All travel experiences change the traveler, but certain journeys leave such a permanent mark on the soul that they stay with you forever. I've been to California numerous times, each of them memorable trips. But Napa... where do I begin? First, I'll give full gratitude to Zephyr for inviting me to join their amazing group of design bloggers for this incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience. From start to finish this was easily one of the most flawless travel experiences I've had the privilege to enjoy.
Now... on to the rolling hills and tasting room wonderland that is Napa Valley. Our plan for the day was to take in a trio of diverse wine tasting experiences at three very different wineries. I'll use the term "winery" with liberty here, as one such stop was merely a curator of wines, but more on that in a bit.
First up, the esteemed Joseph Phelps Vineyard. Talk about beginning with a legend. Even the most uninformed wine drinker has likely heard of Insignia, the winery's most coveted bottled gold. We were treated to an introductory tour of the private tasting rooms, the library and the barrel room. Our gracious hostess offered such tantalizing stories of the rich history of this redwood building and surrounding property, and what a property it is. Beyond the floor to ceiling glass panes we were treated to what is iconic Napa: rolling hills, verdant vineyards and nary modern office building or nuisance in sight. A travelers dream. (All images above except very top) are from the JP Vineyard.)
And the wines? I've made no secret of the fact that I don't drink. I simply don't enjoy it and my body doesn't metabolize it the way everyone else's physical being does. However that's what's so great about wine "tasting" is it isn't about consumption. While we captivated by our host's marvelous details of each vintage, each varietal and the amazing journey this award-winning winery has been on, we were able to sip each aromatic red. Trust when I share that Insignia is likely to change your mind about reds whether you're a bonafide oenophile or a teetotaler such as myself. If you ever have the opportunity to go to Napa, put this winery at the top of your list.
Next stop? One you may already know of... Ma(i)sonry. Sound familiar? RH fans may recognize this as the brand's own property. Part art gallery part restaurant, Ma(i)sonry is unique among unique properties. Between the bucolic outdoor scenery, the dynamic art gallery vibe and the Silicon Valley clientele (a large table hosted a dozen or so Google employees the afternoon we were there) Ma(i)sonry is hip, cool and all about the experience. Think: vintage Louis Vuitton trunks, pop art and a dreamy Lucite 9real Lucite, mind you) with every design book you ever hoped of owning one day.
Our ridiculously fresh meal was paired perfectly with a handful of wines my fellow travelers seemed to love. But it was the light-as-air potato chips we were addicted to. It's worth a stop for those alone! Between sumptuous bites we moved through the space and took in the smaller details that make this unique establishment so unique. Open, breezy and garden-centric, this is one of those interesting stops I highly recommend. Tip: bring a group and reserve dining space outside. The long, rough hewn plank table beneath a towering tree was an almost magical place to sit and take in the perfect weather.
Next? Our increasingly playful group rolled through the countryside to reach the acclaimed Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. Our appetites sated, we were primed and ready for our educational tour of this unique estate. Whereas Joseph Phelps is the upscale, classic, sophisticated wine experience and Ma(i)sonry is hip and cool, Stags Leap welcomes you with its powerful modern architecture rising from the Napa Valley floor.
Once inside the reception area of SLWC your education begins. Like sparring siblings, the ground of the same property produces two very different wines: Fay versus S.L.V. Fay is the more refined, elegant of the two siblings, with hints of cinnamon & clove meeting the sweetness of berries. Fay is easy to love. The feistier sister is S.L.V. This cabernet is spicy, rich and a full on sensory assault, perfect for those seeking more complexity in their red. And then there is... Cask 23. This highly sought after blend of Fay and S.L.V is limited in quantity high in demand. Earning an enviable 97-100 points from The Wine Advocate, this bottled beauty combines the best of each of the primary cabernets to create a drinkable masterpiece.
The history of Stag's Leap was as much about the pursuit of excellence in win as in architecture. Widely known for being the winery that won the Cabernet Sauvignon competition in the 1976 Judgment of Paris, was founded in 1970, and is considered a Napa Valley "first-growth" estate. With the wine cave arcade and visitor's center designed by Barcelona architect Javier Barba (a pioneer of green architecture), this is a modern gem that somehow blends with the mountainous surroundings and shows off its man-made origins at the same time. Their history page will offer a much more robust and colorful view of their storied past, but Stags Leap is a legendary winery with a truly legendary collection of wines you must not miss when in Napa. Book a tasting, take in the resplendent view of the stunning landscape and count your blessings. This was the perfect end to our busy day.
So... what are my Napa Valley tips?
Book early. Tastings at wineries in this region are some of the most sought after experiences in the area. With limited capacity and high demand, you'll want to do a little research and whittle down your list to a select few you'd love to visit.
HIRE A DRIVER
Drinking & driving? Not cool. Plus, you and your squad can have plenty of fun enjoying the scenery and chatting about your experiences en route to the next tasting room. Place the responsibility of driving in a pro's hands and relax.
Our happy group was marvelously content to sip & learn for most of the day. But I can tell you that our attention span was pretty spotty by the end of the day. If your squad leans more towards the wine enthusiast side, allow more spacing between tasting experiences and give yourself a few hours at each location to fully soak in the view and the moment. It will pass too quickly as it is.
BRING THE FUN WITH YOU
Tastings are fun. Really fun. The staff at each location were uncommonly good looking, excellent conversationalists, impossibly well-informed and skilled at the art of hosting. Why not take your favorite people in the world with you to enjoy the experience? Wine and food are best enjoyed in the company of others. Bring along your besties and your love to make the memory of the day (or days) more meaningful. I will forever be grateful for the fun day with my old and new friends in Napa. Come prepared to have a fantastic day.
BRING YOUR CAMERA & OPEN YOUR EYES
I'm a digital citizen. I live for (and with) my iPhone almost glued to my hand. But in Napa? I hardly wanted to touch it. Aside from the epic scenery and marvelous company, my desire was to take it in with my eyes. I wanted to BE in the moment and capture as many mental pictures as possible. Napa is best seen with the eyes and then captured with a high quality DSLR camera. You'll never capture the majesty of the landscape with your iPhone.
WHAT TO WEAR
Ahhhh, fashion. My comfort zone. My love. My private passion. Napa is certainly more upscale than its laid back sister Sonoma. Still, the art of low-key chic is at play. Blessed by that impossibly pleasant California climate, you'll have flexibility in your choices but versatile layers are ideas. If you follow my lead you may want to consider nice jeans, dressy flats (or wedges or booties if the season commands), a simple cashmere sweater and a scarf and or vest. Layers are key, as a warm day soon turns to a chilly evening and pleasant breezes become gusty winds very quickly when you turn a corner. Tastings will be seated at large tables, so you'll have plenty of time to rest your feet, but sophisticated comfort is the vibe. You'll be walking briefly in wine caves and touring parts of the various properties, but no long distance trekking is required. Still, those stilettos are best left at the hotel for dinner back in the city.
Here's the look I rocked on my tour of the heavenly Napa Valley...
WHERE TO STAY
Napa is stunning. Stay there. Find a fabulous hotel like the Auberge du Soleil and make it an affair to remember. Or, for an even more serene mountain vibe and upscale experience (and the above is hard to beat) try Callistoga Ranch. Both offer jaw dropping vineyard views, unbeatable culinary experiences and posh accommodations. Did I mention spa treatments? Yes, it's all waiting for you.