#WomenMakingWine 2022 part 4: Remi Cohen, CEO of Domaine Carneros

Welcome back to my second annual series featuring women in wine who are at the top of their game. This year we have the privilege of hearing from women in various roles – from business operations to vineyard management, cellar masters to winemakers, and even CEOs/Presidents. The accomplishments of women in a male dominated industry is worth celebrating not only on International Women’s Day, but all month and all year for that matter. These amazing women are paving the way for future generations of female leaders and powerhouses in wine. I hope you enjoy learning about their journey and winemaking philosophy and feel as inspired as I do to go after your dreams. Check back here for updates as I continue to roll out these interviews daily on Instagram.

Follow me to Napa Valley to chat with Remi Cohen, CEO of Domaine Carneros

To know me is to know this: I love sparkling wine and I love Napa Valley. Our next feature is absolutely a perfect fit for this series because we’re heading to Domaine Carneros in Napa Valley to chat with Remi Cohen, CEO. Carneros is located at the intersection of Napa and Sonoma Valley around the southern foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains. It’s close in proximity to San Pablo bay, so these two attributes give Carneros a much cooler and wetter climate than other AVAs around Napa Valley. As many of you know Pinot and Chardonnay thrive in cool climates, making this a mecca for traditional method sparkling wine. The family behind Champagne Taittinger established Domaine Carneros back in 1987. You can expect elegant, balanced sparkling wine and Pinot Noir with grower quality that can age beautifully and drink exceptionally today.

Domaine Carneros is one of the first wineries I visited when my love for wine really started taking off. The estate will take your breath away as will the wines and hospitality. I strongly believe that every enthusiast should subscribe to a sparkling wine club, and this is an excellent option! The Social Grapes invests in more than just wine… we fall for the stories behind the bottles, sense of community, and positive impact. It was a pleasure to learn that Remi is cultivating an inclusive culture at Domaine Carneros while encouraging women to excel in their wine careers and delivering some of the coolest guest experiences. Read below about an opportunity to saber at the winery aka the best way to open a bottle. I hope this inspires you to choose Domaine Carneros Brut Rosé or just about anything from this portfolio of wines, honestly you can’t go wrong here.

Without further ado…

Ashley: Can you describe Domaine Carneros for us without describing the wine?

Remi: Domaine Carneros is an idyllic landmark chateau with breathtakingly beautiful views nestled among the rolling vineyards of the Carneros region of Napa Valley. Founded by the Taittinger family behind Champagne Taittinger, Domaine Carneros evokes the elegance and tradition of Champagne with the spirit of California and prides itself on estate vineyards, progressive sustainability initiatives, and a history of women in leadership.

Ashley: Were you inspired by other successful women in the wine industry when you began?

Remi: Coincidentally, I met Eileen Crane, Domaine Carneros’s former CEO and founding winemaker, in 2001 at the beginning of my career and found her to be very inspirational. Eileen is a pioneer for women in the wine industry. There were very few women winemakers in California when she was appointed to the role of founding winemaker for Domaine Carneros. At the time, Eileen already had a decade of experience working with sparkling wines, first as assistant winemaker at Domaine Chandon and then establishing Gloria Ferrer. She was perfectly suited for the position at Domaine Carneros and having been inspired by champagne to pursue a career in sparkling wine, it was a dream for her to be able to work with the family behind the prestigious Champagne Taittinger and progressive of the family to choose her.

I have admired the work of many women in the industry and in fact felt that the generation before me, Eileen’s generation, had largely done the work to prove that women can be among the best winemakers, vineyard managers, and industry executives. It wasn’t until later in my career that I realized that there is still a significant disparity in the quantity and compensation of women in senior winemaking and executive roles and that more progress is needed. 

Ashley: How can women support other women in the wine industry?

Remi: I think the most impactful way to support other women in the industry is to mentor women who are looking to advance in their careers. In general, creating a network of successful women in your life is an excellent foundation.

Ashley: How has the industry evolved over the last 10 years?

Remi: A lot of progress has been made in recent years bringing awareness to the lack of diversity in leadership positions in the industry, but more work needs to be done. As an example, it is interesting that there has been an approximately equal number of men and women enrolled in the viticulture and enology program since I was at UC Davis twenty years ago. Now, some enology programs have even more women enrolled than men so it demonstrates that women are interested and getting involved in the wine industry more than ever before.

However, a significant disparity still occurs in senior winemaking and senior management positions. In fact, a survey in October 2020 by Wine Business Monthly showed that 49% of assistant winemakers were women, whereas only 29% of winemaking directors are women. Even worse, only about 20% of winery general managers and CEO’s are women. Other studies have shown this to be even less.

It will require effort from the industry to encourage more women to advance to more senior positions within their companies and to be considered for top positions during the hiring process. This will involve companies institutionalizing diversity and inclusion along with mentorship opportunities. The industry’s work needs to extend beyond gender parity and work towards overall diversity and inclusion.

Ashley: As CEO, what do you see as the most important part of running your business?

Remi: I’ve worked in many different roles in the wine industry, starting as a viticulturist in the vineyard and then working in nearly every department before moving into general management. When I started as CEO at Domaine Carneros, I dived into human resources and talent management, emphasizing the importance of the people and the culture at the winery. About a decade ago, the winery embraced Zingerman’s style of management which entails open book management where all employees have visibility into the company’s finances and encourages a culture of employee engagement and advancement. To build upon these tenets, we have launched a mentorship program where employees have an opportunity to be mentored by members of our management team. We provide opportunities and programs for career advancement, learning skills in and outside of core responsibilities, and internal promotions. We have recently launched the Le Rêve Scholarship program with both the University of California at Davis and the Culinary Institute of America, providing support for diverse students focusing their trajectory on promoting diversity and sustainability while attending the wine graduate programs at these partner institutions. 

Ashley: What goals are you still working towards in your career and for the brand?

Remi: At Domaine Carneros, we strive to provide the most memorable sparkling wine experience. We are always looking at ways to create more meaningful and memorable experiences for our hospitality offerings. Some recent examples include that our Bubbles & Bites tasting menu now changes seasonally, highlighting flavors of cuisines from around the globe to illustrate just how versatile sparkling wine can be. We’ve also introduced an exciting experiential tasting called The Art of Sabrage.  It includes a tasting of four wines, an abundance of local cheeses & charcuterie, and is topped off with a sabering demonstration!  Everyone is in celebration mode, so we’ve also developed a concierge-style custom tasting called Your Ultimate Carneros to help plan the perfect wedding proposal, birthday, anniversary, or anything that needs a special touch. You can see we are always creatively updating our guest experience which is something I have enjoyed working on with our team. For me personally, it is rewarding to be at a time in my career where I can give back to the community by mentoring others and developing scholarship and philanthropy programs with the team at Domaine Carneros.

Remi, thank you so much for taking the time share your insight and story with us. I think we can all agree, across any industry, it’s incredibly motivating to see a woman as CEO. Here’s to those who have come before us and those who are sending the ladder down from the top, here’s to you!

Thanks for sipping with us,

The Social Grapes | @smashleythegrape

#WomenMakingWine 2022, part 3: Gretchen Voelcker, winemkaer at Luna Hart and Piazza Family Wines

Vineyards at Piazza Family Wines, Ballard Canyon

Welcome back to my second annual series featuring women in wine who are at the top of their game. This year we have the privilege of hearing from women in various roles – from business operations to vineyard management, cellar masters to winemakers, and even CEOs/Presidents. The accomplishments of women in a male dominated industry is worth celebrating not only on International Women’s Day, but all month and all year for that matter. These amazing women are paving the way for future generations of female leaders and powerhouses in wine. I hope you enjoy learning about their journey and winemaking philosophy and feel as inspired as I do to go after your dreams. Check back here for updates as I continue to roll out these interviews daily on Instagram.

Next up, traveling to my happy place: Santa Ynez Valley to chat with Gretchen Voelcker, Winemaker at Piazza Family Wines and Luna Hart

Piazza Family Wines is located in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country in the rural AVA of Ballard Canyon, which is just a few minutes away from downtown Solvang in Santa Ynez Valley. The Ballard Canyon side is planted to more Rhone varietals and Syrah while Sta Rita Hills to the west is widely planted to Pinot and Chardonnay. What more could a wine lover need? We visited Piazza Family Wines this past fall and were introduced to the female winemaking team, vineyard views, and portfolio of wines. Our daughter was about 16 months old and she was thrilled to see women working hard outdoors and operating harvest machinery… I think she caught the wine bug.

This is the strong female energy that we love to celebrate in wine, and the inspiration for this #WomenMakingWine annual project. Winemaker Gretchen Voelcker is talented and innovative with the resume to back it up. Who here has tasted a skin contact Sauvignon Blanc or Graciano that undergoes carbonic fermentation? Gretchen has elevated the taste profile of these wines by taking a really cool approach. Fun fact: Graciano is a red wine grape from Northern Spain. If you enjoy Dolcetto, Beaujolais, or Garnacha give this one a try. Think violets, mulberry, pepper and cherry cola with savory undertones, medium tannin, medium body and high acidity. What I love most about Piazza and Luna Hart (Gretchen’s line of wines) is the focus on sustainable, organic, and/or biodynamic farming. I mentioned this a couple days ago and I’ll say it again, this approach really celebrates terroir and captures a true sense of place. I cannot wait to taste more from both labels – we enjoyed Gretchen’s wines so much that we joined the wine club which offers allocations from both Piazza and Luna Hart. Piazza Family Wines include Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, and my beloved Graciano. Luna Hart offers Syrah, Syrah rosé, Sauv Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, and an amazing Cab Franc. We enjoyed this virtual interview with Gretchen and know you will too! I cannot rave enough about the wines she’s making – honestly, some of the best bottles we own.

Ashley: How did you get started in your winemaking career?

Originally from outside of Philadelphia, growing up, wine was not on my radar what so ever, but we moved to Brussels when I was in high school for my mother’s job. While there, my parents started getting into wine tasting and started to share that experience with me. In the beginning, it wasn’t wine itself that intrigued me, but the idea of creative science. Being a very left-brained, math and science type of girl, I have always searched for creativity within myself. I did not study winemaking in school but instead studied business and then plant sciences. After graduating, however, I remembered the intrigue of the industry and decided to give it a go. I have really built my career from apprenticing throughout the years and being fortunate enough to always work with small brands with a high degree of transparency.

Gretchen: What goals in winemaking are you still working to achieve?

Again, being that creative scientist, I am constantly seeking to experiment (of course nothing is new in wine, but new to me) with new ideas or play with new varietal. But at the heart of my style, I am working to make minimally manipulated wines that showcase balance, vintage and varietal typicity. Although I am lucky enough to work with all sustainable, organic and biodynamic vineyards, I also am constantly aiming to bring more sustainability into my wines and business.

Ashley: Do you think there’s a stereotype attached to female winemakers?

Gretchen: Not particularly. Having built my career in Santa Barbara after the women pioneers before me have laid the foundation, I have been so fortunate to not have a history of gender hardship. Santa Barbara is such a wonderful winemaking community and I have been lifted up by both men and women in my career and have never felt as though there is a particular stereotype.

Ashley: What is one of the hardest things about winemaking year in and year out?

Gretchen: The biggest challenge for me which I predict will only become more of a challenge, is to be able to make minimally manipulated wines as climate change continues to develop. As it is, working with Mother Nature keeps you on your toes. Every year I am dealt a completely new deck of cards and it is imperative that I can stay adaptable to that.

A lot of wines have a long list of hidden ingredients used in making the wines and most wines have at least a few undisclosed ingredients; my wines have only had a small amount of sulfur added to keep the wines healthy and tasty. By using less modern tools, I am aiming to give a more natural and timeless expression of the vineyards that I work with. The grapes are all hand harvested and when I choose to harvest, I seek find a balance of good acidity and flavor. In vintages like 2020, where we were faced with a lot of heat spikes in Santa Barbara, which I am presume will begin to become more common, it it a lot more difficult to find that balance in the fruit.

Ashley: Were you inspired by other female winemakers when you began your career in making wine?

Gretchen: From early on I was lucky to be surrounded by women in the industry. My very first harvest was at Rideau, founded by a woman of color, Iris Rideau, working under a young female winemaker, Amanda Baird, who showed me that it was possible to become a head winemaker in her late 20s. At that time, we also shared our facility with the all-star Kita Wines team, Tara Gomez and Tymari Lore, working around the clock to build their new brand. Of course, Tymari, my bff, continues to inspire me every day with her wine knowledge but also leadership. After that, I worked with Rideau’s next female winemaker, Adrienne St. John, who was my direct mentor. She taught me the importance of chemistry and sound fundamentals in maintaining a healthy winery. Needless to say, I was off to an empowering start! 💪

Ashley: In winemaking, is one more important than the other in terms of tradition vs innovation?

Gretchen: As I mentioned before, I think that winemaking has been around for so long that aside from new technological innovation, we are never re-inventing the wheel. A lot of the trendy new wines are made in the most archaic ways. I suppose then I put more value in tradition although for me it is often a personal experience of innovation, if that makes any sense.

Ashley: What is an favorite/unexpected yet incredible food pairing for any of your wines?

Gretchen: So many great ones to choose from! I love the Grüner with Sushi, spicy food and my favorite farmers’ market creation, chorizo and saffron mussels. The partially-skin fermented Sauvignon Blanc is absolutely a match made with salmon dishes. 

Gretchen, thank you so much for taking the time to share your expertise and passion for wine with us! We look forward to visiting the winery and following your career. We’re already big fans and love supporting your work.

Thanks for sipping with us!
The Social Grapes | @smashleythegrape

#WomenMakingWine 2022 part 2: Amandine Brillanceau, Cellar Master at Louis Jadot

Welcome back to my second annual series featuring women in wine who are at the top of their game. This year we have the privilege of hearing from women in various roles – from business operations to vineyard management, cellar masters to winemakers, and even CEOs/Presidents. The accomplishments of women in a male dominated industry is worth celebrating not only on International Women’s Day, but all month and all year for that matter. These amazing women are paving the way for future generations of female leaders and powerhouses in wine. I hope you enjoy learning about their journey and winemaking philosophy and feel as inspired as I do to go after your dreams. Check back here for updates as I continue to roll out these interviews daily on Instagram.

Next up, featuring Amandine Brillanceau, Cellar Master at Louis Jadot

Amandine is from Deux Sevres which is just south of the Loire Valley in France, so it’s no surprise that she has *cultivated* an impressive wine resume. She studied at the Agronomic School in Bordeaux and earned degrees in both Agronomy and Oenology. Her passion for wine grew through travel and interning alongside inspired French winemakers. Amandine’s experience in winemaking spans across several renowned regions including New Zealand, Australia, Oregon, and South Africa. She’s combined her passion and experience to grow into the role of Cellar Master in two prominent French regions: Rhone Valley from 2014 to 2017 and Burgundy where she now works at Louis Jadot.

Located in Beaune, Louis Jadot has incredibly deep roots in Bourgogne dating back to 1859. I like to refer to Louis Jadot as “America’s Sweetheart” because the wines are well-known here in the US and loved by so many for its tradition and quality. Louis Jadot is one of the most celebrated exporters of French wine and marketed as America’s #1 French wine for good reason. These red and white Burgundies are not only accessible, they are approachable and affordable. Louis Jadot’s portfolio includes everything:  inexpensive Burgundy and Beaujolais, wines from Chablis and Côte de Beaune, as well as grand cru wines from France’s top vineyards.

When I think about the rich history of Louis Jadot an instant sense of tradition comes to mind. The thing that really impresses me as a consumer/wine student/creator is how the Louis Jadot brand and Domaine has not only grown and evolved with the times, but how they’ve done so while upholding the region’s deep tradition and values. To me, that is just really cool. The wines are a benchmark for Burgundy and they’re delivering a product that appeals to novice and expert level enthusiasts. I personally loved learning that Louis Jadot has a female Cellar Master and one with such an exciting background and fresh perspective. It all makes sense now!

Without further ado, our virtual interview:

Ashley: Can you provide some insight into your day-to-day operations as Cellar Master?

Amandine: Cellar team management (7 people). Planning work and adjustment, tasks follow-up. Daily tastings enabling to organize the cellar work, traceability, various projects monitoring etc …

Ashley: You have experience in both new and old-world wine regions, how has this contributed to your success in Burgundy?

Amandine: Adaptation ability due to the fact that I worked in very different winery profiles (different material/tools, different company and organization profiles).

Openness and curiosity allowing me each time to tackle different challenges.

Ashley: What do you find to be the most interesting part of your job? What are some challenges you’ve overcome?

Amandine: Never bored! The wine world has no limit, it is always moving ! My biggest challenge was to enter Louis Jadot. Burgundy was a dream and every work experience was slowly helping me to get closer to Burgundy. Leading a team was also a new challenge I had to take up, because it was a first experience to me. Showing my skills and my competence to my team enabled me with time to get closer to them.

Ashley: Of the wines in your portfolio, can you share a favorite (and unexpected) food pairing?

Pernand-Vergelesses Les Combottes paired with a wok full of Asian flavours: the Combottes vineyard produces a very aromatic Chardonnay wine, with intense flavours. It is the best companion to sweat-and-sour notes, it’s nice tension enhances such dishes.

Ashley: In winemaking, is one more important than the other in terms of tradition vs innovation?

Amandine: Tradition is a key value in Burgundy – it represents a bridge between Burgundy history and today’s winemaking science. It is crucial to me in order to build a harmonious whole. Therefore, it is a never ending process swinging between past acquired experiences and today’s knowledge. Always innovating and constantly searching for perfection.

Amandine, thank you for taking the time to share your experience and insight with us. Cellar Masters wear a bunch of different hats. From managing inventory to knowing the ins and outs of harvest and more. It’s inspiring to see you manage a wide range of responsibilities for such a prominent French producer. 

Thanks for sipping with us,

The Social Grapes | @smashleythegrape

#WomenMakingWine 2022 part 1: Leah Jorgensen, winemaker and owner of Leah Jorgensen Cellars

Welcome back to my second annual series featuring women in wine who are at the top of their game. This year we have the privilege of hearing from women in various roles – from business operations to vineyard management, cellar masters to winemakers, and even CEOs/Presidents. The accomplishments of women in a male dominated industry is worth celebrating not only on International Women’s Day, but all month and all year for that matter. These amazing women are paving the way for future generations of female leaders and powerhouses in wine. I hope you enjoy learning about their journey and winemaking philosophy and feel as inspired as I do to go after your dreams. Check back here for updates as I continue to roll out these interviews daily on Instagram.

First up, Leah Jorgensen of Leah Jorgensen Cellars

Maker of Oregon’s Premier Cabernet Franc

Oregon is not only cool in climate, but just straight up cool. The state is leading the US in terms of organic vineyards, biodynamics, and sustainable practices. These are some of wine’s biggest buzz words and that’s not changing anytime soon because it’s cool to care about nature. Personally, there is no better sense of the word “terroir” than a wine that is made with minimal intervention and/or biodynamically. Combine this approach with with cool, rainy climate along with pristine soil types and *viola* – world class wine from vine to glass. Leah is a prominent member of the winemaking community in Oregon with deep family roots. Oregon is known for Pinot and Chardonnay that align with Burgundian palates, but what I love most about Leah’s wine is how she is leaning into grapes and styles of the Loire Valley (think Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc). While her Cabernet Franc is hands down show-stopping, I have to give a shoutout to “Tour Rain” which is not only a clever play on words, but truly one of a kind in taste. It’s made with 40% Gamay Noir and 60% Cabernet Franc, which is actually a classic Loire blend. Imagine fresh blooms mingling with bright red fruit and undertones of pepper – it’s enticing. Be sure to check out her wines!

Without further ado, here’s our interview:

Ashley: Why did you choose to become a winemaker? 

Leah: Honestly, I grew tired (and bored) with working in winery sales and marketing – which I had been doing for about a decade before shifting gears to work in the cellar.  I was always interested in wine production, but having worked my way up the ranks in a steady upper management position (and salary), I was afraid to take the plunge into cellar work.  For one, it would be a major pay cut.  I was also concerned with the instability of part-time seasonal work that comes with harvest internships – a necessary step in the winemaking journey.  When I finally decided to “go for it”, I just trusted the process and turned my attention to learning and studying.  I enrolled in a local winemaking program while working local harvests.  I managed to pay the bills with part-time evening work at a Portland wine bar while doing some winery marketing consulting on the side.  After my first crush, I knew I was headed in the right direction and I made it my purpose to learn everything I possibly could about winemaking.  While cellar internships are essential, I found the classroom to be critically important in taking serious steps to become a professional winemaker.  So, I guess I would say my obsessive “curiosity” drove me to study winemaking because I really wanted to understand and learn everything I could possibly learn about how wine is made, what can happen during the winemaking process, and most importantly, how to be competent about what is happening during the winemaking process.  I tend to believe if you are truly passionate about something, you don’t want to learn a little bit about it.  You should become voracious about learning everything about your passions, right?  Cutting corners or skipping the classroom experience wasn’t an option for me.  By the time I completed the 2year program, it was clear to me that I was right where I wanted to be – and I had the tools I needed to have confidence in my ability to make wine professionally.  To this day, I read research assays on winemaking all the time – published via UC Davis, the AWRI, etc.  I’m not in winemaking for any other reason but to continue to learn and understand the nuances of a subject that is really exciting, complex, and interesting to me – and then putting that knowledge and expertise into practice.

Ashley: Do you think there’s a stereotype attached to female winemakers?

Leah: Not really.  But, I do think it depends on who you’re asking.  There are certain consumers out there who would prefer it if my husband was the winemaker in my family.

What do you find to be the most interesting part of your job?

Most interesting: the fact that no two vintages are the same, so my work is never the same.  My work as a winemaker is to look closely at what each vineyard site and what each vintage is giving me.  I make all decisions based on those two things. It’s never predictable and once the fruit comes in the doors, after deciding when to pick, I get the joy of putting that knowledge about site and the vintage to work to create something that will forever reflect a specific time, place and moment in history.  I mean, how many people are lucky to experience something like that?  I’m grateful for the opportunity to have a life’s work, a study, if you will, on my chosen discipline.

Ashley: What goals in winemaking are you still working to achieve? 

Leah: It is my intention to see that Oregon is included among the most important places/regions in the world for growing exceptional Cabernet Franc.  I am passionate about the vineyards I work with – I’m committed to them, even during challenging times like right now with two years of dangerous drought impacting Southern Oregon.  Climate change is affecting the whole west coast – we can’t be complacent and think it’s only a problem in some regions.  We all need to consider this impact on American agriculture.  

It is also my intention to help reshape the narrative on American Cabernet Franc.  California has long held the standard to which American Cabernet Franc style has been expressed.  I think it’s time to change the standard.  Cabernet Franc is one of the most elegant, ethereal, complex varietals in the world of Vinifera – and I’m definitely challenging the status quo style by not using new oak, picking earlier, using irrigation methods and canopy management systems to influence plant chemistries (especially in reducing the production of methoxypyrazines), etc.  

It’s my goal to get credit for pioneering American Cabernet Franc Blanc.  As a woman winemaker I have already watched other winemakers take the credit.  I’m not interested in being the center of attention; I’m interested in fairness, gender equity, and making sure credit is given where credit is due.  This is not just for me but for any marginalized winemaker today and in years to come.   If I don’t claim it, someone else will.  One way to help put an end to unfairness and challenges for women and other minorities in winemaking is to make sure we amplify their good work, that we probably credit them for the contributions they make.

Last, it’s my goal to create a distinguishable, classic Oregon Cabernet Franc.  My hope is that one day when somms and professionals taste Oregon Cabernet Franc they are able to identify it as Oregon Cabernet Franc.  Our region is unique.  Just as the Willamette Valley isn’t Burgundy, the Rogue Valley isn’t the Loire Valley or Bordeaux’s Right Bank.  It’s a special place that happens to have soils and climate and elevations that are home to world class Cabernet Franc vines.

Leah, thank you for sharing your insight and wines with us. The Social Grapes appreciates all that you do to encourage women to meet their full potential, which includes donating a portion of the sales from this rosé to women’s academic scholarships – especially in STEM studies.

#ProstEveryMoment with Wines of Germany

This time of year in Germany is incredibly special because Christmas is a really big deal for the entire country. The temps have dropped, crowds are merry, and snow is falling. Big and small towns everywhere are covered with decorations and beautiful lights, while Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Markets) take over the streets. The concept of Christmas Markets originated in Germany but are now setup around the world, including here in the US. December
is the perfect time to go out with a bang and explore something new, something you may be unfamiliar with as a wine novice…. and that something is German wine. Why Germany? For the Christmas vibes and rich history, of course! Travel may not be in the cards for everyone this year, including us, so the next best thing is to escape by glass. This past weekend we imbibed in all things German – from the amazing varieties and comfort food to German Christmas
songs. I’m officially in the holiday spirit thanks to German Wines USA! I don’t know if you know this about me, but I love German culture. I studied the language in High School all four years including AP classes and had the best teacher who would get carried away with tradition – it was contagious. German class influenced my perspective and had a positive impact on the person I’ve grown to be. That’s why this German Wines feature is very exciting for me! The
best way to learn is through taste, so let’s dive into some well-known varieties, but first let’s raise a glass and “Prost” which is the German word for cheers. Ready? Eins, zwei, drei…. Prost!

The region: Baden

(pronounced like Baa – den)

Baden is located in southwestern Germany, making it the warmest wine producing area and most
southernly anbaugebiete aka wine region. It’s the third largest winegrowing region in Germany and a great travel destination if you’re interested in adding Alsace, France or Northern Switzerland to your itinerary. Vineyards grow between the Black Forest and Rhine River, so it looks like a narrow strip that meanders down about 250 miles to the Swiss border. The best vineyards are planted on south-facing slopes atop Kaiserstuhl which is an extinct volcano with soils that give off a little extra heat. The volcanic soils, south-facing slopes (important because it receives more direct sunlight) and southern location of the region means that the wines here are full-bodied and concentrated with some of the highest alcohol levels for German wines. Baden wine producers are making some fantastic Spätburgunder aka Pinot Noir as well as Riesling and Grauburgunder aka Pinot Gris.

Wine producing countries in the European Union (EU) are categorized into zones according to climatic conditions. All of Germany falls under zone A with the exception of Baden. Baden belongs to wine-growing zone B which is the same as Loire, Savoy, and Alsace in France. If you’re a fan of wines from those three French regions, and to be honest it’s hard not to be, you really should consider exploring Baden as well! Fun fact: in German, Baden means baths. The name refers to warm mineral springs and the history dating back to Roman times – this was thee hub for Roman bath culture. Royals and nobles would travel near and far to embrace these magical “healing” baths and their positive effects.

Since we’re on the subject of translation… let’s break down a couple interesting translational tidbits about Baden’s wine, starting with Spätburgunder. In German, spät means late and burgunder means Burgundy which makes sense because Spätburgunder is German for Pinot Noir (Pinot Noir is thought to originate in Burgundy). The “late” part could literally mean that the fruit is left to hang on the vines a little longer, giving the grapes more ripeness and the wine a more concentrated flavor. However, the warmer and more arid climate of Baden compared to Burgundy may play a role as well. This could be a more romanticized translation and less factual, but I think it’s a fun anecdote to consider. Next up we have Grauburgunder (sometimes spelled Grauer Burgunder), or Pinot Gris. In German, grau means
grey. The color of the grape skin is greyish-blue, even though it’s a white wine.

Die Weine

Let’s start with a 2015 Grauburgunder, but not any Grauburgunder… Schloss Ortenberg GrauererBurgunder made with fruit from Alte Reben (old vines). This estate has deep roots dating back to WWII. It was once a hospice for the people of Offenburg, but was impacted by the events of the war and became property of the city, which it is still owned by today. This is a small production wine, so if you love it like we do, stock up! This rare beauty is smoky and nuanced with spice, ripe apple, and pear. It’s lean with bright acidity, so we paired this with homemade Bavarian pretzels and fancy mustard. Wowza, I think I have a new favorite wine + snack pairing!

Next up we have a 2019 Riesling Trocken from Weingut Burg Ravensburg located at the northern end of Baden. Riesling is really an exciting variety – it’s versatile and intriguing. It can age beautifully and drinks well young! It’s delicious dry or sweet, still or sparkling. If you’re all about dry wines, make sure to look for “Trocken” on the label. This means it’s dry while “Halbtrocken” is off-dry. Makes sense since halb means half in German so it’s halfway between sweet and dry. Burg (German word for Castle) Ravensburg is one of the oldest estates and towers high above the hills in Kraichgau where wine has been produced since the 13th century. All that to say it’s no surprise this wine is an absolute showstopper. It’s mineral driven, precise, and well balanced. The nose is perfumed and enticing as well while green fruit (apple and pear) mingle on the palate with fresh citrus and minerals. This wine goes down easily on its own, but I highly suggest pairing it alongside German Potato Salad. Shop this incredible bottle – I highly encourage you to stock up! We paired this with German Potato Salad and du meine Güte… this flavor combination made our spirits bright.

Our final wine of Baden is a 2015 Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) from Freiherr von Gleichenstein Hofgarten. Hofgarten translates to “noble house,” so this really is some elegant juice! This estate has been in the family for about 400 years in Oberrotweil which is the largest of the seven wine-growing communities near the town of Vogtsburg in Kaiserstuhl. This wine is earthy with mushroom flavors, juicy red apple, cranberry, pomegranate, cherry, subtle minerality and rose petal. This 2015 is drinking like a dream right now! We paired this with homemade spaetzle which is actually easy to make! Here’s a tip and probably my best idea of 2021: sprinkle in truffle zest AND sub your olive oil with truffle oil for the spaetzle. You can thank me later!

There you have it!

The perfect ending to 2021 starts and ends with German wines! I hope you feel inspired to treat yourself with some of these exceptional bottles from Baden, Germany. I hope we can make the pilgrimage in the new year, but until then I feel lucky for what we have.

Thanks for sipping with us!

Ashley | @smashleythegrape

Sauv Blanc, hold the alcohol.

Introducing the world’s first alcohol-removed Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zeland: Geisen 0%!

The Why:

YOU GUYS! I am so excited about this for several reasons. First of all, I’m a lady who plans on growing a family and I’m also an avid wine drinker. Having gone through one pregnancy, let me tell you… alcohol removed wine is a real treat! Surprisingly, I loved taking a break from alcohol for 9 months and instead sipped on delicious mocktails and alc-removed wine; that’s not to say I didn’t think about wine from time to time. The one I missed most during my pregnancy was Sauvignon Blanc – probably because I had intense cravings for all things citrus throughout the second and third trimesters. Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough is known for being deliciously tart with flavors of lemon juice, lemongrass, lime, grapefruit, pear, and passionfruit – basically all the things this mama bear craved! Also, if you’re nursing and on the fence about whether or not to consume wine, because lets be honest there are arguments on both sides, this is a really great option! Secondly, dry January is becoming a very real trend and I actually love this concept. Greg and I decided to partake in a modified version we’re calling *damp* January. We’ve cut out alcohol Mon – Wed, allowing ourselves to open bottles Thurs – Sun. I’m not gonna lie, some days are harder than others which is why this option of alcohol-free wine excites me! For us, wine isn’t just about getting a nice little buzz. We enjoy the social aspect and how it reminds us to slow down and take time to relax. We also enjoy food and wine pairings – a great way to treat yo’ self for surviving parenting + work during a pandemic day in and day out. Giesen 0% allows us to do all of this while sticking with our goal of cutting out the buzz part-time. Lastly, the Giesen brothers have a great reputation for making fantastic wine from the top Sauvignon Blanc regions of Wairau Valley and Awatere Valley in Marlborough, New Zealand for almost four decades. Marlborough is at the top of my list for wine travel once the pandemic ends!

The How:

Giesen uses premium, full-strength Sauv Blanc in their process and combines tradition with modern technology known as an advanced spinning cone. Spin cone technology contains upside cones – half of which spin while the other half are fixed. In an environment that feels like it’s in a vacuum, cones start to spin until wine transforms into thin liquid films. A cool vapor-like element rises from the wine, carrying the yeasts and volatiles away from the liquid film. Using this advanced tech, first the aromas are removed followed by the alcohol. Aromas are collected reintroduced into the wine so you don’t miss out on the enticing nose. The final blend of Sauvy B grape juice + natural yeasts adds texture and body. This results in a dry, refreshing, aromatic, and delightful wine sans alcohol.

The Where:

More on Marlborough because if you love Sauvignon Blanc, you need to explore this region since Sauvy B makes up a majority of the plantings here. Most vineyards are planted to either Awatere Valley and Wairau Valley which is the larger of the two. In Wairau, the days are long and sunny, resulting in tropical flavors in the wine. It’s an interesting spot though… there are many sub-valleys that have different altitudes and aspects, so producers have various elements to work with. On the other side, we have Awatere Valley which is drier, cooler, and windier than it’s big sister. This makes a style of wine with pronounced herbaceous flavors and higher acidity. Giesen uses Sauvignon Blanc grapes from both regions, so you get the best of both worlds: passionfruit, pineapple, lime zest, lemongrass, grapefruit, and green bell pepper. It’s high in acidity, crisp, and light – medium bodied. I would pair this with a salad or chips and guacamole. Of all the alcohol removed wines I’ve tried, and I have tasted my fair share, this is the best!

This wine glass was specifically made for sipping Sauv Blanc – highly recommend trying this!

Thanks for sipping with us!

The Social Grapes

Follow me on Insta for daily wine inspo @smashleythegrape

Featured

Top 10 Dog Friendly Wineries in Napa Valley

Puppies, wine, and I’m fine!

We work hard so our dog can have a better life – I’m sure the same goes for you! This is why we put in the leg work to bring you the Ultimate Guide to Dog Friendly Napa Valley. When it comes to our four-legged besties, The Napa Valley knows how to roll out the red carpet. Sit back, relax, and know that you’re in for a fabulous wine country getaway with Fido!

Guide was last updated on 10/8/2019

Napa Cellars Winery

Napa Cellars is located in Oakville off Saint Helena Highway. Grab a seat in a lounge chair or pack a lunch and relax at a picnic table in the beautiful outside garden that overlooks rows upon rows of vineyards. Spend an afternoon tasting through limited release wines while your doggo gets the “Pampered Pooch Experience.” Yes, you heard me right! Sip & swirl your Pinot Noir Rosé while puppy gets to snack on biscuits, wear a Napa Cellars bandanna, and sip water from his/her own silver bowl!

Bonus: this winery is extremely kid friendly! There are yard games for days.

Napa Valley Wines: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel

V Collection: Carneros Chardonnay, Carneros, Pinot Noir, St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon

Winemaker’s Series: Pinot Noir Rosé, Coombsville Petit Verdot, Napa Valley Meritage, Coombsville Malbec, Carneros Syrah, Napa Valley Petite Sirah

Turnbull Wine Cellars

This winery is in the heart of Oakville! Sip inside the charming tasting room that looks like it was designed by thee Joanna Gaines or enjoy a pink sunset in the garden out back where vintage Ford trucks and tractors add a touch of rustic charm! Lucky for all of us, dogs are allowed both inside & out! Walter loves visiting his friends at Turnbull while mom & dad taste wine.

Wines: Bonne Vivante, Petit Verdot, Fortuna Merlot, Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville Cabernet Franc.

Fun Fact: My absolute favorite Sauv B is from this winery! Her name is Josephine and she is fantastic!

Bonus Tip: Rosé of Cabernet Franc is released once a year to wine club memebers.

Flora Springs Family Estate

Flora Springs Estate is located in St Helena and is one of Napa’s most historic wineries. Upon arrival you will be greeted with the most breathtaking of vineyard views that will make your doggo stop in his tracks! Be sure to make an appointment to tour the hillside caves with your fur baby followed by a seated tasting indoors or outside. Your dog will thank you for this!  

Wines: Sauv Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Single vineyard Cabs, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and late harvest Sauvignon Blanc

Pop into the tasting room anytime, book a reservation for a full tour at the estate ahead of time.

Paradigm Winery

Another Oakville staple! Paradigm has been family owned & operated since the first 1991 vintage. This winery is a true expression of Oakville terroir! They’re small in size and big in quality – every wine produced is handcrafted from vine to bottle. To top it all off, Heidi Barrett has been the winemaker here since the beginning. Sip outside and enjoy a very intimate tasting with one of the friendly team members while embracing the vineyard covered hills of Napa. Your dog with thank you for this!

Wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Paravines (Merlot + Petit Verdot blend), and my favorite effervescent Rosé of Merlot!

Tastings at Paradigm are by appointment only

Domaine Chandon

Let’s mozy on over to Yountville for some sparkling wine! While this is a larger winery, the grounds are fantastic and this is the ideal spot for outdoor wine tasting. The vibe is relaxed and casual – perfect for your fur baby! You can grab a glass and roam without a care in the world. Literally. Dogs are allowed in the tasting room, on the terrace, and even while you stock up on bottles in the shop. Remember, this is a dog’s world and we’re just living in it.

Still Wines: Rosé, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay

Sparkling Wine: So many. Sparkling Rosé, French cuvee, Reserve Pinot Noir. Sweetness ranges from Brut to Demi-Sec.

Hall Winery

Looking for a modern & artsy winery in St. Helena? @hallwines is it! Not only is the space incredibly unique, but they approach wine making with an artistic mindset. Your experience can be as casual or formal as you’d like it to be! Sip outside with your fluffer butt and basque in the ambiance! There’s a little something for everyone here as Hall has partnered with Baca to bring you Zinfandel and Walt Wines to deliver lovely Pinot Noir.

Wines: Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon

Frog’s Leap Winery

Now let’s head on over to Rutherford and get our fix of the famous “Rutherford Dust.” This winery is surrounded by vineyards with the most laid back vibe around. Every tasting comes with a cheese pairing and you’re free to sip and relax to your hearts desire. Wanna take a break from all that wine and walk the puppy through the gardens out to vineyard? Sure, no problem! Walter has been here twice and each visit was more pleasant than the last!

Wines: Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah

Mumm Napa

A few minutes down the road in Rutherford is our favorite stop for bubbly! Mumm Napa is simply beautiful and we cannot get enough of their sparkling wine made in the traditional method. This was among the first wine clubs we joined back in 2016 and we re-visit with Walter every time we’re in the valley. Come for the bubbles, stay for the laid back vibe on the patio where all the dogs are chilling.

Sparkling Wines: Rosé, Blanc de Blanc, Sparkling Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Blanc de Noirs, Brut Cuvee, Blanc de Blanc Oak Reserve. Sweetness ranges from Brut to Demi-Sec.

Still Wines: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir Blanc.

Reverie II Wines

Located in the quaint and picturesque town of St. Helena is one of our favorites! We love the team at Reverie and have been returning for tastings since 2016 back when the winery was located in Calistoga! The new property in St. Helena overlooks the vast valley of vines and is decorated to the nines! Take an ATV ride up the steep hills to the most remote tasting deck out there. If you’re lucky, Carmelita the winery dog will be on site! She’s incredibly playful and kept our boy occupied while we sipped our way through silky smooth wines!

Wines: Mountain Cuvee, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Roussanne Marsanne, Barbera, and Tempranillo

Tastings at Reverie are my appointment only

Aonair Winery

This is a sister winery of Reverie II located in St. Helena just off the beaten path. Grant – head wine maker at both Aonair & Reverie – is basically a Napa Valley genius! Aonair is cozy, classy, and rustic yet perfectly modern with the most outstanding views. We loved the hospitality and Walter loved the resident vineyard pup. They played all. morning. long. We also took an ATV ride around the property and saw Cab Franc vines that are 150 years old! I cannot wait to return to this gem!

Wines: Proprietary Blend, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache Blend, White Wine Blend

Tastings at Aonair are my appointment only

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

Digital Wine Boutiques

For the Modern Wine Lover

We’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: experience and connection are two of the greatest components in tasting wine. We love visiting wine country because of the hospitality, passion, scenery, and history. That’s also where we purchase 90% of our wine. So what do we do when the cellar is dry, our next wine club shipment is pending, and we’re craving something new? Glad you asked! In our house there are only 2 acceptable shopping methods: our local bottle house and online wine shops. Sure, BevMo has some great deals and a few good staples – but you can do better! There’s a community of passionate people who have curated a worldly and well-rounded wine offering. So, today I’m writing to encourage you to “be better than the Gap” (#CrazyStupidLove fans where you at?) and shop for wine online with a small business!

Shopping for Wine Online

There are plenty of big retailers on the web where you can buy wine, but as you all know, we prefer a more personal touch. We’re excited to have found a great option and to share with you all some background deets on one of the friendliest online wine shop owners out there: Mike Melançon at www.winesplurge.com

Wine Splurge and The Social Grapes share a common beginning: an appreciation for wine. Mike started out by hosting wine tasting events at work. With each tasting Mike was asked where the bottles could be purchased – short answers include Wine Exchange, Hi Times, Total Wine, or directly from the wineries. Since he was doing the selling, he wanted to launch an online store to compliment the tasting events. In 2018, Wine Splurge received a license to sell wine online. Since the launch they’ve added over 100 different wines with a couple of verticals. Mike’s family is involved too. His wife Pam helps sample wines before purchasing for the store. Their son Andrew samples wine while their daughter Rachel takes photos for the website and social media. We love family operated wine businesses and this one fits the bill!

If you’re like me, online shopping gives you a thrill! Idk why – perhaps this is something scientists should study – but it’s true. I’m particularly interested in seeing what happens inside my brain when the words “free shipping” flash across the screen. Wine Splurge ships wine free of charge to CA, LA, NH, NM, NV, OR & WY.

There are two wino friendly ways to shop for the perfect wine:

  1. Wine Type (Red/White/Sparkling) -> Grape Varietal -> Bottles
  2. Country -> Wine Region -> Sub-appellation -> Bottles

If that still seems intimidating or you’re not entirely sure what you’re looking for, Wine Splurge can help with that too. We started chatting with Mike about the types of wine we like and mentioned some varietals we are interested in exploring a little. He curated a list of three bottles and sent them our way! Now that’s the kind of wine buying experience we love. Thanks Mike!

Wine Splurge Wine Reviews

Here are some of the wines we recently tasted from www.winesplurge.com

2014 Albariño which is a white wine from Rías Baixas, Spain
Produced by Marques de Vizhoja
Torre la Moreira Albariño

Appearance: clear, medium intensity, straw-yellow
Nose: green apple, pear, honeydew melon, citrus zest
Palate: herbaceous, grapefruit, earthy minerals, dry, light-bodied, high acidity
Conclusion: Very good- especially at this price!

2012 Estate Pinot Noir
Produced by Irvine Family Vineyards
Rogue Valley, Oregon

Appearance: clear, medium intensity, ruby
Nose: candied red cherry, spice, vanilla, earthiness
Palate: plum, cherry, vanilla, forrest floor, dry, light-bodied, high acidity
Conclusion: Outstanding – silky smooth!


2015 “Sweetwater” Cabernet Sauvignon
Produced by Levendi Winery
Oakville AVA, Napa, CA

Appearance: opaque, intense, deep purple
Nose: red cherry, fresh floral, hints of green bell pepper, sweet oak
Palate: blackcurrant, cherry, coriander, floral, dry, full-bodied, high acidity
Conclusion: Outstanding – velvety soft tannins. Great price for a Napa Cab!

This is one of our go-to spots when we’re interesting in trying new varietals from new places. Stay tuned for our next shopping post – we will share our favorite wine boutiques in real life!

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