How to Enjoy Wine Tasting in Napa Valley without Spending a Fortune

Wine tasting in Napa Valley has become quite expensive.  As reported elsewhere in this issue, it is common to spend $45 or more for tastings of the better wines in the better wineries.  For some people, this isn’t an issue, but there are many others who might be dissuaded from visiting America’s premier winemaking area because of the cost.  Here are some ideas for making a Napa Valley visit more affordable (although not cheap).

Photo courtesy of Vox.

  • There are still some top wineries that don’t charge an arm and a leg and there are still a few that are free (although who knows how much longer that will last). Foremost among these is Heitz Wine Cellars, a Napa Valley pioneer that has never charged for wine tasting.  Do a little homework before you go to find wineries within your budget.
  • Share a tasting. This is good advice on its own merits, since you can taste more wines without consuming more alcohol.  Of course, you need to travel with a fellow taster – your Significant Other is the best idea – and you may have to forego gulps in favor of sips.  But that’s what wine tasting is all about, anyway.
  • Join a wine club. All the wineries have clubs, which are a way for them to lock in customers.  In almost every instance, membership enables free wine tasting, often for a group, not just an individual.  Of course by being a club member you commit yourself to buying 2, 4 or 6 shipments of their wines per year and that can become costly.  Recently we have learned that some wineries allow you to communicate requests to welcome your friends as if they were members as well.  So if you have friends who are members of some clubs, ask them to call on your behalf.  If you are a member of some other wineries, you can make such requests reciprocal.
  • Buy a bottle. In many cases, wineries will waive tasting fees if you make a purchase.  This is a triple deal.  You get to taste for free, determine your favorite and take a bottle of that one home.
  • Taste wines on the less expensive menus. We do recommend tasting the reserve lists, but on occasion there are very nice wines to taste among the recent releases.  If you want to enjoy a particular winery for its architectural beauty or its views, it might be just fine to taste the regular wines and enjoy the winery.
  • B.Y.O.B. to a restaurant. There are many restaurants that will charge a corkage fee if you bring your wine.  And some don’t charge at all.  Even with the corkage fee, it is often cheaper to bring your own bottle than buy it at the restaurant.   Also, you’ll have a taste for the bottle you’ll buy for tonight’s dinner.
  • Splurge on just one special winery. There may be a Napa Valley wine that you particularly like.  Or one that is very famous and that you always wanted to try.  Yes, you’ll pay a lot to taste these wines but if you limit the number of such wineries, it will lower the economic pain.
  • Go wine tasting somewhere else. There are great wines in Sonoma County, Santa Barbara and the Central Coast.  You don’t have to be in St. Helena or Rutherford to have a very pleasant tasting experience.  As for us, we’ll be back to Napa Valley for sure, just not as often.

Louis M. Martini Winery

There are few if any wineries in Napa Valley with a heritage as long as that at Louis M. Martini, tracing back to 1922.  Visiting this winery was among our earliest experiences in wine tasting.  And the familiar bottles with a horse pulling a cart full of grapes were staples in many wine stores around America.  Today, the horse and cart are gone, replaced by a prominent crown.  This is emblematic of the change at Martini, just as the new Louis M. Martini is emblematic of the changes in Napa Valley.

The old and new labels of Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon, with and without a horse drawn cart

There is still a Martini winery on the same property, a recently opened building covered in terra cotta tiles, with a large garden alongside.  The interior has majestic ceilings, beautiful appointments and some rather interesting wines.  Perhaps not so much on the outside, but this is truly a Napa Palace.  It is still named Louis M. Martini but the Gallo company that owns Martini has reinvented it; only the name remains.

That is not quite fair.  There is still the Monte Rosso vineyard just across the county line in Sonoma.  It had long been the source of the finest wines produced by Martini and still is today.  It was always best known for the Cabernet Sauvignon grown there and Martini still makes that wine.  But now Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Zinfandel and a red blend also come from this historic vineyard.  The Cabernet Sauvignon remains our favorite, but the others are quite good as well.

When you arrive at the winery, you are greeted by a host who directs you either to the Crown Bar or the Heritage Lounge.  While both rooms, as well as others in the garden and the library, are officially by appointment only, our experience is that visitors can just walk in.  However, we were there on a Thursday.  We are sure it would be tougher on a weekend and even more so in the summer.  So either reserve or call ahead.

The Crown Bar.  Photo courtesy of Louis M. Martini winery.

The Crown Bar is a beautifully appointed room with a wide bar and dramatic lighting.  This room features Martini’s recent releases, where you can sip some of your old favorites such as the Sonoma and Napa Cabernet Sauvignons.  We have nothing against these wines and have often bought them, but when we go wine tasting, we prefer to focus on the reserve wines.  These are served in the Heritage Lounge.

The Heritage Lounge

This room is also expansive and is furnished like an assemblage of living and dining rooms.  All tastings are seated.  Here you can taste the Monte Rosso vintages as well as Martini’s top wine called Lot No. 1, sourced from various vineyards around Napa Valley.  It is pure Cabernet Sauvignon and is twice as expensive as any of their other wines.  It is well worth tasting, but we will leave it to your tastes as to whether it is better than the Monte Rosso Cabernet Sauvignon.

The new tasting room replaces a rather nice but more modest one on the same property, which in turn replaced the working winery where one tasted in the more distant past.  Our server told us that they refer to the new tasting room as Louis M. Martini 2.0, referring to their new tasting facility.  We reminded her that Louis M. Martini goes back to the 1920’s, so no, it is 3.0.


Tasting in Napa Valley – A Status Report

In the more than 40 years that we have been visiting Napa Valley, we’ve seen many changes.  Some have been for the better, some for the worse as would only be expected over such a long period of time.  Fortunately, some things will never change.  The mountains and the valley floor will always be beautiful, showing different characteristics as the seasons pass.  The earth will always support superb vines.  And, so we hope, those vines will be producing extraordinary wines for many years to come.

For those like us who take pleasure in visiting Napa Valley for wine tasting, we present our perspective on the plusses and minuses of the region today.

  • The top wineries may be making the finest wines, year after year, that have ever been made there. In a recent visit we focused on the reserve tasting at some of the best vineyards.  Almost without exception (there were a few, but we’ll let those pass) the red wines in particular equaled or surpassed anything we have tasted before.  The wines from the drought years are maturing admirably and the recent vintages sparkle.  You are almost certain to sip great wines when you visit.
  • Merlot is less available in tasting rooms, while Malbec is becoming more prominent. Of course there are still great Merlots to be sampled.  Beringer’s Bancroft Ranch and Pine Ridge’s Carneros Merlot were our recent favorites.  But more and more wineries are featuring single varietal Malbecs.  Although it is historically a Bordeaux grape, the Bordelais barely use it anymore.  We suspect that its new popularity stems from its dominant use in Argentine wines.

The tasting room at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

  • Wine tasting prices have skyrocketed. You will have to pay a pretty penny to sample the top wines, though.  Based on a non-scientific sample, we can report that $45 is table stakes to taste reserve wines.  Mondavi charges $75 for a reserve tasting; Joseph Phelps charges $85.  You can partake of a tasting in Pete Buttiegieg’s wine cave (actually it’s at Hall Rutherford) for $125.  Wine tasting in Napa Valley has become unaffordable for many people.  Moreover, the prices of the top wines at almost every winery we visited are $100 or more, some into the $200s.
  • The same can be said for hotel rooms. There may be inexpensive places to stay, but we haven’t found them.  We now pay for a room what we would have walked away from only a few years ago.  Using your points at a Marriott or Hilton property may be a good tactic.

The tasting room at Trefethen Family Vineyards, where all the tastings are seated

  • More and more wineries are erecting Napa Palaces. Places that only a few years ago were little more than farmhouses with a bar have now become elegant “visitor centers”.  Stag’s Leap, Louis M. Martini and Joseph Phelps are among them.  Some reserve the fancier digs for members of their wine clubs; Etude, Pine Ridge, Domaine Carneros and Bouchaine are among these.  It’s hard to say if this is a positive or negative trend.  The new buildings are indeed beautiful, but they are further removed from the elemental farming and winemaking that has made Napa Valley what it is.
  • Increasingly, wines are served in seated tastings. Again, this may be viewed as a plus.  You are less likely to be standing next to an over-served know-it-all at the bar.  But on busy days it may prove harder to get your glass refilled.  The servers are more like waiters than educators; they have less time to explain to you the details about what you are sipping.  And while you won’t be bothered by other visitors, you’re less likely to meet interesting people who share the same enthusiasm for wine.

As we said, Napa Valley has changed and surely will do so in the future.  It is still a wonderful destination for wine lovers.  We just think it’s best to be aware of what the conditions are before you book your trip.

Stormy Weather Tasting

When you think of Napa Valley or when you see pictures of it, the skies are always blue and the sun is always shining.  One of the beauties of California is the great weather, but that’s not always the case.  Mornings in Napa Valley are often foggy and a bit chilly.  There are rainy days in the vineyards, too, or there wouldn’t be any grapes from which to make wine.

For sure, it’s a bit disappointing to go on a wine tasting trip when the weather is poor.  We have been in Napa Valley when the temperature was in the 20s, when there were floods and when rain came down in buckets.  It wasn’t what we were hoping for but it was what we got.  And there were some advantages.


The view from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ windows, when the sun pierced the clouds for a few minutes.

For one thing, there is a gloomy beauty in seeing the vineyards shrouded in mist.  There is always the chance that the sun will poke through if only for a few minutes.  The vines (even without leaves and grapes) are quite dramatic against grey skies.

The great advantage, though, is that fewer people go wine tasting on cold, rainy days.  So a nasty Thursday in December, for example, has its own charms.  There are fewer people in the tasting rooms and you get more attention from the servers.  Often you get more wine as well.  After all, the servers have nothing to do except wait for visitors.  When you show up, they’re happy to see you and maybe pour a smidgen more of this and open a bottle of that.  As always, you need to be polite and inquisitive; servers have no more interest in jerks on rainy days than on sunny ones.  But when there are fewer people around, the servers may think, “Well, that bottle of the 1998 Cab is open anyway so why not give it to these nice people who braved the weather to come to our winery”.

The Robert Mondavi winery.

Perhaps even more important is that if you are served by a true wine educator, you will have so much more of an experience.  Sure, anyone can tell you the grapes and the vintages – they’re written on the bottle.  But a server who knows a thing or two will explain about the growing conditions that year, how one vintage stacks up against the others or about the different vineyards where the grapes were sourced.  If you’re not interested in those sorts of things, it’s quite probable that you won’t be make the trip to Napa Valley in the rain anyway.

Likewise, other visitors whom you do meet in a tasting room are likely to be as interested (and interesting) as you are.  Vivid conversations and shared observations tend to come to like-minded people.

In lousy weather, the roads are less crowded.  There are more tables available at the better restaurants, even without reservations.  And if you like hearty cooking, there’s a better chance you’ll find roasts and stews on the menus at these times.  Save your California cuisine fol-de-rol for sunny summer days; you’ll get real meals when the thermometer drops.