Just northeast of the Bay Area, Napa Valley isn’t far from one of California’s biggest cities. But it certainly doesn’t feel that way. There’s something almost mystical about the wine region. Beyond it’s beauty—lush hills surrounding vibrant green vineyards and bright blue skies—the region has a peaceful atmosphere. On my first trip to Napa at the beginning of the summer, I didn’t feel as if I’d been transported to another state, but to another world…one where I was totally carefree.
Blissful Napa Valley is one of the most romantic getaways there is. But, luckily, it’s also the perfect destination for groups looking to bond over some relaxation. And what better way to relax than to indulge in the many, many wines the area has to offer?
While the number of wineries in the valley is in the hundreds, trade in a traditional wine tasting for some of these more unique wine experiences. From north to south, these activities will give your group the chance to explore Napa Valley in its entirety while trying something new and exciting.
Wine in a Medieval Setting
Throughout the Napa Valley wine region, you’ll find tasting rooms in beautiful settings with picturesque views. But none are quite as magnificent as a trip to Castello di Amorosa.
This medieval castle, modeled after those built in Italy in the 13th century, is an absolute treasure. The property is owned by the founder of long-time Napa winery V. Sattui, crafted in honor of his childhood dream to own a castle. After more than a decade of extensive research on how to make the castle authentic, Sattui imported stones from Italy and had them hand-chiseled by European masons to erect the building, which also features things like turrets, numerous dungeons and even a drawbridge over a moat.
Castello di Amorosa brings a little slice of Europe to California. Sitting up on a hill, the stunning property is surrounded by colorful flowers while chickens roam nearby. Head into the castle and have your entire group sign up for a guided tour. The hour-long trip will take you to the Grand Hall, up to the turrets to take in the views and then out back to some of the wine production stations. Then, you’ll head underground to the dungeons. Here, you’ll find wine cellars and aging areas filled with barrels and barrels of wine. But you’ll also have the chance to explore the armory and a torture chamber, complete with a 500-year-old iron maiden.
After the tour has concluded, your guide will your group to one of many tasting rooms, also resembling dungeons. Known for their handcrafted Italian-inspired wines, the boutique winery offers an array of red, white and dessert wines. Because each person can select his or her own wines (though anyone under 21 will be given muscat canelli grape juice), your group can share tastes to try more of the wines on the list, like the soft sparkling La Fantasia, a light and fruity summer red, or the sweet yet spicy white gewürztraminer.
The Art of Blending
Before I went to Napa Valley, I never knew just how much I wanted to create a blend of my own. And at The Wine Foundry, I was able to do just that.
The main focus of the company is to create custom wines for a variety of different people and brands all across the country. The Wine Foundry team helps grow the grapes and sort them before making the wine, aging it, bottling it and even labeling it. Another service they offer their customers is a private blending experience at their Napa tasting room. It was at this tasting room that I learned all about wine blending, with a Blend In session.
The public is welcome to take part in these classes, which will soon be moved over to a new tasting room at The Meritage Collection’s new Vista Collina Resort. So gather your whole group for an experience you won’t forget. Each participant will get a medium-sized bottle of cabernet sauvignon and small bottles of merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot.
There is a lot of science behind this experience, making it all the more interesting. Staff members will teach you the best way to taste wine—examining flavor, then feel, then reaction. Using a graduated cylinder, with each milliliter representing 1 percent of the blend, and a mouth pipette, you’ll all create your own practice blend. Then, using the knowledge you’ve learned about how the blend should taste and feel, you’ll make small changes to try to improve it.
It’s a very educational experience, perfect for wine lovers. But those who aren’t big into wine will enjoy it as well, as it’s more scientific and hands-on than your average Napa Valley wine tasting.
Just Like Family
A day of wine tasting can get complicated. In addition to choosing which wineries to visit, you’ll need to figure out transportation and what you’re going to eat. But a trip on the Napa Valley Wine Train takes all of the planning out of your hands. And your whole group can ride together.
The Napa Valley Wine Train offers a variety of tours, but we opted for the Famiglia Tour. As my family has always been close, this tour appealed to me most, as it only visits family-owned Napa Valley wineries.
We hopped on board around 10 a.m. for the all day excursion and settled in to our train car. Sitting facing the center aisle, we headed out of the city of Napa toward our first stop, Silverado Vineyards. On the way, we enjoyed views of the greenery as well as the first course of our four-course meal. Yes, that’s right, it’s a dining experience as well. As it was morning, we dined on ciabatta with smoked salmon and caviar plus a honey Greek yogurt parfait with mixed berries, then reached our first stop, where we took a shuttle to the vineyard.
At Silverado, we were given a tour of the property with wine tastings along the way. We paid a visit to the barrel room before making our way along the outside deck and finally to the tasting room. Co-owned by the late Diane Disney, Walt Disney’s only biological child, it held extra appeal for this Disney loving traveler.
Back on the train, we enjoyed an asparagus bisque and an organic salad on the way to Whitehall Lane. Here, we walked through the vineyards themselves, looking at the tiny green grapes and learning about the wine making process. We also visited the barrel room here, tasting along the way.
Our main course was up next, of which we could choose between a glazed salmon fillet and citrus-braised pork belly. Then we made our last stop, at Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford. Founded by a Croatian, this winery has a sister winery in Europe. We wandered outside near the vineyard, sipping as we went. We also paid a visit to the indoor winemaking facility before ending at the tasting room.
On the way back to Napa, we ended the experience with a dessert. The apple crostata was stuffed with mascarpone cheese, and it was impressively delicious—as all the food was.
Sure, the trip might take a little more time than a normal day of wine tasting would. But with the addition of the high-quality food, unparalleled views and chances to make new friends both on the train and at the winery, it’s a great way to experience the Napa Valley region as a whole.