With over 400 wineries in the valley, it can be difficult to choose a handful to visit. I had a ball researching where I wanted to visit on my first and only trip here this spring.
Joseph Phelps was a must-visit because his Insignia blend is my favorite wine, AND he is originally from my childhood town — Greeley, Colorado. Plus, he is just an extremely interesting and cool guy — he went from running an extremely successful construction business in Colorado to becoming one of the greatest winemaker after a mid-life career change. Sadly, Mr. Phelps passed away two days before my visit here. But the winery remained open because, as one employee told me, “that’s what Joe would have wanted.” Despite an obvious melancholy felt at the vineyard, this was definitely a favorite stop. The wines are outstanding, the employees are extremely friendly, and the place is gorgeous.
I picked several other wineries to visit over a long weekend, making sure I included some with smaller production and some whose wines are difficult to obtain in my hometown. Most of these included a tasting fee and a reservation, though the fees are waived if you join their wine club. This was a no-brainer for me because wine makes life better!
Here is my list in no particular order.
- Joseph Phelps: Outstanding wines including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and the signature Insignia blend.
- Robert Sinskey: My sommelier friend, Kimberly McMaugh, recommended this winery to me. Before visiting, I tried his POV blend, and was instantly smitten. And though not exactly cheap, at $39 a bottle it is considered a very good buy in this area of expensive wines. The winery is beautiful yet understated and casual, and the tasting included delicious food pairings. Robert Sinksey is known for it’s wonderful Cabernet Francs and it’s unusual Abraxas white blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Blanc.
- Chateau Montelena: I had to visit Chateau Montelena after watching the Alan Rickman film Bottle Shock, which featured the winery in the story behind the blind Paris wine tasting in 1976, matching California wines against the best French wines. It is a beautiful winery, however, we did not stay for a tasting as it was extremely crowded and you cannot make a reservation. No worries… I can get their wines at home, and it was still a beautiful place for a stroll.
- Crocker & Starr: Kim steered me here as well, and I am grateful she did as it is a teeny-tiny place in a world of tour-bus frequented mega-wineries. The gist… two amazing wine-makers — Pam Starr and Charlie Crocker — collaborated to make small production wines with old-world techniques. The tasting experience on the front porch of a farmhouse overlooking simple yet lovely vineyard views is extremely casual, though a reservation is essential. They are known for their award-winning Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec blend. You can also request a tasting of Pam’s wonderful and less-expensive wine, Bridesmaid.
- Swanson Vineyards: This place is just downright fun! Maybe, part of this was that it was our last stop so I did not spit any of the tasting, but I believe the congenial atmosphere stems from the personality of the Swanson family of frozen-food fame. The red tasting room exudes whimsy, as does the amuse bouche — a potato chip topped with caviar — paired with their Rosato wine. The tasting includes an enticing selection of cheeses and chocolates. Swanson is known for their wonderful Merlot wines.
- Tank Garage: An experience unlike any other winery I’ve been to! Tank Garage is located in an old remodeled garage in downtown Calistoga. The atmosphere is playful, hip, yet unpretentious and friendly. The wine blends are limited production, and when they run out, that’s it… they won’t be making the same blend the following year. In addition to the counter bar, Tank also has a speak-easy room that they might invite you into.
Worried about drinking and driving on your wine tasting excursion? As well you should… We hired a car and driver from T3 Tesla Tours & Transportation for really not much more than to hire a local driver to escort us in our rental car. Plus, it’s a Tesla, so how cool is that?! T3 owner, Michael Sieck, also made all of our winery reservations. He will even provide you with itinerary based on your likes and interests in wine, so you don’t need to do your own research!