For more than half a century, California’s Napa Valley has been one of the preeminent wine-growing regions in the country (and the world). In the Valley's early days, visitors could roll up to a winery and sample the wine for free — and even have the chance to chat with the winemaker themselves.
Over time, though, the experience has changed. Now, almost all wineries charge a fee; some wineries require appointments; and most tastings follow a similar setup: belly up to the bar or take a seat at a table and sniff, swirl, and sip your way through several wines.
However, once you’ve done it at a few wineries, the experience can begin to feel a little predictable. But recently, several wineries have been upping the ante and shaking up the traditional tasting with more immersive and unusual experiences that break this well-established mold. Here are some of the best new wine-tasting experience in Napa Valley.
1. Blind-taste like the pros at Hill Family Estate. Put your palate to the test in Hill Family Estate’s cozy downtown Yountville tasting room, where their blind tasting includes four wines served in black Riedel glasses that conceal the wine’s color. Rather than being told what you’re drinking (and what you can expect to smell and taste), you’ll rely on your own senses to answer questions like: is this a red or white wine; was it aged in stainless steel or oak; is it young or old; and finally, what varietal (or mix of varietals) is the wine made from? Tasting room staff encourage friendly wagers among friends, which makes the experience more fun than serious. At the end, the highest-scorer of each group receives a prize ($45 per person).
2. Start early at Barnett Vineyards or Ehlers Estate. Most wineries open around 11 a.m., but Barnett Vineyards, which is set high on Spring Mountain, gets the day started even earlier. The winery offers a 9 a.m. “breakfast tasting” in summer ($125 per person). Early risers can head to the mountain-top winery as fog blankets the valley floor below, and taste three vintages of the winery’s flagship Rattlesnake Cabernets while the fog dissipates as the valley comes to life.
If you're looking for a more affordable option, Ehlers Estate in St. Helena offers a similar early-morning tasting. Their 9:30 a.m. “Start Your Day Tasting Experience” includes a walk through the gardens and samples of their estate-grown wines accompanied by freshly baked croissants ($50 per person).
3. Try an unusual pairing at Priest Ranch, Artesa, or Tamber Bey. Wine and cheese? That’s old news. Several wineries are switching up the usual pairings for something more adventurous. Priest Ranch in downtown Yountville offers guests the opportunity to partake in a one-of-a-kind bacon and wine tasting experience that includes four wines paired with four types of bacon ($55 per person).
Hungry for more atypical wine tasting experiences? At Artesa Winery on Napa’s southern end, guests can choose from a variety of pairings, including Spanish tapas, artisanal cheeses, chocolates, or caviar, to accompany the wines ($60 per person and up, depending on which pairing you choose). And at equestrian-themed Tamber Bey Vineyards, wines are paired with savory cookies (think “black bacon,” “lemon loop,” and “cardamom crunch"). From $60 per person (tastings from $45 per person; the cookie pairing is $15 per person add-on).
4. Get hands-on at Sequoia Grove or Amici Cellars. Take the “Cabernet Culinary Challenge” at St. Helena’s Sequoia Grove and put your culinary skills to the test. Guests divide into teams for a hands-on creative competition to devise the perfect pairing for a glass of the winery’s cabernet. Each team is given a basket of crostini and 12 different toppings and the winner is chosen based on creativity, flavor, and how well their creation compliments the wine ($65 per person; groups must be four people or more).
At Amici Cellars in Calistoga, the vibe for their “Summer Fridays” half-day experience is a little less competitive and a lot more relaxing. Guests will join owner John Harris and visit the St. Helena Farmer’s Market for a refined “foraging” experience to select the best of the market’s bounty to pair with Amici wines. Back at the winery, there’s a tour of the grounds and a tasting of Amici’s limited single-vineyard wines. Guests even get two bottles of wine to take home and pair with the items selected at the market ($125 per person).
5. Make a four-legged friend at Shadybrook Estate or Tamber Bey Vineyards. Get to know Napa’s rural roots with Shadybrook Estate’s Ultimate Ranch Experience ($155 per person). Guests can amble through the hills and vineyards of Coombsville on a 30-minute trail ride and take in the beauty of the region from horseback as they learn about its history and terroir. Afterwards, guests return to the ranch for a pairing of the winery’s estate wines along with cheese and charcuterie. Tamber Bey (the same winery that offers the cookie pairing mentioned above), invites guests to meet its horses on its Winery and Ranch Tour, which includes a tasting and a tour of their Sundance Ranch (from $45 per person).