I feel the need to preface this by saying that we are not wine experts. We are not able to identify a wine’s region and vintage simply by swirling and sniffing it. We have not yet mastered the ability to pick up notes of boysenberry and eucalyptus with aromas of crushed rock and leather that finishes with urban snowflake. We usually use less sophisticated descriptions like: big, jammy, buttery or oaky. For pinots, you’ll often hear me say “oh, that’s very Pinot-y” and only my husband understands what that means. All of that being said, we love wine. A lot. We also love Napa Valley. A lot.
Over the past eleven years we have visited Napa Valley at least once, if not two or three times, every year. It is an area that we have truly fallen in love with. The wines are the primary draw for us, but we also love the food, the landscape and the pace of life. Having visited during every season, we have also realized that we love Napa in the winter. Being from Southern California, where it can be 70 degrees in January, we find that we can experience a manageable winter in Napa.
The Danish have a beautiful concept called hygge (hooga). Loosely translated, it means “coziness”. It is the lack of everyday annoyances and the beauty of lingering over simple things that bring us pleasure. Napa Valley winters are my Hygge. It’s chilly, but you’re never far from a nice warm fireplace, hot delicious food and a big, bold glass of a Napa Valley red. I love the morning fog that blankets the hilltops, the chill in the air, the bare vines and the bright green valley floor. And what I really love: it is an area that is very dog friendly.
The more we visit Napa, the more we seek out unique wineries and tastings. Our last visit was full of these experiences and that is what we are sharing here: Off the beaten path wineries and tasting experiences. These are tastings at boutique, small production wineries. I’ll tell you a bit about the winery, what we tasted, the price per tasting and a few other details. Because we travelled with our dog, Lincoln, I have also included a paw print to denote which tasting rooms are dog friendly.
So, in no particular order, here are our top, off the beaten path favorites from our most recent trip to Napa Valley:
A few weeks before our trip to Napa, we attended a dinner party with some friends and one of them brought a delicious Pinot Noir from Failla. We enjoyed it so much, we set up an appointment to taste there.
Failla has three different tastings you can choose from: The Lodge Tasting, Cave Tasting or Spotlight Tour. We reserved the Lodge Tasting where we sat down with six other visitors and our Failla host. Failla is known for their Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs (two of my favorites!). We started with a Chardonnay and followed that with three Pinots. All of them were lovely. After “revisiting” the Chardonnay, our host offered a pour of one of their reserve Chardonnays, which ended up being one of the best Chardonnays I have ever had. Overall, this was a comfortable tasting, with a knowledgeable host and some really great wines.
Location: St. Helena
Tasting: Group tasting by appointment
Fee: $20 – $50
Duration: 45 – 75 minutes
2013 Haynes Vineyard Chardonnay
2013 Peay Vineyard Pinot Noir
Tasting at Merus is a true “off the beaten path” experience that is reserved for their wine club members or “serious enthusiasts” who have been referred. That being said, just give them a call; I’m sure they’d love to have you. The winery has taken over the old Rossini Ghost Winery that was originally founded in 1891 and abandoned during prohibition.
The wine itself has developed quite a cult following. The tasting begins with your host greeting you, with a chardonnay in hand, on a bridge over a flowing stream. From there, it moves into their wine cave and ends in a gorgeous, renovated tasting room above the original barn with a tasting of four different Cabernet vintages that includes their other label: Altvs. All were fantastic. The irony in this “off the beaten path” experience is that Merus is part of the expansive Foley Wines portfolio (think Firestone and Chalk Hill). Both the experience and the wines are top notch here and we highly recommend it.
Location: St Helena
Tasting: Private by appointment
Duration: Allow at least 1 hour
What we took home:
2011 Altvs Cabernet Sauvignon
Oh, how we love James Cole. We discovered James Cole in 2008, when another tasting room recommended them and their Malbec, which at the time, was the only Malbec in the valley. Not only did we love their wines (especially the Malbec) but we loved the laid back, rock and roll vibe of their tasting room. We joined their wine club and, because they offer some variety in their wines, it is the only wine club that we have stayed with for an extended period of time.
Located right off of the Silverado trail, it’s not technically off the beaten path. However, it is a very small production, family owned winery.
There are certainly some Napa Valley tasting rooms that feel a bit “snooty” when you walk in, but you won’t get that feeling here. The tasting room is small and cozy, and your hosts are warm and welcoming.
Behind the tasting counter is the barrel room. The barrel room has, you guessed it, barrels. But, you’ll also find a Rolling Stones pinball machine in the corner, a couple of vintage Harley’s parked in front of some barrels and a 59 Corvette that sits perfectly lit, under a skylight, as if it’s vying to be the star of the show. It’s not your average tasting room.
Their wines are always fantastic. We had a Chardonnay, a red blend, a Petit Verdot and a Cabernet Sauvignon. We didn’t get to stay long, which is a bummer because I always enjoy lingering around there (especially when their Christmas decorations are up). But, I know we’ll be back soon.
James Cole is a longtime favorite of ours that we always recommend to folks visiting Napa.
Tasting: By appointment
Fee: $30 for signature tasting $50 for private tasting
Duration: 45 minutes to 1 hour
What we took home:
2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (one of my favorites)
This was our second visit to T-Vine. The first time we did a standard tasting at the counter and this time we did their “Food and Wine Experience”. We were fortunate enough to enjoy the small bites experience, but they have recently changed the food portion of this to a nice cheese and charcuterie tasting. What we had was fantastic, but I have a feeling this is a great experience, too.
We enjoyed six small bites, each paired with a T-Vine red. Tasting this way was a great opportunity to see how much food really changes and, if paired correctly, really compliments a good wine.
We were just as impressed with the wines this time as we were the first time we came in. The tasting room is simple and comfortable. Aside from the wines, one of my favorite things about visiting T-Vine is the focus they put on their growers. You’ll get a little background on the grower of the wine you’re tasting as well as where it’s grown. If you look on the wall behind the dining table, you’ll see some really fantastic photos of the growers that gives you even more of a sense of where your wine came from and the personality behind it. If you want to do your homework before you visit, you can find some of these photos and stories on T-Vine’s website.
Tasting: Reservations required for parties of seven or more and for “The Food and Wine Experience”
Fee: $30 for standard tasting $45 for “Food and Wine Experience’.
Duration: 45 minutes for standard tasting. 1 hour 15 minutes for food and wine pairing.
What we took home:
2011 Cabernet Sauvignon from Doc Gold’s Vineyard
Tank Garage Winery
Right down the road from T-Vine, set in a renovated gas station and mechanic shop, Tank Garage Winery shakes things up with their tasting room and their wines. The façade stays true to its 1930’s roots, complete with two antique gas pumps in the front. There is a garage door in the front of the building that is opened up on nicer days. The tasting room itself is accented with a pinball machine, an old Indian motorcycle and guitars made from gasoline cans (available for purchase). The 1930’s era weaves its way through the building, all the way to the back room, where you can find a velvety speakeasy that is mostly reserved for private parties. The first time we visited, we had the tasting room to ourselves. When we visited this time, it was hoppin. The building is a visual treat that could keep you occupied for a good while itself. So, grab your first tasting and start exploring.
Start in their unique shop where the standard coasters and candles are replaced with harmonicas and fun T-shirts.
Tank’s wine bottles come wrapped in some unique and interesting labels, designed by Lindsay Biggar, that draw you right in and make you even more curious about what’s inside.
The winemaking mantra shakes things up, too. Almost every wine they produce is a varietal and they are blended for flavor, not for rules. They don’t make the same wine twice and they don’t distribute outside of their wine club. So, when it’s gone, it’s gone.
We joined their wine club on our first visit and have learned a trick with these wines; you have to let them breath. At least for the reds. We will open one up the night before we want to drink it, set it aside, and it is perfect the next evening.
We enjoyed a tasting and the two stand outs were the Unspoken, a sparkling white, and the Into Battle red.
Tank is a must for the wines, the aesthetics and the fun!
Tasting: Reservation required for parties of seven or more.
Duration: 45 minutes to an hour. Give yourself a few minutes to walk around and explore the space with your yummy wine in hand.
What we took home:
Super cool Cali tee from their shop
Ever wondered what it would be like to enjoy some delicious wine in the middle of a Resotration Hardware or Pottery Barn set? Me neither, but that’s exactly what you get at Phifer Pavitt.
The tasting room is on the second floor of an old barn. When you enter, you are walking into a beautiful, light filled area with a rustic – chic (yes, it’s a thing) motif. Much of the material used in decorating the tasting room is repurposed material and it is so interesting and creative. We sat on a burlap covered bale of hay and cozied up to a beautiful wooden table, where we enjoyed our tasting paired with some cheeses.
Phifer Pavitt only makes two wines: Date Night Sauvignon Blanc and Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon. Why are they called “Date Night”? Find out why and how their wines and winery came about here: http://www.phiferpavittwine.com/Our-Story
Lucky for us (and you), Phifer Pavitt shares a tasting room with Switchback Ridge, so we were also able to taste some of their wines.
Our host, Luke, was fantastic. He was very hospitable and knowledgeable. This is a private tasting and, other than the couple who was wrapping up their tasting as we began ours, we had the place to ourselves. Rumor has it that, if you book far enough ahead, you can enjoy your tasting with owner, Suzanne Phifer Pavitt.
Tasting: Private, by appointment only
Fee: $50 per person
Duration: 1 hour
What we took home:
2011 Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon
2012 Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon
2012 Switchback Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon
A few things to add about wine tasting in Napa Valley: often times, your tasting fee is waived if you purchase a couple of bottles, so that is something to inquire about when you’re there.
This is a pretty solid list and, if you want to try them all, you’ll need a few days to do so. I also recommend sharing tastings on days where you’ll be visiting several wineries.
These wineries, and their wines, are meant to be enjoyed over a little bit of time as opposed to being crammed in like some of the larger, busier wineries. That being said, visiting these spots will give you a unique and diverse wine tasting experience in Napa Valley. Enjoy!
We’ll continue to provide updates each time we are lucky enough to visit Napa.
I am happy to answer any questions, so feel free to leave them in the comments or send me a message.