Napa Valley to the Russian River Valley

Domaine Carneros, Napa, California

Finding myself in San Francisco on a Friday night, and with no immediate need to get home and back to work, I decided to spend the weekend in Napa Valley.

All the flowering trees were in bloom

Past experience has taught me to keep the tastings to a maximum of three per day.  Calling ahead for a reservation was required at only one of my stops on Saturday, but it is helpful to check to see if reservations are required.  First stop for Saturday was Domaine Carneros, for a taste of sparkling wine.  Their tasting area is a large and impressive chateau with a very grand staircase.  I ordered the tasting that compared four sparkling wines.  Two I liked, two I did not, but the price of the one I liked best, Blanc de Noir ($39), seemed excessive and why wouldn’t I just buy Veuve Clicquot?

Domaine Carneros sparkling line up

My second stop at J Vineyards, inspired by the WOPN sparkling brunch in Santa Barbara the previous weekend, was in the Russian River Valley.  It was over an hour drive from Carneros to J, but it is beautiful in places.  I had really enjoyed their Brut Rose and wanted to try more of their selections.  There is still ongoing construction at the J vineyards tasting facility, so a temporary area is set up outside.  I did the $20 Signature Tasting, 6 wines, but it did not include the bottle I ended up buying.  A good wine steward will offer something off the menu if they see you have a preference, and look like you may buy a bottle or two.  I ended up with two bottles of J Vineyards Estate Grown 2013 Robert Thomas Vineyard Pinot Noir.

J Vineyards in the Russian River Valley

J Signature tasting menu

J’s Brut Rose. They were sold out of the sparkling I had tasted at the WOPN

J Pinot Noir

The Camaro SS, my rental for the weekend, was oh so much more fun than the Mustang of the previous weekend and sported 455 hp.  It was quite thrilling on the back roads, and made it easier to make the tightly booked 3 pm appointment at Gary Farrell, stop number three.  Tastings are by appointment only at Gary Farrell so I had emailed them with my interest, and they called me back with time options.

The 2017 Camaro SS I had over the weekend. I was impressed with the car.

Gary Farrell tastings are set up in private tents.  Two other guests were scheduled for the same tasting as me and we had a fun time with Mario, our charming Italian wine steward.  Mario had good stories and pulled out some special wines, and I walked out with two bottles of Gary Farrell 2014 Pinot Noir Hallberg Vineyard – Dijon Clones   Pinot Noir.

The tasting tent at Gary Farrell


With dinner recommendations from my two tasting partners at Gary Farrell, I headed to Healdsburg in search of the Italian restaurant that was mentioned.  I’d never been to Healdsburg before, and it’s a cute little town.  I’d like to go back some time to take a closer look.  The original restaurant recommendation did not work out, but I was sent to a sister restaurant, Campo Fina.

A street in the cute little town of Healdsburg

After dinner I made the drive back to Napa and the beautiful little boutique B&B in Napa I had found, Milliken Creek Inn and Spa.  I would recommend it.

Miliken Creek Inn and Spa lobby

A room at Miliken Creek Inn and Spa

Miliken Creek Inn

I had no planned stops for Sunday, but had been emailing Maggy Hawk, another discovery from the WOPN weekend.  My sister and I had tasted their Pinot Noirs and out of the over 80 vendors present, Maggy Hawk stood out to me.  Through back and forth emails, I came to understand that Maggy Hawk does not have its own tasting room, but is part of the Spire group.

Quintessa’s gate

With no particular vineyard in mind, and no agenda other than good photographs, I headed north along the Silverado Trail.  The trees were all flowering, and it was a beautiful day, but the vines were all in their winter dormant stage, so not terribly photogenic.

The dormant grape vines this time of year. Pruning will be done soon, and the ground cover will be cut back

Still, when I saw a winding road going up a hill, I turned onto the drive and headed up to Rutherford Hills Winery.  This vineyard and tasting room has a gorgeous view and guided tours of the ground, caves, and tank room.

The Rutherford Hills facility. The flowering trees are ornamental pears.

The view into the valley from the Rutherford Hills Winery

I arrived just in time to join a guided tour and tasting for $40.  The Italian heritage of the owners is evident in the antique Italian chandeliers in the caves and the stylish accouterments.  The tasting I enjoyed the most was their blend, Episode.  I did not purchase any wine here though.

Rutherford Hills tasting room

The doors to the wine caves at Rutherford Hills. The caves are on the tour

The chandelier is an Italian antique, inside the wine caves

A closeup of the Rutherford Hills antique Italian chandelier

There were three of the chandeliers

The Rutherford Hills wine I liked the best was a blend called Episode

After completing the tour at Rutherford Hills, I decided to stop at Hall Vineyards, a short distance away on St. Helena Highway.  I’d recently read Craig and Kathryn Hall’s book A Perfect Score, and had enjoyed a bottle of their 100 point Cabernet.  It seemed fitting to visit the tasting room and I wanted to see the art collection the Hall’s mentioned in their book.

Bunny Foo Foo greets guests at the entrance to Hall Vineyards

The tasting room at the Hall facility

There are many wines to taste at Hall

Pouring Jack’s Masterpiece

The Hall tasting room was beautiful, the view was great, and the wine samples were never ending.  At some point I had to stop and give myself a break, as I was beginning to get taste overload.  While at Hall, I got another email from Spire saying there were no tastings available for Sunday.  Not five minutes later however, my phone rang and they said I could “Come on up at 4:15”.

Hall tasting facility

Less than half an hour later I was being greeted by Estate Host Sam at Spire.  It is a “by appointment only” tasting room, owned by the Jackson family.  They own quite a few high end wineries and vineyards from several countries.  Maggy Hawk, the wine I was there to taste, is just one of the names.

The Spire tasting building;

The three Maggy Hawk Pinot Noirs I tasted at Spire

I tasted the three Pinot’s I remembered from the WOPN and also tried a 2015 Galerie Naissance Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc.  The tasting room was awesome, great views, and wide open doors to enjoy the fresh air and see vines.  I ended up joining the club and ordering 6 bottles.  Sam was very gracious to accommodate my last minute request late Sunday afternoon.

Sam also gave me another recommendation for dinner on my way south, Farmstead.  I did have dinner there and it was good.


My observations from the weekend include:

  1.  A reinforcement of the three tasting maximum per day
  2. I loved the Camaro SS and would buy one if I already didn’t have too many vehicles.
  3. I would highly recommend Miliken Creek Inn and Spa.
  4. Don’t miss out on the tasting experience at the Spire Collection,
  5. Hall Vineyards has a LOT of nice Cabernets.
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5 Responses to Napa Valley to the Russian River Valley

  1. erikw says:

    Wow! Very much enjoy these postcards and commentary on travel, Thx. You may have to publish some day… 🙂

    • Thank you Erik. Glad you like the pics. I hear it’s been a bit wet up in the Great NW.

      • erikw says:

        Pfff… It’s been cold, icy, snowy, wet, and any combination of the above for more months than I have fingers on my left hand. I saw a sign downtown that read 64 degrees yesterday and I nearly wept with joy. Your travel (photo) journals and family commentary are very much appreciated as they remind me to travel more (to sunny climes) and to soak up family lore. Perhaps I’ll plant potatoes tomorrow and manifest some sunshine… Cheers!

  2. Augie & Teresa Favazza says:

    Love the doors to the wine cave at
    Rutherford Hills and the chandelier,
    those Italians know how to do it right!

  3. Fantastic inspiration for my next trip. Like most people, I’m now obsessed with California wine country now that I’ve been!

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