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Wall Street Journal

On the Wine Trail

September 9, 2005


As vineyard tourism soars, Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher visit 100 Napa-Sonoma wineries. Their guide to seven-course tastings, Persian fantasies and avoiding the crowds.

The small sign along crowded Route 29 in Napa Valley said "Salvestrin Vineyard and Winery. Open Today." So we drove in, past an oasis of fruit trees and a blur of playing children, and found ourselves the only people in the tasting room. After we sampled a lovely red wine, the young woman behind the counter said, "This would be even better with food -- in fact, you want to see?" With that, she bounded out of the tasting room and led us outside, where we each picked a perfectly ripe, warm-from-the-sun cherry tomato, popped them into our mouths and then again sipped the wine, which was indeed even more delicious. Well, of course it was.

Taking in the view from the patio at Silverado Vineyards
One of the questions we are asked most often is which wineries to visit in the Napa and Sonoma wine regions, so we spent more than two weeks traveling 1,000 miles around Wine Country and anonymously visiting almost 100 open-to-the-public tasting rooms. We found hot new trends, a few places to avoid and some memorable wines and wineries. We also found the single best deal in Wine Country: a seven-course wine-food pairing menu worthy of a fine restaurant -- for $20. Now, during the most delicious part of the year in Wine Country -- nearing peak harvest time -- we're ready to let you in on our favorite places to visit.

Wine is red -- and white -- hot these days: A Gallup poll this summer found, for the first time, that wine is America's favorite alcoholic beverage. Wine tourism is just as hot. Sonoma officials say tourism is up 15% this year -- they're expecting 3.5 million visitors. Hotel-room rates in Wine Country, which have never been bargains, have risen more than 12% in a year, according to San Francisco-based PKF Consulting. Economy.com, a West Chester, Pa., economic forecasting and consulting firm, says 7,400 people in Napa were directly employed in tourism in 2004, an increase of more than 7% since 2002.

It's not just Napa and Sonoma. There's now a commercial winery in every state, and tourism is strong. Part of the surge is fueled by the wine-themed movie "Sideways," which takes place among the tasting rooms of Santa Barbara wine country. There are wineries, and even wine roads, all over the U.S. Whether in South Dakota or Texas, wineries are magical places where passionate artists make tasty, individual wines -- and love to share them and talk about them. At the same time, Napa and Sonoma are the center of wine tourism -- they're beautiful areas with almost 600 wineries -- and we have been visiting the region for more than 30 years. We toured wine tasting rooms for this column twice before -- in 1999 and 2002.

See a mixed case of tips2 to help you plan a visit to California's Wine Country. Most are just as relevant if you are visiting wineries in Virginia, Indiana or any other state.

Until a few years ago, tasting rooms were little adjuncts to the winery. Now the tasting rooms are profit centers, and wineries are building bigger, better ones all the time. In fact, one of the most dramatic trends in tasting rooms is removing them from the winery altogether. In towns throughout Wine Country, wineries now have separate tasting rooms. These can be delightful stops, but we'll always be partial to tasting rooms at wineries, where we can smell the casks and see the grapes.

In the old days, tasting rooms were staffed by the winemaker or owner, and we loved meeting them. Now, especially in Napa, that's unusual, but the good news is that the professionalization of tasting rooms has led to better hiring and training of tasting-room personnel. In our visit three years ago, we found too many people behind the bar who knew little about the wines. This time, we were impressed by how knowledgeable the tasting-room people were at most places. (However, we could do with less discussion of malolactic fermentation, and even if they aren't tasting, pourers shouldn't be chewing gum.)

Charging Ahead
Another big trend: rising tasting fees. Tasting fees once were rare. Now, especially in Napa, it's hard to find anyplace that doesn't charge (the most common charge is $5 or $10 for four or five wines). In some places, there's one charge for a regular tasting and another for a "reserve" tasting. In fact, a growing trend is dividing the regular and reserve tastings into separate tasting bars. You'll also find that just about every wine you're poured will come with a pronouncement of how many "points" it scored, though it's not always clear who awarded the points. The only important point is this one: There's one judgment of a wine that truly matters, and that's your own.

And finally, this trend: For some reason, Diana Krall's jazz has become the universal music of tasting rooms -- though, interestingly, we never heard "A Case of You," one of our favorites.

So, where should you go? Here's our guide. We only visited wineries that were open to the public without an appointment (though this can be complicated; see below). We focused on these because our guess is that most people who visit Wine Country like to play it by ear. We visited anonymously, though we were recognized at four places. And we focused on wineries we did not visit three years ago.

In each county, we enjoyed many wineries, but we have narrowed the list to six favorites in each county; they are listed in bold-faced type. We're not saying these are the best wineries -- some of the best wines are made by wineries that aren't open to the public -- or even that they're the very best to visit, since we might have missed some great places. But if friends asked us where we'd go back, this is the list we'd give them. Don't forget that the very best places are the little wineries that you find yourself. If someplace looks like a winery, drop in, though it's true that small, informal places can offer some unusual surprises. At one winery in Sonoma this year, we walked into the tasting room and were greeted by a young woman who asked, "Are you here for the memorial service?" We decided it was best to leave.

Wine tourism in Napa is easy because there are so many tourist-friendly wineries densely packed along a fairly short stretch of Route 29 and the Silverado Trail, and so many are open to the public seven days a week. Two of the most popular wineries to visit are Robert Mondavi Winery and Sterling Vineyards. We'd urge you to avoid both of them. Mondavi charges $5 per taste -- not per tasting, but per taste -- of middling wines, which is outrageously high (there is a reserve room that charges $5 to $20 per taste for better wines). Still, unlike our last visit, when we were ignored, this time we were greeted warmly by the staff. If you want to visit a popular, well-known winery to start your trip, you'd do better to go across the street to Opus One, the famous Mondavi-Rothschild partnership, and pay $25 for a generous taste (not outrageous, since the 2001 Opus One costs around $150 a bottle) and take it up to the terrace for a great view of Napa.

Many hotels, including one where we stayed, send people to Sterling because it has an aerial tram that takes visitors up to its beautiful, hilltop winery. But it's expensive to get on that tram -- $15 for adults and $10 for kids older than 3 years, so it cost $50 for our family of four to get to the tasting room. Once there, the kids received a packet of Capri-Sun to sip and we received tastes of five mostly unimpressive wines (included with the tram admission) from an inattentive, harried staff. As we were leaving, we noticed a list of VIPs who were expected that day. We hope they fared better. When we first toured wineries for this column six years ago, we were disappointed with the Sterling tasting room; things haven't improved.

Where would we go? First, this note: We would start any tour of Napa by dropping into Milat Vineyards and calling ahead to try to visit Sullivan Vineyards. These are two of the friendliest places in all of Wine Country and they offer a chance to start your trip by actually meeting an owner or winemaker. Since we first dropped in on them six years ago and wrote about them (Sullivan now requires an appointment), we have gotten to know the Milats and the Sullivans, so we can't visit anonymously, and therefore they aren't included in the following list of places we visited this summer.

Start on Route 29. You'll pass all sorts of familiar names, including Heitz Cellars (where there was no tasting fee), Beaulieu Vineyard and Louis M. Martini Winery. All three are pleasant stops. A very different fun stop along the same route is Corison Winery, which is charming because the tasting area is actually right inside the winery, with those wonderful smells, and it offers several small-production, hand-crafted wines to taste. Depending on how much time you have, keep driving until you find Salvestrin. You'll have to look closely to find it. It's the kind of small, family-owned place that we love to visit, and finding it along that busy stretch of highway is a treat. Try the Sangiovese.

Continue north on 29 to Diamond Mountain Road and then go up, up, up to von Strasser Winery. The trip alone will give you a great idea of the topography of Napa Valley. The tasting room is small, rustic and intimate and the wines are intense and serious. Because we were the only people there, the young man behind the bar showed us the caves, explained why only every other row of vines was irrigated, pointed out the young Gruner Veltliner vines and then served us wines on the deck. The owner, with his two dogs trailing, dropped by to thank us for visiting. He did not know who we were. It was pretty close to heaven, and not just because we were so far up in the mountains. (Another good high-altitude place to visit is Chateau Potelle Winery on Mount Veeder, where you can picnic with Opus, the Dalmatian.)

When you come back down, find Larkmead Lane so you can go across to the Silverado Trail. On Larkmead Lane, drop into Frank Family Vineyards and taste some sparkling wine. It's one of the ever-fewer tasting rooms in Napa that doesn't charge a tasting fee and one of the few serving a sparkler, which will taste very good about now. The staff is friendly and the setting historic. Years ago, when it was the site of the Hanns Kornell winery, Hanns Kornell himself poured us his sparklers. This is the only place we visited with a cat stretched out on the tasting-room bar. We're suckers for that.

Go south on the Silverado Trail. This is where we'd suggest doing most of your tasting because the wineries along this route are generally far less crowded than the ones on 29. Drive for a while until you see Baldacci Family Vineyards. If you're lucky, as we were, you will see the "Open" sign out front. This is where the "by appointment" situation becomes tricky. Quite a few wineries in Napa are technically open by appointment only -- it has to do with various local regulations that are designed to balance tourism and agricultural preservation -- but actually welcome drop-ins, who then are asked to fill out a card requesting an appointment. That's what happened at Baldacci, where we drove in because we saw the sign that said "Open." There's a small tasting room where a young man sat us at a table and brought several excellent red wines to taste, speaking knowledgably about each one. It was a great tour of tastes and vineyards. In some cases, regulations limit the number of visitors a tasting room can welcome in a day and we'd guess that signs that say "By Prior Appointment Only" probably really mean it. A county planner explained that some small, high-end wineries don't want walk-in traffic, preferring a more selective clientele, and others just aren't staffed to greet drop-ins.

Just south of Baldacci is a very different experience: Silverado Vineyards. This isn't a charming little winery. It's owned by Disney heirs (there's a wine called Fantasia, though they insist that the Italian-like blend is pronounced fahnta-ZEE-ah) and it's a very big and very fancy facility. But it's also quite friendly, with an interesting array of wines and a gorgeous view. Get a wine to taste and walk outside onto the patio. It's pretty darn breathtaking.

Then head back south. You will see an amazing sight as you drive: Darioush winery, a Persian fantasy set among vines. We're fans of Darioush wines, but both the wines and the tastings are expensive, and the tasting room can be crowded. You might want to drop in just to see one of the more amazing buildings in Wine Country.

There are all sorts of fun places along the Silverado Trail -- we always enjoy Pine Ridge Winery -- but close to Darioush is the last stop along that stretch that we'd say is a must: Hagafen Cellars, which makes kosher wines. This is one of the very few wineries we visited that served older wines as part of its regular tasting, including, the day we were there, a Cabernet Sauvignon from 1991. After a day of tasting young wines -- which in many cases are quite tannic and aggressive, exploding with power in all directions -- the flavors of an older, rounder, richer and more restrained red wine taste especially great.

Wineries in Sonoma are more spread out than those in Napa and they're generally more informal, too. You'll see far more winery pets in Sonoma -- a reminder that these are farms, after all -- and, if you buy wine, you'll find that the wines are generally less expensive than those in Napa. You have a much better chance of meeting a winemaker in Sonoma than in Napa -- and most places don't charge for tasting. At a winery in Napa, a tasting-room pourer let us sample two vintages of the same wine so we could taste the differences, but he didn't know why the two vintages were different; in Sonoma, when the owner of Forchini Vineyards & Winery poured us a 2001 wine, he stopped talking for a second and then said, "We began this harvest on the morning of Sept. 11. That was really difficult." Not a good memory, to be sure, but that connection to history and the land is what we love about wine, and talking to the people who make the connection is what we love about tasting rooms.

The two real hot spots for wine tourism in Sonoma are near the town of Sonoma itself and the area closer to Healdsburg. Because Sonoma and Healdsburg are so far apart, it's best to decide which one to visit and focus on the wineries in that spot.

If you choose the town of Sonoma, do this before your trip: Call Mayo Family Winery, find out when the reserve room is open and make a reservation -- we'd suggest a morning time -- for the wine- and food-tasting menu. While reservations haven't been required in the past, and most people simply dropped in, we'd guess this is about to become much more crowded. What an awesome experience. Our family of four sat at a table in the tasting room, with vines just outside the window. We were the only visitors there at 10:30 in the morning when Jeffrey Mayo, the son of the owners, and the chef, Billy Oliver, brought us seven small portions of food and served seven wines to pair with them. And not just any food. One example: "Panchetta and bee pollen-crusted grilled scallop lollipop with mango-honey coulis," with Mayo's Viognier. We wouldn't have thought to pair Viognier -- a weighty white wine with tastes of apricot and peach -- with a very sweet, fresh scallop, but it was a real eye-opener. The price for this pairing experience was $20 a person, though they only charged $10 each for Media and Zoë, since they didn't drink wine. (We didn't identify ourselves and we weren't recognized.) Budget about 45 minutes for this stop. Close by, St. Francis Winery & Vineyards also has a wine-food pairing (four courses for $20), but they told us that our kids couldn't join us, so we didn't try it. Further north in Sonoma County, J Wine Co. offers a terrific, four-course food-wine pairing for $12; we tried this last time and wrote about it, so we didn't go back this time, though we'd certainly still recommend it.

Mayo is on the way to the town of Sonoma, along Route 12, and there is an awesome lineup of wineries there, many of them well-known and fancy, such as Chateau St. Jean and Blackstone Winery. Take a look at them as you pass by and, instead, drop into a very small, dark place called Kaz Vineyard & Winery, where you will meet the owners and taste some interesting and unusual wines. It's a very fun little stop, more party than tasting room. And they deserve a tip of the cap because this is one of the few places in Wine Country that's kid-friendly. There is a little table with Play-Doh and some toys, and the people behind the counter offer juice to kids. This doesn't seem like a lot to ask, but it's amazing how rare this is.

It's fun to visit the town square in Sonoma, which is quite charming. There are some tasting rooms right there on the square, but the real action, of course, is at the actual wineries. Ravenswood winery is a nice stop outside of town if you have the time, but we'd suggest Bartholomew Park Winery. It's a small-production winery with helpful pourers and pleasant wines. It's also a historic spot for California winemaking, so there's a cute little museum of wine attached to the tasting room that's a fun walk-through with a glass of wine (be sure to read the significance of the wooden crocodile). The winery is also the site of an old hospital; ask about the ghost.

The happening spot in Sonoma County is Healdsburg, which has sprouted into a hip town filled with tasting rooms -- including Gallo's first and only one -- and good restaurants. If you're planning to stay in Sonoma County for tasting, we'd suggest you get a hotel room there because there are so many nearby wineries to visit, especially on weekends. Just drive along Dry Creek Road and you'll see road signs for dozens. In many cases, these are small, family-run places that make a small amount of wine that you'll probably never see in a store. We enjoyed one after another, though, because they are small, you can never be sure when they will be open. We'd especially urge a stop at Yoakim Bridge Vineyards & Winery, where the couple who own the winery and make the wines acted like there was nothing they'd rather be doing than talk to us about wine and food for the entire morning. Try the Syrah -- and don't miss the meatballs in yummy sauce.

If Forchini is open, you might drop by there. The view from the tasting room reminded us of Tuscany. But you can't miss at any of the smaller places that are open, including David Coffaro, Nalle, Frick and Bella, where the tasting room is deep inside a cave -- very cool, both literally and figuratively.

On the other side of Highway 101, in the Alexander Valley, we'd drop in at Hanna Winery & Vineyards, where the two men behind the counter were among the most passionate and knowledgeable tasting-room people we met. One even heaved onto the countertop a chunk of volcanic rock to make a point about terroir. While in the neighborhood, if you have time, we'd suggest you drop in at Stryker Sonoma Winery and Vineyards, which has interesting wines and a terrific view.

In Healdsburg itself, there is a real gem, but it will require some effort to find. It's called "Front Street Wineries" -- five wineries in a little warehouse district across the street from the Russian River. This is a fine opportunity to taste several wines from several wineries, one after another, offering an unusual insight into the very different styles that vintners bring to their wines. Because these wineries are small, there's no telling which will be open when, but weekends are a good bet.