In spite of the glut of tourists, a lot of the really good wineries in the Napa Valley do not have public tasting rooms. With some wineries, getting an appointment is as easy as sending an email; however, many require the taster to be in the wine or hospitality industry. Many producers are small, do not have tasting rooms and lack the human resources to accommodate the general public.
That said, since people often ask me where to go in Napa, I set out on a mission to find the wineries that do not require an appointment but also have high-quality wines. Equally important, the people who work the tasting room should be inviting, able to manage crowds and have in-depth knowledge of the wines and the winery.
Your first stop, if you are coming from the south on state Highway 29, should be Corison in St. Helena. Technically you need an appointment, but the tasting and barrel room is somewhat laissez faire and extremely friendly. Best known for cabernet sauvignon, Corison also makes terrific gewurztraminer ($30) from the Anderson Valley and a superb cabernet sauvignon rosé ($24). Salmon-colored and beautifully perfumed, it is on my top 10 rosé list.
Now celebrating its 50th year, Heitz is also known for its cabernet sauvignons, in particular the legendary Martha’s Vineyard bottling. The winery also makes a rosé, a red wine and a port from grignolino — a Piemontese grape which has at a minimum novelty value, and is often pretty tasty. The ’10 sauvignon blanc ($19.75) is definitely worth a try as well.
The biggest surprise was Freemark Abbey, which is between St. Helena and Calistoga. It is best-known for its two single-vineyard cabernets, Bosche and Sycamore, that have great aging potential — but the ’09 sauvignon blanc ($24), ’10 viognier ($27) and ’07 petite sirah (club only) stood out with the latter two having unusually great balance and restraint.
Chateau Montelena in Calistoga is always an easy one for me. Beyond the scenic grounds and tour buses, it continues to make not only one of the best aging cabs but also a chardonnay that can live for a decade or more. The ’10 riesling ($25) made from Potter Valley fruit is also delicious.
Lava Vine at the northern tip of the Silverado Trail is a must. The three guys who work it, the only employees other than the owners, obviously have a good time, singing and joking around as they pour but don’t think for a moment they are not serious about wine. On the contrary, they are not only engaging but are knowledgeable to the point of being geeky. The two wines that stood out most for me were the ’10 Clements Hill Grenache ($30) and the ’09 Mt. Veeder Syrah ($42) that had a northern Rhône-like smoky and spicy quality.
B Cellars is also worth a mention. They make blends that are a bit pricy, but a lot of people would enjoy the wines.
While I understand the reasons why producers do not have tasting facilities that are open to the general public, I think it is unfortunate that more do not. I really do believe that if more people are exposed to a range of styles and not just the cookie-cutter, commercial way of doing things, there will be greater demand for diverse winemaking — and Napa’s wine industry will be all the better for it.
Pamela S. Busch is the owner of Skrewcap.com, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit your questions to Pamela@Skrewcap.com.