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Winery Tour: Heart of Napa Valley

What could be simpler than to travel one road and have more than 50 world-class wineries along the way? Such ease can be found on Highway 29, the main road through Napa Valley. Check out eight of the region’s most recognized wineries, all just a left or right turn away from the main road

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1. Charles Krug Winery

2800 Main St, St. Helena, CA 94574; (707) 967-2229
This is Napa Valley’s first commercial winery, founded in 1861 by Charles Krug and taken over by Cesare Mondavi in 1943. After Cesare’s death, his sons, Robert and Peter Mondavi, carried on until Robert left in 1966 to found Robert Mondavi Winery. At the time of writing, Peter Mondavi (who turned 95 in November 2009) remained the winery chief, with sons Peter Jr. and Marc spearheading a winery and vineyard revitalization project that included new vine plantings and winemaking facilities.

The property is listed on the National Register of Historical Landmarks, and winemaking history abounds-from the tasting bars made from original redwood tanks to the 2008 renovation of the historic carriage house and redwood cellar.

Stop for the history, stay for a tasting, or take a glass of racy Charles Krug Sauvignon Blanc or complex, very fairly priced, Cabernet Sauvignon to the grand lawn. Take a seat and enjoy the calm and beauty. Picnickers welcome.

2. Beringer Vineyards

2000 Main St, St. Helena, CA 94574; (707) 967-4412
No first-timer’s visit to Napa Valley would be complete without a stop at Beringer, the oldest continuously operating winery in the valley (now part of the Foster’s Group). Founded in 1876 by German immigrants Frederick and Jacob Beringer, it features gorgeously landscaped grounds; tunnels dug by Chinese labourers, which are still used to store wine; the Hudson House, in which Jacob lived; and the Rihne House, Frederick’s Germanic mansion that is now the tasting room.

The range of wineries is vast, the tasting and tour operations extensive. Check the website for special tasting events throughout the year. There is something for everyone, from light, crisp, white and blush wines to Beringer’s famous Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons from selected Napa Valley vineyards. On weekends, the winery offers retrospective tastings of Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, its flagship red that has a tremendous following.

3. Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery

1902 Madrona Ave, St. Helena, CA 94574; (707) 963-0134
Continue south on Main Street and turn right on Madrona Avenue to Spottswoode. Don’t let the residential nature of the street fool you; there is indeed a winery up ahead, and a great one.

Some wine aficionados describe Cabernet Sauvignon as “masculine” and Pinot Noir as “feminine.” Yet both varietals can be made in bold, tannic styles or as floral, elegant and caressing wines. At the 125-year-old Spottswoode Estate, the all-female team of owner Mary Novak, daughters Beth Milliken Novak and Lindy Novak, and winemaker Jennifer Williams produces Cabernet Sauvignons that are classic Napa Valley yet with a bit more restraint and elegance than many-not masculine, not feminine, but something in between.

Their wines have great structure and ability to age; while they are rich and enjoyable when young, they payoff comes at around 10 years old, when secondary layers emerge, including violets, potpourri, sea salt, soy and Indian spice, along with Cabernet Sauvignon’s typical black cherry, cedar and forest-floor notes. Gender doesn’t determine the wine style as much as the vineyard does. It’s been farmed organically since 1985, and the wines reflect the personality of the site. Spottswoode is a special place, worth making an appointment ahead to tour the grounds, taste the wines (including a super Sauvignon Blanc) and meet the hospitable Novaks.

4. Louis M. Martini Winery

254 St. Helena Hwy, St. Helena, CA 94574; (800) 321-9463
E&J Gallo purchased the winery from the Martini family in 2002, rescuing a historic yet struggling winery. Today, Louis Martini Winery thrives, with a broad range of well-made wines and a tasting room that resembles a trendy wine bar.

Founded in 1933, Martini made its name in Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Barbera production. Its Monte Rosso Vineyard-not in Napa Valley but atop Sonoma Mountain-is one of California’s most distinctive terrorirs for Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, and Gallo proudly showcases those wines in its Napa tastin room, as well as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. Several tasting and tour options are available, and wines can be enjoye inside or on the shaded patio.

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5. Frog’s Leap Winery

8815 Conn Creek Rd, Rutheford, CA 94573; (707) 963-4704
Take a slight detour east from St. Helena Highway to Rutheford Cross Road, then left on Conn Creek Road to Frog’s Leap, which bursts with flowers, fruit trees, vegetable gardens and grapevines from spring through fall. Proprietor John Williams grows everything sustainably and/or organically; the visitors’ centre is made partially from reclaimed pickle vats and remnants of a piano factory. The style of the wines places varietal character ahead of rich flamboyancy, and the alcohol levels (around 13.5 percent) are food-friendly.

A great place for kids to explore while the grown-ups taste Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon on the proch overlooking the Mayacamas Mountains to the west.

6. Caymus Vineyards

8700 Conn Creek Rd, Rutherford, CA 94573; (707) 967-3010
From Frog’s Leap, drive south on Conn Creek Road past Rutherford Cross Road; on your left, you’ll see Caymus Vineyards, one of California’s most famous Cabernet Sauvignon producers. The Wagner family, originally from France’s Alsace region, has made wine here since 1915, with its Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon highly sought after since its introduction in 1971. Splendid Zinfandels and the multi-variety white blend, Conundrum, app spice to the lineup. The tasting room is rancho-rustic and relaxed, and while appointments are required, the vibe is welcoming and casual.

7. St. Supéry Vineyards & Winery

8440 St. Helena Hwy, Rutherford, CA 94573; (707) 963-4507
Return to Rutherford Cross Road and turn left (south) onto St. Helena Highway. Look to the left for the entrance to St. Supéry, a French-owned Napa Valley fixture.

Like most Napa Valley wineries, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are mainstays at St. Supéry, yet Sauvignon Blanc is just as important here, with two different bottlings of the white varietal, plus a superb blended white wine called Virtù.

Before tasting the wines, head to the second-floor gallery for “Smell-a-Vision,” a display that allows guests to smell and identity the various aromas found in wines. The gallery also features monthly art exhibits and a lofty perch from which to observe the day-to-day winemaking activities.

If hunger pangs hit, stop at the classic Oakville Grocery at the corner of Highway 29 and Oakville Cross Road for gourmet sandwiches, salads, breads, olive oils and other picnic provisions.

8. Domaine Chandon

1 California Dr, Yountville, CA 94599; (888) 242-6366
This sparkling wine house, founded by France’s Moët Hennessy in 1973, has an outstanding restaurant, Etoile (“star” in French), so end your day by tasting Domaine Chandon’s sparkling and still wines, followed by dinner at the romantic Etoile.

Park in the large lot, cross the bridge to the vistors’ centre, and find yourself in a secluded, soothing other world. Mature trees, spring-fed ponds and a field of mushroom-like rock sculptures add interest. Take a guided tour and discover how traditional-method sparkling wine is made, learn how to pair wines with food and sample Domaine Chandon wines in the salon or on the terrace.

Etoile blends French cooking techniques with local ingredients in a casually elegant dining room with a ceiling resembling the inside of a wine barrel. Walls are hung with artwork, and one all-glass wall shows off the grounds. Even without a restaurant, Domaine Chandon is a special stop.