By Tyler Allen Explorebigsky.com Contributor
I was in a quandary.
It was 11 a.m., and I was drinking a
delicious coffee from the Model Bakery
in St. Helena, Calif. Then my host
produced two half-consumed bottles of
My sensibilities as a wine drinker and
coffee addict were pulling me in opposite
directions—sure, it was early, but
we were in Napa Valley, the heartland
of American winemaking. I resolved to
chug the rest of the strong brew as soon
as it cooled, and poured a modest glass
of dark purple, single estate Cabernet
Sauvignon. For a mountain enthusiast
from Montana, it was starting to feel
like a powder day in wine country.
Wine has been produced in the Napa
Valley since the early 19th century.
One of America’s top wine growing
regions, the valley is only five miles
across at its widest. Because of its
proximity to the ocean, Napa has a
temperate maritime climate with warm,
sunny days and cool nights during the
growing season: ideal for grapes to
ripen slowly and evenly.
‘Slow and even’ was my mantra as we
embarked on a day of tasting at some of
Napa’s premier wineries. We stopped
at the local market, Sunshine Foods, to
gather lunch provisions—hard meats
and cheeses, soft baguettes and fresh
fruit grown in the valley.
Our next stop was Ehlers Estate, a
small, 43-acre winery that is 100
percent organic and biodynamic. The
founder of the vineyard died of heart
failure in 2002, and all the profits from
this winery are donated to cardiovascular
research. Their wines are as
unique as their business model; Napa is
renowned for its Cabernet Sauvignon,
but Ehlers produces fine Cabernet
Franc, a varietal that is usually reserved
for blending with other grapes. The
2008 was big and full bodied, and the
tasting notes made mention of black
cherry, cigar wrapper and charred meat.
I didn’t pick up the cigar wrapper, but
it certainly was a bold, delicious wine.
They also produce a rosé from the same
grapes that was bright and crisp, with
low alcohol content that suited the
midday drinking hour.
Then, we drove up the long, hair
pinned road to Pride Mountain Vineyards,
a 235-acre estate straddling the
boundary of Napa and Sonoma counties.
Here, we toured the large cellar,
its long hallways lined by oak barrels.
Pulling a sample of a 2008 Cabernet
from one of these barrels, the wine
educator extolled its virtues: Although
it hadn’t been refined by the bottleaging
process yet, it still revealed the
depth and structure that this grape is so
After a picnic lunch overlooking vast
rows of vines, the Napa Valley lying
below, we drove the rollercoaster back
down to the valley floor. At least one
of us caught a quick catnap before we
descended upon Duckhorn Vineyards,
the crown jewel of our tasting itinerary.
Founded in 1976, Duckhorn Vineyards
quickly became one of Napa’s elite
wineries. They specialize in the red varietals
Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot
(despite what you think you learned
from “Sideways,” Napa produces
exceptional Merlots), and make a very
affordable Sauvignon Blanc- a fresh,
crisp and not overly sweet white.
The sun was down, and we were all still
standing, with varying shades of purple
teeth. Unless you plan on ending your
day with a $300 meal at the French
Laundry, Gott’s Roadside is not to be
missed. An icon in Napa Valley, Gott’s
grinds their local burger meat daily
and uses fresh and local ingredients
whenever possible. We ordered hearty
burgers and washed down the day’s
wine with some of California’s best
brews—Anchor Steam Liberty Ale and