We stayed in Calistoga in the Napa Valley in early December, and purchased the Winter in the Wineries Passport for $60.00 each, which enabled us to enjoy wine tastings at seventeen local vineyards. The pass is sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce and is available from December 1 to February 1 each year. Simply by visiting two good wineries for tastings, you have already had more than $60 worth of wine tasting. The passport also offers discounts at other businesses in the city. You can buy the passport at the Calistoga Visitor’s Center, or at one of the participating wineries.
This video gives you a taste of what we experienced.
We love wine, but can honestly say that we are not wine experts. We were a little intimidated at the prospect of rating wines, but nothing prepared us for the wonderful experiences we had. These tastings are not only about wine, but about having lovely experiences while tasting wine. We spent a total of four days enjoying the experience, and here are our favorites:
Castello di Amorosa (Castle of Love)
The Castello di Amorosa vineyard is located a few miles south of Calistoga on Mt. St. Helena Road. The focal point is a 130,000-square-foot authentic Tuscan castle which was built lovingly by its owner over a 30-year period, using the same materials and construction methods that are used in constructing these same castles in Europe. To say that this is impressive is to say that beaches in Oregon are “nice”. We were in Italy this past May, and this castle could have been lifted from Tuscany and dropped in Napa. Not only that, but the finishing details are jaw-droppingly gorgeous – right down to the painted murals across the stalls in the restrooms.
We made our way to the southern turret of the castle to photograph the breathtaking views over the Napa Valley, and then made our way to the grand hall, central courtyard, and of course the tasting room. For an additional charge you can take a guided tour of the castle, including the torture chamber, yes – a torture chamber. We did not take the tour, but it did look fabulous.
Now to the wine – we enjoyed five different wines – a Sangiovese, an old vine Zinfandel, two Cabernet Sauvignons, and one Estate Reserve. We decided that the Zinfandel was the winner. At $39.00 a bottle, it was also a bargain. It was also interesting to learn that none of the wine produced by Castello di Amorosa is sold at retail; it is all bought by members, who also enjoy exclusive events at the Castello during the year. There is a video reel in the tasting room that plays a video of the owner talking about the construction and events at the castle.
As we exited the castle we arrived in a penned livestock area with many breeds of chickens, goats, and even a couple of emus! And peacocks too! All in all, it was a wonderful experience in a charming setting.
Not far away from Castello di Amorosa is Sterling Vineyards. The winery is located up a hill and you take a gondola ride to get there. Yes, a gondola over the vineyards! Again, you have the breathtaking views of Napa as you ride up, as well as a little trepidation in being in a small glass cage. When you arrive at the top you are given two branded crystal glasses as gifts.
Then you are given a wonderful Chardonnay tasting and encouraged to sip and stroll through the facility. The wine-making areas are enclosed in glass with explanatory videos to show the wine-making process. Then you come across another white wine tasting station, a Viognier this time. Both whites were crisp and flavorful, with the Viongier being our favorite.
You then double back to the entrance and proceed up a flight of steps to the formal tasting room. The people were extremely friendly, and the room was warm and inviting (including a lovely roaring fire for ambience). Again, it is the experience that makes the trip worthwhile.
At Sterling Vineyards there is a chef on duty, so you can order a plate of snacks to enjoy with your wine. There was hummus, a charcuterie, cheese, or combination plate. We chose the combination plate and enjoyed wine salami, prosciutto, a mild cheddar-type cheese, and a sharper Parmesan type cheese, along with salted almonds and dried fruit. Delicious!
Our server was knowledgeable about the four red wines we sampled. This winery was the most generous of all the wineries, with six tastings. We tasted Zinfandel, two Cabernet Savignons, and then a super sweet white wine – almost like a desert wine – but it was delicious. Evidently, the soil in northern Napa is ideal for growing Cab Sav grapes. Our favorite red was the most expensive, Rutherford Cabernet. At $60.00 USD a bottle, we were not tempted to buy.
Clos Pegase Winery
This winery is located across the street from Sterling and had been recommended to us as one of the “must-dos” of the area. The building is imposing and very architectural, with a theme of spheres on the property.
We were offered an indoor or outdoor tasting. Since it was a bright sunny day, we decided to sample the wines outside. As we took our seats we were immediately reminded of our recent stay in Umbria, Italy. We were in the midst of the vines, some still with fruit on them.
We sampled four wines, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinor Noir, and a Merlot, with commentary provided by our host, Isaac, who was knowledgeable and very friendly.
We spent a pleasant hour or so on the patio, feeling very relaxed after sampling ten wines that day. Time for a nap … We were informed that each winery will never give you more than 6 oz of wine, so that you are safe to drive. Good to know!
Chateau Montelena Winery
The next day we headed a very short distance north of Calistoga to Chateau Montelena. This is a replica French chateau constructed in the 1920s by the Tubbs family, an iconic Napa family.
Everything about the Chateau Montelena was beautiful, from the facade to the tasting room.
The original structure was merely a façade for a storage facility for the family wine-making business. Over a couple of changes of ownership, the chateau was completed and is beautifully authentic.
There is also a Chinese garden around the small Jade Lake, so named for its deep green waters, I assume. There are wooden bridges leading to small picnic areas and two swans, along with many ducks. This lovely garden is a legacy of the period of time when the winery was owned by an Asian couple.
The tasting room is on the upper floor of the chateau, with two bars at each corner of the room. There were two other couples at our bar and we enjoyed learning about the history of the chateau and chatting with our fellow tasters. The wines we tasted were Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, and a Cabernet Sauvignon. We found them lovely to taste but outside of our price range. These were by far the most expensive wines we sampled. Again, the prices ensured we left without making any purchases.
Tamber Bey Winery at Sundance Ranch
This winery is located just on the outskirts of Calistoga, and is a working horse ranch as well as a winery. One has to make an appointment in advance, which we did a day ahead. Unfortunately, there were not many horses to look at, so we did not extensively tour the property, but it is beautiful.
We were seated in a lovely tasting room modelled on a cozy bar. We enjoyed three different wines, one Rose, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Rabicano. Our favorite was the Rose. It was spectacular! At $32.00 a bottle, we may yet go back to purchase a bottle.
Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga
There are a number of tasting rooms right in central Calistoga, clustered largely on the main street, Lincoln Avenue. Some are by appointment, others not. We selected three to visit the following day to do “sip and stroll” of the area. These tasting rooms do not have the same ambience as the vineyards, but we still enjoyed our time learning about the different wineries. We also discovered that wine tasting in small, uncrowded venues is a great way to get a chance to chat with the locals. And we found out that some of the wineries are so remote that a city-based tasting room is the only way you can enjoy their wares.
Romeo Vineyards and Cellars, Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga
First stop on our tour was the beautiful garden setting of Romeo Vineyards. We entered a lovely rustic tasting room, where we enjoyed four wines of our choosing. We selected a Petit Verdot Rose (Double Gold Winner in the 2018 American Fine Wine Rose Competition), which was so good we bought a bottle.
We also enjoyed a Cabernet Franc, a Bordeaux blend, and then the Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon … and then we were treated to a lovely port – Semper Vive Soiree! So good! We had to buy a bottle of that.
Maldonado Family Vineyards, Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga
We started this tasting with a taste of a wine called Maldonado Napa Valley Rose of Pinot Noir. It was absolutely delicious and at $15 USD was the best find of the whole week. This wine was very dry and light and had a wonderful mouth feel. Next, we sampled the Parr Pinot Noir, one of the best pinots we tasted. We moved on to their Zinfandel and Cabernet Savignon – yum! We also had a lovely chat with the young woman who served us the wine.
WH Smith Wines, Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga
Our last stop … sad. First up was the Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, followed by the Hellenthal Pinot Noir, and then the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. I’ve never been a big fan of Pinot Noirs, but this sampling has definitely changed my mind. These wines were smooth, wonderfully balanced, and well, tasty.
All in all, we drank far better wine that week than any other week of my life. Could we afford to keep this up indefinitely – NO – but it was a great treat and well, what one does in Napa!
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