An Insider’s Guide to Napa Valley
John T Savage has worked for Starwood Hotels & Resorts for over 25 years and has spent his career traveling around the world. He lives in San Francisco, has an intense passion for wine, a town home in Sonoma County and runs the travel website MySonomaCounty.com. We asked John for his best advice on where to locate the best wines in Napa Valley.
SPG: How did you learn about wine?
John Savage: Having a love for food and wine helps. The whole social part of friends, family, colleagues sharing great food and wonderful wine is an amazing thing and something I love to be a part of and to create.
Why did you choose to live in wine country?
Work transferred me to San Francisco for a regional position and the first day, as soon as I landed at SFO, the person I was replacing took me to Sonoma County to start my on-boarding. It was amazing to see these places I had only heard about. That kicked off my fascination with wine country and exploring Napa and Sonoma Counties. Growing up on a farm not far from Purdue University I knew agriculture was hard work, not very glamorous. But somehow Napa and Sonoma have managed to make agriculture look romantic and even sexy! Growing wine grapes and making cheese seems much more my speed than corn and pigs. The whole farm-to-table lifestyle feels very familiar to me.
With so many vineyards in this region, how does one choose which vineyard to visit?
That’s a big question, especially difficult in Napa Valley due to the size of the Valley. Sonoma County has more separate valleys so you can taste by valley. But you really need to have a plan in either county or you can spend a lot of time wandering or crisscrossing the valley. During summer and harvest it can result in a lot of traffic too.
It’s best to start early and begin at a winery the farthest from where you are staying so that you can ‘taste your way back’ to where you began. (Be sure to eat a good breakfast!) As far as finding the best ones to visit, it depends on your level of tasting experience. Are you a novice, intermediate or experienced wine taster? First time visitors will usually have a few wineries they are familiar with and will want to visit.
It’s good to check their location and see if there are other wineries you are familiar with close by or on your way back to where you are staying. Also, the folks working in the tasting rooms are a great source of information and depending on what you like will make good recommendations. I don’t think you’re going to find a bad winery in counties like Napa or Sonoma but a little research and talking with friends will help.
What are the best places to get wine in the Valley?
I think if you’re new to wine country tasting it’s best to go to wineries that have a good selection of ‘entry level’ pricing. These tend to be your moderate to larger wineries and will have a good selection of varietals in that $25 – $50 price range. Some smaller and boutique wineries only have higher end priced wines and unless you’re looking specifically for their wine or wines at that price point it can limit your opportunity to buy wines to taste wine that you can find back home. Also different appellations or valleys will have tasting weekends, usually Jan-May. This allows you to visit several or up to dozens of wineries over a weekend and taste wines, usually with food pairings and sometimes entertainment.
Any tips for someone who wants to bring home bottles of wine? Do wineries ship it home for you?
Yes, they will ship it home and they ship to most states, there are a few smaller states where they still can’t ship wine. Since all the laws are local by state it’s quite a patchwork of laws but they know where they can or cannot ship. Also you can join their Wine Club. It usually just requires a 12 month commitment and you can choose how much wine you want to receive. Typically the lowest amount is a case (12 bottles) maybe 3 bottles a quarter or 6 bottles twice a year. The pricing is 10%-20% off retail and some of it is only available through the winery, not in locale wine stores. If you plan on returning you get free tastings and there are member events at a discount like lobster feeds, crab dinners, cellar events and garden parties. If you are a fan of a specific winery or wine maker it’s a great wine to keep your wine collection fresh!
Are there any hidden gems in Napa Valley or local recommendations of things to do?
There are lots of outdoor activities like biking and hiking, even hot air balloons if you want a break from tasting wine. If you enjoy art there are several wineries with art collections so you can do a tasting day around wine and art. Some of the local culinary schools have cooking classes which are great to do with friends. And lots of boutique shopping on St. Helena’s main street in Napa Valley while the Sonoma County towns of Healdsburg and Sonoma have shops, restaurants and cafes around historic town squares. In Sonoma County it’s easy to do a Pacific Coast drive and to visit the Redwoods.
|Thank you to John T Savage for sharing his passion of wine with us. For information on Sonoma Valley or wine tasting in California, visit John’s website MySonomaValley.com. Another websites he recommends for Napa Valley travel planning are: Visit Napa, Visit Napa Valley, Wine Road and Sonoma Valley.|