Your Guide to Wine Country: Twenty-Four Hours in Napa

A weekend in Napa is an intense game to play. Home to some of the finest wineries in the world, the rolling hills and stunning vistas make this locale one of our favorite places to visit – not to mention you won’t find a bite of even mediocre food within a 50 mile radius and it’s pretty tough to find a bad bottle of vino as well. Having said that, certain places are more of a ‘must-visit’ than others. So you have 24 hours in the wine capital of America – what to do with it? Where to go? The options are overwhelming so we took the liberty of flying out for an extreme oenophile foodie fantasy adventure that is not for the faint of heart. Start by booking a luxurious party bus with Napa Valley Wine Country Tours – you’ll get an attentive and friendly chauffeur who will start your day with a bottle of champagne and chocolate covered strawberries and keep you on schedule when the wine kicks in and ‘Napa time’ comes in to play.

Our CEO and Chief Wine Snob, Brian Aitken, at the head of the table for the HALL Wine Tasting in St. Helena.
Our CEO and Chief Wine Snob, Brian Aitken, at the head of the table for the HALL Wine Tasting in St. Helena. Wardrobe provided by Third & Army.

HALL Wines, St. Helena
Drop the name Kathryn and Craig Hall anywhere in the valley and your credibility as a wine snob will increase drastically. The Halls acquired the historic St. Helena Bergfeld winery in 2003 – The Rutherford location is great but the St. Helena spot is unparalleled luxurious experience in the valley. It’s not just some of the best wine in Napa Valley, it’s also one of the best tasting facilities. We tasted the 2011 Walt Pinpoint Extreme, 2012 Rita’s Crown Pinot Noir and a few ‘off menu’ exclusive wines. Hall Wines has a state of the art facility with sorting machines that reject only 1% of their fruit – making it the cream of the crop with an organic biodynamic and fish friendly process.

One of the many artwork installations here includes a welcoming camel that is John Baldessari’s “Camel Contemplating Needle”… There’s an old biblical saying that a camel has a better chance of threading the eye of the needle than a wealthy man has of going to heaven. Craig recently bought this piece without realizing what it symbolized and it has since become a bit of an inside joke…the million dollar camel about the lessons of greed and dangers of wealth. There’s also a wonderful 35 foot tall “Bunny Foo Foo” you can see miles away as you approach the winery as it leaps up to greet you— when Kathryn’s children, David and Jennifer were little they would all spend at least one weekend per month at their family vineyard in Mendocino. One of their daily routines was to walk through the vineyard singing the children’s poem “Little bunny foo foo hopping through the vineyard scooping up the field mice and bopping them on the head.” There are so many details and wonderful stories to be told at Hall Wines that we’d never be able to tell you everything…you’ll have to check it out for yourself.

The Alister & Paine Wine Tasting Panel enjoying the 2005 Insignia at Joseph Phelps.
The Alister & Paine Wine Tasting Panel enjoying the 2005 Insignia at Joseph Phelps.

Joseph Phelps, St. Helena
After a morning tasting at Hall Wines you should be relatively sober and your palate fresh enough to head on over to another one of Napa’s VIP wineries. In the ‘70s when this whole California/Wine love affair was just a flirtation he took his passion for wine and purchased a former cattle ranch that has since become a world famous winery focusing on 100% estate grown bottling. Right now they are undergoing renovations so it’s not the same WOW factor you’ll get from Hall – it was a rainy day with the view pretty fogged over so we were essentially tasting in a luxury trailer but the facilities are very temporary and we can’t wait to go back and get the full experience in the proper setting. It didn’t stop us from having a case of the 2005 Insignia shipped back to our NY offices!

Talk to any sommelier and whisper the word ‘Insignia’ – they’ll smile knowingly. Insignia is Joseph Phelps flagship wine and is recognized as one of the world’s greatest. Although the brand name comes with a certain sense of anticipated pretense, a visit to their tasting room is anything but. We recommend scheduling a private tasting with the senior wine educator, a slightly formal ‘seminar’ style tasting for an approachable and super educational visit. If your educator, like ours, started his career in theatre (more specifically the Renaissance Faire) you are in for quite a performance and rather commanding tasting that will leave you with goosebumps of excitement and absolutely zero of that ‘way over my head’ effect that a particularly scientific tasting can have on you. One sip of the 2005 Insignia is worth the flight to San Francisco alone.

Gotts Roadside
Gotts Roadside

Gott’s Roadside, St. Helena
Mid-day you’re going to want to take a break. Those tasting glasses that felt too delicious to spit or pour out are catching up with you and it’s time to regroup. There is still plenty to see and taste so this is not the time for a leisurely three hour Ad Hoc lunch—what you need is Gott’s Roadside. It’s a different kind of burger joint. They serve juicy cheeseburgers with thick chocolate shakes, but their versions of these American classics are made-to-order from top-notch, locally sourced ingredients.

Ahi Poke Crispy Tacos, Garlic Fries tossed in garlic butter & parsley, Chili spice-dusted Sweet Potato Fries with house-made ranch, a Western Bacon Blue Ring Burger with Point Reyes Blue Cheese an onion ring and bacon, the classic Hamburger with secret sauce, out of this world Espresso Bean Shakes and splits of Billecart-Salmon NV Brut Réserve…we could go on and on and on. Long story short – some of the absolute best food you’ll taste in your life and the most fitting cuisine to help you continue on your epic wine tasting journey. 

A lion greets guests at the entrance of Del Dotto, the Jersey Shore of Napa Valley.
A lion greets guests at the entrance of Del Dotto, the Jersey Shore of Napa Valley.

Del Dotto, St. Helena
So if visiting Hall Wines and Joseph Phelps feels like a glimpse into winery royalty then a visit to Del Dotto is a bit like a visit to the Wizard of Oz, only to see the man behind the curtain. A New Jersey vibe with a Versailles wannabe attitude culminates in a tasting room that overwhelms the senses with head to toe marble and a whiff of ‘new money.’ You expect to see Tony Montana strut out from behind a barrel at any second—you might even check your GPS to make sure you’re still in Napa.

Having said that, Del Dotto does make some delicious wines. In 2007, the Del Dotto family saw the culmination of a 15-year-long dream in the completion of their new Venetian Estate Winery and Caves. It’s Venetian in a Vegas sort of way that definitely appeals to certain masses, but after the private intimate tastings of the morning you’ll feel the wine pairs well with disappointment. A very brief walk through the caves with some wine thief pours ends abruptly with a BBQ pizza and a wine order form. The owner, Dave walked past our group and several others without a word of welcome or thanks – a surprising attitude in this typically friendly valley. Bottom line? We’re still admirers of Dave’s wines, in particular his 2009 Rutherford Estate. But stick to ordering Del Dotto online and avoid seeing the man behind the curtain in this trick and pony show of a wine tasting room.

TOR Kenward Wines at Ma(i)sonry in Yountville
TOR Kenward Wines at Ma(i)sonry in Yountville

TOR Wines, Yountville
We’ve been big fans of Tor Kenward for quite some time now. A down to earth vintner with a knack for producing incredible specialty wines and an expert in terroir, he spent 27 years working with Beringer before ‘retiring’ and opening his own boutique winery. The actual TOR winery is not currently open for tours and tastings but they do offer something a bit more unique—you can schedule a TOR tasting at the lovely Ma(i)sonry, a “living gallery” atmosphere museum that serves as a stylized backdrop for the appreciation of limited production boutique wines. The setting is reminiscent of a home or a private club, framing a highly edited collection of furnishings and artwork.

The furnishings, ranging from 16th century to mid-twentieth century, are paired with contemporary works crafted by today’s top designers and the collections of art on display include Napa Valley favorites, the best in the Bay Area as well as some of the most respected names worldwide. It’s like entering a museum without that hush-hush or glare from a docent. You can end a long day of tasting with a cozy and intimate atmosphere in any of the Ma(i)sonry’s private tasting rooms that emulate more of a high end study or luxurious lounge than your typical wine table. The outdoor gardens are beautifully landscaped around architectural remnants and contemporary sculpture and are available for everyone to relax and enjoy a bite or a bottle of wine on their own before or after their tasting. It’s a really unique and relaxing way to unwind after a surprisingly tough day on the Napa Valley Wine Trail (no one said it would be easy!). Just don’t drink and climb the sculptures…

Bounty Hunter Napa
Bounty Hunter Napa

Bounty Hunter, Napa
BBQ in California? Napa Valley of all places? No questions please, just go with it. The Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Smokin’ BBQ is our favorite new Napa haunt—a relaxed atmosphere with absolutely amazing food (better than even some famous Texas joints) specializing in uncommon bottles and zero pretense. Start indulging with a world-class platter of olives (so simple! so perfect!), and a characuterie/cheese tasting to whet your palate for what is to come. We’re sure the soups and salads are great but we went straight to the ‘big guns’ of this place – the BH Beer-Can Chicken that is not to be missed. It’s been hyped up in the local media as of late, but no worries — no one has exaggerated a bit. The best chicken in the Bay Area with a smoked chipotle rub and a knock your socks off juicy inside, the whole bird arrives at your table perched on a Tecate Beer Can.

Bring the whole group with you because you’re also going to need to order the Smokin’ BBQ Platter, piled high with fresh cole slaw, pulled pork, apple wood smoked brisket…everything you need to soak up the remaining alcohol in your system and wake up bright eyed and bushy tailed the next morning. Pair it with a Magnum of the 2003 Harlan Estate for just $1,800 and you’ve got a night to remember. You only live once, right?

Jenna Bostock at Bouchon
Our editor soaking up a days worth of wine with a Croque Madame and Black Truffle Fries at Bouchon.

Bouchon, Yountville
You’ve survived the previous day. You have a few hours before leaving behind the leisure of Napa and heading to the fog and traffic that San Francisco is sure to be…there must be time for one more indulgence. Set the alarm clock for a reasonable hour and set aside a few ‘pre-airport’ hours for Bouchon. A Thomas Keller restaurant, we know anything that is an offspring to the French Laundry will be pretty spectacular. Bouchon never disappoints. With traditional French bistro fare and a menu that showcases the best products available daily, it’s the classiest place for a boozy brunch in the area. Potts of the Rillettes aux Deux Saumons, fresh & smoked salmon rillettes and the Terrine de Foie de Volaille chicken liver mousse with toasted baguettes are a taste for what is to come – after rejuvenating with a bottle of 2010 Schramsberg Brut Rosé go for the food coma inducing Croque Madame. Upgrade to black truffle fries (not sure why regular fries are even on the menu) on the side and you will never want for anything else in this lifetime. It’s ridiculous in a fantastic way. Go for the light and airy profiteroles to end the meal if you can, but no guarantees you’ll be up for the challenge.

Finish up your last sip of Schramsberg, stumble back into the sunshine, ignore the way your jeans are a little tighter than when you took off from NY and take a deep breath in. Study the vineyards around you and remember the way the Ma(i)sonry looked at midnight. Bid adieu, congratulate yourself on surviving 24 hours in Napa and go back to the real world. Until next time…