As the former author of Frommer’s Wine Country I’ve visited a lot of wineries in Napa and Sonoma and taken dozens of tours. One of the questions I get asked most by readers is, “Which winery has the best tour?” Well, that depends. If you don’t know anything about how wine is made, I recommend a comprehensive tour by one of the major wineries—they’ve got the Wine for Dummies thing down. The seven listed here are my top picks for an enjoyable weekend of learning the wine-making process.
The 217-acre Schramsberg champagne estate has a wonderful Old World feel and offers my all-time favorite tour and tasting experience. The sparkling wine that U.S. presidents serve when toasting dignitaries from around the globe also serves up the Wine Country’s best introduction to the méthode champenoise process of making sparkling wine. The highlight is visiting the 2.5 miles of hand-carved champagne caves complete with cobwebs, echoes, and loads of ambience—you’ll feel like you’ve landed in the middle of a Tom Sawyer adventure, and the tasting room is positively gothic. Be sure to book a tour in advance, because they fill up quickly.
Benziger Family Winery, Glen Ellen
Wine Spectator magazine hailed Benziger as having “the most comprehensive tour in the wine industry.” As soon as you arrive, you’ll know you’re at a family-run winery; in fact, you’ll feel instantly like part of the Benziger clan. The exceptional tour, which includes a 40-minute tram ride through the estate vineyards and caves, is both informative and fun, and ends with a tasting. Tram tickets are a hot commodity, so either arrive early or stop by the morning of to pick up afternoon tickets.
Robert Mondavi Winery, Oakville
As one of the most prominent wineries in Napa Valley, it’s only appropriate that Mondavi gives the most comprehensive tour in Napa Valley. The fascinating production tour covers all aspects of the winemaking process, including the destemmer-crusher, the tank room where fermentation is done, the bottling room, and the vineyard—all accompanied by a top-notch narrative. Make your reservations in advance if possible; these tours are not offered daily and get booked up, especially on weekends.
Domaine Chandon, Yountville
Founded by Moët et Chandon, the valley’s most renowned sparkling winery combines the grandeur of a world-class French champagne house with a hip, fresh, and festive tasting experience. Not only are the grounds sublime, but the comprehensive tour walks you through the high-tech facilities and the entire bubbly-making process, from the history of the winery to the cellars, riddling room, and bottling line. Tours are free and reservations aren’t necessary, but they do charge for tastings.
Sterling Vineyards, Calistoga
This dazzling white Mediterranean-style winery offers one of the most comprehensive self-guided tours in the entire Wine Country (it’s great for getting to know the winemaking process at your own pace). Sterling Vineyards is perched high above the valley atop a rocky knoll, and to get there you take an aerial tram that offers beautiful pastoral views along the way. Wine tastings of five varietals in the panoramic tasting room are included in the tram fare.
Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves, Sonoma
Gloria Ferrer is the Grande Dame of Sonoma Valley’s sparkling wine producers. Who’s Gloria you ask? She’s the wife of José Ferrer, whose family has made sparkling wine for 5 centuries. On a sunny day, it’s impossible not to enjoy sipping a glass of brut on the terrace of this palatial estate as you take in the magnificent views of the vineyards and valley below. During the guided tour you’ll learn all about the term méthode champenoise as you stroll past the fermenting tanks and the bustling bottling line and deep into the dark caves brimming with rack after rack of yeast-laden bottles.
St. Supery Winery, Rutherford
The outside of St. Supery looks like a modern corporate office building, but inside you’ll find a functional, welcoming winery that encourages first-time tasters to learn more about oenology. The self-guided tour lets you wander through the demonstration vineyard, where you’ll learn about growing techniques. They even have a “SmellaVision,” an interactive display that teaches you how to identify different wine aromas and attributes.
Insider Tip: Some of Napa’s best wine deals wine aren’t found at the tasting rooms, but at the Safeway supermarket in St. Helena, which has an enormous wine selection.
And if you have your own tips and recommendations on great wine tasting that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments to our blog below. We’d love to hear from you.