If you are considering taking a vineyard tour in Napa Valley, there are many options available to visitors. Over the past 40 years, Napa Valley has built an impressive agro-tourism industry around its vineyards that attracts food and wine lovers from all over the world. Year-round, visitors can explore the breathtaking scenery, find relaxation in luxurious spas, browse boutique shops and art galleries, dine in world-class restaurants, and sample New World wines that rival those of the Old World. Although Napa offers a host of pre-arranged vineyard tours, the savvy traveler can easily plan his or her own by determining where and how he or she wants to tour.
The world-famous vineyards of Napa Valley are about an hour’s drive North of San Francisco, California. The towns of Napa and Sonoma are the two largest and most popular in the area, and are central to the vineyard touring culture. The vineyards sprawl along the outskirts of the towns, along the wine roads that wind North from Napa and Sonoma through Yountville up to Calistoga.
For the winemakers of Napa Valley, time and experience revealed that superior wines could be made from cultivating vineyards where grape varietals were matched with suitable microclimates and soils. As regions emerged with distinctive microclimates and terrains, wine makers noted grape yields from those regions featured their own recognizable characteristics that could be developed, or perhaps even repeated.
These regions defined boundaries for growing areas, which in turn became known as appellations – or AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) – for specific wines. Napa Valley itself is an appellation, and within that exists 15 sub-appellations including Atlas Peak and the Chiles Valley District.
You might recognize some of those appellations from your favorite Napa Valley Wine labels. Although districts tend to specialize in a single varietal – for example, Pinot Noir is largely grown further South, in Carneros – this is not always the case. Furthermore, winemakers might have vineyards or source their grapes from different regions to offer a more diverse menu of wines. Nearly every district in Napa grows what they call “The Granddaddy of Them All” (all red wines, that is), Cabernet Sauvignon.
So, the key to navigating your Napa Vineyard Tour is to first determine where you want to go, based on what you want to drink.
Once that’s settled, there are many ways to tour Napa Valley’s Vineyards. Visitors can find plenty of public or privately chartered limousine and bus tours. Several companies in Napa and Sonoma also rent bicycles and offer hot air balloon rides to guests who want to explore the vineyards up close or from the air. The renowned Napa Valley Wine Train is a restaurant – on a train – that runs alongside some of the valley’s most scenic vineyards. There are also wine road maps widely available online and in travel books that can be used to map your own vineyard tour by car. For your safety, you may want to consider planning for a designated driver.
It’s important to note that many of the private vineyard tours and tasting rooms are open by appointment only, and thus require advance reservations. If you are planning your own vineyard tour, you will definitely want to call ahead to do so. Additionally, wineries charge tasting fees that typically range from $20 - $30. It’s perfectly acceptable to split the tasting fee between two tasters.
Some of the most highly recommended vineyard tours of Napa include visiting Joseph Phelps, Opus One, and Quintessa. Vineyard tours are also a great way to discover a new wine – so don’t let an unfamiliar winery name deter you from making a visit. You may discover a wine that’s not as widely reviewed or distributed that you just love. Your vineyard tours in Napa will be something you can savor through the wine you take with you long after returning home.