Editor's note: Long before Chris Shepherd became a James Beard Award-winning chef, he developed enough of a passion for wine to work at Brennan's of Houston as a sommelier. He maintains that interest to this day. When Chris expressed interest in writing about wine-related topics for CultureMap, we said yes.
In this week's column, he suggests Napa Valley wineries to visit Take it away, Chris.
I try to visit Napa once or twice a year. I put together a guide for you to make the most of the Valley. This will be a two-part series.
This week, I’m only focusing on wineries. Next time, I’ll write about my favorite restaurants and bars.
Before you go, know that things have changed since 2020. More pre-planning is required, and having a good strategy is key to maximizing your experience. Gone are the days of getting on a bus going from winery to winery and just dropping in. Almost all wineries are reservation-only now and need to be booked in advance, which I believe is a good thing.
I never really understood why people would want to hit as many wineries as you could in a day — not only is that dangerous, but it’s not fair to the wineries. Let’s be honest. You probably won’t remember your sixth winery of the day.
I believe that the perfect scenario for this kind of vacation is visiting one winery in the morning, then lunch, and one winery in the afternoon. Most tastings are an hour to an hour-and-a-half, so be aware when you’re making reservations. Also, in the past, I’ve booked wineries without considering their location. Make sure you’re scheduling wineries that are in close proximity on the same day. And stay hydrated out there!
We’re lucky in Houston that we have access to a lot of wine here. But when you visit the wineries, you have access to past vintages, winery-only releases, one-offs, and other cool stuff. Make sure to ask for any special winery-only offerings.
Here's my list of favorites. What did I miss? Share your favorites with me!
Staglin Family Vineyard
What to taste: Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Why I like it: They produce a label called Salus that benefits mental health research. The Staglin family is incredibly philanthropic. Their Music Festival for Brain Health at Staglin Family Vineyard has raised over $460 million.
Fun fact: the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap was filmed at Staglin.
Robert Mondavi Winery
You can’t talk about Napa Valley without mentioning this winery. The man helped create Napa Valley.
What to taste: The Estate wines. To Kalon is one of the greatest vineyards in the world. So many of the cult wineries that people are searching for are buying fruit from this vineyard to make those wines. Respect the history. Mondavi is the OG.
Fun fact: Mondavi is about to begin a three-year renovation of the winery, so they’re moving the tasting room to downtown Napa.
What to taste: They’re most recognized for their Cabernet Sauvignon, but their Sauv Blanc is delicious.
This winery is really easy to find, because it’s right on Highway 29. Cathy Corison is an OG winemaker in the Valley, making some of the best wines out there.
What to taste: Her single vineyard wines are absolutely fantastic. The Cab Franc is a stunner, and her rosé is crisp, clean, and fantastic.
Heitz has been in Napa since the late 1960s, but they’ve recently seen a major renaissance thanks to new ownership and a new CEO, master sommelier Carlton McCoy. They’ve instilled a new tasting room style, which is formal but relaxed in a beautiful setting. Back vintages are readily available, and they’re always doing something cool.
What to taste: Martha’s Vineyard is one of the most exceptional vineyards in Napa, and it’s a real treat to try their wine from this vineyard. The Trailside Vineyard is my favorite. You can find back vintages of both at the winery. These wines are built to age.
Chateau Montelena Winery
If Robert Mondavi is the guy who built Napa, Chateau Montelena is one of the wineries that put Napa on the map. The movie Bottle Shock (I talked about this in a previous column. Rent it! It’s great!) is based on Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay beating out Burgundy’s top whites in a blind tasting involving only French judges in The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976. This event changed everything for Napa, and you know what? It’s still delicious.
What to taste: The estate wines are great. The Cab is fantastic. But the Chardonnay is what it’s all about to me. There’s a reason it won. And it’s a beautiful estate to visit.
We’ve talked about Dunn a few times in this column, and I just had the opportunity to visit them at the top of Howell Mountain. In the snow!
What to taste: The Napa Cab and the Howell Mountain Cab are absolutely stunning and worth the trip, but getting to try second generation winemakers Mike and Kara Dunn’s Retro Cellars was really special.
Miner Family Winery
I’ve been a fan of Miner for as long as I can remember. They buy the majority of their fruit, so you’re not just going to taste Cab here.
What to taste: The Oracle, a Cab blend, is their flagship (and rightfully so), but they produce Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands — Rosella’s Vineyard and Gary’s Vineyard. Dave Miner is a big Rhone wine lover, so he also makes Grenache/Syrah blends and white varietals like Roussanne and Viognier. This is a good wine club to join.
What to taste: Their Chardonnays are delicious, and their Pinots from Carneros are fantastic. Then there’s the elusive Abacus, which is a multi-vintage blend of Cabernet. The XXIV release is a masterful blend of 30 vintages of ZD Reserve Cab. How cool is that?
Robert Sinskey Vineyards
Arguably, they offer one of the coolest tastings in Napa. I’m a big fan of both their wines and their food. Maria Sinskey was a Food & Wine Best New Chef, so their food is some of the best at any winery I’ve visited.
What to taste: They produce a lot of really killer white wines. I’m very much in love with the Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. The rosé is out of this world. And their single vineyard Pinots and bigger reds are beautiful as well.
Fun fact: The Robert Sinskey Foundation funded Southern Smoke’s mental health program in California that allows us to provide free mental health counseling to anyone in the food and beverage industry in the state.
Chappellet is up on Pritchard Hill — we’ve talked about their Cabs before — It’s a beautiful setting.
What to taste: All the wines are fantastic, but the two you don’t want to sleep on are the Chenin Blanc and the Cab Franc.
We talked about The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976. Stag’s Leap SLV Cab was the winner in the red wine category! Spoiler alert—Napa swept France in ’76.
What to taste: The wines I truly love are Fay, SLV, and the Cask 23.
Long Meadow Ranch
I originally visited this winery back when I was at Brennan’s because of their olive oil production, and I fell in love with their wines, too.
What to taste: Located in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, they produce some stunning Cabernet and make a delicious Sangiovese as well.
Ashes and Diamonds
Ashes and Diamonds is new to the scene with a winery in a fun, mid-century modern setting. Their food program is really interesting. I’m not currently a member of this club, but maybe I should be. The perks are cool—picnics and swimming pools!
What to taste: The Grand Vin, a blend of Merlot and Cab Franc.
Beyond Napa Valley
If you want to get out of Napa Valley for a tasting or two, head north into Alexander Valley and visit Jordan Winery. They’ve been making wine since the ‘70s, and it’s a beautiful estate.
What to taste: They only make two wines — Chardonnay and Cabernet. I hadn’t tasted these wines in quite some time, but they took me back with their sense of place. It’s a consistently delicious, consistently well-made wine. It almost surprised me a little with how delicious it was.
If you have a free afternoon on a beautiful California day, head out to Scribe. Currently, only Scribe members can visit, but trust me. This is a great club to join. When you’re a part of the wine club, they ship you wines that I didn’t even know existed.
What to taste: One of the wines we got as part of the club was an Estate Sparkling Mission. The Mission grape was the first European grape vine planted in California but has been rarely planted since Prohibition. Their Pinots are great, and their white wines are, too. Some are more on the natural side, which is fun as well.
There are so many wineries in Napa, and this doesn’t come close to scratching the surface. You wouldn’t want to read an article that long! Everyone has their favorites, and that’s the beauty of traveling. Go find yours, and then let me know.
Contact our Wine Guy via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Shepherd won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2014. Last year, he parted ways with Underbelly Hospitality, a restaurant group that currently operates four Houston restaurants: Wild Oats, GJ Tavern, Underbelly Burger, and Georgia James. The Southern Smoke Foundation, a non-profit he co-founded with his wife Lindsey Brown, has distributed more than $10 million to hospitality workers in crisis through its Emergency Relief Fund.