For only producing 4% of America's wine, Napa Valley, at least to me, seems to be one of the most well known wine regions in America, which means as a foodie type person, I surely must visit. So how does one visit the Napa Valley?
With a wine tour of course! Whilst the option to drive would certainly be there, I wasn't so keen to drive on the other side of the road and also have to reduce the amount of wines I was sampling in order to be a good and safe driver!
When I had decided that Brad and I were definitely doing Napa Valley, because I wanted to learn more about wine in that region, as I basically know nothing and would love to know something, a short search on Trip Advisor led me to the Wine Country Tour Shuttle company website and I have to say, I'm pretty pleased.
Now visiting the Napa Valley isn't a particularly cheap exercise should one decide to take the tour route. The $99 per person fee that the tour charges covers the shuttle for the day, a picnic lunch and a ferry cruise on the way back (to avoid the traffic). This doesn't include the tasting fees at the wineries which is usually around $10 a person, per winery, or the tip for your shuttle driver at the end of the tour. So all up, we're really looking at around $250 to $300 a couple depending on how much wine you drink and buy.
However, I think it's good value, as the tour is about 9 hours all up, and I totally appreciated having a driver in a comfortable shuttle, as I pretty much passed out on the way to Napa, between each winery and on the way back to the ferry. What can I say? I'm a bit of a lightweight!
The Wine Country Shuttle Tour starts very early in the morning, with everyone needing to meet in front of the Ferry Building at around 8am to check-in with one of the tour representatives who will be wearing a red jacket.
The shuttle then leaves very, very promptly at 8:16am, as it's a good two hour drive or so over the Golden Gate Bridge (where it stops for 10 minutes so we can all get obligatory tourist pics (can you blame us?)) and into the wine country. Throughout the whole trip, our shuttle driver (who's name I've forgotten!) gave us a thorough tour about everything we were driving past and also about the Napa region and what sort of wines we could expect, and why the region was famous. Was interesting…but I couldn't help falling asleep and having a bit of a nap on the way over.
After I woke up from my nap (three early mornings in a row will knock you out pretty quick), I was honestly amazed at how many vineyards we passed by, all the vines absolutely dripping in green leaves and looking very healthy.
We eventually turned into the Franciscan Winery, which was just breathtaking with it's perfectly manicured gardens, immaculate looking buildings and pretty fountain in the driveway. Fun fact, apparently the fountain was a bit of marketing ploy back when they first established themselves, as the fountain naturally cooled the air around it and kept the waters fresh, so travellers would stop for a break in the area, to have a little break and freshen themselves up!
At Franciscan Winery, the grapes are grown Bourdeaux style, so low to the ground and not broken off into a T shape like many other wineries in the area did. The winery was named after the first three men who owned it, who were missionaries when they first came to the company, with an aim to very naturally and gently make their wine.
We were soon ushered into a gorgeous (and very cold) room that felt like a very fancy library for wine. A $10 fee (I think we got one glass between the two of us) got us 3 different wines. The first, the Fountain Court white wine (named after the fountain…in the courtyard) was a cool and sweet delight, after getting rather toasty in the shuttle. Very fruity and refreshing.
We also had a shiraz, that was surprisingly light, and smelt a bit like raspberries, quite a bit different to the typical Australian shiraz, and also the Franciscan Estate Oakville cabernet sauvignon, 91% cabernet and about 5% merlot, making it quite dry but smooth. A nice herbaceous nose with a hint of spice. It took me a bit to get into this wine, but it gradually warmed up on me.
This chair is also famous. So I took a picture on it and realised I was way over-dressed for the bright and sunny weather Napa was treating us to.
Our next winery was easily my favourite of the 4 we visited, the V. Sattui Winery. It's been in the Napa for over 100 years and apparently is a winery that doesn't sell it's wines outside of it's winery. So if you try anything you like, you have to but it, there and then! Honestly, it's a bit of a shame, because they were delicious, but I guess exclusivity keeps people coming back!
The grounds were spacious, with lovely grass areas for picnics, and beautiful stone paved courtyards.
Before trying the wine we explored the cellars where the wine and madeira is kept, the latter in these giant…barrels? Can you call them that? Is it a barrel if it's oval? Think of all that madeira though. Mmhmm.
Before walking into the wine tasting room, you pass through their deli as well, making V. Sattui the perfect spot to gather goodies for a picnic lunch. I quietly lusted over the cheese selection and had to pick up some of the truffled gouda I spotted. Had to.
For $10 a person (we got one glass to share between two) V. Sattui lets you try 6 different wines from a rather extensive list. Pay a little more and you can choose from their reserve wines list, but we opted to be a little cheaper. Not that we could complain!
A 2012 Off-Dry Riesling tasted apples, fresh and crisp. The 2012 Gamay rouge won me over, easy to drink and all strawberries in the nose and on the palate. The dark shade of pink was quite attractive too.
A 2011 pinot noir had lost it's rich purple shade, but still tasted earthy and of cherries. I found it a touch edgy though. We chose the 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel, as I had never heard of the grape before and also because it was described on the menu as: A chuck wagon full of western cowboys and gun fights!
I've never tasted cowboys and gun fights before, so I can't verify if that's accurate, but it was gorgeously smooth and peppery, with soft tannins, making it a lovely easy drink.
One of my surprise favourites was the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, which had won a couple of awards and been highly rated, which was so smooth and absolutely full of fruit for a slightly older wine. It was positively velvety.
For sweet wines, we started with the 'Angelica', which is really the dessert wine to end all dessert wines, described as 'Nectar from the Gods'. Not too far off I'd say! It's also been infused with cognac, which gives it a beautiful fullness and a bit of back bone, you can definitely smell the cognac on the nose, but not on the palate, where instead you are treated to sweet, sweet honey.
To finish up we were also given a nip of the Madeira. Ah. Ah. Tasting like a rich and beautiful port, at $50 a pop, it doesn't come cheap, but it is a real treat.
From there, we were then herded back onto the shuttle and onwards to Andretti winery, owned by Mario Andretti a famous Indy 500 race car driver (or something of the sort, I'm no race buff), where we would have our lunch as well.
6 wines at V. Sattui meant that I had the best snooze ever between wineries on the half hour trip. So good.
There was a rustic charm to the Andretti Winery, the slightly worn out colours on the buildings reminding me of Tuscany.
At Andretti winery for $10 a person we got to try 4 different wines. We started with whites, a pinot grigio that didn't early impress me, lacking in fruit and personality, followed by a 2009 chardonnay that was really very light, with just a slight hint of savouriness.
I enjoyed the dolcetto, which is essentially an Italian table wine, designed to be light in alcohol, and the type of bottle of wine you could have with dinner every night. Due to the low percentage of alcohol in this, it tasted like grape juice, and was very fruity. Would be great for weaning people onto wine with this one!
Lastly, we got to try wine..straight out of the barrel, which is something I had never done before. The wine picked out was a pinot noir, which still needed a bit of ageing yet, but was so smooth and yummy, with a really rich fruity and plummy flavour. Love a strong bodied pinot noir!
Lunch was a 'make a sandwich' bar, with a healthy collection of fillings to choose from. Simple, but hearty and absolutely perfect in the lovely sunny weather. Oh and potato chips. Always gotta have potatoes in America!
It was just beautiful to sit and look out over the Andretti property, and almost feel like you could be in a courtyard somewhere in Italy. Until you overhear the middle American republicans on the next table and be equalled bemused and mildly insulted at the same time over some of the things they talked about (a couple of racist jokes in there, not so cute now).
Our last winery was Whitehall Lane, who produce 45000 cases of wine per year, making it a small to medium sized winery (can you imagine what a big winery would produce?!). At this point honestly, I wasn't really remembering much, nor taking notes very well. We did have a short tour around the place, but it was kind of noisy and hard to hear our guide. I recall the sauvignon blanc being quite zesty with citrus flavours, but I don't actually recall what else we drank!
From there it was another hour or so drive (which I again, napped through) to the ferry dock, where we joined a communal ferry back across the bay to San Francisco city. It was quite interesting upon arriving at the dock to see the line of people who were simply waiting for the boat to dock, and go back to commute home. I can't help but think how charming it must be to commute to and from work by ferry…although I imagine it might not be as frequent as a tram!
The ferry really is such a fabulous option here, as by the time you head back, it is peak hour traffic time, so it's definitely nice to not be caught up in that and instead have beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge again.
All in all though, I was impressed with Wine Country Tour Shuttle and would happily recommend it to anyone new to the Napa Valley area, who simple want to have a taste for the place. Like me!
Slightly intoxicated still by wine by the time we made our way back to our apartment, we kept our night nice and lazy by reheating Chinese leftovers from R an G lounge, and buying a bit of clam chowder to have as well while watching Man on Wire. Fascinating documentary!