There are more than 400 wineries with tasting rooms in Napa Valley and roughly the same number in Sonoma County spread out over a much larger geographical area. It’s no surprise that visitors are often overwhelmed by the choices. Tamber Bey Vineyards, partner of Inspirato, helped us answer the question, “How do you select a few to visit from so many?” with a few questions of our own.
1. Where are you staying?
Planning your itinerary based on a specific geographical area will greatly minimize the amount of time you spend in the car. It can take an hour to drive from south Napa Valley to its north end, even though the valley is just 24 miles long. Tourist traffic can add significantly to that time. Selecting wineries that are within close proximity of one another will maximize the time you have to enjoy them.
If you are staying with Inspirato at Auberge du Soleil or Solage, focus on wineries in upper Napa Valley. If you are staying at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn or one of the southern Sonoma County residences, then I would suggest wineries in the Carneros and Mount Veeder appellations. If you are staying in Healdsburg at the Wheelman House or one of the Inspirato Residences, you’re close to Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek, and the Russian River region. Finally, if you are staying in San Francisco and planning a day trip to wine country, I would recommend wineries in south Napa and Carneros because they are the closest to the Bay Area.
2. What type of wines do you prefer?
If you answer Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley is the place for you. It’s known worldwide as the best region for this varietal. The eastern Sonoma County valleys (Alexander, Knights) also offer great Cabernet Sauvignon. If you love Pinot Noir, the Russian River Valley is my recommendation, followed closely by Carneros. If you prefer white wines, you will find them throughout all wine regions, although the best Sauvignon Blanc is grown in Napa.
3. Are you drinking or buying?
If this is your first trip to wine country or you are looking to expand your knowledge about wine, I recommend wineries that offer a great tasting experience, a stunning location, and a variety of wines to taste. If you are looking to acquire wines, I suggest small, private producers who make exceptional wines that are collectible, cellar-worthy, and highly rated. This means you might be tasting with the owner or winemaker and therefore there is an unspoken expectation that a purchase will be made. How much you purchase is entirely up to you. Lastly, visit wineries that aren’t distributed near your home so you can try something new.
When visiting a small producer, be respectful of the fact that your host has reserved time out of his/her schedule exclusively for you. You may or may not be charged a tasting fee. It is always acceptable to ask if the tasting fee is waived with a wine purchase.
4. What about tipping after wine tastings?
Tipping isn’t a common practice in wine country. That said, if you are visiting a large winery and are hosted by an employee who does a fantastic job presenting the wines, go ahead and tip him/her an amount you feel is appropriate. There are no guidelines. If you have a private tasting with a vintner, winemaker or other principle, tipping typically isn’t expected.
5. Do you need a driver?
We highly recommend hiring a driver, which your Member Services team can help with. Having a knowledgeable driver means that everyone in your group can enjoy wine tasting to the fullest. Your driver will get you around more efficiently and can help build your tasting itinerary. Remember to hire your driver before you arrive in wine country and ask for winery recommendations. Also, book your tasting appointments in advance – most wineries accept visitors by appointment only.