NAPA VALLEY INSIDER Winery Recommendations

“It is well to remember that there are five reasons for drinking wine: the arrival of a friend, one’s present or future thirst, the excellence of the wine, or any other reason.”
~ Latin proverb

A second installment from Tom Inlay, a 20-year Napa Valley wine industry veteran (and my dad!):


For those of you who have not yet visited, Napa Valley is one of the most beautiful spots anywhere.  There are three main reasons to visit: savor great wine, feast on great food, and rejuvenate your soul. Many times I have greeted visitors who have just arrived in town.  I love to say “Then let the relaxing begin!” and watch their whole body de-stress as they sigh and develop a big grin.

A reader asked some good questions about visiting wineries up here, including big vs small, the importance of tours, and which are my favorite tasting rooms in Napa and Sonoma.  (That’s sort of like asking me which is my favorite child.  I love them all but for different reasons!)  It really does depend on what kind of experience you’re seeking.  I have not visited every winery but, of the ones I have, here are some I think you will enjoy. I will make recommendations for Sonoma another time.

Want to visit some of the famous wineries that you see all the time in ads and in displays at the market?  You will have a good time at Robert Mondavi or Beringer or Sterling (with the aerial tram).

And the big sparkling wine houses are spectacular like Domaine Carneros, Domaine Chandon, Schramsberg and Mumm.

Do you want to see some amazing structures? In addition to those above, check out Artesa, Castello di Amorosa (an Italian castle replica), Jarvis (entirely underground), Inglenook, or Far Niente.

How about the old reliables? Clos du Val, Chimney Rock, Silverado (sweeping valley views), Chateau Montelena (pictured above), Cain, Raymond and Charles Krug are all good visits.

Or are you interested in lesser known treasures, making really good wine that is not super expensive?  I would recommend Truchard, Whetstone, Reynolds Family, Hagafen, Brown Estate, Miner Family, Odette, Burgess, Elizabeth Spencer, and Jessup Cellars.

Are tours worth taking? If you’ve never taken a tour, you should definitely take a few.  However, you certainly don’t need to take a tour at every winery you visit. One a day is usually good, and be sure to call ahead for a tour reservation.  Sparkling wine is made differently than still wine (“still” wine is wine that doesn’t have bubbles in it like Merlot), so you should definitely take at least one sparkling wine tour. Of the other wineries I think Robert Mondavi, Beringer and Chateau Montelena give comprehensive and educational tours, as do many others. Many of the smaller wineries will have interesting tours where you will get to know the story as well as their winemaking philosophy. Lots of interesting stories.  Like Odette and all the work that went into being green and receiving LEED certification. The tour at Castello di Amorosa takes you through the torture chamber!

What if a winery says it is open by appointment only? You should take that seriously and call before you visit. It doesn’t mean they are being snobby, but they are so small that they need to make sure someone will be available, or the permit they have been issued limits the number of visitors they can have.  This is because Napa Valley is so small with only two roads going up the length of the valley and a few crossroads.  The residents don’t want to be overwhelmed by cars and limos and buses.  Any new winery can get only a “by appointment only” permit.

Of the wineries I have recommended here those needing appointments are:
Brown Estate, Burgess, Cain, Far Niente, Jarvis, Odette, SchramsbergTruchard

Take the time to do a little planning before you get here and you will be rewarded with enjoying everything the valley has to offer!

Cheers, Tom

Feel free to comment below on some wine questions or topics you’d like him to answer in future posts!


Tom Inlay

Tom Inlay

Wine Columnist, "Napa Valley Insider"

A 20-year Napa Valley wine industry vet, Tom turned a passion into a career after closing his psychology practice in a previous life. Perhaps it's his innate desire to "make people happy" that fuels his fire to teach colleagues and visitors about enjoying wine. Good food, good wine and good company are what life is all about in wine country.

  1. What a great article! I’ll keep this on hand the next time I visit Napa. On my last trip there, I discovered Quintessa, which I adored. I remember it being a little pricey but the wine was wonderful.

  2. I have LOVED Clos du Val for years! We had their wine at our wedding and is an old and consistent favorite. Thanks for sharing! Some great ideas for next time we are in the area!