Not many people visit California’s Napa Valley in the winter. The grape harvest has long since taken place, the vines are brown and bare, and the famous Chardonnays and Cabernets are growing old in their barrels. But for those that make the effort, traveling to Napa in the off-season can bring some unexpected rewards.
I arrived in California last week to await the arrival of my new nephew. His due date was Friday, but the stork decided to be fashionably late. Rather than encourage the bird’s tardiness, my mother and I instead encouraged our thirst for the products of one of our state’s great wine producing regions.
The Napa Valley is one of the best places to go wine tasting in California. People from all over the world flock to its vineyards in the spring, summer, and fall, hopping from winery to winery, tasting room to cellar door.
While locals tend to avoid it in favor of less crowded, less commercial areas like Sonoma and Russian River, it’s hard to beat Napa when it comes to grapes like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
This is especially true in the winter, when the usual crowds are gone and it is possible to get counter space at Napa’s tasting rooms without having to (delicately, respectfully) use one’s elbows.
This was certainly the case at the first winery we visited in Napa. The Hess Collection is located deep in the oak-studded hills, and its tasting area had plenty of room for us.
We sampled everything from Sauvignon Blanc to Zinfandel, and of course the famous Cabernet Sauvignons. The man that poured our wines even had time to talk us through each one, something that would have been difficult in the busy summer season.
We also had time to take a guided tour with only six people on it. During the tour, we learned that the winery was started during Prohibition by a man that thought that he could escape the law if he hid his business away in the hills. Sadly, he was mistaken.
The local Christian Brothers were allowed to purchase the winery and continue production under the guise of making sacramental wine for the church. Loophole!
Years later, Swiss art collector Donald Hess took over, and today the winery is not only home to the famous Napa Valley wines, but also his impressive collection of contemporary art.
Our tour of the Hess Collection winery took us through the gallery, where we saw the works of Francis Bacon and other famous artists from around the world. Best of all, we had the whole place to ourselves. It certainly beat a busy day at the Tate Modern.
Leaving the winery, we encountered another benefit of visiting the Napa Valley in winter: the flora. While the grapevines were bare and leafless, the fields around them were bursting with tiny yellow flowers. Add to that the bright blue sky, brilliant sunshine, and 70 degree (20 degree C) weather, and we had to keep reminding ourselves that it was February.
The same was true when we arrived at our next winery, Domaine Chandon. It is best known for its sparkling wines and beautiful outdoor seating areas. In the summer, it is a miracle to find a table, but on this pretty winter day, we sat right down in the afternoon sun and imbibed our bubbles among the old oaks.
As if our day of wine tasting in Napa hadn’t already gone perfectly, we happened upon yet another benefit of visiting during the off-season: getting a table at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon restaurant in Yountville without a reservation.
It’s not quite the same thing as getting a table at his other restaurant in town (that’s The French Laundry for those that don’t know their Napa Valley Michelin stars), but it was still something that we couldn’t have done in the summer.
Dinner was a feast of sunchoke-and-cauliflower soup, farro salad, steamed mussels with black truffle fries, Idaho trout, and chocolate bouchons with peanut butter sauce and salted caramel ice cream, all washed down with an elegant Freeman Pinot Noir.
The dinner at Bouchon was a great way to finish our day in the Napa Valley. As we traveled back to San Francisco on traffic-free roads and wide-open highways, we vowed to make our winter visits to California’s wine country a regular occurrence. We just hope nobody else catches on to our idea. Shhhhh…