Napa Valley itinerary for wine-lovers (Part 1)

In this post, I’d like to share some of my favorite Napa Valley wineries to visit. I’m aiming at experienced wine-lovers, i.e. people who are well-versed in varieties, wine styles, and regional differences. In other words, people who have drunk a fair amount of wine in their lives :). If you are not sure what wine styles you like and have never been to Napa Valley before, check out my “Napa Valley itinerary for first-time visitors”

King and Queen of Napa Valley

This is Part 1, which highlights the King and the Queen of Napa Valley grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. In 2018, almost half of the Valley’s vineyard area was planted to Cabernet – 48%, to be exact, according to USDA. Chardonnay was a distant second with 15% of all plantings, yet more popular than any other red. 

My focus with this itinerary is on excellent wines rather than extravagant or glitzy experiences. I personally like smaller family-owned wineries, and unsurprisingly, they dominate my list. 

Because the wineries I am talking about are smaller, organizing visits will require a bit of preparation – making advance reservations, etc. You can visit all three wineries in one day, as they’re quite close to each other. 

Spottswoode

Start the day on a high note with a brisk walk through the Spottswoode estate. Spottswoode’s vineyard walk is one of the most comprehensive I have done so far in Napa Valley.

Like many other wineries, Spottswoode emphasizes that most of their wine-making is done in the vineyard. To Spottswoode’s credit, they were early adopters of organic farming and got formal certification as early as 1992. Furthermore, several of their winemakers, including the current one, have had the dual role of a winemaker and vineyard manager. 

Entrance to the Victorian manor house at Spottswoode. Some of the exotic trees were planted back in  1880s
Entrance to the Victorian manor house at Spottswoode

I recommend visiting Spottswoode for several reasons. One is their wines – multi-dimensional, refined, and age-worthy.  

Second, Spottswoode looks and feels like a time-honored Old World winery. Their gorgeous estate dates back to 1882. More importantly, the same family has owned the estate since 1972, successfully transitioning from the first to the second generation. Hopefully, the transition to the third generation of the Novak family will be as successful.  

Third, the Novaks are excellent story-tellers. I thought about it listening to our tour host and later when reading comprehensive winery booklets and the detailed web-site.  

There’s a fourth reason, too: I personally like that many women have worked for Spottswoode and made it successful. Mary Novak, the matriarch, purchased the property with husband Jack in 1972 and competently managed it for decades after Jack’s sudden death. Two daughters, Beth and Lindy, have carried the business forward, working alongside several women winemakers over the years. 

Spottswoode’s tours ($75) are just once a day on weekdays, so please reserve ahead. The tour will take you through the vineyards to the historic manor house, stone cellar and modern winery. The tasting includes three wines – Sauvignon Blanc and two Cabernets.

Corison

A further exploration of elegant Napa Valley Cabernets requires a visit to Corison Winery.

Corison is a winemaker’s winery. Cathy Corison, a respected industry veteran, started her label in 1987 and purchased first vineyard eight years later. Tastings are in the spacious barrel room of the Victorian-style winery barn designed by Cathy’s husband. Depending on the time of the year, there might be some activity going on – either grape sorting, or bottling. Chances are you will see Cathy herself (who looks more like a librarian than a typical winemaker), energetically walking around.

Corison's Victorian-style winery barn designed by Cathy Corison’s husband, as seen from the old-vine Kronos vineyard
Corison winery building seen from the 50-year-old Kronos vineyard

Tasting at Corison is particularly interesting because Cathy has been its only winemaker for over thirty years. This means there will be a great consistency of style. In addition, fruit for three Corison Cabernets comes from the vineyards between Rutherford and St. Helena, so there will be a consistency of place. What you will be tasting is the distinctiveness of each vintage – a fascinating exercise, don’t you think? 

Cathy Corison makes wines with solid structure, lower alcohol and higher acidity, which only get better with age. Her Cabernets are unmistakably Napa Valley – they have concentration and might, but they also show a gentle and precise handling.

If you can afford it, go for the Collector’s vertical tasting ($150) – a rare opportunity to taste the development of Napa Cabernets over 30 years or so. (This particular tasting is only available at 10 am on weekdays, same time as the Spottswoode tour). But even the regular Library tasting ($55 for a flight of five wines) will include at least one older vintage of Cabernet. 

Stony Hill Vineyard

Conclude the day with an elevated experience at Stony Hill Vineyard – quite literally. Located on Spring Mountain, the estate has fantastic views of the Valley and the eastern hills. 

But it’s not just the views you should come for at Stony Hill. This is a wonderfully charming, old-school estate producing some of Napa Valley’s best Chardonnays. 

Stony Hill is the kind of estate I wish we had more of in Napa Valley: humble, focused on quality, and consistent. The McCrea family arrived on Spring Mountain in 1943, planted their beloved Chardonnay on steep volcanic slopes, and has made restrained, food-friendly whites since the 1950s, regardless of trends and fashions. 

Fred and Eleanor McCrea were true Chardonnay pioneers. The earliest vineyard data I’ve found is from 1959, i.e. more than 10 years after the McCreas planted their first vines. That year, there were only 70 acres of Chardonnay planted in the whole of Napa Valley, well behind Green Hungarian with 128 acres (ever heard about this grape?) or Colombard with 318 acres. 

Stony Hill's historic cellar in Napa Valley. They still use very old barrels that are almost 30 years old for fermentation and aging (pictured)
Stony Hill ages its wines in very old barrels in a tiny historic cellar

In the long history of Stony Hill, there have only been two winemakers: Fred McCrea and his assistant Mike Chelini, who took over in 1977 after Fred’s passing. Both have made higher-acidity wines that age well. They have fermented and aged Chardonnay in neutral oak barrels (neutral in Stony Hill’s world is 7 to 29 years!) and inhibited  malolactic fermentation to preserve the wine’s freshness and nerve. 

I keep talking about Chardonnay because it is Stony Hill’s signature wine. In actual fact, the winery also makes Riesling and Gewurtztraminer, as well as very good Cabernet Sauvignons. 

As a small family-owned operation in an expensive region, Stony Hill has faced challenges typical for wineries of its size. Distributor consolidation in the wholesale market has made life difficult for small producers. Infrastructure improvements are very costly, especially considering that Stony Hill has tried to keep reasonable prices. Older vineyards, while usually resulting in better, more concentrated wines, mean smaller yields. In 2018, Stony Hill sold a majority interest to a bigger Napa Valley winery, Long Meadow Ranch (LMR). The good news is that in return, the McCrea family got an interest in the LMR company, so they will stay involved. Another good news is that LMR is also a family-owned winery, although significantly larger. 

In any case, you will be able to taste taste Mike Chelini’s wines made in the humble Stony Hill cellar for several more years. Don’t wait too long to book your visit, though. Old-timers are a vanishing breed in Napa Valley. At $45, the tour and tasting at Stony Hill is a bargain compared to other Napa Valley icons.

Feeling ambitious?

I hope you’ll enjoy visiting the three wineries and tasting their terroir-driven, balanced, age-worthy wines from Napa Valley’s two signature grapes. 

If you are feeling ambitious, here’s a fourth destination for you to explore a different – bubbly – expression of Napa Valley Chardonnay. Go to Mumm and taste their vintage DVX range, available by the glass (no appointment needed). DVX is named after Mumm’s founder and winemaker Guy Devaux, and is 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay. Mumm is usually the first winery in Napa Valley to start harvesting their whites, sometimes as early as July. For DVX, they use grapes from few selected parcels.