Napa Valley, California

Chateau Montelena Winery

1429 Tubbs Ln, Calistoga, CA 94515 +1 707-942-5105
Open 9.30 to 4 look out for Chardonnay
Montelena cellar door

Montelena winery

Montelena japanese gardens

Montelena Japanese-style lake

A fascinating place with European, Japanese and Irish influences but most fascinating of all is that they don’t grow Chardonnay; it is all bought in. Their wine which won the Chardonnay flight of the Judgement of Paris was also made from bought in grapes that provided cash-flow whilst they waited for their red grape vines to mature. We started by tasting the ’13 Riesling which we did not think was typical ($37). Then the ’14 Chardonnay which had spent 10 months in oak and had no malolactic fermentation; it had great acidity, was lemoney and was not oaky at all, definitely needs aging ($58). The ’14 Zinfandel was savoury and spicy ($39). The Napa Cabernet (86% Cab) had great tannins and fruit ($58) but the ’14 Estate Cabernet with 2 years in French oak (50% new) was a big step up as was the price at $160. They have half bottles of the ’11 Montelena Estate Cabernet ($85). Finally, we tasted their ’10 Napa Valley Petite Syrah from a magnum bottle and it still needed plenty of time. We bought ’13 Montelena Estate Cabernet and a half bottle of the ’08 Montelena Napa Valley Cabernet.

Twomey Cellars

1183 Dunaweal Ln, Calistoga, CA 94515 +1 707-942-2489
Open 12 to 3

Twomey cellar door

Twomey cellar door

We were recommended Twomey for their cool climate wines by their sister company Silver Oak. The ’16 Sauvignon Blanc had a great nose, excellent fruit and good acid ($25). The ’15 Russian River Pinot was light, Burgundian in style ($50). The ’15 Anderson Valley Pinot was fuller, heavier ($50). The ’12 Bien Nacido was full of red berries, tarter but unfortunately had a slightly porty edge ($62). The Napa Valley Merlot was full of fruit and fine tannins; they said one should ideally lay it down for 10 to 20 years ($65). We bought the Sauv Blanc.

Larkmead Vineyards Winery

1100 Larkmead Lane, Calistoga, CA 94515 +1 707-942-0167
Appointment 10 to 3 every day - look out for their Solari Cab
Larkmead cellar door

Larkmead cellar door

Larkmead gardens

Larkmead view

Larkmead wines

Larkmead "Sauternes" and "Burgundy" bottles from when anyone could call their wine anything

We had some time on our hands so we took a chance on dropping in. They could not accommodate us on their experience tour but did agree to let us taste a ‘splash’ of their wines, and very good they were too. We tried the ’14 Cab (94 points from Parker) which had great fruit and soft tannins ($100) and their ’13 Solari single vineyard Cab (96 points from Parker) which had complex fruit, tight tannins and was restrained and not over-extracted. They say this has the potential to age for 50 years and shouldn’t be touched before 10 ($200). We were, quite frankly, amazed that with the restraint their wines showed they got such high points from Mr Over-extraction. We bought the Solari for putting down for a long, long time. They suggested that we should look in on Brasswood just down the road.


3111 St Helena Hwy N, St Helena +1 707-302-5997
Open 9 to 5
Brasswood tasting room

Brasswood tasting room

From the road it looks like a huge operation but that is all the add-ons, they only produce 1200 cases but they crush etc for 20 odd other winemakers. Their ’16 Napa Sauvignon Blanc was light and fresh – a touch too light and simple for our tastes ($38). The ’14 Napa Chardonnay had clean fresh oak (35% new French) and was lemony and buttery ($65). The ’13 Estate Cab Franc had superb fruit, was delicate and easy drinking ($85). The ’13 Estate Cabernet was full, had great fruit but not over the top and big tannins but was a touch too sweet to our taste. Certainly worth the visit. We bought the Chardonnay.

Failla view

View from Failla cellar door

Failla Wines

3530 Silverado Trail N, St Helena, CA 94574 +1 707-963-0530
For "day of" appointments, call 707-963-0530
Failla cellar door

Failla cellar door

Although located in an old hunting cabin in Napa they specialise in the Pinots of Russian River Valley in Sonoma making around two dozen vineyard-specific wines. It was here we really became aware of why wineries want you to make an appointment that lasts an hour or longer. To set themselves apart they want to tell you their story; the history, the wine maker, their terroirs, their approach. We started the tasting with two Napa Valley Chardonnays that were made using concrete eggs for fermentation, relying on natural yeasts, and then malolactic fermentation and aging in oak barrels, 20% new. The ’15 Hudson Vineyard was restrained, no oaky and very fine ($50). The ’15 Hayes came from 50 year-old vines and had the expected complexity and richness ($58). The pinots were fermented in open top tanks and then moved to French oak barrels, 25% new. The ’15 Lola Sonoma Coast was full of fruit, full bodied ($48). The Russian River ’15 Keefer Ranch was lighter but still full of fruit ($52) whilst the ’15 Singler Vineyard had plenty of tannins, a long finish and plenty of acidity ($52). We bought the Hudson Chardonnay and the Singler Pinot.

Spring Mountain Vineyard

2805 Spring Mountain Rd, St Helena, CA 94574 +1 707-967-4188
Appointment only - look for the Chardonnay
Spring Mountain gardens

Spring Mountain view

Spring Mountain cellar door

Spring Mountain cellar door

Spring Mountain tasting room

Spring Mountain tasting room

Their Chardonnay was selected for the Judgement of Paris line-up. We had made an appointment but were running late so we phoned ahead. As it turned out we were 20 minutes late for a booking made for the next day. Luckily, they were able to accommodate us. When we arrived we were hailed by a guy with glasses of wine raised in his hand ‘Welcome, come, sit down and have a glass of wine!’ What followed was one of the best, most charismatic wine tastings we have ever had, led by Ish in the shade of the trees overlooking their vineyards as pictured above. The’13 Sauvignon Blanc also had 5% Semillon and was made like a chardonnay; old oak fermentation, aging on the lees with batonnage (stirring) over 4 months ($40). The ’15 Chardonnay was rich despite only partial malolactic fermentation and the oak was subtle because only 20% was new oak ($50). The ’05 Cab was complex, full of fruit and soft tannins with a superb aroma ($95). The ’08 Cab was near its peak because the vines hadn’t really recovered from the perfect ‘07; luscious, intense with great structure ($85). We then tried their Cab dominated Bordeaux blend, Elivette. The wines come from old vines making them big and intense. The ’08 was quite savoury ($160) whilst we have no notes about the ’04 being blown away by the 6 litre bottle from which it was poured, but it was excellent. And, they make half bottles of their Cab and the Elivette but unfortunately not the Chardonnay. We bought the Sauvignon and the’05 Cab and were given a half bottle of the ’09 Cab.

Freemark Abbey Winery

N, 3022 St Helena Hwy, St Helena, CA 94574 +1 800-963-9698
Open 10 to 5 - can make appointment
Freemark Abbey cellar door

Freemark Abbey cellar door

Freemark Abbey were the only winery to have both a Cabernet and a Chardonnay selected for the Judgement of Paris. Comments made by some critics said that they were no longer as good so it with some reticence that we began the tasting. For us their wines were great and we bought both the Cabernet and the Chardonnay! ’13 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon USD75 and ’15 Howell Mountain Chardonnay USD40.

Heitz Wine Cellars

436 St Helena Hwy, St Helena, CA 94574 +1 707-963-3542
Open 11 to 4.30
Heitz view

Heitz view

Heitz tasting room

Heitz tasting room

Heitz had their Cabernet selected for the Judgement of Paris. Whilst their wines were fine they did not make our buying list so we bought a T-shirt instead.

Mayacamas Vineyards & Winery

1155 Lokoya Rd, Napa, CA 94558 +1 707-224-4030
Appointment Tues to Sat (90 mins)
Mayacamas view

Mayacamas view

Mayacamas winery

Mayacamas winery

Mayacamas had their Cabernet selected for the Judgement of Paris. They are located high up in the Mayacamas mountains that separate Napa from Sonoma so not a place to just turn up and hope for a tasting! The winery tour was interesting in that it is one of the few places where one can see stainless steel tanks, oak barrels and foudres and concrete tanks in one place and they use all of them in their wine production. But the real star of the tasting was a buggy tour of the vineyards and the unhurried stop on top of the mountain from which one can see San Francisco on a clear day. We started by tasting the ’15 Chardonnay which had superb fruit; it was a blend of wines fermented in stainless steel tanks and oak foudres and then aged in normal size oak barrels but malolactic fermentation was blocked ($50). Then to see how the wine aged we tasted the ’10 made the same way. It was softer, rounder and made for winter drinking or food. The ’14 Merlot had no oak, it was bright, refreshing and light ($60). And then onto the Cab for which they are famous. The ’12 had great fruit, soft tannins and was relatively light. The ’13 was rich with great fruit and tannins ($125). And then to see how they aged we tasted the ’03 which was from a very ripe year. It had a slightly green nose but was a bit port-like, round and light ($250). We bought the Chardonnay, Merlot and ’13 Cab. They make half bottles of wine for the restaurant trade.

Frog's Leap Winery

8815 Conn Creek Rd, Rutherford, CA 94573 +1 707-963-4704
Daily from 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. by appointment
Frogs Leap cellar door

Frog's Leap cellar door

Frogs Leap gardens

Frog's Leap tasting area

If you turn up for a tasting without an appointment, which we did, they have a very pleasant place in the garden for one to sit out and taste at one’s leisure. Frog’s Leap’s wines are freely available in the US and are a safe and good choice. Since we had the time we wanted to calibrate the ‘special’ wines that we had been tasting against a good run-of-the-mill. Their wines certainly fit the ‘We just need to open another bottle to finish off the meal’ niche without dropping the tone of the dinner. They had a flight of 4 wines for tasting. The ’15 Chardonnay, Napa Valley had aromas of white flowers and tasted of crisp green apples and citrus, fresh with serious acid ($32). The ’15 Zinfandel also from Napa Valley has some Petit Syrah and Carignane in the blend and was juicy with great fruit, spicy and medium bodied ($32). The’14 Merlot from Rutherford where the vines are dry farmed and the wines spend 20 months in oak was a typical Merlot full of red fruit flavours, excellent ($40). The ’14 Estate grown Cabernet also from Rutherford had good fruit, old oak notes and not over the top ($55). They have half bottles of quite a few of their wines. We bought the Merlot.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars

5766 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558 +1 707-261-6410
Open 10 to 16.15
Stags Leap cellar door

Stag's Leap cellar door

Stag’s Leap’s Cabernet was in the Judgement of Paris line-up. A no-expense-spared tasting set-up where one can sit outside as we did or go inside to a glass walled tasting room, both places overlooking their vineyards. The first wine on their flight of 4 Estate wines in their tasting menu was the ’15 Arcadia Vineyard Chardonnay which had been through oak barrel fermentation and malolactic fermentation. The oak was quite obvious but it had a minerally, full mouth feel and as it opened up became quite lemoney, fabulous ($65). We then compared two ’14 Cabs both at $145. The Fay came from soils which did not stress the vines so the skins were thinner; full of fruit and soft tannins but no fruit bomb, easy drinking. The SLV Cab came from volcanic soil which resulted in stressed vines that produced thick skinned grapes; tighter and less forward with plenty of tannins; the wine selected for the Judgement of Paris. Over and above the tasting menu wines we also tasted the ’12 SLV Block 1 Cab which was intense, fruity and big, definitely needing lots of time before drinking ($170). As an aside, we noticed that because we all spat out our tasting wines people were very relaxed in offering us additional wines to taste. The last wine on the menu was the flagship Cask 23 Cab. This was again a big step up from the last wine; restrained fruit, great tannins, opulent ($275). Finally, we tasted the ’14 Artemis Cab that makes up 80% of their production and is made with bought-in grapes. We did this because they make half bottles of this wine. It was full of fruit, a typical Napa Valley Cab ($60 for a full bottle). We bought a bottle of the Cask 23 to drink in about 30 years time – can’t say we don’t plan ahead!

Clos Du Val

5330 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558 +1 707-261-5251
Open 10 to 5 - advisable to reserve
Clos du Val tasting room

Clos Du Val tasting room

Clos du Val’s 1972 Cabernet won the Judgement of Paris re-run in 1986 and their wines are still in top form. They are still a family run estate. One can see why they advise (but do not insist upon reservations) as their tasting room does not have that much space for tasting. We arrived at 10am sharp and already half the spaces were taken. In the height of the tourist season one simply would not get in the door without a reservation. We started with their ’15 Carneros Estate Chardonnay which had been barrel fermented (35% new French oak) with 20% undergoing malolactic fermentation; it was fresh with subtle oak and lemons (($32). The’15 Estate Pinot, also from Carneros, had great fruit but not too fruity, medium bodied with good tannins ($38). The ’14 Zinfandel from Napa Valley was medium bodied, quite fruity, quite spicy and soft tannins ($35). The ’14 Estate Napa Cab was full and luscious with good tannins and forward oak from the 55% new oak ($52). Finally, we also tasted the ’14 Hirondelle Vineyard (Stag’s Leap district) Cab which came via a Corovin; this was a step up in intensity but we did not think that it was “typical” ($120). They make half bottles of wine – the Chardonnay and the Pinot. We bought the Napa Cab.

We also bought the following wines as we doubted if we would be able to visit becasue of the appointment requirement -
Switchback Ridge Cab $107
Silverado GEO Cab $75
Williams Selyem Chardonnay Allen Vineyard $98
Kistler Chardonnay $68
Pahlmeyer Merlot $95