Before my first visit to Napa Valley in 2014, the extent of my wine sleuthing was at Vino Volo in the airport and Total Wine. And, not gonna lie, I still love them, but they could not have prepared me for the beauty of the Napa Valley, the intimacy of meeting the winemakers, and, of course, the amazing wine wherever we went.

Our trip, affectionately dubbed the Napacalypse, consisted of two types of winery tours—public and by recommendation only. On day one we had made arrangements to visit my husband’s favorite vineyard and left it up to chance and our concierge Google where else we would go. The second day I was gifted with the holy grail of insider wine tours. Through friends who joined us, we had a well-connected contact who had visited  Napa for business and pleasure countless times over the years and we were given the name of his driver for transportation and the behind-the-barrel tours. Some of the tours were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for me to see what goes on outside the tasting rooms—so sorry, I don’t have the connections to get you inside, but I’d love to share what I saw and tasted!

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Cliff Lede

The evening before our tasting was spent at the Poetry Inn, which sets on the hillside overlooking the Cliff Lede vineyards. Yes, it is spectacular and the private outdoor shower attached to our suite was amazing. Preceding the tasting, we toured the vineyards, facilities, and the winsome collection of record cover art on the property.  Our tasting was accompanied by small bites and it was a lot of fun having the wine and talking with our tour mates. My husband loves all things Cliff Lede and eagerly signed us up for the Rock Block collection club and truthfully, every club the vineyard offered. The bottles out of the Rock Block hold a place as some of my favorite Cliff Lede wines, and Cinnamon Rhapsody is one of my all-time favorites wines out of Napa. I must confess, however, I’m not a huge fan of their flagship wine Poetry. Part of the reason might be my husband had a vintage bottle of Poetry at a business dinner and for the few years before I tried it, waxed poetical (lol) about the magnificence of the wine.  I’ve just been underwhelmed every time we’ve had it. For a weeknight wine or second bottle, I love their Claret because it’s a nice bottle for the price and its taste isn’t pushy.

Darioush

We absolutely loved the Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon before we visited, and were excited to stumble across the vineyard by accident. Lucky for us, it was a weekday and we were able to enjoy a Portfolio tasting as walk-ins. Ordering the cab was a no-brainer, but these die-hard red drinkers were surprised to find we really liked the Darioush Chardonnay and added that to our order. While we didn’t have it at our tasting, the Caravan Cabernet Sauvignon is a peach of cab for under 50 bucks.

Opus one

I know saying you love Opus One makes some wine elitists think you like it for the cachet of being one of the most expensive wines in Napa, but it really is good stuff. As wine tasting newbies on our own, we first went to the huge Robert Mondavi tasting room with all the tourist buses. The hostess was unfamiliar (!) with Opus One, but our concierge Google saved the day again and we located the Opus One location. For $40 we got a glass and a warning to hold on to our wine glass as we went to the wind-swept tasting room at the top of the promontory. The wine was awesome, even if standing around clutching our glasses in what felt like a wind tunnel may not have been the most relaxing way to enjoy a fine wine.  Their nonvintage Overture delivers a great experience for a more price-conscious $100.

This is the day where you need to know a guy….

Caldwell

The incomparable John F. Caldwell hosted our tasting and what a way to be introduced to California wine country. A raconteur of old, he is charmingly rakish, and hot damn, can he make wine. Bold and dynamic Cabernets and a rose´ that tastes like a quintessential summer day that is so perfect, there might never have a been a summer day perfect enough to be compared to his rose´. That’s the line I use when I’m trying to convince my husband we need more of Caldwell’s $70 rose´. If you are looking for more affordable introduction to his heady reds, Rocket Science delivers a wallop for the price., but his Signature Platinum and Gold Cabs should be tasted at least once. We signed up for the wine membership, and after a short time on the waitlist, we able to join the Society of Smugglers.

Constant

Our visit started with a ride in a WWII-era army vehicle to see the lower part of the vineyard. The bumpy ride would have been tons of fun except I took the admonishment to stay well-hydrated during our day of wine tasting to heart and spent the ride ready to pee my pants. After a bathroom break, I enjoyed the spectacular scenery and what a hoot it was to off-road up the mountain to arrive at the tasting room overlooking Diamond Mountain. Picking a favorite Napa wine can feel like picking a favorite child, but Constant’s wine may be my secret chosen one—but don’t tell!

Vintner’s Collective

Our last stop of the day was a wine bar in the town of Napa, and we found even  more great wine from vineyards that generally do not have dedicated tasting rooms or are not open to the public. After sampling an array wines of varying styles and hearing our opinions, our host Chris then pulled bottles he thought would be the perfect match to our taste preferences. To Chris’ credit and the detriment of our bank account, he was spot on figuring out what we liked. We walked out with a new-found love for Pinot Noir thanks to the offering from Ancien and another blockbuster Cab. this time from Roy’s Estate (one of my Top 5 Cabs of All Time).

After this day of behind-the-barrel tours and tasting some of the best of Napa Valley–and tasting and tasting some more–our palates were so overwhelmed that we went with tapas and beer for dinner. Before we flew home the next day, plans were already in the works for Napacalypse II. Until next week, cheers!

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