The recent fires in Sonoma and Napa took a major toll on people and property. At first, I wasn’t certain whether visiting was the right thing to do. Is it even appropriate to show up while the region is still recovering? Would wineries be open?
But after some discussions with friends connected to the wine and hospitality industry, I went from wavering to realizing I had to go. This is normally a busy time in Napa and Sonoma, and right now they really need our support.
“The people who live here are tough and many stayed to protect their property,” said Chelsea Miller, a Sonoma County interior designer. “Seeing that so many Napa Valley wineries were unaffected was uplifting and a great reminder of why people should come visit.”
Whether you take a trip to a favorite winery for a couple of hours or spend the whole day, each visit helps wine country get back on track, faster. Being a travel writer, I’m lucky to take part in all sorts of fun and memorable experiences, especially when I can bring the people closest to me. This latest jaunt was one of my favorites because it was planned to a tee with my wine-loving friends.
When you have a wine country checklist, (#winegoals), booking transportation is key. There are many great tour companies to choose from, and this time we were whisked away by Beau Wine Tours, one of the most popular in wine country. At 9:15 am sharp on a Saturday (yes, early, but worth it), we were picked up at my house in their spacious Mercedes Sprinter Van, greeted with JCB bubbles and Sal, our awesome driver, who kept us on schedule for a customized tour through Napa Valley that exceeded expectations. First stop, the charming Robinson Family Vineyards located in the Stag’s Leap District.
Robinson Family Vineyard
Robinson is known for its Bordeaux varietals – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, Malbec, etc. – with a zinfandel thrown in for spice. Robinson survived the fires unscathed, but it was touch-and-go for a bit.
“We were very fortunate that my husband, Tom, and my son-in-laws were able to physically fight off the advancing fire with water and shovels and were able to save our winery and residence,” said Susan Robinson Jinks, whose parents started the winery in 1967.
The Robinson property is welcoming, with big oaks, a log cabin and the occasional wandering Lab. During our tasting, it felt like home. We were greeted with smiles, warmth and wine tasting paired with yummy dark and white chocolates mixed in with rolos, a milk chocolate childhood favorite. “My mother loved rolos and everytime she would help with a tasting or entertain guests she would bring them out to pair with her Merlot,” said Robinson.
Tours are led by Robinson family members only, which makes the visit even more special. Visitors start out in the tasting room, head to the wine cellar to tour a very old collection of wines and end the tour with a visit to their barrel room, crush pad and vineyard.
“We offer many unique wine tasting experiences, but our most popular wine tours introduce guests to small family-owned and off the beaten path wineries,” said Todd Seidman, Business Development Manager of Beau Wine Tours. “A small boutique winery nestled in the hillside among acres of vineyards overlooking the Napa Valley really elevates the experience and creates lasting memories.” And because many visits are by appointment only, you often get the benefit of a longer tasting experience and the pleasure of interacting with the winemakers and winegrowers if they are available.
Our next stop was Davies Vineyards, sister winery to sparkling wine house Schramsberg, and located on the southern end of Saint Helena. The vineyard sources for their cabernet and pinot noir grapes come from various vineyard sites from Napa-Carneros to Anderson Valley – it’s like a complete wine country tour in a glass.
“Over our 50-plus years of working within the wine industry, we have nurtured long-lasting relationships with some of the best grape growers within these counties, providing us with access to specific vineyards that produce delicious grapes for our wine production,” said vintner Hugh Davies.
The boutique winery produces still wines, while Schramsberg only produces sparkling, and is particularly proud of their estate cabernet sauvignons. They were also fortunate to weather the fires.
“Many people ask how they can help our community recover from the devastation that the wildfires created,” said Davies. “The best way one can assist us and the community…is by making plans to visit us and enjoying wines from California’s North Coast as you normally would.”
The winery has their annual Holiday Shopping Day coming up on November 11. Guests will savor Schramsberg sparklers and Davies reds, while enjoying bites of food from local St. Helena restaurants. 20 percent of all wine purchases will support the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund.
Madrigal Family Winery
Since the late 1930’s, three generations of the Madrigal family have farmed Napa Valley vineyards. The family history is a constant source of inspiration and guides their winemaking. “We value the long relationship we’ve had with the land and the people here, believing that the combined wisdom of the folks who’ve been here for generations and a deep appreciation of these vineyards can be tasted in our wine,” said owner Chris Madrigal.
The Madrigal winery produces about 6,000 cases a year, specializing in cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, garnacha, tempranillo, zinfandel, sauvignon blanc and small lots of single vineyard and estate wines.
“It was so relaxing to sit on the patio during a warm fall day overlooking their gorgeous vineyard while tasting Madrigal’s delicious wine for the first time,” said Arryn Rae, a local jewelry designer. “I’ll never forget the hospitality they showed us.”
Though the fires did not damage the winery, many family and friends lost everything, and there was a lot of scrambling to help the community and preserve the wine.
“When the town of Calistoga was evacuated, the vineyard property became a drop-off point for people’s cars and RVs,” said owner Chris Madrigal. “Power went out for two days in the middle of fermentation. We pulled off a small miracle to locate a 3 phase generator and, with bribes of wine, had it delivered with electricians and refrigeration guys on site. We were just about to turn on the generator when the power came on, a surreal moment.”
Last Stop, Luna Vineyards
Perfectly located along the Silverado Trail, Luna Vineyards produces pinot grigio, chardonnay, sangiovese, rosé and cabernet sauvignon. They recently launched new tasting experiences, including the Elevated Wine and Food pairing with featured wines and local cheeses and charcuterie; the Signature Tasting, a flight of five current releases; the Bianca Tasting that starts with a splash of bubbles and concludes with a late-harvest pinot grigio; and the Reserve Tasting, which includes a sampling of Luna’s diverse single-vineyard wines.
“Ambience is the key factor to the experience, said Tyson Madden Guest Experience Director at Luna. “A wine almost tastes different when the scene is romantic, with dimmed lights, amazing food and the special person sharing the memories. We strive for that feeling at Luna. It establishes a connection, so our guests remember the great experiences they have with us.”
Luna and Free Flow Wines will host a Wine Country Benefit on December 3 with proceeds going towards the Disaster Relief Fund.
“Napa Valley and wine country are resilient, hopeful, active and spirited, and needs your support now more than ever,” said CEO Andre Crisp. “We welcome guests to our tasting room as fall diffuses its beauty over the landscape.”
“The grapes have been harvested, the valley settles down and moves at a much slower pace. The Fall colors of brown, red and green cascade over the vineyards and all those succulent juice filled grapes have been pressed and put into wine barrels waiting to become the next new vintage,” said Seidman.
A wintertime visit can be great too. There’s something about the quiet moments, the beauty of a dormant vineyard and again, light crowds.
Beau offers a selection of tours from shorter outings to full-on VIP wine country tours with a catered lunch in your private car. We were treated to Girl & the Fig sandwiches with roasted portabella mushroom, goat cheese & roasted red peppers on ciabatta bread, a gluten free wrap with roasted turkey, cheddar & apricot/fig chutney and a delish charcuterie tray with artisan cheese selections, sliced artisanal meats & sausages, house olives and fresh fruit. There was also plenty of bottled water on board – thanks for looking out Sal, four winery visits calls for some agua.
If you’re asking yourself if it’s too soon to visit – like I was – forget about that. Everyone I spoke to is eager to get the region back on track. All we have to do is go drink wine. Who’s in?