Weekend getaways are my go-to travel options most of the year, given my full-time job and freelance activities. Besides city breaks and sports travel, I often take trips to wine regions.
Living in Paris means I am within a train ride from some of the best luxury wine experiences: Bordeaux, Champagne, Burgundy. When French people ask about wine in America, I tell them to visit wineries in Sonoma and Napa outside San Francisco, where you can sip award-winning wines with views of expansive, hillside vineyards and Northern California oak forests.
My wish list for next time includes Napa Valley vacation home rentals, going on a leisurely hike or two, finding new tasting rooms to visit, and returning to a few favorites from before. Ideally, I would get to talk with winemakers about their craft, like I did in Sonoma’s family-run wineries and during estate walks in the Loire Valley.
Napa has over 400 wineries with tasting rooms. Some are smaller, others feature restaurants and shops, even art galleries and concerts. Some focus on one grape variety, others on several. There are wineries that offer workshops and vineyard tours. How to choose where to start?
Perhaps with luxury wine experiences. In contrast to the more low-key Sonoma, Napa Valley is known for grandeur, so take advantage!
Here are two suggestions that can easily fit into a one or two-day itinerary. Let them serve as a starting point for your exploration of the region.
The name brings back memories of watching a sunset over southern Napa Valley from the terrace of this lavish estate, while sipping remarkable sparkling wines and pinot noir paired with a cheese plate. As I sat at a round metal table, similar to ones you see in French cafés, I could feel the evening breeze coming from the hills and vineyards.
The hillside château at Domaine Carneros is a prime example of Napa’s splendor. It was founded by the Taittinger family – of Champagne fame – and designed after their 18th– century mansion in Epernay, France, Château de la Marquetterie.
A grand staircase, surrounded on both sides by trimmed bushes and seasonal flowers, leads you to the main entrance of the estate and visitor center. You can get a glass or sampling flight on the terrace or enjoy table service inside the Louis XV-inspired salon.
If you are interested in the history and production process of sparkling wine and pinot noir, there are guided tours three times a day. Specialty and group tastings with a wine educator are also available. You’ll need a reservation, so plan your visit ahead of time.
Domaine Carneros | 1240 Duhig Road, Napa CA 94559
(707) 257-0101 | www.domainecarneros.com
Napa Valley Wine Train
If you like to drink your wine – not spit it – during a tasting, but are traveling without a designated driver, the Napa Valley Wine Train may be for you.
This luxury wine experience onboard vintage Pullman-Standard Company railcars (most of them dating back to 1915) is a three-hour, 36-mile journey from downtown Napa to St. Helena and back. The train takes you past well-known historic wineries and through the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve, slowly revealing the region’s striking scenery of hills, meadows, and woods.
Slow is the keyword. The 10-car eco-friendly train (running on compressed natural gas) travels at about 15-18 mph, setting the tone for the entire experience.
The moment you sit by the window in a velveteen lounge chair, a glass of Napa Valley wine in hand, the pace changes. You are transported to the foregone era of luxurious, elegant train travel. I remember feeling nostalgic for what I only knew from classic Hollywood movies – and wishing that I was wearing a floor-length dress instead of denim. The surroundings called for a dress code.
The films I could think of at the time – Strangers on the Train, North by Northwest – featured scenes in a dining car and conversations with strangers. Not surprisingly, the Napa Valley Wine Train is a moving restaurant and you get to share a table with other passengers – minus the dramatic plots. Multiple-course, gourmet meals showcasing California cuisine are freshly prepared in three onboard kitchens (if you have dietary restrictions, mention them when making a reservation).
You can book a train-only experience – there is plenty of wine to try. But you may also choose a package that includes a tour and wine tasting at one of the Wine Train’s partner wineries. I did the latter and got to visit the Grgich Hills Estate with a small group of passengers. There was plenty to learn.
The winery was founded by Chroatian-American winemaker Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, whose 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay won a blind tasting in 1976, beating the best wines of France. The event became known as the “Judgement of Paris” and put Napa on the global wine map. The original bottle is now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Mr. Grgich is still involved in winemaking.
Napa Valley Wine Train | 1275 McKinstry Street, Napa CA 94559
(707) 253-2111 | www.winetrain.com
Which of these Napa Valley experiences would you like to try? Are there any that you would add to the list? Leave a comment to let me know.