My Favorite Napa/Sonoma Wineries to Visit

There are those that say Vegas is like Disneyland for adults. While I love Vegas as much as the next guy, for my money the Napa/Sonoma area of California wine country is more deserving of that distinguished title. With its stunningly beautiful scenery, perfect weather conditions, phenomenal restaurant and foodie scene and of course an overload of the very best wineries in the US… it offers everything the wine loving adult could possibly desire.

Upon my last visit I found some new spots that I really enjoyed, but still have my all time favorites from past trips that will always hold a special place in my heart. So while trying to narrow it down to a handful of the very best wineries to check out for a tour/tasting ain’t easy,  here are my top picks in each region that are not to be missed on your next wine country excursion.

Sonoma

Sbragia Family Vineyards

What was once the old Lake Sonoma Winery is now one of the best destination spots in all of Sonoma. Gaze over the Dry Creek Valley while enjoying some of the finest wines produced in the region. Iconic Napa wine making pioneer Ed Sbragia was producing wine for Beringer as far back as the 1970s and is one of the original winemakers responsible for putting Napa on the map. Now he’s crafting a stellar lineup of Sonoma juice with his son Adam, alongside a super friendly and knowledgeable staff. Ed has successfully created his own family legacy with his impressive portfolio of Sbragia wines. Ed and Adam make quite a number red and white varietal wines you can sample via their various tasting options, and if you catch him on the right day Ed may even taste you through his lineup… which is comparable to playing a pickup one on one game with Michael Jordan.

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Zichichi Vineyards

Steve Zichichi was a physician in New Orleans before his second career as a serious winemaker. For years he was just selling grapes from their Dry Creek vineyard, but after Katrina hit his family hard, he and his wife Kristin packed up and went all in with their Dry Creek winery. Since then he has been producing some amazingly powerful, yet elegant, Zins and a Petite Sirah. Some years back he added a Cab to his arsenal, and all of his juice is truly well crafted and ageable. This winery is worth the visit as much for the wine as it is for the southern hospitality and picturesque views. Steve has also been known to grab the wine thief and get into the barrels, which if given the opportunity I highly recommend joining him.

Moshin Vineyards

If you like  extracted, refined and downright tasty Russian River Pinot hand crafted by a mad wine scientist then get yourself to Moshin… fast. Just down the hill from Gary Farrell, Rick Moshin has been producing small lot, high quality Pinot for decades since he retired from his college math teaching career. Having had a hand in producing Pinots for top producers in the region, he eventually purchased his own vineyards and set up shop in the RRV. His line of limited production, single vineyard Pinots are certainly the highlight of the tasting. However he produces a variety of whites, reds, blends and dessert wines… and on the right day he may taste you through every single one (as he did on this particular day from the pic above). And if you can get back there for a barrel tasting with Rick, it’s a treat to see how all those puppies are aging at various stages of their lives. While in the area, it is certainly worth heading up the hill to Gary Farrell as well for their simply gorgeous views and of course stunning Pinot and Chard offerings.

Chateau St. Jean

I visited here on my first trip to Sonoma some10 years ago… and the memories it provided have not faded one bit. With its flower filled European style garden, the estate itself is worth the price of admission. My wife and I were lucky enough to enjoy our portfolio tasting out on the deck, which is all inclusive of the ridiculous views of the Sonoma Valley as well as some top notch charcuterie. CSJ produces all kinds of varietal wines such as Chard, Fume Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Cab, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot, Malbec and of course their show stopping high end red blends like Cinq Cepages. The undeniable charm of the estate and those that provide these memorable tastings make CSJ a must visit.

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* * Other top notch wineries to visit include Jordan, Bella, St. Francis, Landmark,                                 J Vineyards & Rodney Strong (right next door to each other)

Napa

Pride Mountain Vineyards

This is hands down my favorite winery to visit…anywhere! The drive to get there is a tad treacherous, but if you make it to the winery atop of Spring Mountain you can buy a shirt that says “I survived the ride to Pride”.  Aside from the unbelievable real estate, where half of the winery sits in Napa and the half in Sonoma, Tim Bouchet and the entire winery staff are about the friendliest folks you can imagine. A gorgeous interior tasting room/bar leads out to a patio that overlooks their estate vineyards and lake. As for the wines, it is hard to find any winery that has a more stellar portfolio from top to bottom.  The Cab Sauv and Merlot are renown for being produced from both Napa and Sonoma fruit, but their Cab Franc may be the show stopper of the lineup. Their cave tour includes barrel tasting of certain single lot Cabs that go into the Reserve Cab, which is as good as any cult wine out there at a ‘value’ price of $140. I’ve been there 3 times now and every time I leave I cannot wait for my next return visit.

Vineyard 29

Situated high up in St. Helena off Route 29 you will find one of the most impressive winery entrances in all of Napa. Massive steel front doors gain entrance to an extremely impressive gravity flow winery equipped with a gorgeous rooftop patio that features striking views of the valley.  While up there you can sip on some of their CRU selections to warm up your palate before getting into their big dog Estate wines. Director of Hospitality Austin Gallion provides not only an educational and fun tasting experience, but if lucky enough to join in one of his wine and food pairings in the cellar, you are in for something special. As a CIA trained chef who spent much time in France and the celebrated La Toque restaurant in Napa, he is the real deal on all levels. The Estate Cab Sauv and Cab Franc are incredibly well made and are meant for the cellar, while the Aida Estate Series Cab and particularly the Zin are opulent and complex but can be enjoyed in their younger years. As you can see, the view is not too shabby…

White Rock Vineyards

Off the beaten path in the southern foothills of the Stag’s Leap District is where you will find one of the most underrated, yet extremely impressive, producers in Napa. These guys are quietly crafting some of the best Chard, Syrah and Cab in the region, and doing so at fairly reasonable price points (relatively speaking of course). They have implemented an innovative aging system where the wine stays in bottle for years before release. Their caves have arches carved out in the walls where up to 6,000 bottles are stored in each nook, which is quite impressive to see up close. On a nice day, you can taste with the warm and knowledgeable peeps that work there while sitting at a tree covered, traditional style picnic table over looking their estate vineyards. Needless to say, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

Domaine Carneros

When it comes to winery visits, the experience can be as important as the juice itself… which Domaine Carneros fully understands. The Chateau is dramatically grand and impressive in every way possible.  From the giant stairways leading to the entrance to the gorgeous outdoor terrace complete with hillside vineyard views that go on for miles, this is a true Napa spectacle. And since it is in Carneros, you get that refreshingly cool afternoon breeze coming in from the San Pablo Bay. As for the wine, sparkling is the name of the game here. Founded by the Taittinger family, DC produces a number of various sparkling wines all in the traditional Champagne method… and they are solid to fantastic across the board. They also produce still Chardonnay, Pinot and a couple of other varietal wines for those not into the sparkling craze. There are few experiences as enjoyable as sipping some tasty bubbles while looking over the rolling hillside vineyards with friends and family on a warm summer day on the DC terrace.

** Other beauties are Staglin, Alpha Omega, Miner, Quintessa, Realm, Matthiasson,                      Del Dotto  & Joseph Phelps (their Insignia blending experience is way cool!)

 

Storing and Serving with Wine Enthusiast

Just thought I would share a couple of pieces I co-wrote along with some of the talented writers here at Wine Enthusiast. Some great information on how to decipher if you need a wine cellar/refrigerator, as well as what kind may be right for you, and how to serve all your wines like a pro!

Do You Need A Cellar?

Your Cheat Sheet To Serving Wine

A Weekend of Wine and Food…Westchester Style!

If you missed out on this past weekend’s festivities at the Ritz Carlton in White Plains…shame on you! In its third year, Westchester Magazine hosted a fantastic weekend full of culinary events loaded with lots of great juice and some of Westchester’s best restaurants. If you were there, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Check out my article from the Wine Enthusiast Magazine website for all the highlights and plenty of reasons to mark it on your calendar for next year!

Westchester Magazine Wine and Food Weekend Highlights

The Wine Cellar at Restaurant R’evolution!

Chefs Rick Tramonto and John Folse’s latest venture Restaurant R’evolution is located inside the Royal Sonesta Hotel in the heart of N’awlins. They selected Wine Enthusiast to handle the design of their 10,000 bottle climate controlled wine cellar.  I had the pleasure of working with Chef Tramonto and his staff in creating this elaborate showcase cellar. I have yet to see it in person, but it looks pretty impressive here. Check out the link below!

R’evolution Restaurant Wine Cellar

Westchester Wine Guy’s Guide to Wine Country

I recently returned from my third trip to the Napa/Sonoma region of California, and each time I go it gets harder and harder to come back. As a New Yorker, it is such a treat to experience the warmth, hospitality, landscape and fantastic wines that are inherent in the culture of Wine Country. This last trip was extra special as my wife and I brought our son for the first time. While he decided not to partake in the tastings, he really seemed to enjoy running through the vineyards and charming the ladies in the tasting rooms.

Upon returning from this excursion, I have gotten a pretty good handle on the places I really enjoy and what spots I make a priority to get to each time. So if you are planning a trip out West anytime soon (which I HIGHLY RECOMMEND), below are some wineries, restaurants and lodging accommodations not to be missed.

NAPA

WINERIES AND VINEYARDS:

PRIDE MOUNTAIN VINEYARDS: Not only does Pride offer one of the best views of Mount St. Helena, but they are producing some of the best Cabs and Merlots around. Just be careful getting up the mountain, as it is steep and can get a little hairy.

RUBICON ESTATE: This Francis Ford Coppola owned winery is a treat for all the senses. Gorgeous landscaping both inside and out (including a mini museum of Coppola’s movie paraphernalia), a restaurant inside to grab a bite, and a stellar array of reds makes this one a must see.

ARTESA/DOMAINE CARNEROS: I am grouping these together as they are a few minutes away from one another in Carneros. Artesa’s grounds are loaded with fountains and picturesque views to go along with a beautifully decorated tasting room…. Oh, and some pretty kick ass wines as well. Domaine Carneros offers an awesome bubbly experience. You can relax outside, enjoy the vineyard views while sipping on some tasty bubbles, or take the Art of Sparkling Wine Tour which is one of the better tours around.

ROBERT MONDAVI VINEYARDS: You have to see it once just for the historical importance as none of Napa would be what it is without Mondavi’s vision and… well… balls! Plus the Reserve Room pours some pretty incredible back vintage Cabs.

RESTAURANTS

MUSTARDS GRILL: This place is legendary for offering the freshest local fare (the farm is right outside the restaurant) and having a wine list that may take the whole night to get through. Fun, kid friendly and pretty reasonable.

BRIX: Just down the road from Mustards in Yountville, Brix offers a bit of an upscale feel and has a beautiful outside dining area with a full vineyard view. Great wine prices as well!

LODGING

THE OLEANDER HOUSE: Located in the heart of Yountville (in fact walking distance to Mustards),  this five room French Country Inn has it all. Cozy and comfortable rooms, a gracious host who cooks up a hell of a breakfast and a hot tub for that much needed post tasting relaxation.

WESTIN VERASA: This top notch hotel is right across from the Wine Train in Downtown Napa. It has a pool, a couple of really nice dining options and beautiful rooms. If you are traveling with your family, some of the rooms even have a full kitchen if you would rather not eat out every night.

SONOMA

WINERIES AND VINEYARDS

MOSHIN VINEYARDS: If you are in the Healdsburg area, you must take the quick drive to the Russian River Valley and visit Moshin. Named after owner, winemaker and overall genius Rick Moshin, here you will experience some of the BEST Pinot in all of California. And if you are lucky enough to catch him on the right day, Rick may even give you a private tour of his gravity flow winery… all impressive stuff!

ZICHICHI VINEYARDS: An ex-surgeon from New Orleans, Steve Zichichi up and moved his family after Hurricane Katrina to fulfill his dreams of making wine and owning a vineyard. Let’s just say he has overachieved… BIG TIME! His Zins and Petite Sirahs are out of this world and made in very limited quantities. So the only way to taste or buy them may be to make the trip to his Dry Creek Winery,  a worthwhile trip indeed.

CHATEAU ST. JEAN: There are few experiences in all of  Wine Country better than tasting on the outdoor patio area of Chateau St. Jean. Looking upon the mountainous surrounding terrain and sampling some of the best Chards and Cabs produced in Sonoma quite simply… doesn’t suck.

SBRAGIA FAMILY VINEYARDS: Ed Sbragia is an icon and legend in Napa, having been head winemaker for Beringer for the last 30+ years. He has now taken his talents to Sonoma and is producing some delectable Cabs, Zins, Merlots, Chards and Sauvignon Blancs under his latest project. His son Adam is involved with the wine making, and they have one of the best views in Sonoma overlooking the Russian River and Dry Creek Valleys. You may even get to do some tasting with the man himself if he is around, and he couldn’t be more humble or gracious about himself or his wines.

RESTAURANTS

THE GIRL AND THE FIG:  You can find this quaint little bistro situated right in the town of Sonoma . A fun and energetic atmosphere is only topped by the freshest of fruits, vegetables and herbs making for quite the dining experience.

ZIN:  Healdsburg Square is a lively area filled with tasting rooms, restaurants and fun shopping venues. For all the ZinHeads out there, Zin is the restaurant for you! With a diverse, yet succinct, menu including a handful of different meat and poultry options, there is something for everyone. Plus the Zin selection and prices on the wine list are phenomenal…sometimes cheaper than buying them at the winery!

LODGING

THE HAYDON STREET INN:  John and Keren will make you feel right at home with their lovely décor, charm, unbelievably delicious breakfasts and hospitality. Plus at 6:00 every night they offer a Wine Happy Hour in the garden sometimes featuring John’s homemade brick oven pizza and occasionally hosted by a local winery. No reason to stay anywhere else if you are in Healdsburg as it is a 5 minute walk to the square!

If you have any “can’t miss” destinations to hit in Wine Country that I have not mentioned, feel free to add a comment and let everyone know about it! And if you have yet to visit the Napa/Sonoma area, put it at the top of your list… you won’t regret it.  Cheers!

My Kind of Town, Chicago is…

Last week Chicago hosted the NRA Trade Show… no not the gun guys. This NRA is the National Restaurant Association and I guarantee this show blows away anything the other NRA can come up with, no pun intended. On top of discovering a bunch of new products, services and companies in the market, I was able to once again experience all that Chicago has to offer an everyday foodie and wine geek like myself, and man is it a lot!!

Chicago is one of those All American cities filled with lots of history, beautiful architecture, warm and hospitable people and fantastic culinary venues. They have everything from your local burger joint (like the Weber Grill), to a wine a based restaurant offering various flights of wine and cheese (Bin 36) to some of the best Steakhouses in the world (Chicago Chop House and Gibson’s to name a couple). This trip we hit up a few gems hidden in the Windy City.

Fans of Spark’s Steakhouse in NYC are not going to want to miss Gene and Georgetti’s Steakhouse in Chitown. While there is an Italian fare option available here, it is a good old fashioned Steakhouse loaded with perfectly cooked cuts of beef, delicious sides and a very reasonably priced wine list filled with all the Napa Cabs you would hope to see. It also has that same Goodfellas vibe that adds just a hint of danger with your meal… so if someone asks you to take a walk outside don’t be so quick to get up.

The Brazilian Steakhouse chain Fogo de Chao delivers a wonderful dining experience on all levels. It all starts with high quality beef and poultry sliced and served right at your table, and plenty of it. Add a kick ass salad bar, huge wine list and a restaurant enclosed by a custom wine cellar and you come up with a winning culinary combination.

If steak is not your thing, make Shaw’s Crab House the first stop on your list. Here you’ll find some of the best and freshest fish in the city. Try starting out with the cold seafood/shellfish appetizer paired with the Feudo di San Gregorio Falanghina…killer combo!

One of the most fun and energetic places in town is right around the corner from the historic John Hancock building, Bistro 110. It’s got that French Bistro look, feel and menu but with all the energy of Chicago. The Short Rib entry makes a great table appetizer to kick things off, and the Shrimp and Scallops over polenta in their green peppercorn sauce may be the winning dish of the trip. Lots of local and international selections on the well priced wine list, especially from the Rhone area of France.

While these are a few of my favorites, there are so many fantastic restaurants in Chicago that it’s hard to go wrong. As a New Yorker, Chicago is really a city worth visiting as it has so much to offer people of all ages. Just tons of energy and style, but with the warmth and charm that NYC can sometimes lack. I’m already looking forward to going back!

Looking for a close weekend getaway made for wine and food lovers… head to The Berkshires!

For as long as my wife and I have been together, we always try and take a winter trip to Lenox, MA in the Berkshires. Aside from the picturesque landscape, its old world charm and close proximity to many ski resorts and spas, it is also ideal for the Westchester foodie and wino!

 We like to stay at The Birchwood Inn which is a classic Colonial B & B built in the 1700’s. There are fireplaces in most of the rooms and it’s walking distance to the town of Lenox. The Innkeeper Ellen is definitely the hostess with the mostess. Not only does she make you feel comfortable and at home, but she can cook up a mean breakfast that will leave you satisfied until dinner!

 Just down the road in Lenox there are a number of dining options to choose from, all quality! There is everything from a Wine Bar (Alta), an upscale Italian Steakhouse (Prime), a Spanish tapas joint (Firefly), a couple of traditional Italian restaurants (Café Lucia and Frankie’s), a classic style cafe (Church Street Café) and a lively French Bistro, Bistro Zinc.

 The menu at Zinc is French in nature, but not too aggressive so that it is still very approachable to those who are not fans of the hardcore French fare. The French Onion soup and Mussels were definitely the highlights for the apps. For the entrée I went with the Steak Frites. I asked for it rare and it came it basically mooing (NICE!!), and my wife said the Grilled Salmon was the best she had ever had….literally!

 The wine list is obviously French in nature, however it’s small enough not to be overwhelming yet has enough variety to be appealing.  We ordered a bottle of 2005 Chateau Garraud Lalande de Pomerol (a Merlot based Bordeaux) which was outstanding!! In a store that bottle goes for about $28-35 if you can find it. The full bottle was $60 and the half bottle was only $28. Most of the wines were only about 2 to 2 ½ times what you would pay for it in the store, which has value written all over it.

 I am focusing on Bistro Zinc as we have eaten there a couple of times and really enjoyed it. However the food and wine value is found throughout the Berkshire restaurants, including all the ones mentioned above. If you are looking for a real historical place to check out, you can hit The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge. Built in 1713 it is filled with history,  friendly staff and an option of eating in a classic dining room or a tavern that looks like it hasn’t been touched since it opened. Their burgers and sandwiches are delicious and they serve beer crafted by the local Berkshire Brewing Company which makes for a tasty combo.