U.S. wineries are on the rise in both number and quality – with many of the country’s best vintners residing within the rolling hills of California’s Napa Valley. Perfect for a day trip from Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco, Napa Valley has stunning views, exclusive wineries and – of course – fine wines. Home to some of the United States’ best wineries, Napa has emerged as a haven for vintners intent on creating quality vintages. The soil, climate and growing conditions in the Valley are ideal for grapes, and vineyards produce excellent fruit that, in turn, make delicious wines coveted by collectors and wine enthusiasts alike.
Here are some of the best wineries in Napa Valley, for serious oenophiles and collectors – and those out to enjoy a sunny afternoon in wine country.
Photography Jason Tinacci courtesy Continuum Estate
The Mondavis are among Napa’s most respected winemaking families. After the Robert Mondavi Winery was sold in 2004, two of Robert’s children – Tim and Marcia– and Robert’s wife Margrit Mondavi purchased and combinied two vineyard properties on Pritchard Hill to create Continuum Estate. This part of Napa Valley is often referred to as the “Rodeo Drive of the Valley,” and the wines here are greatly coveted by collectors due to the prime terroir of the rocky, iron-rich hillside soil, the microclimate, the elevation and sun exposure.
Built upon decades of winemaking experience, Continuum Estate focuses on one wine each year – a Bordeaux-style blend typically dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon with smaller percentages of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot that vary from year to year. Balance is certainly one of this vineyard’s hallmarks, even at a young age, and the wine has a mouthfeel that is supple, velvety soft and anchored by well-integrated tannins. With fruit, structure and acidity in harmony, this wine will continue to age and evolve well over time.
Continuum’s 2005 inaugural vintage is the wine to collect, and the ideal time to visit is in spring or autumn, but book a visit at least two months in advance.
Founder Claude Blankiet, who originally introduced stonewashed jeans to the U.S. market, founded this winery in 1996 with the intent to create wines inspired by Bordeaux First Growth, a classification only the best châteaus in France’s Bordeaux region receive. His passion, innovation and attention to detail are admirable; he pioneered several vine cooling systems to compensate for the California sun.
Exceptional wines begin with the quality of the source terroir, and Blankiet’s property, despite being relatively small, boasts several soil types that contribute to superior wine. The winery utilises these soil types to grow specific varietals for distinctive, world-class proprietary red blends.
Harvest does not occur all at once – specific blocks or even rows are picked only when the grapes reach true maturity, and harvest can then take up to six weeks. The teams at Blankiet sort fruit in the vineyard (dropping any grapes that don’t meet their standards) and then again in the winery after the grapes are harvested, using a sorting table with 10 to 12 people lined up, picking out undesired grapes by hand. Only three quarters of a ton is processed per hour of very slow, meticulous work. The estate has the resources to produce much more wine, but releases only 2,500 cases annually, focusing on quality over quantity.
Visit Blankiet Estates for an exclusive tasting held in the Blankiet home on the hillside above the town of Yountville. Try the 2008 Proprietary Red Wine Paradise Hills Vineyard, a robust and voluptuous wine showing a slightly richer expression of fruit than prior vintages.
Photography Bob McClenahan courtesy Visit Napa Valley
Having made wine at several premium properties throughout his career, John Kongsgaard ultimately branched out and established this winery high on the slopes of Napa’s Atlas Peak. Kongsgaard utilises a natural style of winemaking, sourcing grapes from vineyards that are extremely low-yielding and often have nitrogen-deficient soil. He takes his time, allowing fermentation to take up to a year, a process usually completed in a matter of weeks.
The winery is known for Chardonnays and Syrahs highly prized for their unique styles. Try The Judge Chardonnay, a darker blend than is typical for Valley whites. The mouthfeel is oily, viscous and rich. As for its mineralities, Kongsgaard describes it as “salty, almost briny” in feel. This wine will also age well (usually 5 to 8 years).
Tastings are rarely given on site, and Kongsgaard wines are in such high demand they often sell out within hours of release through the mailing list. Become a member via the website to acquire wine, or obtain coveted magnums at charity events like the Nimbus Arts Nimbash Fundraiser or the annual Napa Valley Wine Auction.
CONSTANT Diamond Mountain Vineyard
Napa Valley boasts an impressive collection of hillside wineries, but the view from CONSTANT Diamond Mountain Vineyard is exceptional. An infinity pool overlooks the Valley far below, anchored in the distance by Mount St Helena, the highest mountain in the region. The stone pool house has a generous number of windows, which are always open on clear, warm days, and chaise longues by the infinity pool offer the perfect place to enjoy your wine.
The scenery is so compelling, and the wines in such limited supply, that visits are generally for members only or by referral. Hire a driver, or allow ample time (15 minutes) to reach the winery from the Valley floor. The road is long, and in places narrow and steep.
CONSTANT Diamond Mountain Vineyard focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon, a Cabernet Franc, a Claret and a Syrah. Try the coveted Syrah releases from 2012 to 2014, famous for its rich, concentrated flavour anchored by a clean, smooth finish. This wine is all about the fruit and varietal characteristics rather than being overly spicy or dominated by oak like some Syrahs. To buy, join the mailing list.
Photography Bob McClenahan courtesy Visit Napa Valley
Owner and South Korean businessman Hi Sang Lee spared no expense in remodelling this winery. He hired one of wine country’s most renowned architects, Howard Jr. Backen, who took four crumbling stone walls and created a piece of art that is sophisticated and functional. You are subject to wine availability, by referral or for extremely serious wine collectors only; Dana Estates maintains an air of exclusivity befitting Backen’s masterpiece.
The winery focuses on three select vineyards: two hillsides and their Valley floor property. All are farmed by hand, organically. The wines are superbly handcrafted in very small quantities and would make a fine addition if you are looking for limited-production, difficult-to-acquire Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons.
Try the Lotus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which delivers an unbridled richness. Aromatically, the bouquet is described as an appealing, complex “candy store,” showing black liquorice, baking spices and black raspberries. This superb richness carries dark fruit, including black cherry and blackberry, and more black liquorice, with hints of mineralities and earthiness. The complexities of flavour lead to a big finish with broad, structured tannins.
Photography Paul Egidio courtesy Palmaz Vineyards
This impressive winery is located in one of Napa Valley’s under-the-radar sub-appellations, Coombsville, northeast of the city of Napa. Nothing quite prepares you for the scope of the Palmaz Vineyards wine cellar; it is 100,000 square feet (9,300 square metres) and entirely underground.
Arguably the highlight is the fermentation dome, the world’s largest underground reinforced structure (72 feet wide and 54 feet tall/22 by 16.5 metres); the height of the cave is equivalent to that of an 18-storey building. This is the ideal climate for aging wines; the temperature remains constant, and additional environmental controls are not needed. Add the algorithmic fermentation control system and you have one impressive, subterranean winery.
Visits are for serious wine enthusiasts, and private tours and tastings can be arranged with a Palmaz family member upon request.
Palmaz produces a Burgundy-style Chardonnay, a rare (for Napa Valley) Riesling and several age-worthy Cabernet Sauvignons, all available through the website. Try the current release, Gaston Cabernet Sauvignon, which offers deep flavour. This wine is full-bodied, layered and well balanced, with a long finish that lingers without harsh tannins.