There are so many different ways to experience California’s Napa Valley. There’s the first time Napa visit, a rush of wineries and a Disneyworld attitude, trying to fit everything in. There’s the overindulgent visit, where even the most expensive bottle of Cab starts to taste like wine juice.
And then there’s the right way to do Napa. Stay at a private estate on a vineyard, soak in the history of the vines, take your time, restrict your tasting to just the creme de la creme. Hire a private chef to bring the freshness and flavors to you. Let us show you a glimpse of the perfect way to experience this magical little valley that has become iconic to oenophiles all over the world.
WHERE TO STAY
There’s a home, tucked away in the Sonoma hillside, where the word Bliss means more than happiness. It means comfort, luxury, cozy perfection. The Bliss House is part of the Lynmar Estate, owned by the charismatic oenophiles Lynn and Anisya Fritz.
In 2008 they took over the property and helped it become the exquisite 100-acre vineyard it is today. The approximately 70 acres of estate vineyards include Quail Hill and Susanna’s, another family-owned vineyard located west of Quail Hill Ranch. Together, the vineyards have 15 clones of Pinot Noir, four clones of Chardonnay and a block of Syrah, all selected for their unique expression of the Russian River terroir.
Originally built as owner Don and Diane’s own slice of happiness, it’s now been named in their honor and has officially become part of what makes a visit to Lynmar simply magical.
There’s a warmth and quickness to this home, a breathtaking view and plethora of roses and lemon tree surrounds. This sacred space that was once a loving family home to Don and Diane Bliss is now a place where people come to love and laugh, to be together and to share in the Lynmar Life.
Visiting Lynmar Estate is like unlocking a secret garden door that leads to the heart of the Russian River Valley wine and food culture. Pop into the tasting room for a truly thoughtfully crafted food and wine experience, courtesy of a detail oriented hospitality staff and Chef David, the head chef responsible for all the local, fresh and delectable treats to feast on between sips and swirls. It offers a sort of complete sensory immersion in the estate, eating from the land you are living on. His chef’s garden, right behind the tasting room, overflows with all sorts of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, and the obvious connection between the grapes grown here and the food served is an intimate and primal feeling.
Satiate yourself with wine and a few bites of tomatoes and amaranth from the vine and you can either find your way back to the car or simply find the footpath and stroll along, lost in the vines and natural chaos of the sensational gardens when the Bliss House appears in all of its glory.
WHO TO TASTE WITH
You only have one day. The chauffeur is booked, the sunshine breaks through for a solid 24 hours (we happened to visit during a particularly rainy week) and your palate is thirsty. Who do you taste with? Who is a absolute must and who can be saved for another day?
There are countless fantastic wineries in Napa, St. Helena and Sebastopol, making it nearly impossible to narrow down to just a few, but these three consistently top our charts again and again.
Start the morning with bubbles at Schramsberg, in their ever impressive 125 year old hand picked underground caves. Schramsberg’s founders, Jack and Jamie Davies were determined to seek out a simpler, more meaningful life. In 1965, they discovered a run-down winery on the mountainside above St. Helena. The historic Schramsberg property had been abandoned for years, and they decided Schramsberg would have new life breathed into it.
The Davies set out to produce a world-class sparkling wine…a rather lofty goal, especially in those early primitive days in the valley. Later that year, the 1965 Blanc de Blancs came to be, and would be the first commercial use of Chardonnay in American sparkling wine. Since that year Schramsberg has become one of the most iconic sparkling wines to come out of the valley, rivaling the champagne of France and making an impression at White House State Dinners on a regular basis. Book a private cave tour and enjoy a bubbly breakfast that will defy any drunken brunch you’ve ever attended.
With the light buzz of bubbles in your brain and a full day ahead of you, mosey over to HALL Wines, home to the famous Kathryn Hall Cabernet.
Drop the name Kathryn and Craig Hall anywhere in the valley and your credibility as a wine snob will increase drastically. HALL Wines is a set of spectacular wineries in the heart of Napa Valley with tasting rooms in both St. Helena and in Rutherford. Known for handcrafted small lot cabs under the direction of acclaimed winemaker Steve Leveque, HALL sets the bar for winemaking excellence.
Arrive with an official welcome from (not so little) Bunny Foo-Foo, the iconic large than life roadside sculpture, and arrive at the super contemporary winery—Kathryn’s penchant for fine art is everywhere, a museum built into the facility. With a private tasting in the cellar you can go on a true wine adventure, with your somm leading the way through 100 point wines like the 2010 Exzellenz and 2014 Rainin Cabernet Sauvignon. The decanter will be left dry without a drop by the time your tasting is over.
End the day at Shafer Vineyards, a boutique winery with a special place in our hearts. Always friendly, always welcoming, and always excellent wine. Shafer Vineyards traces its beginnings to 1972 when John Shafer left a 23-year career in the publishing industry and, with his family, moved to the Napa Valley to pursue a second career in wine.
The first Shafer Cabernet became a benchmark, winning the acclaimed San Francisco Vintners Club taste-off upon release and, over a decade later taking first place in an international blind tasting held in Germany, where it outranked such wines as Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour and Chateau Palmer. We toured the vineyards and even picked a few grapes from the hillside vines that have made the Shafer Hillside Select so famous. Wandering the vineyards with a grape in hand, you really get a sense of the terroir and the heart that goes into making wine this good. It’s a way of life. It’s a way to get back to the earth, literally, and create something from nothing.
WHERE TO GRAB LUNCH
There is only one acceptable place to take a break during your decadent wine tasting day.
Mid-day you’re going to want–no, need–some fuel. Those tasting glasses that felt too delicious to spit or pour out will be catching up with you and it will be time to regroup. There is still plenty to see and taste so this is not the time for a leisurely three hour 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 Peanut Butter 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.
HOW TO THROW THE BEST DINNER PARTIES OF YOUR LIFE
Wine country is such a special place, you really want to make the most of every moment there. We’ve done the restaurant scene, and as much as a night on the town can be entertaining, there is something so lovely about hosting a dinner in and just enjoying the rolling vines surrounding you, the true ‘bliss’ that makes up the Bliss House. So we found a few of the very best chefs in the valley, sat back, and enjoyed some truly fantastic dinners in the comfort of our own home sweet home.
We kicked off the first evening, jet lagged, exhausted, and enthralled by the vineyards surrounding us in desperate need for great meal and a nap. Chef Laura Lee and her husband Chef Eric (they’ve been working as a duo ever since they met on the job) came in with everything needed for a perfect welcome dinner, serving a menu created entirely from the freshest ingredient found at the market earlier that day. Earlier we had discussed a few dietary parameters, but we really just let them create a super fresh market menu and let them have free reign.
The husband and wife chef team whipped together a fabulous meal of Dungeness crab spring salad, moroccan spiced king salmon and prawns with hand rolled couscous, saffron broth, olive chimmichurri, flowering broccoli and finished it off with an orange panna cotta and chocolate biscotti with pineapple confit for us.
Needless to say, by the time the last sip of wine was sipped the jet lag had disappeared and the love for Sonoma was cemented.
Moving on to the next evening, Chef Joshua was patiently waiting for us after that very very long day of wonderful wine tasting. There is something so special about walking into your ‘home’, whether it be your true home or a vacation villa, and enjoying a fine dining experience in an extremely comfortable atmosphere.
He focuses on effortless bespoke dining at home, putting together for us a decadent menu of lobster tail ‘escargots’, madras curry crab bricks, sous vide pork tenderloin with a swoon worthy savory bacon jam and a spiced free form layer cake that guaranteed no leftovers. Completely customizable, so no guilt about being a ‘complicated’ diner.
Chef Josh hails from the SF Private Chefs team, a collective of top private chefs in and around the Bay area who all work hand in hand together for a super smooth and seamless experience. All the chefs are vetted with dedicated attention to quality of food, presentation, service–they’ll often bring staff as well, so you get the true fine dining experience while barefoot and relaxed in your own living room.
On our last night in wine country we ended the visit with a bang. This evening had it all–friendship, laughter, great wine, good friends, a fantastic private chef and memories made to last a lifetime. That sort of thing doesn’t come to fruition all on it’s own.
The mastermind behind it all, and the kind hearted chef who created more than a meal but rather an experience for us, was the one and only Chef Willie. He’s still spoken of in reverent tones throughout the office.
This guy is no ordinary, run of the mill chef. He’s an avid cyclist, shooter, outdoorsman, garage rock enthusiast, and absolutely incredible fine-dining private chef. You may not have met him yet, but I can almost guarantee that the moment you do you’ll be as enthralled as we were. A private dining experience is so different than just going out to dinner. From the minute you start talking with Chef Willie he’s figuring out your palate preferences and starting to brainstorm how to make this particular evening memorable.
The moment he walks in the door, fresh bread in one hand and a grin on his face, you realize this is no ordinary dinner. Chef Willie was almost a second host to our party—his passion, humor, love of cooking and absolute attention to detail had us wishing we could get him to stay all week long. It’s not just about the incredible food (although that plays a large role). It’s about the ambiance, the camaraderie, the passion for the vineyards surrounding us.
His Spring menu for us started off with a round of Grissini breadsticks, Cheese plate and Gougères, and Crudités of farmer’s market vegetables. Then we moved onto the best avocado toast of your life, devils on horseback (medjool dates with Chef Willie’s brown sugar bacon), Schiacciata di tioma al tartuffo (flatbread with melted Sonoma toma cheese), a fresh egg pasta agnolotti with english peas, an onglet grill with sauce forestière…the menu went on and on in the most delectable and innovative way.
Finally we were left with just a plate of Chef Willie’s fine cookies, one last bottle of Lynmar’s wonderful and elusive Pinot, and the satisfaction of a rather perfect wine country visit.