If you love red wine, California’s Napa Valley is probably very high up on your “where to drink” list. Should a visit be in your future, here’s an itinerary that hits five producers of great reds that turned our heads.
Grgich Hills Estate
Before he founded his eponymous winery in Rutherford, Croatian immigrant Miljenko “Mike” Grgich was the winemaker at Chateau Montelena during the famous Paris Tasting of 1976. Along with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ 1973 S.L.V. cabernet sauvignon, Grgich’s 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay helped put Napa on the world vino map. Grgich opened his winery in 1977. It’s the brand’s commitment to hands-on consumer wine education that earns it a place on this list. While Grgich Hills is understandably famous for its chard and fumé blanc, don’t make the mistake of overlooking its zinfandel, merlot and cab. Grgich Hills accommodates walk-ins (a rare thing in these parts) with two flights: a tasting of its five Napa Valley wines and pours of six limited production and older vintage wines. Call ahead to reserve space for the Grgich at a Glance walking tour, Seated Tasting, The Unforgettable vine-to-glass tour or The Exclusive cheese pairing.
Take Note: On your tour, check out the Honeymoon Suite. It’s not a hotel room, but rather a place where bottles of wine age, allowing the fruit and oak characteristics to “marry.”
Take Home: If your visit happens to fall between Labor Day and Halloween, join in the daily Grape Stomp and create a souvenir T-shirt with your purple grape-juice footprints.
Lovers of pomp and circumstance will sigh upon arriving at this temple to great wine, with its crescent-moon-shaped main building etched into the rich earth. Book the Double Vintage Tour & Tasting at 10:30 a.m. — when your palate is at its keenest — for an intimate, two-hour experience that begins in the Salon, travels through the winery and concludes in the Private Library with a formal seated tasting of two Opus One vintages. The afternoon Estate Tour (1:30 and 2:30 p.m. daily) takes you through the winery and wine-production areas and concludes with a tasting of the current vintage in the Grand Chai, overlooking the first-year wine as it ages in new French oak barrels. The winery makes a single cabernet sauvignon wine each year to reflect a moment in time and place (its secondary label, Overture, reflects a place over time: five varietals over multiple vintages). So, don’t expect more than one or two pours, but do savor the chance to taste wines that command $245 per bottle at the winery.
Take Note: If you’re lucky enough to tour the equipment garage, notice the Nespresso machine built into one of the over-row tractors — harvest starts well before dawn.
Take Home: The 2011 vintage that the estate calls a “polished and age-worthy wine [that] simultaneously offers a satiny finish and a slight grip of tannin at the close.”
In the spirit of tarof (the Persian art of politeness), Darioush welcomes visitors to an array of tours and tastings nearly as numerous as the wines themselves. First, pull up to the Persian-style palace with its regal torch and impressive colonnade and take in the opulent architecture and landscaping reflecting 7,000 years of winemaking history in Persia, which owner Darioush Khaledi and his wife, Shahpar, left to pursue their American dream. For those on a tight schedule, the host-guided Portfolio Tasting is the ticket — a sampling of signature Darioush wines presented at the tasting bar or tableside. If you have a little more time (and a bit of an appetite), it’s worth it to reserve the Fine Wines, Artisan Cheeses tour and small-production cheese pairing, or the By Invitation Only tour and tasting of the estate’s most limited releases paired with small bites by the Khaledis’ private chef.
Take Note: When you’re down in the barrel chai (cellar), notice how the gentle natural lighting comes from the peekaboo tables in the tasting room above.
Take Home: For the 2012 Darius II release — the exquisite label celebrates the history of Persian art — you’ll need to sign up for a first-offering membership. But you can pick up current releases right onsite, including the winery-only 2012 Duel cabernet sauvignon/shiraz, cab franc or signature cabernet sauvignon.
A comet could collide just outside the gates and you wouldn’t know it thanks to Jarvis’ ingenious location within the Vaca Mountains. Hold tight and enjoy the long and winding road up, up, up to the gates, then park in the meadow and hoof it to the estate’s imposing doors, smack-dab in the center of a rock face. A fascinating tour takes you through the 45,000-square-foot cave system carved into the compressed volcanic ash in 1991 with mining equipment to preserve the serenity of the 1,320-acre property. Check out the rotary fermenters, which spin their contents like cement mixers, and the natural spring and waterfall that keeps the winery’s humidity at an ideal constant. Ogle the Brazilian amethyst and Arkansas quartz decor in the Crystal Chamber, and crane your neck in the barrel chai, a massive chamber where large-scale functions are held, and where the ceiling sparkles with LEDs. In the underground tasting room, sample six wines (five of them red), including the estate cabernet sauvignon and Lake William, a deliciously happy accidental blend.
Take Note: Lakes William and Leticia on the property, and their corresponding estate vineyards, are named for the winery’s founders.
Take Home: The hauntingly good (and highly allocated) cabernet franc or the estate cabernet sauvignon.
Nickel & Nickel
Nickel & Nickel’s modest, picture-perfect Queen Anne-style cottage, built around 1884, is an ideal place for a tasting. A brief by-reservation-only tour sets the scene, taking you through the Gleason Barn, built in New Hampshire in 1770, that contains the winery’s lab and offices; the North Fermentation barn, built from century-old fir beams; and the South Fermentation barn. Inside the John C. Sullenger House, take a seat in the lovingly restored dining room, where you’ll find a selection of Nickel & Nickel’s 100 percent varietal, single-vineyard cabernet sauvignons that are paired with imported and local cheeses. Have a bite, sip and repeat as you discuss the merits of the 2011 State Ranch vineyard cab from Yountville over the 2011 Sori Bricco vineyard cab from Diamond Mountain.
Take Note: After emerging from the underground barrel-aging cellars, notice the 1.1 acres of solar panels, which power the facility.
Take Home: Your favorite of the day’s cab tastings and any of Nickel & Nickel’s single-vineyard syrahs, chardonnays or merlots.