Thursday, July 10, 2008

A customized tour of the valley

Recently, in the course of my job as manager and sommelier at the restaurant, I was assisting a group of nice ladies that wanted my input as to where to go for their 'tour' of Napa Valley. We discussed several potential places along with dabbling in some wine educational subjects. They were not novices and very eager to learn more along the journey. I was able to put together a nice 'customized' itinerary based on what I felt they would enjoy given the background info I had attained. They later informed me that they had one of their best trips ever and were raving about all their experiences throughout the day.

This is not too unusual of a request as all of us at the restaurant/bar often help with suggestions as we get to know people and/or their palate as we spend time with them during tastings. However, what I found during the discovery period with them is the realization that all tours, ideas, palates, priorities, expectations and budgets are all very different. Given that, I felt the need to do my best to listen to their wants and needs and direct them appropriately. What I also realized is that far too many people come to Napa with no idea of what there really is to offer them for their particular interests or time frame.

Although there are few bad experiences you can actually have in touring the "valley", you might want to consider the following before booking your plans when visiting:

What types of wines do you like or are wanting to explore?
- Napa and Sonoma offer a wide range of wines and varietals from north to south spanning well over 100 miles. There are, however, certain areas that specialize in certain grapes due the climate changes over this area. Do some research as to what areas are best known for which wines/grapes.

What type of experience(s) you expect or wish to have?
- Everyone has their own agenda and/or what they like to do. Some like to 'power taste' and run through as many wineries as possible in their short time here. Others like to take their time (or they just have more time) and do more lounging type tastings. Decide which path is yours and plan accordingly.

Open tastings vs. appointment only tastings?
- Napa these days is about 1/3 appointment only and 2/3 open tastings and each has its own place in your itinerary. It is good to have a nice mix of both to allow for scheduled times and the flexibility to explore when you have the time.

The tasting environment.
- In my mind, there are really four types of tasting experiences. 1) Stand-up counter tasting rooms, 2) full tour tastings (winery/production, caves, barrels, property, etc.) 3) sit-down/lounging tastings, and 4) picnic type settings. Personal preference of course, but many do not know that there are this many experiences to be had. Depending on your schedule, try to include all types when possible.

Days to explore and days to stay on the main path.
- There are two main trails to follow for the majority of the wineries/tastings - Hwy 29 central and the Silverado Trail. However, you can spend entire days off the beaten path exploring various 'mountain' properties and new sub-districts. Try to explore a little...there are some real gems to discover. (Also: see my blog from last month re: Napa's R.L.T.)

Guided tours vs. self tours.
- With a myriad of tour companies in Napa and surrounding areas, there is something for everyone. Just decide if you wish to be shlepped around as part of a big group or go at it alone. Obviously, it is nice to leave the driving to someone else, but maybe opt for the smaller type group tours (4-6 persons) so as to not feel like a 'cattle-call' type tour.

Where to fit in your meals?
- While your getting saturated in tastings, somewhere along the way you have to eat. There are various choices that can include the wine element or the food element, or both.


Lots more to consider here beyond just jumping from winery to winery including budget, purchasing amount, size of group, timing, season, etc. But, spend the time doing a little research, asking for referrals and doing your homework and you'll find that touring the Valley can be a very exciting experience on many fronts. I've been to about 100 of the wineries/tastings and I always seem to find something new to enrich my experience along the way.

Maybe when you find that little gem of an experience you'll let me know about it as well...? Happy tasting!

Until the next sip...swirl ya' later!

James
Chief Wino

1 comment:

wineandine said...

Hi Chief Wino

My husband Nick and will be traveling to Napa and staying in Yountville for a couple of nights in November and we will be doing a tour with Jim Dolen wine tours and we are looking for some guidance as to which wineries to visit over a day. We don't wish to visit more than say 5 or 6 and we would really love to meet some interesting characters and just sit around eating cheese and drinking red.

We are both Australians in our late 20's and love big reds and the occasional white for Summer. We are interested in trying some good Zinfandels and Syrah as they are more common in the States than in Australia. Of course we always love a Cabernet and my husband enjoys the occasional desert wine (I am still warming to this!. We are foodies and wino's and would love your advise on what would be a good option for a day tour. We are able to pre-book private tastings where necessary.

Help us Chief Wino!