Library Magic

You never drink the same wine twice.

Groth Winery & Vineyards

Have you ever sipped the same vintage of the same varietal produced by the same winemaker and somehow it tastes like nothing you’ve had before? I’m a firm believer that there is philosophy in wine and that tasting can be subjective and influenced by experience. Recently my husband and I took a trip up to Napa Valley for business and pleasure. I was scheduled to take my Level 1 WSET exam which happened to coincide with two events at wineries where we are members. I experienced two very different tastings at each respective winery. One event was fun and educational, because that is what I was looking for going in. The other was emotional and dare I say spiritual? There was an exact moment at event #2 that summoned the philosopher in me which completely took me by surprise.

Nickel & Nickel Winery

Our first wine event was an “Open House” at Nickel & Nickel Winery which was an opportunity for members to get together to enjoy some of the greats and maybe sample some new things as well. On the morning of I was reviewing my notes in preparation for the exam later that day. Aromas and flavors in wine were dancing around in my brain along with principal grape varieties and their classic characteristics by region. I was in full-on education beast mode as we made our way to the shuttles. The event transpired in the place where all the magic happens with each station setup along the production line. We sipped chardonnay by steel tanks and savored pinot near the cork lab. We’ve come to know the staff and enjoy seeing familiar and friendly faces each time we visit. The wine is always exceptional and the combination of an amiable ambiance and unparalleled vintages continues to draw us in. As we tasted our way through current-release single-vineyard wine, I took my time and analyzed the glass. Was there spice? If so what kind: baking or pepper? Are there notes of vanilla coming from oak? Is the wine high in acidity? What about the tannins – how smooth or structured were they? Did my notes align with the experts pouring for us? In addition to looking for these components I was doing my best to pair food with wine using the WSET standardized pairing chart. When food is salty a wine will taste less dry and bitter, more balanced in acidity, and full in body and flavor. If there is umami (aka savory foods) this will increase bitterness, dryness, and acidity while making wine less sweet. The result was me hovering over the cheese table for an embarrassing length of time. In my defense, there was an array of different cheeses to pair – from creamy goat to aged gouda-ness (see what I did there) and sharp cheddar. My stomach was having the time of its life while my brain and critical thinking was put to work.

Open House 2019 at Nickel & Nickel Winery

Event number two was a Library Tasting hosted at Groth Family Vineyards. The founders of Groth Vineyards & Winery are Judy and Dennis who have been rooted in the wine industry for almost 40 years. To this day, the production is family owned and operated in the heart of Oakville. We were welcomed with a glass of their most recent Sauvignon Blanc direct from the tanks since the wine hadn’t even been bottled yet. This was followed by an opportunity to sample a new undertaking that will only be available for their wine club: a rosé of merlot with the palest of hues and the richest of flavor. Historically Groth offers three varietals: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. It was incredibly special to taste a brand-new release before it hits the market and provide honest feedback to the Cellar Master. While we loved the wine, of course, the experience made it even more enjoyable. I’ll just go ahead and say it, that welcoming will be tough to top! I was full of gratitude and feeling the buzz of cheer all around me. We continued to make our way from table to table tasting their Oakville and Reserve Cabernet Sauvignons from 2006, 2009, and 2011. We’ve tasted the same varietals and vintages a few times, all in different settings, and with different people. But, there was something about sipping the 2011 Reserve Cabernet in the cellar with my husband surrounded by barrels while overlooking the vineyards that elevated the wine to a new level. We were there for my WSET exam and at that moment I was reminded of how incredibly supportive my husband is. We also had so much to celebrate – the hardworking vintners, viticulturists, winemakers, and wine community filled with likeminded enthusiasts. I swirled, sniffed, sipped and repeated. I gave the wine detective in me the afternoon off and let my hair down! The wine was silky smooth with layers of green bell pepper that nearly dropped me to my knees.  This was a moment that lasted forever, but in the best way. It’s a moment I will always remember and one that elevated my wine tasting.

Groth 2009 Cab & Reserve Cab

In the end my faculty of reason and perception of wine tasting was annexed by emotion and passion. Approaching these events with two drastically different mindsets left me feeling incredibly balanced, surprisingly. Like in winemaking, balance in life is vitally important. When it came time for the exam, I was steady and ready to pour myself into this next phase of appreciating and learning about wine.

Groth Winery & Vineyards

Thanks for sipping with us!

The Social Grapes

IG: @smashleythegrape

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

Featured

Seasons of Napa

When is the best time to visit Napa Valley? For us the answer is year round! We’ve visited wine country in January, May, June, July, August, September, and December. February is pending – stay tuned! Consider a decent amount of the legwork done. Now you can sit back, pour some vino, read along, and plan your visit!

May – June

Photo taken at Round Pond Estate

Lets start with May/June. We took an extra day off work for a total of 4 days/3 nights (Fri – Mon) and visited over the long holiday weekend in honor of Memorial Day. Originally our plan was to hit BottleRock – a music festival with gourmet food & wine. I got us plane tickets and waited to book a hotel until all of the ideal spots were flashing no vacancy signs (womp womp). This weekend is probably one of the biggest for Napa Valley. We couldn’t find a reasonably priced hotel within county lines, so we decided to forgo the show, sell our festival tickets, and book a swanky hotel on a vineyard. Thankful that we did! Festivals are always a good time, but we knew the wine country FOMO would’ve kicked in. On Friday we experienced a little bit of “May Gray” and some sprinkles. It was definitely sweater weather on day 1, but that was the only day we tasted indoors. The sun was out for the rest of the weekend and skies alternated between slightly cloudy and bright. Definitely not pool party weather yet, but perfect for the “jacuzz.” If you decide to come up this weekend, be sure to make a few reservations ahead of time. I would say book 60% and leave 40% open in regards to winery visits. As for restaurants, make a resi every night!

Wondering what type of clothes to pack? I wore a slouchy sweater and leggings + booties on Friday, a long sleeve romper + mules on Saturday, and a midi length off the shoulder dress + mules on Sunday. My hubs wore a light sweater and chinos on Fri, a button up with shorts on Sat, and a button up (sleeves rolled up) with pants on Sun.

What’s happening with the vines? Spring Flowering! Buds are beginning to blossom and grow.

July

Photo taken at Far Niente Winery’s
2018 Chardonnay Celebration

Next up is July. We spent Fourth of July weekend 2017 in Napa and loved it! It’s always sunny, no chance of showers, it’s moderately crowded (aka more people to chat with) and everyone is happy. It’s also warm. Very warm. You can expect AC in every tasting room and chilled bottles which really helps with the heat! It’s a bit crowded this time of year, so our recommendation is to book 80% and leave 20% open for tastings. Also, follow suit with May/June and book your dinner reservations! Last year we re-visited Napa in mid-July for an event at Far Niente and Nickel & Nickel. Talk about a perfect weekend. Sunny skies and warm breezes call for flowy dresses and chardonnay! After a day of wine tasting, we’d return to the hotel and swim a few laps in the pool before getting ready for a night out. Highly recommend a July trip if you love tasting wine in the sun!

What’s happening with the vines? Summer Veraison! All varietals are born green. The veraison process is when color takes form – changing from green to yellow, purple, red, etc. Also growers will walk the vineyards and chop off extra bunches that don’t look promising. This leaves elbow room for the MVPs!

August – September

Photo taken at SENZA Hotel located next to Ashes & Diamonds Vineyard

Do it. No questions asked. This time of the year is magical! Fall Harvest has begun in some parts and the fruit is ripe for picking! This means green bushy vines are all around and it truly is a wine lovers paradise. If there’s ever a time to book a full vineyard tour + wine tasting, this is it. Napa gets pretty crowded in September because of harvest season, but early in the month is a great option. We visited over Labor Day weekend and caught nothing but sunny skies and warm temps. Hotels are at peak price, however if you’re planning well enough in advance we suggest looking into an Airbnb somewhere close to vineyards in Saint Helena. Plan and book 90% of your winery visits and leave 10% open for recommendations & pop-ins. This might be on the conservative side, but like I mentioned it’s a popular season and we don’t want anyone to miss out on visiting their faves due to unpreparedness! Definitely make your dinner reservations ahead of time as well.

What’s happening with the vines? Fall Harvest! Grapes are fully ripened and sugar levels rise. Growers select crème de la crème!

December – January

Photo Taken at Frog’s Leap Winery

We love Napa in the wintertime for several reasons. Hotel pricing is great, we stock up on wine for the holidays, crowds are small, we love the weather, and walk-ins are feasible. Being from sunny San Diego, we don’t experience a whole lot of cold. Napa in winter is very chilly/brisk, but can still be sunny and cozy. Be prepared to bundle up by a fire and/or under a blanket for relaxation with vino in hand. Small to no crowds provide opportunities for more conversation with your host and we love this! The folks pouring your wine are subject matter experts and vino enthusiasts – so if you get the chance make sure to converse and ask questions! Our last few visits have all extended past the allotted time because we were carried away by extra pours and great company! We recently rang in the New Year in Napa and plan to spend as many NYEs as we can here. It was perfection. Quaint, festive, and full of quality wine + champagne. Wineries are open on NYE, but close early. A vast majority will be closed on NYD as well with the exception of a few bigger guys (list of open wineries coming soon). We slept in on New Years Day, enjoyed brunch at Farmstead, and took Walter on a short hike to an off-leash dog park at Alston Park which is surrounded by rolling hills and vines (a great recommendation from the staff at Farmstead). It was perfect hiking weather! Sunny and clear skies with a cool breeze.

What’s happening with the vines? Winter pruning! This part of maintaining a vineyard is very important. Growers will determine which vines are most viable for harvesting in the upcoming year and care for them accordingly. Also there’s something to be said for seeing vines in the winter. It represents hard-working people and seasons changing, while reminding us to let go of the old and make room for new growth.

Thanks for sipping with us,

The Social Grapes

IG: @smashleythegrape