THINKING about visiting Napa Valley wine country in California this summer and looking for advice? Then look no further!
As a Napa resident, people always ask me what’s the best time to come to visit? Well, for the drinking part, we have good wines all year around, so you don’t have to worry about that.
For those more used to just seeing the end-product it’s fascinating to see the fruit growing and the wine-making processes.
Actually seeing the vines heavy with bunches of grapes; watching the grapes being poured into tanks; getting up close to an oak barrel and feeling the fine grain of the wood; and taking in the aroma of fermentation.
In their own ways, all of these are as intriguing as tasting a new wine. Curiosity is human nature, and satisfying that builds a better understanding and deeper connection between you and the wine.
Summer is the most popular time to visit Napa. Baby grapes start to show up at the end of May and in July you’ll witness the veraison — the onset of ripening for those not in the know — with the change of skin color, especially for red grapes.
Veraison is crucial, obviously for taste but also for color as the pigment on the skin determines the color of red wine.
Harvesting usually starts toward the end of August, through to October. During that time, the valley is filled with the aroma of fermentation. In fact you’ll have the heady scent of wine in your nostrils as you drive along Highway 29, which runs through the valley floor.
Having said that, spring is actually my personal favorite time of year here. All kinds of flowers are in bloom, the weather is not as dry as in summer, and as a result, the mountains and meadows are green and verdant, instead of yellow and brown tones that dominate when there’s less rain during the grape growing season.
Tempted? Here are a few things to take into consideration when planning a trip to Napa.
• Book anything in advance. Most wineries in Napa offer private tastings, tours and vineyard lunches or dinners. Hospitality teams are aiming to provide world-class services and a luxury experience, and to achieve this, a great amount of time and effort needs to be put into preparation.
They’re happy to try to accommodate special requests — as long as you give them enough time in advance. Especially for vineyard lunches and dinners, check at least two weeks ahead for availability. Having said that, most wineries along Highway 29 also offer walk-in tastings.
• Be an early bird. Some of the most breathtaking moments I’ve experienced here have been in early morning. One thing that makes Napa special is its Mediterranean climate, in which the Pacific Ocean fog plays an important role.
It rolls into the valley from San Francisco Bay early every morning and cools the temperature, which helps retain the acidity in the grapes. Sometimes the fog drifts back to the ocean quickly, but at other times it lingers a little longer.
When the fog’s a little tardy in rolling back, you can be lucky enough to witness some of the most transcendent views of the valley.
Thin mist along the meadows, hills and vineyards create a serene landscape of beautiful strangeness. So grab an early coffee in Ritual or Bouchon Bakery and get on the road. Trust me, you won’t regret it!
• Taking a hot air balloon trip is one of the most ahem, transcendent activities on offer in Napa — and one of the best ways to observe the early morning views. Again, book early and fingers crossed as rain and winds can see trips canceled.
When it comes to tasting, people who are not familiar with wines can easily be intimidated by all the foreign names of the grapes, especially in the US, where wines are labeled by the grape varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc.
If you are new to wine, remembering these five varietals is enough when you visit Napa Valley. These are the grapes that dominate planting here in the valley — especially Cabernet Sauvignon.
Here are a few tips for beginners in the wine country.
• Smaller wineries often provide fixed tasting menus, where they pour you everything on the menu for the season. In some bigger wineries the decision is your own. If you’re really unsure of what to try, then ask — there are no dumb questions here, it’s life-long learning for all of us when it comes to wine. But try to ask efficiently. One of the most common and, sorry folks, unhelpful questions in a winery is “What’s your recommendation?” Often times, that question will be thrown back as: “What’s your preferences? Red, white, sweet, dry … ?” We certainly recommend every single one of our wines. But wine drinking is very personal and random recommendations from our preferences or explaining the characteristics of every single wine won’t make the decision easier (in fact, probably more complex). Better to ask: What wines are you known for? Or, what grape is most-grown here?
Please don’t feel embarrassed or intimidated If you absolutely know nothing about wine, you’ve come to the right place to experience and hopefully start a life with good wine. The only thing that might disappoint winery staff is if you show absolutely no interest in wine and zero desire to learn anything. We all take pride in the fine wines we are making here.
• The term “dry” is tricky. I noticed that some of our guests interpret this term differently. Technically, in the wine world “dry” means “not sweet”. The level of dryness ranges from bone dry to dry, off dry, semi-sweet and to sweet dessert wine. So when you ask for a wine that’s not too dry, we interpret it as a semi-sweet or sweet dessert wine.
But to confuse things, dry is also used commonly by consumers to describe the “drying sensation” from the textual element — tannin on the skins and seeds. So remember when you ask for a “not too dry” wine, you might end up with a dessert wine when in fact all you wanted was a wine with softer, smoother texture!
• Last but not least — The Art of Spitting. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen people coming to the winery with friends and family but missing out the fun part of tasting because they’re the designated driver. I try to explain that it’s OK to spit wine here, but many people seem to be embarrassed by this prospect and see it as a waste of good wine.
Let me give you some inside knowledge. If you want to look “professional” in Napa, spit the wine out! Nobody will accuse you of bad manners and it will give you the opportunity to taste more wines in different wineries, instead of getting taste fatigue after just a couple of wineries.
Besides, nobody can accurately taste and describe a wine after swallowing five glasses, even wine legends Jancis Robinson or Robert Parker. I never consider spitting as a waste of wine, because your eyes, nose, palate the brain have experienced and remembered the wine. Your throat and stomach don’t taste!
On the other hand, if drinking wine is about getting the influence of alcohol, then any alcoholic drink can do the job. Neither does it have to happen in Napa. Getting drunk is probably more fun in Vegas. So it’s a good habit to ask for a spitting cup. Confident and (believe it or not) graceful spitting does require a little practice though.
So raise a glass and sample the heady delights of Napa!