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Napa Day 2: Wine Tasting Tour

Monet Garden at Fahden Family Vineyard

This is part 2 of a 3 part series on Napa. When the opportunity arose to tack on a few nights in Napa during a trip out to Monterey, CA for my graduation from grad school, I jumped at the chance. Napa's three part mini-series will take you along with us over the course of a weekend as we explore a little slice of this famous valley. You can Click Here To Read Part 1.

We rise at around 6:45am which may seem a bit early on vacation, but we're still acclimating from Eastern Standard Time. Plus, my husband wants to try the hotel's daily yoga class. I've never done yoga--I may be the only woman in the U.S. who doesn't own a single pair of yoga pants--but I'm game to see what it's all about. We grab our morning caffeine fix from the hotel's coffee bar and head to the lobby where the class meets. It's Saturday, so the hotel is fairly full, and there are a decent number of people waiting to join the instructor. We all grab our mats and at her direction, head outside into the chilly morning air.

The Marriott Napa Valley Hotel and Spa encircles a spacious outdoor courtyard equipped with a gorgeous heated pool and a separate comfortable seating area complete with outdoor gas fire pits for the cool valley evenings (and mornings). The fire pits are lit now for the early risers who are reclining around them on the couches and chairs reading the morning paper and drinking their coffee. We head past them and through the pool gate where we set up our mats along the pool's perimeter.

I don't know quite what I had been expecting a yoga class to entail, but it is basically a cross between stretching, balancing, and core stability. All good things. Oddly enough, I know several of the moves already from my T-25 exercise video I do at home. I don't know that I'll be joining a yoga studio anytime soon, but my husband and I both agree that we should be doing more yoga for flexibility and balance.

After our class, we decide to take advantage of our morning spa access and visit the steam room and whirlpool. So, we each head off to our respective locker rooms in the facility. After the chill of the morning air during yoga, the steam room feels wonderful, and the warm whirlpool is even nicer. I have the pool to myself for my quick soak, and it is extremely peaceful. I feel very zen after yoga and the spa. I'm definitely ready to start my busy day, though.

We shower and looking at the clock, decide we don't have time to go out to breakfast. Instead, we perch on two chairs at the hotel lobby's bar and order a ham and cheese omelet with breakfast potatoes and wheat toast to share. It is never a good idea to go wine tasting on an empty stomach!

Platypus Wine Bus

Just as we are finishing our quick breakfast, our small group tour arrives to pick us up. We have hired a local company, Platypus Tours, to take us wine tastings today. Ten years ago, we took a Platypus tour and really enjoyed it, so we are repeat customers. Drinking wine and driving obviously does not mix well, so if you are planning to do a full day of tastings, I high recommend a tour, a private driver, or an Uber/Lyft.

After one more hotel pickup, all twelve of us set off for our day of wine tasting together. We are in a comfortable "party bus" with seats set around the perimeter. Everyone introduces themselves. We have an eclectic group--a couple on their honeymoon from New Jersey; a woman from Florida celebrating her 50th birthday with her sister from New York; a young married couple in their twenties from Orange County; a couple with children in their twenties from Texas; my husband and I from Maryland; and a pair of cousins on a girl's getaway from Texas.

Our Driver for the Trip, Melissa

Our driver, Melissa, introduces herself, as well. She has a headset she speaks into that plays over the buss's speakers so we can hear her clearly. Melissa explains to us a bit about the layout of the valley and each of the different regions along the valley floor. There are sixteen different microclimates in the Napa Valley, each varying about 1-2 degrees. So, as Melissa explains, you can work you way from one end of the valley to the other and find that you've experienced a 20 degree temperature swing. Each area of the valley (depending on temperature, soil, etc.) is suited to growing different types of grapes. This is why you can find such an eclectic variety of good wines here. Napa also benefits from volcanic soil which makes the ground extremely fertile and ideal for grape growing.

It is currently harvest time all over the valley. Melissa says that the grapes are harvested at night. This is done for a number of reasons: the grapes hold their sugars better in the cold evening air, the grapes do not start to ferment in the day's heat before making it to their destinations, and the workers avoid bee stings and the midday sun. She points out the flatbed trucks carrying crates of grapes as we drive along. All of the grapes are handpicked, with about 1/3 going back into the soil. Grapes pull a lot of the nutrients out of the soil, and it is important to till nutrients back into the ground to maintain the soil.

Melissa informs us that we are going to visit four wineries today--all small boutique, family-owned establishments. I much prefer this versus the large establishments that are beginning to overtake the valley. I enjoy trying wines I can't get at home and supporting small business owners at the same time. The contract Platypus has with the wineries gets us the tastings at discounted rates, and a tasting fee is often waived for buying 1-2 bottles of wine from the proprietors. Melissa lets us know that if needed, she has shipping boxes with styrofoam separators she can sell to us for cost, as well. These serve as a standard checked bag with the airlines and are a great option for getting a dozen bottles of wine home fairly easily! (Flying Southwest with their two bags fly free policy is ideal for a visit to Napa!)

Our first stop today is the AuburnJames tasting cottage. AuburnJames is a winery located along the Silverado Trail in St. Helena. The tasting cottage is quite unique, with a layout that makes me feel more like we are hanging out in someone's house. It is an open space with a kitchen (where the wine is poured), a living space with couches and chairs, and a dining table. We all space ourselves around the room, settling into the couches and chairs. Our tour has the space to ourselves. The sales manager introduces himself and passes us each a tasting glass with our first wine of the day. The wine is a rosé, which isn't usually my favorite, but it's very smooth. He says that the winery hadn't initially intended to grow a rosé, but the limited offering had sold out so quickly that they had tripled production of it this year.

During our tasting of a wide variety of different AuburnJames wines, we are walked through how to swirl, smell, and taste wine properly. It is a very interesting wine tasting 101, and you can really tell how each step changes the way you experience each wines. The AuburnJames wines are all quite good. My husband and I like nearly everything we try. It's hard to pick, but as it's our first winery (and we have more tastings tomorrow), we are leery to purchase too many bottles with limited space in our box. We settle on two--a chardonnay and a proprietary red blend. After purchasing our bottles and paying for one tasting (the other is waived with the two bottle purchase), we head back to the bus.

Once everyone is back on board, Melissa passes around a cheese and crackers platter. There are four different types of cheese and several varieties of crackers. The goat and blue cheese are particularly good. They are the perfect pairing after a morning wine tasting.

Our next stop is Fairwinds Estate Winery. It is further up on the Silverado Trail in Calistoga. The young man handling the tasting here has us set up at the tasting counter beginning with a white. The tasting here goes a bit faster as we work our way through the four wines our host has set out for us. Fairwinds is a joint tasting room that hosts three other wineries, so we get to try wines from more than one vineyard. Again, we purchase two more wines (waiving a tasting fee), but instead of heading back to the bus, we walk up a path behind the tasting room toward a door built into the hillside. Like many of the wineries in the Napa Valley, Fairwinds has a man-made wine cave in which they store their bottles. The caves maintain a temperature of about 65 degrees year-round, which makes them an ideal storage location.

We tour the cave a bit and then conclude in a room within the cave outfitted with tables and chairs. Fairwinds uses some if its 22,000 sq. ft. of cave space to host events. Today it is going to be the site of our lunch. Melissa has set out a variety of sandwiches, toppings, and salads for our meal. We each make a plate and sit down to enjoy the cave's ambiance and our lunch.

After lunch, we're off again to our third destination of the day, the Fahden Family Vineyard. Fahden is also located in Calistoga, but it is 1200 ft. above the Napa Valley floor in the Mayacama Mountains. Founded by a German family in 1912, the vineyard only began hosting public tastings in 1996.

Fahden has a gorgeous Monet-style garden [see article headline photo], and our tasting begins there under a grape covered arbor overlooking a lily pad filled pond surrounded by colorful flowers. The scenery couldn't get any better. Our host walks us through the grounds with our glasses, and we work our way up to the main tasting room. I can see why this site is so popular for weddings. After a brief stop to refill our glasses and take pictures at a particularly photogenic spot, we head into the facility's wine cave. Intimate dinners and events are held here by the winery. At the back of the cave, comfortable chairs made out of old wine barrels line the wall, and we all get a chance to kick back and relax with our tastings.

We have about a 25 min drive back down the valley to Rutherford for our final tasting, so we spend the time chatting with our tour-mates. The woman and her sister celebrating a 50th birthday are staying at our hotel and were even in our morning yoga class. So, we chat a bit about the hotel, yoga, and our plans for the rest of our trip. We talk with the couple on their Honeymoon from NJ, as well. We are originally from NJ, so we have a bit in common. This is just a short stop for them en route to Hawaii--I'm very jealous! Everyone is always very friendly after a few glasses of wine, and soon there are conversations spurting up back and forth in all directions across the bus.

When we arrive at our last vineyard of the day, Fleury Estate Winery, we all get out for a little lesson in the vineyard with Melissa before heading into the tasting room. This is our first real opportunity to see the grapes up close. She shows us how the grapes are near ready to be picked and how to tell. She also tells us to taste one (watching out for the seeds) and see the difference in texture of the skin from a grape we would get in the regular super market. The grapes taste stronger and are tougher. You can taste the difference between the skin, the flesh of the fruit, and the seeds. It makes it easier to understand how playing up or down each of the complex parts of a grape can lead to such different tasting wine.

The tasting room layout at Fleury is laid out a bit oddly, with wine barrels and boxes piled up around the entrance and register. There is a table in the back tucked behind a curtain for tastings. Fleury only does small batch wines, and for the most part does not distribute. You can find them on the menu at the French Laundry, the world-famous restaurant in nearby Yountville, though. Our host walks us through a flight of red wines--what they are most well known for at Fleury. Several are blends rather than a pure grape. We are all having a great time, joking at the table while "revisiting" (a way of asking to retry a wine) different tastings as we made decisions. However, it's getting late, and Melissa probably wants to get home at some point before it gets dark, so we make our selections--another two bottles of wine--and head out to the bus for the journey back to the hotel.

On the ride back to town, we all start singing along to the music playing over the bus speakers. Melissa has picked the right type of music, what'd I'd refer to as 'wedding classics.' The stuff that everyone knows. My husband requests that she play "Piano Man" before we stop at the first hotel for drop-offs. We all get together in a huddle in our seats, laughing, swaying, and singing along with the music. We may have had a bit too much wine this afternoon, but we all most definitely had an amazing time, as well. It's the perfect way to cap off a wonderful afternoon.

Celadon's Patio

After a quick change for dinner at our hotel, we're off to downtown Napa on the hotel's free weekend shuttle into town. Tonight, our dinner reservation is at Celadon, an eclectic comfort food restaurant. The highlight of the restaurant is its atmosphere. Celadon features a covered outdoor patio with a big brick fireplace in the center and an enormous chandelier light fixture hanging from the ceiling. We are quickly sat at our table, and my husband orders a Grey Goose martini. I've had enough to drink for one day and opt for water! We decide on the sweet coconut fried prawns over mixed greens, mango and cucumber with a sesame citrus vinaigrette to start. The appetizer is out in minutes. We both love it and wish we'd ordered two! The shrimp are huge. Our entrees quickly follow at almost too rapid of a pace. My husband has decided on the grilled, double cut pork chop with Brussels sprouts served over mashed potatoes and finished with a pomegranate sauce. I have selected the seared scallops served over pureed parsnips served with roasted carrots and fennel. Both are quite tasty; his pork chop is cooked perfectly. After finishing our meals, we decide we are too full at the moment for dessert and decide instead to walk around town for a bit.

Downtown Napa is hopping. There is music playing from every direction, the bars and restaurants are all full, and people are out walking in the squares. For a while, we just stroll around, enjoying the atmosphere and the cool evening weather. After a while, we come upon a Ben and Jerry's and decide we have enough room for dessert after all. With our ice creams in hand, we continue to wander for a bit before deciding we're ready to call it an early night. It's been a long day, and tomorrow we have another fun-filled day planned. We call the number for the hotel's shuttle, and a few minutes later, we're on our way back to our cozy bed and a much needed good night's sleep.

Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins

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