead you in the right direction as you plan your own trip. Happy travels and thanks for sipping with us!

The Social Grapes

Instagram: @smashleythegrape

Sunday School

Happy Sunday, friends! Hope your weekend was full of wine and good company. This next week is a biggie for yours truly. I’m one week out from taking the WSET level 1 exam! While I cannot wait to be back in Napa Valley – especially because we have a couple events on our schedule (obvi) – I’m also incredibly anxious about this test. But hey, how cool is it that I get do this? Even better… I get to share with all of you! So, thank you for following along. I wanted to write a high-level intro on wine types for those of you who really wish to learn the fundamentals, like me! Thanks in advance for reading with me!

The Essentials

There are three types of wine: sparkling, still, and fortified. What factors determine the style of wine? To paint with a broad stroke, there are four key elements that contribute to the style of a wine – color, aroma, flavor, and structure. As many of you know, there are three classic colors within these categories of wine – white, rosé, and red. There’s an endless sea of creative and talented winemakers out there producing interesting blends with all the varietals! My tip for you is to find a varietal you love, explore the many producers and regions of that varietal, and get comfortable. Then move onto your second favorite grape, learn, explore, and ask questions. Continue to get your toes wet in this vast and ever-growing wine world. Never. Stop. Exploring.

What’s Your Type?

Let’s chat about bubbles. Sparkling wine is refreshing, crisp, and perfect for celebrations. There are sooo many sparkling wine styles out there – sparkling Pinot Noir, Blanc de Noirs, sparkling Chardonnay, sparkling Pinot Meunior, sparkling Red cuvée, etc – I could get lost in a never-ending list and that would make me happy as a clam! What makes this wine sparkle? Glad you asked! This wine type is the most labor intensive as it requires 2 fermentations. Beauty is pain, after all. Fermentation #1 is to make the wine, fermentation #2 adds the bubbles. Natural sugars in the juice of pressed grapes are converted into the boozy good stuff by yeast. BOOM… we have alcohol! Then comes the fizz aka carbon dioxide that gets trapped inside the wine during fermentation #2. There are various methods used when making sparkling wine, prosecco, cava, and champagne. The method determines what classification a bottle can claim and not all bubbles are equal. Stay tuned for a deeper dive into each method! Regardless of method, the pop sound that makes a crowd go “woo!” is the escaping of trapped gas. Next time you need an excuse to pop some bubbles, just say there’s gas trapped inside that needs to be rescued! #notallheroeswearcapes

What style of wine does @smashleythegrape drink the most of? Still Wine! I just love it so much. A majority of still wines range in the 11.5% to 14% abv – those are some good ratios. Naming conventions are important in this vino category and can work in a couple different ways. Many still wines are named after regions like Chianti in Italy or Bordeaux and Burgundy in France. In other parts of the world it’s named after the grape varietal used to produce the wine: i.e. Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and so on. Have you ever noticed another title on the bottle? If so, that’s called a “fantasy name” and I just realized what my dream job is. I’d like to sit around sampling delicious wines of the world while giving them fantastic fantasy names! Who’s coming with me? Getting back on track now. One example of a fantasy name that is regularly on my mind is Turnbull Wines’ “Josephine” Sauvignon Blanc. This is my fave sauv blanc on the market rn, just FYI. It’s aged in terracotta and cement giving it an amazing minerality. I mean come on! In addition to these nuances another key element of still wine is color. Color in wine comes from grape skins and grape varietal. Did you know that a white wine can be made with a red grape? Crazy, I know. The grapes are pressed to obtain the juice and immediately removed from the skin in order to achieve this. Typically the skin remains in the grape juice during fermentation and that gives us all kinds of beautiful shades of red wine and white wine in addition to greater depth, complexity, and nuance. Ever wonder how rosé gets its pretty pink color? Just a couple hours of contact with red grape skins at the very start of fermentation is enough to provide that gorgeous hue.

I saved dessert for last! Type #3 is fortified wine which includes distilled wine, dessert wine, vermouth, etc. This type has the highest abv rating which usually ranges from 15% to 22% because extra alcohol is brought into the fix during fermentation. Late harvest grapes are ripe with extra sugar and the yeast isn’t able to ferment all of it, leaving an added level of sweetness in the wine. Another way to kick up the sweetness and abv is by adding in distilled alcohol. Adding in the hard stuff kills the yeast, stops fermentation, and increases the hangover. I’m not a big fortified wine gal, but on my first visit to Far Niente in Napa, the tasting included some Dolce which quickly converted me! I will gladly substitute chocolate lava cake for Dolce any day of the week!

There you have it! Your first intro and a brief beginners lesson on the different styles of wine. Thanks for helping me study! Hopefully this helps make wine a bit more approachable for you. But remember, the best way to learn more about wine is through hands-on enjoyment and talking about it with the people you share it with! Stay tuned for more Sunday School lessons in the not-too-distant future.

Thanks for sipping with us,

The Social Grapes

IG: @smashleythegrape

New to Napa

Two months after we were engaged Greg was preparing for a 6 month deployment. We decided to spend some quality time together and drive up the coast to Napa Valley with stops in Monterey Bay and San Francisco along the way. Upon our arrival, Napa welcomed us with rain for days. That wasn’t going to keep us down, because rain or shine we taste wine.

Being new to the scene, we only had one reservation on the books and decided to wing the rest of the trip. This wouldn’t fly during peak season, but we learned you can get away with this in the middle of December. As we googled vineyards, the top search result was Hall Rutherford. Little did we know, this is a private and very exclusive tasting room for members only. We didn’t get past the gate, but it led us to our very first Napa appellation… Rutherford! FYI – Napa Valley is made up of 16 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) and Rutherford is one of them.

In the midst of our unsuccessful first attempt we did end up finding a small winery on the same road called Rutherford Hill. Success! Mark this hilltop establishment as our first tasting experience in the mecca of vineyards and wine. We shared a classic tasting which offered Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet. All delicious and already higher quality than the wines we were used to purchasing from BevMo. Aside from the delicious wine, we found the grounds quite picturesque with a great vista of the valley. Rutherford Hill is quaint, rustic, cozy, and elegant.

After Rutherford Hill we cruised down to Mumm Napa. Err. Mahh. Gerrd. We immediately fell in love. Like most lushes, we had tried Mumm before, but the stuff in grocery stores doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what they do. What we soon found out was just how many different varietals and wine options they produce… including sparkling AND still. This was the first time we had ever even heard of sparkling Pinot Noir (it’s even more amazing than it sounds). Also, our host was incredibly sweet and made our experience fun and less intimidating. We joined the club and re-visit every time we’re in Napa. That was it for our first day.

The highlight of our trip, and what we were most excited about, was tasting at Reverie Wines. Our close friends were referred by a close friend who was referred by a close friend and so on. That’s how it works at Reverie. It’s a small vineyard that focuses on producing fantastic wine and marketing flows through word of mouth. You definitely need a reservation and each tasting is private for you & yours. The history of the vineyard and passion for Napa viticulture was contagious. Our tasting was inside the barn which looked out over the hillside vineyard as the rain poured down. It was cozy and welcoming. We talked and sipped for a couple hours, feeling like we were at home with friends. This was the second wine club we joined and we’ve been in a committed relationship for 2 years. We never miss an opportunity to visit our friends at Reverie.

After Reverie we popped over to Chandon to get a fix of our bubbles in for the day! As the rain poured outside, the wine poured inside. We sat next to a fireplace and tasted a few varietals… rosé being my fave which is produced using Chardonnay & Pinot Noir. The experience was less personal but the grounds makeup for that. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take advantage of the outdoor picnic-like vibe, but we’ve re-visited and highly recommend you do as well!

We ended our first (very short) trip with a visit to Clos Du Val. We sipped at the bar and enjoyed the elegance of the wines in their cozy tasting room. The rain was really coming down at this point and we nearly got flooded in. Would not have been the worst place to be stuck in at all! Sadly, we were able to leave and admired the well-maintained vineyards as we waited for our uber driver.

This was all it took. We like to think back on our first trip because it reminds us of how little we knew. To be honest, I was intimated at first. But, we had such a positive experience and have continued to grow more passionate about Napa and wine-making with each return visit. Our advice for those making their first trip to Napa is to have reservations set up at 2-3 wineries per day, but leave a little room in the schedule. That will allow you to take advantage of any recommendations you might get along the way. One of our favorite parts of Napa is engaging with the people pouring our tastings – they all have their own love of wine they are willing to share and that usually includes their own favorite wineries. Once the wine starts flowing, so does the conversation. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and be social!

Thanks for sipping with us,

The Social Grapes

IG: @smashleythegrape