Think Napa Valley, and most wine lovers think Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Indeed, the Napa Valley is a single appellation, or AVA (American Viticultural Area). Yet within its borders reside 16 sub-appellations, each with its own distinctive microclimate, and often, its own signature grapes.
The St. Helena AVA, for example, home to the Rutherford Wine Company, HALL St. Helena (California’s first LEED Gold Certified winery), and many others on the celebrated Silverado Trail, is a warm area with less fog or wind than many more southern areas, making it perfect for a rainbow of varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier. Other estates that have turned the variations of Napa Valley terroir into signature pours are legion (this is Napa, after all). Deserving starting points include the Fleury Estate Winery, which has three vineyards in three appellations at three elevations; Darioush Vineyards, where an appreciation for Bordeaux-style blends lends itself well to the grapes that come from such varied conditions; and Peju, where the celebrated Bordeaux varietals grown are partially credited to the unique “Rutherford Dust” terroir. For those who like to indulge in the twin passions of wine and chocolate, make a beeline for Baldacci Family Vineyards—their Wine & Chocolate Tasting event pairs Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and a red blend with chocolates from local purveyor Flourish Chocolate.
Many wineries here have deep roots as pioneer vineyards, showcasing Napa Valley’s longstanding commitment to premium grapes. Just a few examples: Larkmead, producers of some of Napa’s most celebrated Cabernet Sauvignons, can trace its history back to 1895; Mayacamas Vineyards is comprised of a stone building, which in 1889 was carved into the side of a dormant volcano crater on Mount Veeder (happily, that historic building survived the 2017 wine country wildfires). Sinegal Estate was once a St. Helena Pony Express stop, then the historic Inglewood Estate, before being bought and completely renovated by new owners in 2015. Beaulieu Vineyards, founded in 1900 and housed in a building that dates to 1885, managed to flourish during Prohibition, when so many Napa vineyards were forced to shutter, thanks to their contract to provide sacramental wines to the Catholic Church. And some wineries have brought their own sense of history: Calistoga’s Castello di Amorosa, owned by Dario Sattui, makes Italian-inspired reds in a sprawling, 13th-century-style castle.
A new generation of wine growers is planting newer-to-the-area varieties as well. Summers Estate Wines in the Calistoga AVA bottles Charbono, a rare Italian grape found on less than 100 acres in all of California, plus a Greek Muscat Canelli known in Europe as Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. Plush, plummy Merlot is back in the spotlight too, such as Duckhorn Vineyard’s prized bottling from the Atlas Peak AVA.
Take a deep dive into Napa winemaking history at the free-admission 1881 Napa Wine History Museum & Tasting Salon, which offers Cabernet tastes after you take in the winemaking exhibits. Or, try the Napa Valley Wine Trolley, a turn-of-the-century San Francisco cable car–style trolley. Guided tours take you to three wineries, and you’ll learn about the growing and winemaking processes as well as taste the finished product.
More Things to Do in Napa Valley
For more ideas on how to spend your time during a visit here, check out Special Tours in Napa Valley, Napa Valley Luxury Lodgings, Ideas for a Solo Trip to Napa and Sonoma, and Napa Valley State & City Parks. To discover some of the valley’s more under-the-radar gems, visit So You Think You Know the Napa Valley?.