Wednesday was a day to celebrate. Why? Because Wednesday was Wendy's birthday, that's why! Well, actually, I don't know If your house is like our house, but this week is actually Wendy's birthday week, and it kicks off a series of weeks that make up Wendy's grand birthday celebration. I mean, with an event so important, it must be celebrated, right? Like Wimbledon or the Olympics, Wendy's birthday typically lasts a fortnight.

So what did we do for Wendy's birthday? We went to Nap Valley! No, seriously, we did.

Actually, this all started several months ago when I asked Wendy what she wanted for her birthday. Half joking but completely serious, she said "I'd really like to go to Napa Valley." At the time, I had no issues with this and I figured it would make a very cool and very fun trip. Unfortunately, my job had other ideas.

The major project I've been working had finally received an end date. However, this end date set a vacation blackout date that happened to land right smack dab in the middle of the time we were planning to board a plane to the west coast. I had to call Wendy to let her know the sad news. She was rather disappointed but knew there was nothing I could do about it. To make matters worse, due to work commitments in both of our jobs, this past week was the only viable window for the trip, so no trip the first week of May would mean no trip until possibly September or beyond.

But wait, Wendy's frown was about to turn upside down. About two weeks ago there was a last minute change in plans on my project and that opened up the previously blacked out vacation dates. I swung into action and began planning Wendy's last minute Napa Valley adventure, as she requested. By the end of the night we had airline tickets purchased, wonderful sitters for Lulu and Mel, and hotel accommodations at our favorite place, the Silverado Resort, all lined up. With everything in order, last Sunday we boarded a plane for San Francisco and headed west to our ultimate destination, California Wine Country.

If you're a frequent reader of our blog, or a follower on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest, you may already know of our love for wine. (In fact, we've written a three part itinerary if you're interested in planning a trip of your own.) Our true enjoyment actually stems from our love of Napa Valley, and we make every attempt possible to go back for at least a short trip every year. Though we are already very familiar with the area and our favorites, there are dozens of places (both vineyards and restaurants) that we've never had the chance to experience. We decided to commit ourselves to trying out some places we've never visited on this trip, and we're quite glad we did. Today we'll share the vineyards we visited on the trip in hopes that it will either help you on your trip planning, or inspire you to consider a vacation to the Napa Valley.

After a short stop in San Francisco to see some friends who recently moved to the area, we jumped in our rental car and headed out over the Golden Gate bridge to make the short trip to the Napa Valley.

Though we've made the drive fairly regularly over the last six years, we both still fall in love with the area each time we see the first vineyards of the trip at the edge of the Carneros region.

Almost as soon as we arrived and checked into our room we headed out for our first dinner at one of our favorite places, Brix

The weather was absolutely perfect so we ended up sitting on their outdoor seating/garden area. The back of the restaurant looks out onto vineyard property and over the mountains. It's one of those places that has such an unbelievably relaxing feeling to it that we started planning out how we could make our own backyard feel like this one. Granted, we don't have the space, mountains, weather, etc, but hey, we can try. We're such home improvement nerds we can't help but to scheme and plan when we see ideas or inspiration, no matter how far fetched the implementation may actually be.

For dinner we enjoyed a perfectly cooked pizza while we planned out the rest of our trip. Traveling somewhere, especially a significant distance over several time zones, tends to leave us completely exhausted (which seems dumb since we're just sitting on a plane). This type of a relaxing dinner in a comfortable and familiar setting goes a long way to making us feel at ease and right at home.

On Monday we woke up bright and early (a three hour time change will do that to you) and headed out to the somewhat touristy but rather famous, Chateau Montelena.

If you're not familiar, Chateau Montelena is the vineyard featured in the movie Bottle Shock. It was one of the vineyards that helped to put the Napa Valley wine industry on the map when they were awarded first place in the 1976 "Judgement of Paris" wine competition. It was a major coup in which several American wines bested their French counterparts in a blind tasting that was judged by several French judges. The 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay is now revered in the lore of California wines, as is the 1973 Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, the winner in the red's category. Here's one of the remaining bottles of the famous 1973 chardonnay on display in the chateau's tasting area and lobby.

Though we arrived too late to get a tour of the vineyard (it's limited to just six people, first come, first served, each Monday), the person who led our tasting give us a behind the scenes tour of the main building's private and entertaining quarters. The building was built in 1882, so this tour was right up our "historic home nerd" alley.

The area is typically only made available to limited corporate events or to friends of the vineyard's owners, so it was cool to get to see the nicely and period decorated spaces. We also got a glimpse at their very nice kitchen area. Again, we try to take inspiration from just about anywhere we can, so a look at this type of a layout may very well end up in our home, even if you can fit three of our kitchens in this one.

One of the things we like to do whenever we are in Napa Valley is to talk with the locals to learn what we should do. It's good to remember that all of the people working at the vineyards are typically well informed and very friendly locals, and they usually all have a passion for wine and food, so it's great to take advantage of their knowledge of the area to further plot your vacation. On this day we struck up a great conversation while tasting the wines at Montelena and learned of several new places that we should try.

From Chateau Montelena we headed over to Schramsberg Vineyards for a sparkling wine tasting. We first learned of Schramsberg from a friend's recommendation, and then were told they have "the best bubbles in the valley," during our conversation at Montelena. 

This is another very historic and well known vineyard in northern part of the Napa Valley towards Calistoga. Founded in 1862, and constructed over several years, the original owner hired the workers who built the transcontinental railroad to dig, with shovel and axes, the extensive network of over two miles of tunnels within the mountain side. The tour covered a large number of the tunnels and was a real treat to see. Though you can't really see it in the photo, the stone walls, candle light, and cobwebs covering the walls felt like you had walked into an Indiana Jones movie. It was really cool.

Yes, those guys are stacking bottles for long term storage and aging.

During the tour we came across Ramon "The Riddler" Vierra. No no, not like in Batman, but this guy is a rock star in the champagne and sparkling wine industry. As part of the traditional methods of champagne production, a person must turn and tilt the bottles in a riddling rack to get the yeast that was added to the bottle to create the bubbles you see in sparkling wine to settle into the neck of the bottle. It's a process that takes time, expertise, and a tremendous amount of organization and patience. 

I say Ramon is a rock star because he's been riddling for 37 years and was responsible for the turning of all bottles of Schramsberg's annual production until he went into partial retirement. He now only works a few days per week, but he's just as fast as ever. Ramon has been officially clocked as the fastest riddler in the world, turing as many as 50,000-60,000 bottles in a single day of work. Here he is in action making precise turns and tilts on each and every bottle in the rack.

When he's at full speed he can turn and adjust every bottle on both sides of a riddling rack in under nine seconds.

We finished up our tour at Schramsberg with a very enjoyable sampling of some of their offerings, including their famous Blanc de Blanc, which was served by president Nixon during the 1972 "Toast to Peace" in Beijing, China to show the world that the United States had a worthy sparkling wine. Since that event, Schramsberg has been on The White House's menu for a state dinner at least once under each and every presidential administration.

Next up we stopped in at another "new to us" vineyard called Ehler's Estate. Located rather close to Schramsberg, this is yet another very historic vineyard building. We were apparently all about history on this day as every vineyard we went to was constructed in the late 1800's.

The very old and cool main building of Ehlers was built in 1886 (the same time as our house), and houses a very relaxing lounge type area where you can taste their wines at either their tasting bar or while sitting on a couch. It's a very nice and enjoyable atmosphere that we never would have discovered if we hand't talked with a local.

The wines we tried at Ehlers were quite good and enjoyable, so mark another win in the "recommended by a local" column.

Along the way on this first day we purchased four bottles of wine. I think we had planned on purchasing six total during the three days we were spending in the area. The thing is, the shipping crates for getting our wine home come in groupings of six, and our decision to buy four on the first day left us little room to buy more on the next two days. As a result, Wendy and I made the executive decision that we'd need to commit to buying 12 bottles of wine, you know, to be sure to fill up the shipping container. After all, it is Wendy's birthday, and if this is what she wanted, this is what she got. :-)

The next day we decided to cover a couple of our favorite vineyards that we've enjoyed in the past. Most of the places we're familiar with are in the Rutherford and Oakville areas. We decided to make our first stop at Sequoia Grove, a vineyard that we absolutely love and felt so completely comfortable at last year, that we noted it easily as one of our favorites. Aptly named, the vineyard is centered on a small grove of rather large sequoia trees.

Beyond the trees, the bottle formats they offer go all the way up to the Goliath (one up from the Nebuchadnezzar, yes these are the real names). That huge bottle in the center behind Wendy holds a whopping 27 liters or the equivalent of 36 standard bottles of wine. Can you say "Generous pour?"

The best part about this tasting is the fact that you can take your glass out into the garden area and just enjoy the surroundings. We actually enjoyed the surroundings for quite some time. Sipping, enjoying, sipping, enjoying, you get the idea.

We also had to keep working at our now 12 bottle commitment. As a result we purchased a few bottles to enjoy at home. I guess we had to take one for the team.

We then continued our no appointment necessary tastings by going over to Grgich Hills nearby. This is another vineyard we "discovered" during our last trip and wanted to pay another visit. 

The vineyards founder, Mike Grgich, is actually the winemaker responsible for the Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay I mentioned earlier. It's interesting just how intertwined all of these stories are in Napa Valley. It seems like everyone knows everyone and it's all this large wine making family. 

If you've never been to a large vineyard for a tasting, the thing that's I find the most interesting is that the majority of the various tasting counters are actually right along side of the wine production and/or storage areas. This means that while you're sipping their latest release, you're often looking at the barrels or vats the future releases are aging in.

Another cool thing about the various places is that each has its own distinct architecture, style, and feeling, and each is heavily set by the person who you're talking and interacting with during your tasting. Essentially, I'm saying that the employees of the vineyard's tasting room make all of the difference in the world as to the enjoyment you'll derive from the event. It's amazing just how much a good or bad personal interaction will impact how you feel about any given vineyard.

As we concluded our tasting at Grgich we started to ask for various recommendations from the guy who was helping us out. We were headed over to Sonoma for dinner, driving up and over the mountains between Napa Valley and Sonoma, so we needed a place that we could hit on the other side. He recommended we make a brief stop at Kunde Family Estate. It was getting to be a bit late in the day, so we'd really only have time for one more stop.

After the long and windy drive over the grade, the Kunde vineyard estate is nearby in the scenic hills of Sonoma county. Sticking with our Bottle Shock theme from earlier, it turns out that nearly all vineyard scenes from the movie were filmed in the hills of Kunde's massive estate. We were too late for one of their mountain top tastings, but I have to imagine the views are simply breathtaking. Even though we didn't get to experience their extensive grounds, their tasting room and patio areas were really quite nice.

The thing that's sort of fun about Napa Valley is that it's perfectly acceptable to begin drinking well before noon. As a result, our third day of wine country exploration started like the first, with an early morning tasting reservation at Nickel & Nickel.

I've been wanting to try this vineyard for some time now as they have what looks to be amazing grounds with a lot of history. They also have an old truck parked out front, and a couple of horses hanging out in the front fenced area, so it's just a very appealing approach to the winery.

Though the tour and tasting is a bit expensive, I think it's one that is worth it. The tour starts with a walk around the vineyard's house and barn property. The main house is an historic Queen Anne Victorian that's been restored quite nicely.

Beyond the home, the property is expansive and includes several new barn buildings for wine making.

As well as a reclaimed 18th century barn from the east coast that was moved and reconstructed on this site.

This barn is used as both the vineyard's wine lab and main offices. The day we were there they were setting up for an event.

The vineyard is farmed in an completely organic manner and the owners of the winery go to great lengths to ensure an extremely clean and green operation. They have acres of solar panels, extensive use of gray water systems, and use environmentally friendly approaches to production of all aspects of their wines (including corks and bottles). 

And they also have a pretty huge "cave" beneath one of the main production buildings.

After the tour we enjoyed a tasting of their wines and a few cheeses. The wine itself was a bit too expensive to bring a bottle home, but it was a fun experience and I'm glad we did it.

After Nickel & Nickel, we stopped by one of our favorite places, and a place that we tend to go back to every year we visit. Peju, in the Rutherford region, is a small production winery that you won't see on your grocery store shelves.

Wendy loves their wine and loves their vineyard scenery, so we always make a point to stop and enjoy it.

We also bought a few bottles at Peju for our shipping commitment. Oh, did I mention, by this point our 12 bottle decision had actually swelled just a little bit. Yes, we surpassed the 12 and then determined that 18 would be more appropriate. Yes, we felt 18 bottles were necessary given that we were buying one as a gift and one on request. Ok, 18 it was.

After Peju we stopped in at another new vineyard called Turnbull. Turnbull had come highly recommended by several locals so we figured it was worth a try and we actually enjoyed it quite a bit.

If you've never been to wine country or participated in several tastings back to back to back, let me tell you, you'll tire of it before long. By the third day Wendy and I are solidly in the, "Can we split this tasting?" mode. We'll belly up and just share each small glass. There's no shame in it, especially when you are driving from place to place. I'm typically the driver, so I'll swirl, sniff, swirl, sniff, and then take just a small taste. Wendy will do the honors and finish off the rest of the pour. We're a good team this way, and it works out quite nicely.

After our stop at Turnbull, we headed over to two of our favorite vineyards to round out our purchases. We stopped at Cakebread Cellars and also back at Sequoia Grove and filled out the remainder of our open spots in our shipping container. So our goal was to buy 6... no wait 12... no wait 18 bottles of wine to ship home. We went back to our hotel and assessed out purchases so that we could ship them home. Here's our loot.

Did you count it? Yep, that's 19 bottles. Nope, not 18, definitely 19. I have no idea how we made this critical calculation mistake. Luckily, one of the bottles was a smaller bottle of port, so we decided to risk it and pack that in our suitcase. When we got home last night and opened our luggage, I was quite happy to see that the bottle was intact and not leaking. Nothing spoils a trip more than wine all over your clothes.

In all we had an absolutely wonderful time. It made for a birthday celebration to remember, and will leave quite a lasting impression for future birthdays to live up to. If you're looking for a wonderful and relaxing place to spend a birthday, or even just for a nice vacation just because, Napa Valley comes highly recommended from the two of us. Though we're not locals to the area, I hope our suggestions can come in handy for you at some point.

Have you ever been to Napa Valley? Anything you particularly enjoyed that we should include on our next trip? If you've never been, do you have any desire to go? I'm always interested to see the opinion of other people. Back before I went the first time, I didn't see the attraction, but now that we've gone quite a bit, I'm completely sold!

Comments 10


Bill O
5/4/2012 at 4:01 PM
The next time you go, there is one place that you MUST try. It's called Hartwell Vineyards.

is directly across the street from Stag's Leap, and they make the best wine I've ever had. They are super small, and pretty much not available on the East Coast, but they get unbelievable reviews, and give a hell of a private tour.

I can't give a strong enough vote for Hartwell.
Thanks so much for the recommendation! We'll definitely have to check it out next time we're in Napa.
5/4/2012 at 5:28 PM
Hooray for awesome last minute vacations working out!

I'd love to hit up Chateaux Montelena someday but everytime we go to wine country we find ourselves in the Russian River Valley or Alexander Valley. I'm a total Napa novice.

Confession: I also feel weird leaving and not buying anything, even when we paid to taste. It's horrible on my wallet.
We've never been to the Russian River or Alexander Valleys, but it's something we'd like to try.

We know just what you mean about feeling like we should purchase "at least a bottle." Hence the 19 we're coming back with this trip. Oops. :-)
5/4/2012 at 7:32 PM
Thanks for the great trip report, but did something happen to Mel? You mentioned a sitter for Lulu but not for your other "child"!
Good gracious, no. Mel is happy, healthy, and as cranky as ever. :-) We should have worded this more carefully to indicate that Lulu stays with a sitter, while Mel gets to hold down the fort at home. (With scheduled care and supervision of course.)
5/4/2012 at 8:13 PM
Happy Birthday Wendy! Glad to see that things worked out and you got to enjoy a nice trip.
Thanks JC! It was a wonderful few days, but it's good to be home.
Karin K
5/7/2012 at 1:27 PM
What a great trip and report! Happy Birthday Fornight! I'm all for the extended celebration. We only have so many......
You are absolutely right, Karin! So why not live life to the fullest?! :-)
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