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Give the gift of a Napa Valley wine tasting

Posted 15 June 2011 by
Photo courtesy of Sullivan Wine

“Wine is sure proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy” -Benjamin Franklin

Out of all of the trips I’ve been on, none has satisfied as consistently and completely as going wine tasting in California’s Napa Valley. There is something magical about tasting wine in the same place where the grapes were grown, harvested, and fermented into the good stuff. Since I’ve been there a few times, friends and family often turn to me for suggestions on where to go. Below is a perfect itinerary for a great Napa wine tasting day trip. I only included 3 actual vineyards so you don’t have to worry about finding a designated driver and you can have a relaxed experience at each one. Vineyards don’t generally offer gift cards, so use GiftRocket to give a gift to any of these great experiences!

11:00am: Sullivan Vineyards

Start your trip by driving up route 29, past Napa, Yountville, and Oakville until you reach Sullivan Vineyards, located on Galleron Road in Rutherford. The Rutherford appellation is excellent for growing hearty cabernet sauvignon grapes, and Sullivan Vineyards bears this out. Sullivan has one of the most intimate, calm, and friendly tasting experiences of any vineyard I’ve been to. Make an appointment and allow yourself at least an hour and a half. If it is nice out, they will do tastings in a beautiful courtyard between the tasting room / barrel warehouse and the family’s house. The owner’s dog, Apollo, usually greets guests at their cars and is a great tasting companion.

Sullivan Vineyards is a small, family-run vineyard that focuses on deep red wines (their phone number is 1-877-BIG-REDS); they produce about 4,200 cases per year from 26 acres. They make a “casual cabernet” that is a blend of 75% cabernet sauvignon and 25% merlot, a full bodied and spicy merlot, a big, mouth-filling cab, and a Bordeaux-style blend of cabernet, merlot, cabernet franc, and petit verdot. All are excellent. The tastings are seated and relaxed– definitely no attempts to rush you through or anything and no “hard-sell” tactics at the end of the tasting. These are people that know and love their wines– a great start to your wine tasting trip.

12:30pm: Lunch at La Luna or Gott’s

By this time you will probably want some lunch. There are two great options that are within a 10 minute drive of Sullivan Vineyards– La Luna taqueria and Gott’s Roadside. La Luna is located on Rutherford Road – from Sullivan head south on route 29 and take a left onto Rutherford Road (the Rutherford Grill will be on your left). La Luna is just down the street on the right. Order a burrito or taco (carnitas is their specialty) from the friendly crew at the back, grab some fluids to stay hydrated, and eat your lunch on one of the tables behind the restaurant that overlook a vineyard. This is a locals place – you won’t see many tourists at La Luna (their loss).

The scene is very different at Gott’s, where the line can easily reach 30 people on busy Saturday afternoons. Located about 5 minutes north on route 29 from Sullivan, Gott’s is an updated version of the great American roadside diner. Burgers and shakes are what they’re known for, and both are excellent.

2:00pm: Hopper Creek Vineyard and Winery

After polishing off your burger or burrito, head down south on 29 back toward Yountville to Hopper Creek. Hopper Creek is even smaller than Sullivan, at just 2,500 cases of annual production. They split this between 5 varietals– chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, and syrah. I love zinfandel and syrah, and Hopper Creek has full-bodied, deliciously spicy versions of each.

The tasting room is small, and since the space doubles as their barrel warehouse, you’ll get to enjoy the tantalizing vapors of oak and evaporating wine as you taste. The tasting room staff is extremely down to earth and friendly, and usually offers healthy pours. Because it is such a small place, appointments are necessary, but don’t let that prevent you from stopping by!

3:30pm: Elkhorn Peak Vineyard and Winery

“The last stop of the day is a similarly small-production spot at 2,500 cases per year. Elkhorn Peak is located a bit off the beaten path up a steep hill in the Carneros region. Because of the cooler climate relative to the rest of the Valley, delicate grapes such as pinot noir flourish in Carneros. Elkhorn Peak makes excellent pinot noir and chardonnay from these grapes.

You will certainly need an appointment to taste here, as owner/grower Ken Nerlove does the tastings himself. If you don’t call ahead, he is likely to be out in the fields when you come by! Ken is a great teacher and taster, and if you ask nicely he may walk you through the fields, show you some of the gadgets that winemakers use to decide when to pick grapes, and give you some wine grapes to try fresh off the vine. From there, you’ll get to taste his excellent wines in a beautiful tasting room.

At this point it will probably be after 4:30pm so it is time to head home! Stop at a great restaurant in Yountville, Bottega, Ad Hoc, or if you’re really lucky, the French Laundry. Or drop by the Fremont Diner on the Carneros Highway between Napa and Sonoma– a roadside diner with excellent burgers, pulled pork, and spicy fried chicken that you can eat outside while gazing at the gorgeous rolling hills of Carneros. From there head home and start planning your next trip to the Valley!