Category Archives: Wineries

Storybook Mountain Winery: Zinfandel Lovers Pay Heed

Storybook TreeStorybook Mountain Winery  Storybook Mountain Winery sits at the northern end of the Napa Valley, about a fifty-five minute drive from The Inn On First, a premier lodging property in Napa.  Best known for Zinfandel, it has been named repeatedly as one of Wine and Spirits Magazine’s favorite wineries for Zinfandel.  Guests of the inn have also raved about this place.

Founded by two brothers named Grimm in the late 1800′s, it closed around prohibition, opened again for a short time until a fire in the 60′s cleared out the buildings.  It wasn’t until years later (70′s) that the current owners came and renamed the place with a whimsical name to reflect the winery’s past history.  They were told at the time that Zinfandel was best with the particular soil type found at the winery, and the advice they were given has proven its veracity.

Storybook View Storybook Picnic

We were given a tour of the property which, amazingly, is only tended to by four vineyard workers; they bring in no outside help.  So you can imagine how carefully the vines are tended to throughout the year.  Once up the small hillside you begin to understand the beauty of the northern Napa Valley, north of Calistoga.  Forested hillsides surround you versus the broad plain of the southern Napa Valley.

Storybook Wines Storybook Caves

Entering the caves we were led to the final tasting room under the hillside where we enjoyed a selection of their wines: the Napa Estate Zinfandel (100% Zinfandel, with cherry tones, balanced fruit and oak), Antaeus (50% Zinfandel, then blended, big fruit flavor with a bit more oak than the first, with a nice oak finish), the Napa Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (very fruit forward, light tannins, toasted wood finish), and the Napa Estate Viognier (beautiful floral, honey nose, little acidity, not buttery, not oaken, just right).

Wines range from $36 to $90.  Picnicking is allowed prior to or after your tasting in a grassy knoll surrounded by redwood trees.  Reservations are a must, and they are closed on Sundays.

Laird Family Vineyards: finding your place in the sun with so many varietals to try

A five minute drive from Napa’s luxury Bed and Breakfast Inn, The Inn On First, is Laird Family Estate.  With its oxidized copper roof that you can see from Highway 29, it sits on a small hillock with both indoor and outdoor seating.  Outdoors is where you want to be as you overlook the hills of Napa Valley as well as Laird’s vineyards.

Laird Family Winery Laird Entrance Laird Outdoor Patio Laird Indoor Seating Laird Tasting Menu

We started with the Big Ranch Sauvignon Blanc, with a nose of green apples and pear blossoms, with crisp, floral tones and light acidity with a hint of grapefruit.  Next was the Cold Creek Pinot Grigio with a hint of peach and honeydew melon, and very lemony on the  tongue with a slight mineral flavor.  The Cold Creek Chardonnay was next with light buttery notes, a little oak- it tasted like buttered toast when I swallowed.  The second Chardonnay was the Red Hen Chardonnay, heavy on the oak and with a light minerality with citrusy tones.   Interestingly, it also was more full bodied over the first one.

We moved onto the reds next, beginning with the Suscol Ranch Merlot.  Big black cherry aromas, with blackberies and cinnamon, and yet a light and soft wine on the tongue, with hints of blueberries.  The Suscol Ranch Syrah followed with aromas of dark fruits (plums, black cherries), light tannin on the palate with a clove-spice finish.  Jillian’s Blend, a Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot blend, was filled with herbaciousness (think bell pepper) and had a soft finish.  The Diamond Mountain Cabernet, 8 years old, was as soft as  Cabernet could be, with great fruit flavor.  It is drinkable right now, and carries flavors of raspberries and light cherries.  A lovely wine.  We finished with the Mast Ranch Cabernet, with dark cocoa and dark fruit on the nose, with leather undertones and some tannins on the palate.  I could have used a NY steak at that moment.

Wines list from $20 to $90, with club member discounts available.  If you see Ben while you’re there, or Val, tell them Jim and Jamie say hello!


Crane Family Vineyards: small, special, and unique winery to visit

IMG_1778Only 5 minutes from The Inn On First, a romantic Napa Bed and Breakfast Inn, is the Crane Family Vineyards Estate.  Sitting on a small hillside, overlooking parts of the city of Napa and the surrounding hillsides, you appreciate that this is a great place to live.  In the back of this small property is a barn that serves as the winery, where the Cranes have been producing wine for over 20 years.  These are the gems we long to find and so appreciate when they come our way.

Tom CraneTom Chiarella, son of the founders of the winery (Crane is his mother’s maiden name), is now running the operation and after a tour of the property invites you to sit on the front porch and to taste their wines.  An affable fellow who makes you feel comfortable and welcome immediately, he recreates for you a bit of the history of the land, its owners (his parents), and his years in Napa Valley.  Over the course of conversation he pours you a glass of their estate Merlot, their Cabernet Sauvignon, Alison’s Cuvee (the winemaker’s play yard of wine with her Cabernet blend that changes every year), and the family Port.  These are unpretentious wines presented by an unpretentious host, and it makes for a unique Napa Valley winery experience.  They make few cases and don’t have many appointments to offer, but for the wine enthusiast looking to purchase wine Tom is always willing to share a part of his day with you.  Prices range from $35 for the Port, and $50 to $80 for their other wines.

By the time your visit is over you will forget that you are so close to the city of Napa.  You will be enthralled with the views, the ambience, the friendliness, and the wines.  You will understand why we love Napa and its residents.  Definitely a gem not to be missed.

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Porter Family Vineyards: part of the new Coombsville AVA

Porter Family Coombsville AVA Porter Family VineyardsOnly ten minutes from The Inn On First, a premier lodging Bed and Breakfast Inn in Napa, is the Coombsville AVA (American Viticultural Area), the newest appellation to be brought into the Napa Valley fold.  We have had guests visit wineries there and one that stood out was Porter Family Vineyards.  Set into the hillside, you walk along the vines, tour the property, and do the tasting in the cave.  With such beautiful views of Napa Valley, it is hard to leave once you’ve been there, especially when you have a glass of their Atlas Peak Cabernet in hand!

From the hillside vineyards and underground winery, the Family makes small amounts of beautifully hand-crafted wines—each one carrying the unique signature of this place. They retain the fossilized footprints of the sandpiper found on the property as a reminder of the incredible history of the winegrowing site, as they turn their heads to the future and the latest in winemaking arts to craft our special wines.

We had an opportunity to try their Syrah with light cherry notes and light pepper.  It brought to mind a juicy grilled pork chop that I would love to pair with this wine.  The 1st Cabernet we tried had cinnamon-spice notes with a bit of smokiness.  I liked it a lot.  We moved onto their signature Sandpiper Red, a Cabernet-Merlot blend that had lovely black licorice flavors and notes of spice.  It was their Atlas Peak Cabernet that we loved most of all.  It was like having a cherry cough drop in your mouth- I loved it!  Wines range from $40 to $70 dollars.


Tudal: a lovely setting with some really nice wines

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Just a 20-minute drive from The Inn On First, a romantic Bed and Breakfast inn in Napa, lies Tudal Vineyards.  Now into their 5th decade operating the iconic Tudal Winery in St. Helena, Napa Valley, they proudly grow and produce a Signature (and world-class) wine “Tudal Estate Cabernet Sauvignon” on site from the estate vineyard that was planted in 1972.  Visitors of any age can find something to explore, whether it is the array of Napa Valley wines; our bocce court, the enticing flower and produce gardens or the collection of historic farm tractors, tools and bygone novelties that make up a fascinating agricultural retrospective.  And if they ask if you want to take any produce home during the Summer, just remember that your innkeeper-chef would love it if you wanted to drop something off in his kitchen!

Here we learned a bit more about maloactic fermentation.  We always associated it with “buttery” Chardonnays, but came to find out that it also adds a fullness or roundness to their Chardonnay.  It wasn’t buttery at all but felt fuller on our tongues, and had an aftertaste of warm buttered toast that I really enjoyed.  Their Zinfandel was bright with cherry flavor and a hint of pepper.  They also produce a Super Tuscan blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet that had hints of caramel and dark red berries.  Of course we fell in love with their 100% estate Cabernet that is celebrating its 30 anniversary this year.  This is a lovely spot to do a tasting and to have a picnic afterward surrounded by their vineyards.

Final note: I am not a Rose fan.  They run either too dry or too sweet.  Suddenly I felt like Goldilocks and found that theirs was “just right” for me.  I bought 3 bottles for summer sipping.  Can’t wait for that warm weather to hit!  Prices range from $25 to $75.

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Lunch in the mountain vineyards: a most spectacular event and only $80/pp

As we left for the day from The Inn On First, a luxury Napa Bed and Breakfast, we knew we were in for a real treat with our upcoming vineyard lunch.   You enjoy as much wine as you want from each bottle they open for you to try.  You eat to your heart’s content with incredible food from Ken Frank of La Toque.  You look down upon the beauty of Napa Valley and think: “Oh my!  I’m so lucky to be in Napa!”  You are one of the few who have discovered and enjoyed the uniqueness of Napa Valley at its best.

Chateau Patel-VGS.  Vineyard Lunch. It began with a drive up Mt. Veeder and down a long, dusty road to a gated vineyard.  We met Tony, an affable man with a great smile, and he opened the gates and invited us to follow him.  We traversed the rows of cabernet grapes, and when we spotted the pink flag on one of the stakes he proudly proclaimed: “Pick a row!  Climb the mountain.”  We did.  It wasn’t a long climb, about 50 yards, through the vines ripe with fruit, purple and luscious, hanging, waiting for you to enjoy their bounty.  I can see why tennis shoes or good hiking shoes are a must.

We found a dirt road on top and followed that up another 50 yards until we found the arbor, built specifically for this purpose.  A table, white linen table cloth and napkins, with wine glasses, silverware, and plates awaiting the diner.  As well as a gorgeous view of Napa Valley and the surrounding vineyards.

We started with a salmon spread and toast points served with their VGS Explorer Sauvignon Blanc ($25).  A crisp wine with smells of lightly buttered toast and hints of lemon went well with the salmon.  We followed this with a lovely green salad, blue cheese, candied pecans and a balsamic vinaigrette served with the VGS Chardonnay ($45), with notes of pear, green apple, and honeydew.  A beautiful combination of food and wine.  We also paired this and the next course with their cabernet-zinfandel blend called “Illegitimate” (2009) ($37).  Fruity, with flavors of tart cherries and spice, very fruit forward and big fruit flavors.

Our main course was beef carpaccio, potato salad, and marinated vegetables served with the Illegitimate and their VGS Syrah (2009) ($75) with big fruit flavors, lightly spiced, and extremely delicious.  Of course there was still the cheese course with cranberry nut bread, nuts, and three beautiful cheeses.  All that could be paired with what we already had open.  But then Tony opened a bottle of their late harvest zinfandel, called “Zinie” (2010) ($28).  Low in residual sugar and not at all like many of the dessert wines we’ve had elsewhere, it was an incredible pairing with the cheese and bread.

I have to admit that it wasn’t just the food and the wine and the view that made our day special.  Tony is an incredible host, funny, and willing to engage you in conversation about many things.  He makes you feel comfortable, even about the fact that there are no restrooms: “Just find a nice spot around the bend in the road,” he encouraged as we each took turns finding our private hideaway.  Rustic, yes, but with the views of vineyards and mountains, it didn’t matter.  For $80/pp you would be hard pressed to enjoy such a wonderful experience at any restaurant in the valley with this caliber pairing of wines for anything less.  And remember, you also get all those views on your way down the mountain!  Oh, and don’t forget to ask him: “What does VGS stand for anyway?”


What is going on with tasting fees at wineries? Will they be waived if I purchase?

I have a dream: every guest of The Inn On First can walk into a tasting room and say: “I’m from The Inn On First in Napa” and the Wine Educator would say: “Oh, you mean that fabulous romantic Bed and Breakfast Inn in Napa….well, then, I’ll waive your tasting fee!”  Ah, to dream.

Tasting fees in Napa can range from $10 on up to $60 or more per person at wineries and at the end of the day that can be pretty expensive.  Yet, when you consider that you typically get to taste 6 to 8 wines for $10 or $15 and don’t have to commit to a whole bottle, that is not so bad.  Or when you pay $60 to taste a selection of high-end wines you would only dream about because the price point of $150 to $250 per bottle or more is a serious commitment, it can minimize the impact or it can scare you away!  (Big smile here)  Wineries love to sell wine but you should never feel obligated to purchase, especially when you’ve paid a tasting fee, and should feel free to say: “no thanks”.  In a real sense, tasting fees give you a freedom you might otherwise experience around purchasing (or not) wine.

Luckily for Napkins (local Napa folk) most wineries share in the Good Neighbor program that provides free tasting when you show your local address on your driver’s license.  For all others, though, there is no rule in Napa about how tasting fees are set, and they do add up quickly.  Here are some general guidelines on what to expect:

If there are significant caves for you to view and walk through, expect to pay more in tasting fees.  I say significant because some wineries have built small caves that you can walk in and out of in three minutes or less.  Others have caves up to 10,000 square feet and include tours of the whole operation from crushing to the barrel room.  These tasting-tours can cost $40 to $50 per person.

If there are other things for you to see such as art galleries, car collections, stunning views, historical buildings, and/or tours through the vineyards, expect to pay more in tasting fees, anywhere in the $25 to $50 per person range.

If the wines at the winery are in the mid to high range ($100 on up), expect to pay more in tasting fees to cover the costs of the wines they are opening for you to try.  These could be in the $30 to $60 range.

Most tasting rooms, especially in larger wineries with walk-up bars, will charge in the lower range of $10 to $20 per person.  Some clearly post signs: “No tasting fee charged if you purchase a single bottle of wine.”

We’re fortunate with some of our business partners that we have 2 for 1 tasting cards, and in rare circumstances today, free tasting cards.  This can help alleviate the concerns for the budget-minded traveler, but it also severely limits where you can go and what you taste.  There is a big difference between the presenting wine that is offered for a free tasting at a winery versus the reserve wines you pay extra to taste, or the smaller production wines at small family owned wineries, or the highly specialized blended wines of upscale wineries.  For those who want an introduction to Napa only, the tasting passes work well.  For those who want to taste the best variety of wines Napa has to offer then paying the tasting fee is certainly worth it.

Will the fees be waived if you purchase?  No guarantee.  I’ve asked around and many wineries state that if a single person purchases two bottles or more, they will waive that individual’s tasting fee.  Others told me it would take a case of wine to waive the fee.  Still others charge the tasting fee whether or not you purchase.  A few admitted that if they like the people, had a good time, and enjoyed the guests’ company, they would waive the fee no matter what.  So what is the answer?

Our philosophy is simple: only purchase what we like to drink.  Expect to pay the tasting fee with no discounts.

Also- most importantly- ask!- with no expectation.

Ask about any case discounts?  Any club member discounts?  Are tasting room fees waived upon purchase?  Many wineries offer you that information, or will put the information on price sheets for you as well.  There is no shame in asking  And yes, always mention that Jim and Jamie sent you from The Inn On First.  If you’re lucky and they love us, they might offer you a discount.  If so, let me know! Maybe my dream is becoming reality!!