Grapes Into Gold: Exploring California’s Historic Wine Country in Napa and Sonoma
Everyone loves Napa Valley, but how much do we really know about it? My mission was to discover the origins of wine production in the Napa and Sonoma valleys. While much has been written about wineries founded 30 years ago, I planned to visit those that have celebrated at least their 100th anniversary.
These are the pioneers who brought winemaking to the New World. Without them, Napa Valley might never have achieved prominence on the global stage and become a highly sought-after travel destination. To which wineries do we owe a huge debt of gratitude? I was about to find out.
First on the itinerary was Buena Vista Winery, the oldest winery in Sonoma. It was founded by an entrepreneurial Hungarian count, and many of his farming and wine-making practices are still in use today. The beautiful stone building that houses the tasting room was built in 1857 as the original press room. I was greeted at the winery by Count Haraszthy, who regaled me with stories from his colorful history and that of the winery. Upstairs they have historical displays of their winery and its founder.
After the informative history lesson, I was ready to sample their wine. They had prepared a selection of their limited-production wine in a private tasting room, although they went off-script to let me taste many more of their favorites. They make Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Rose of Pinot Noir, Sparkling Brut, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Zinfandel. Most of their wines are not distributed, so the only way to purchase them is through the wine club or in the tasting room. This is a place you will want to linger to take it all in, the architecture, history, and shaded picnic grounds.
As I arrived at Beringer Vineyards, which has been producing wine for 134 years, I noticed the beautiful grounds and collection of historic buildings. Most tastings are held in the beautiful Rhine House, a lovely example of Victorian-era architecture with gables, turrets, stained glass and wood paneling that was built in 1884. There are picnic tables and a cafe to replenish your energy from a rigorous day of tasting and the estate to explore. Some of their wine is widely distributed while their limited-production wine is available only at the winery. You can spend several hours here with a tour, tasting, dining and shopping. Tours include the historic caves and winery, and are among few tours offered in the valley.
Chateau Montelena was established in 1882 and is located on expansive grounds with a picturesque lake complete with swans. This winery has the distinction of winning the Judgment of Paris 1976 in a blind tasting over French wines. The film Bottle Shock, a must-see for wine lovers, commemorates this event. The winning bottle is on display, as a testament to the event that put California wine on the world map. They are best known for their Chardonnay, but they also make a Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel. Tastings are held on the top level of the historic chateau, at the bar or a seated library tasting. Vineyard tours are offered during the week.
Freemark Abbey was founded in 1886 by Josephine Tychson, the first woman wine-grower on record. This legendary winery also submitted wine in the Judgment of Paris tasting and received unofficial recognition, when the judges mistook it for a French wine. It was only fitting that I participated in a Decades Tasting at the winery. We sampled three different vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignons decades apart. Instead of sipping, we spent considerable time swirling and sniffing the wine and allowing it to open up. Since wine over 10 years old can be more fragile, allowing it to breath for 15 minutes is essential.
Over the course of two hours we compared the aromas of the wine from the same vineyards, which exhibited similar characteristics in spite of the age differences, providing clues on how they will age. I also learned that with Cabernet in particular, it is important to pair it with rich food. An aged Gouda cheese for an appetizer or braised beef or lamb for an entrée is ideal. Their wine library available for purchase dates to the 1970s, which is most unusual for a California winery. Not only can you sample these older wines, but can take them home to add to your cellar.
Calistoga is a charming town in the northern end of the Napa Valley, famous for more than a century for their mineral hot springs resorts. It’s still a wonderful place for spas, dining, and wineries. The Sharpsteen Museum provides the history of the town, including a restored cabin from the 1860s that belonged to town founder Sam Brannan. Ben Sharpsteen, for whom the museum is named, was a Disney animator. It was his diorama of Calistoga that was the inspiration for the museum. His personal items are on display, including an Oscar. Read about a romantic Napa weekend with additional wineries, restaurants and spa recommendations.
Stay: Luxe Calistoga (built in 1873) takes bed and breakfasts to another level with a luxurious and sleek design sensibility and modern amenities, including Bulgari bath products and in-room iPads. I truly felt pampered by the comfortable beds, silky smooth linens, and soft pillows; it felt like sleeping in a cloud. There were touches like bottled water and artisan chocolates in the room along with soft robes. The large porch has comfortable seating for sipping a glass of wine in the afternoon and for enjoying their sumptuous breakfasts. Their wine and cheese offering is also upscale, with individual cheese plates that includes charcuterie, fruit, and crackers paired with local wine.
Arriving for breakfast, the tables were set with silver, linens, a French coffee press and a just-baked apple galette pastry. A feeling of contentment washed over me just before the fresh-squeezed orange juice arrived with the fruit salad. But the best was last – a crispy Korbuta pork belly over sautéed spinach and potato pancake, topped with lemon hollandaise sauce and optional quail egg – as beautiful as it was delicious. No need to feel guilty about all of this indulgence, since they participate in the organization Clean the World, which collects and recycles soap and shampoo products discarded by hospitality industry to give to impoverished people to prevent hygiene related illnesses.
Dine: Boskos Trattoria provides a warm, welcoming dining environment with Italian cuisine. They offer a selection of local wine by the bottle or glass, as well as European wine. Their pastas are imaginative, beautiful, and satisfying, and paired with a salad it’s all you need. Not overly hungry, I chose a Caesar salad and the crispy polenta stack served with marinara sauce, fresh basil, and olives and topped with ricotta cheese – simply heavenly. A glass of Rose Prosecco was the perfect accompaniment.
Downtown Napa has a collection of historic architecture with shops and restaurants along with the restored Napa Mill and river promenade. It is a blend of historic and modern, with high-profile restaurants and every other type of dining. There are a number of wine-tasting rooms and wine bars all within walking distance of the downtown area. For more information and help planning a Napa Valley itinerary, go to visitnapavalley.com.
Take advantage of the three-hour walking tour in downtown Napa to learn more about the history, architecture and wine/beer of the town of Napa.
Stay: The Napa River Inn is located along the river in the heart of downtown Napa. This beautiful historic property offers 66 beautifully appointed rooms, some with balconies, and fireplaces. The Hatt Suite had a sitting area in front of the fireplace and a bed with dramatic drapery canopy in beautiful shades of rose. Of course, the linens and bedding are as comfortable as they are soft, and the robes are plush and cozy. Little touches like home-made chocolates and a welcome bottle of wine made me feel special. The marble bathroom had a claw-foot bathtub that was perfect for an indulgent bubble bath and a separate shower with two shower heads. Complimentary wine-tasting is offered daily along with a delicious breakfast delivered to your room. For additional pampering arrange for on-premise spa services. You don’t have to feel guilty about the luxury at this property. They have green initiatives that reduce water and energy usage and they are avid recyclers. The building that houses the hotel was once a warehouse and turning it into its current use is one of the best examples of sustainability.
Dine: Ristorante Allegria is located in a historic bank building, built in 1916, a few blocks from the Napa River Inn. They have outdoor seating as well as cozy indoor dining. Their happy hour specials provide great food and drink deals, and their Italian cuisine is delicious. The suit of armor on display in the bar lends an old-world ambiance.
My wine country adventure came to an end, not because there weren’t other century-old wineries to discover, but because time was limited. While I learned much about the beginnings of the wine industry, what struck me most was the commitment to a dream. These visionaries didn’t just bring great wine to California; they brought a way of life. Cheers to that!