Napa Valley Weekend: Tasting Rooms vs. Wineries

by Chris on June 7, 2011

An in-town tasting room or visit to a vineyard – which is the better way to experience a wine tasting in Napa Valley? We explore both.

Wine tasting, Napa Valley

Used to be, visiting wineries in Napa Valley required some planning. You’d scout out the wineries you wanted to visit, made appointments when possible, and then made sure that someone in your group stayed sober enough to drive you between the different vineyards.

Wine tasting, Napa Valley

So I was surprised (and yet intrigued) when I saw all the tasting rooms located in Yountville proper. Instead of going out to the winery, you can sit down and taste several wines, usually for a $10-$20 fee.

Wine tasting, Napa Valley

We found our first tasting room, Page Wine Cellars, through the mobile app Foursquare, on which they were offering 2 for 1 samples. Located on Washington Avenue, the tasting room takes walk-ins, so we wandered in and said hello.

Wine tasting, Napa Valley

Sales manager Trent Ghiringhelli described the winery’s ethos as “where the Wild West meets British pop.”  The vineyard’s single varietals are named Revolver, for the Beatles album of the same name. The vineyard’s owner, Richard Page, had played stand-up bass in LA, Trent told us, and he wanted to inject a bit of rock and roll into his business. Don really enjoyed “Forsaken,” a 2008 Petit Verdot – and plunked down $45 for a bottle (this is unusual for us; we drink so much wine that I hate spending too much money on it).

Wine tasting, Napa Valley

People can visit Page at the vineyards, Trent said. But having a tasting room in Yountville has exposed the winery to different customers, ones who might walk in and buy a tasting on a whim (sampling five wines costs $10), he said. Whereas it takes effort to schedule an advance appointment at “the Garage”  in downtown Napa (plus at $25, it’s pricier). The tasting room also holds small group events, such as wine and cheese tastings, for people who may be staying in town (that’s the winery’s original press in the photo above).

Wine tasting, Napa Valley

After lunch, we had a traditional winery appointment at Bell Wine Cellars, a small family-owned vineyard just outside the town. We started to walk, but then realized that like most Napa Valley towns, Yountville turns into country pretty quickly. Owner Sandra Hewitt Bell laughed when we told her we had abandoned our trek; she said that while she sometimes gets walk ins, she drives them back into town.

Wine tasting, Napa Valley

Bell Wine Cellar has an interesting history. Born into a South African wine family, winemaker Anthony Bell – Sandra’s husband – studied viticulture in his native country and at University of California Davis – the Harvard for winemakers. He started at Beaulieu Vineyard, wrote the definition for the Carneros appellation (which, to again use a university analogy, is the equivalent of writing the charter for Harvard Business School) and started fooling around with grape “clones.”  Eventually he developed Clone Six, thought to be Napa Valley’s first single vineyard, single clone Cabernet Sauvignon - essentially making him the Einstein of Napa Valley.

Wine tasting, Napa Valley

I asked Sandra how wineries counter the in-town tasting room trend. It’s a touchy subject, as Napa County regulates the type of events that wineries can have on site (did you know, for example, that not every vineyard can hold a wedding?) Wineries do have to do more to draw people out of town, she said, and so Bell has an outdoor picnic area, a bocce ball court, and tasting options ranging from a $15 sampling of current releases to a $30 grape-to-glass vineyard walking tour to a $75 special Cabernet Sauvignon Clonal Tasting. Big spenders can shell out $150 for a custom blending seminar where you take home a magnum of your own blend.

Wine tasting, Napa Valley

What you get when you visit a vineyard instead of a tasting room is …..vines. Sandra took us out into the Chardonnay and Merlot fields surrounding the winery (the famed Cabs are grown up in Rutherford, natch) and showed us the flowers on the vine. I’ve never visited vineyards in the spring, so I found it interesting to view the delicate flowers and hear about the obstacles the plants face before bearing fruit.

Wine tasting, Napa Valley

Before we sat down for a taste, Sandra poured us a taste of Chardonnay still being aged in a tank. The fruit had been picked in October 2010, so the wine was less than six months old and still has some time to age. It tasted Chablis-like, a little steely and bright, but certainly not bad.

Wine tasting, Napa Valley

Our tour ended with a wine and cheese pairing. While Bell Chardonnays are outstanding, tasting more like French Burgundy than the oaky flavor Americans are used to, I wanted to try the famed Clone 6. And I did, but the Cab wasn’t my favorite. Instead, we fell in love with the Sonnette, a 2003 blend of Bordeaux varietals that the winery has since discontinued.  Sophisticated with just a hint of fruit, the wine definitely seemed worth the $30 price tag.

Wine tasting, Napa Valley

So which is a better way to experience wine, in a vineyard or in a tasting room? Both Trent and Sandra were awesome hosts, who spent plenty of time talking to us about their vineyard and their philosophy. I appreciated both Page’s adaptation of new media, and Bell’s place in Napa Valley history. And while it’s convenient to walk into a tasting room off the street, walking through vineyards is an only-in-Wine-Country way to spend an afternoon. So both approaches have their advantages.

Which do you prefer?

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

A Lady in London June 7, 2011 at 6:31 am

I think tasting rooms are an interesting concept, but nothing beats tasting at the winery itself!

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Brett June 7, 2011 at 8:44 am

We usually will try to do a mix of both whenever we visit Napa Valley, with at least one winery visit (usually with appointments pre-made) along with a couple tasting rooms (that we usually choose based on recommendations by our hosts at the wineries we visit for which places they would most recommend that we visit). We’ve found some real gems this way!

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Erin June 7, 2011 at 9:38 am

It’s a mixed bag for me. I lived just outside of Napa for a few years and worked in a tasting room part time. The winery I worked for sourced grapes from 100+ miles away so their tasting room was the winery (operations). They were housed in a historic sugar mill with 5 other wineries and I had a blast there — they hosted special seasonal events. Since the wineries were going in together, the events were often bigger and more grand than you would find at a similar sized winery with onsite tasting facilities.

I much prefer visiting the wineries (which may not always be the vineyards, as with this particular winery) as I like to see their operations — especially those that have unique grounds, tours, or even on site art galleries.

Devoted tasting rooms in town are great if you are short on time, with a big group, or looking to try a variety of wineries in one shot. You can wind up finding undiscovered gems that way. On a recent trip back home I took my husband to visit Gustavo (from Bottleshock). We ran next door as there’s a tasting room for another winery I like. They share space with a winery I’ve never heard of and viola…we dropped $125 on a reserve Cabernet.

Some wine regions have restrictions on tasting rooms so wineries will go into a tasting room co-op and you can only try the wines there. Some remote locations in other Northern California wine AVA regions have single lane mountain roads that are not easy to navigate. Having a central tasting room in town can make the whole wine tasting experience much more enjoyable (and safe!)

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Ssaraiya June 7, 2011 at 9:52 am

Thanks for sharing, Chris! Tasting at a tasting room does seem more modern and convenient, but when I was there I tasted at the individual wineries. I feel like its a lot more personal, there’s more feel to it and there’s more stories to hear. And especially in Napa Valley, each winery so unique with a personality of its own, that I feel like I’d be missing out on something if I’d taste the wine at a tasting room.

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