Peju Winery

We have driven up and down Route 29 in the Napa Valley many, many times.  Often, we have passed the Peju Winery (  That’s exactly what we have done, passed it by without stopping in.  We guess that’s because we have never seen their wines in stores or on wine lists so, we thought, why bother?  On a recent trip, we did bother and we are glad we did.

The rather distinctive Peju winery.

The winery is named after its founder, Tony Peju, who only recently passed away.  He was credited with being the father of direct-to-the-consumer wine sales.  Thus we hadn’t heard of his wines because he bypassed stores and restaurants.  Peju wines are for sale only at the winery and through their wine club.  The winery is still owned and run by the Peju family, which is something depressingly rare in Napa Valley today.

The winery is distinctive.  As you approach, you see a rather oddly shaped building or, as they prefer to call it, a tower.  Surrounding it are lush gardens which visitors are free to roam.  There is also a spacious patio where visitors are offered seated tastings.  You can also stand at the bar at Peju, which is rather rare these days.  We arrived without an appointment and so had our tasting indoors, in the barrel room.  However, the winery does urge reservations.

The stained glass mural in the winery.

Peju makes an enormous variety of wines.  Of course, not all are available for tasting on any given day, but we did find that the servers were liberal with little extras that weren’t on the official tasting lists.  Located in the heart of Napa Valley in Rutherford, they do specialize in the Bordeaux grapes, especially Cabernet Sauvignon.  But there are also Malbec, Pinot Noir and Sangiovese in the red wines.  Their selection of white wines includes Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc (of course), but also sparking wines and French Colombard, a rarity these days.  We are usually of the ABC (anything but Chardonnay) persuasion, but we rather enjoyed Peju’s.

The servers seem quite knowledgeable, if a bit chatty.  They are attentive, which can be a problem in some wineries.  Combining the renewed popularity of wine tasting tourism with a shortage of staff everywhere, we have often found ourselves sitting and waiting for a server to notice that we wanted to be on to our next wine.  This was not the case at Peju, much to their credit.  For a winery that makes its market with visitors and club members, it is only sensible that they make the tasting experience as enjoyable as possible.  It leads to purchases and memberships.  We would only wish that more wineries would adopt that attitude.

Our visit to Peju is an example of why it is a good idea, from time to time, to take a chance on a winery you don’t know.  We enjoyed our visit, bought some wine, and will gladly return on another trip.  The next time we might even make a reservation.


The Evolution of Wine Tasting in Napa Valley

We’ve been visiting Napa Valley for the purpose of wine tasting for a long time, since 1977 to be exact.  Needless to say, the valley has changed greatly over nearly a half century.  In some ways, the wine has stayed the same, but in others it has developed quite a bit.  And thus, the way that visitors engage in wine tasting has evolved tremendously.

St. Helena in the 1950s.  Photo courtesy of Cinema Treasures


Napa Valley was primarily agricultural, and of course it still is.  But towns like Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga are unrecognizable from what they once were.  For example, we can remember when the French Laundry in Yountville used to source its produce and poultry from farms just across Washington Street.  Calistoga was known for mud baths, not wine.  St. Helena was a village for locals and Napa was nowhereseville.  What changed them?  Tourism, of course.  And what brought the tourists?  Wine.

In the earlier times, growers and wine makers would offer tastes of their wines for free as a form of advertising, in hopes that visitors would buy some.  Wine tasting was an afterthought in the commercial scheme of things, conducted in a barn or a barrel room.  The visitors were attracted more by curiosity (“Do they really make wine up there?”) than advanced oenological expertise.  And while there were always exceptions, the wines were predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

St. Helena today.  Photo courtesy of Visit Napa Valley.

By the 1990’s, tourism was well established.  There were plenty of excellent restaurants to feed the visitors (quite well), though hotels there were primarily chains and bed-and-breakfasts.  Wineries began charging for their tastings, enough at first to cover their tasting costs.  These had begun to climb as they had to improve facilities, hire more staff and improve the glassware.  And the varietals had expanded.  Everyone seemed to have a Pinot Noir from Carneros and Sauvignon Blanc from all over the valley.  And the visitors were interested in sipping some of all the wines.  The tastings went from a little of one or two wines to flights of four or more.

By the millennium, wine tasting had become a profit maker unto itself.  Napa palaces were erected from one end of the valley to the other.  And the tasting fees had risen to the point that they were a consideration – along with alcoholic sanity, of course – as to how many wineries could be visited.  Many tasting rooms offered two lists, with the premier wines available at a higher price.  Increasingly, the visitors demonstrated significant knowledge and taste buds.

Today, especially with the aftereffects of the pandemic, much of the tourism in Napa Valley is directed to resorts, with wine tasting almost a sideline.  Of course, Napa Valley wines had long achieved eminence in the world and preeminence in California and the US generally.  But the cost of tasting in Napa Valley had made other winemaking areas, such as Sonoma County, Santa Barbara and the Central Coast attractive alternatives.  The wines of Napa Valley are still superb, but the tasting fees at the finest wineries are a deterrent for some potential visitors.

Napa Valley will long produce great wines and the scenery will forever be beautiful, but the nature of wine tasting there may never be the same.

Tasting Value Wines in Napa Valley

One definition of value is “whatever someone is willing to pay”.  By that token, the most valuable wines in Napa Valley are those that are unavailable for tasting by the average visitor to Napa Valley.  These would include Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Harlan Estate or Schrader.  By reputation, we’re sure that these are great wines, but we haven’t had the opportunity to taste them.

But another way to look at value is the ratio of quality to price.  While some would have you believe that the more something costs, the better it is, this is not necessarily true and certainly not when it comes to wine tasting.  In these days when a wine tasting trip to Napa Valley is bound to be costly, it is well to consider this definition of value as you choose which wineries to visit and what to try while you’re there.

Photo courtesy of What the Fab.

  • Lesser known wineries can make very good wine. Sure, the big labels you read about in the wine columns of your newspaper make good wine (usually, but not always).  But we have discovered that smaller, less renowned wineries often have a few wines that offer excellent quality.  Our recent experience at Black Stallion falls into this category.  In many instances, these better wines are only available at the winery or to their club members.  If they are opening them at their tasting rooms, it is often to entice you to join their clubs.  But you can enjoy them without joining.
  • Some wineries that make mass production wines can also have a few that excel. Even though you may have bought some of their easily available wines and not cared much for them, it’s worth giving these wineries a chance when you’re in Wine Country, especially in Napa Valley.  We have tried – and bought – some gems from Clos du Val and William Hill, for example, that really exceeded our expectations.
  • With the prices for seated tastings running so high, it might make sense to include a few lower cost wineries when you’re in Napa Valley. Remember that the overall experience provides as much pleasure as the wines themselves.  If you know of a tasting room or patio that has something extra to offer, such as art or an attractive setting, you may choose to just relax with a few tastes of wines that don’t leave you in awe, but are enjoyable in themselves.  And you may find that there is one wine that is better than you anticipated.  Our experience at Cosentino, with a tasting fee of “only” $30, falls into this category.
  • Visit wineries that you already know make less expensive wines you know you like. Many people have a few go-to wines you buy just for an informal meal or an easy afternoon outside.  Visit those wineries.  You know in advance that they make at least one wine that suits your tastes.  It may well be that they have others you haven’t had the occasion to try.  It’s certainly worth taking a chance with them.

Napa Town

As you travel up the Napa Valley, you drive through several small towns, including YountvilleSt. Helena and Calistoga.  They are charming, but they are generally one main street, four or five blocks long, that feature restaurants, tasting rooms and galleries.  They are not small cities.  But at the bottom of the valley there is the town of Napa.  With a population of nearly 80,000 people, Napa is a small city with all the plusses and minuses the term implies.

The view from the Napa River.  Photo courtesy of

Napa has a distinct downtown of about thirty square blocks.  Unlike the other towns mentioned, there is a definite urban feel to Napa.  At one time, not so long ago, there wasn’t much to interest the visitor.  Those days are long past.  Today there is a vibrancy there that owes a lot to wine tourism, of course, but also to some civic decisions to make the town more attractive to visitors.  Alas, this has resulted in nearly impossible parking near places you might want to go, although valets and large parking lots have eased the situation.

In 2015, we wrote about wine tasting at Napa’s in-town tasting rooms.  The overall tone was, well, less than exultant.  There weren’t many places to go and the quality was spotty.  At last count, there are now about thirty places in downtown Napa where you can have a tasting.  We haven’t visited all of them by any means, but we can say that there are some fine wines to be tried there.  Some of the better known labels are Alpha Omega, Buena Vista and Mayacamas.

The Oxbow Public Market.  Photo courtesy of Candlelight Inn.

We have written before about the Oxbow Public Market.  It falls somewhere between a tourist attraction and a local food and wine resource.  A bit away from the downtown area (or maybe now an extension of it), the market is certainly worth visiting, both for wine tasting and dining or both together.  And the views of the city are superb.

Napa is the seat for the county.  Therefore, there are all the public services there such as the county government, police and fire departments.    In that same vein, it’s where you will find doctors, dentists and barbers.  It is unlikely you will need them and they aren’t among the reasons for which you would visit Napa, but it’s good to know where they are, just in case.

Much of the renaissance of Napa Town has been led by the restaurants, of which there are many.  We have long had our standbys, including The Bounty Hunter and Cole’s Chop House.  We also like to experiment with new places, and as with all experiments sometimes we have been happy and sometimes not.  As with much of California, there is a large Mexican population in Napa, so there are now several Mexican restaurants.  In fact, as you drive into town along Soscol Avenue, you will see truck after truck selling Mexican fare.

If you are touring Napa Valley, you ought to include some time in Napa Town.  As we have previously counseled, it is often a good idea to avoid Route 29 on weekends and spend time doing in-town tastings.  For that, Napa should definitely be on your list.