Almost every tourist coming to San Francisco Bay Area wants to visit the famous Napa Valley. If your heart is set on Napa too, this family road trip itinerary is for you. Napa is synonymous with the big wine producer names you see in every supermarket: Robert Mondavi, Beringer, BV, Mumm, Chandon, etc. But these are not the wineries featured in this post. On this trip we are going to follow in the footsteps of the movie Bottle Shock and also talk about some other family friendly wineries.
If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you are probably wondering about my choice. It is simple: “Bottle Shock” is based on a true story and it gives a detailed historical account of how Napa Valley got its claim to fame over 40 years ago through a very exciting, romantic and beautiful screenplay. It is a wonderful story of one winery’s quest for perfection.
Chateau Montelena: in a way the whole Valley is indebted to it for winning 1976 blind tasting in Paris against best French wines. Four white French Burgundies were tasted against six California Chardonnays. 1973’s Chateau Montelena won. This event put Napa wine-making on the world map and the bottle of 1973 Montelena Chardonnay (together with Stag’s Leap Cabernet) – in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. (Stag’s Leap Cabernet won the red wines’ competition but they are not featured in the movie). The rest is history.
Chateau Montelena is a beautiful winery. You can sense perfection not only in their wines but throughout all their beautiful grounds. It has a picturesque pond at the lower level of the winery grounds with a shaded walkway around it and wooden walkways and Chinese style gazebos within. The pond is a home for a flock of ducks and white swans. We saw several children enjoying this oasis while their parents were doing tasting at the upper level.
We had high expectations about the wines given the hype of the movie and the Chardonnay, that is still produced the same way it was done over 40 years ago, is very good indeed. And I will tell you a little secret: you can buy Montelena’s famous Chardonnay on-line much cheaper than at the winery (just click on a label below):
But what blew me away is their Sauvignon Blanc. I am usually not a fan of this wine because to me it typically tastes either like grass or medicine (or both, which is the worst). But Montelena’s Sauvignon had light citrus notes and even a touch of honey dew. It was absolutely perfect.
There is only one area where Chateau Montelena can do better – friendliness to all of its visitors. It has a bocce ball court in a nice shaded area BUT it is for their wine club members only. In all my travels and dozens of wineries visited I have never heard of such a thing. If there were a bocce ball court or another game to enjoy at a winery it would be available to everybody, club member or not. In an hour or so that we spent at Montelena no one used it, so I assume the wine club members are either not coming to the winery in hordes or are not that interested in the game. It seemed such a waste.
Another winery I would recommend on this family road trip itinerary is Castello di Amorisa. This iconic Napa Valley establishment is just about 10 minutes drive from Montelena. It may seem to be a bit of a tourist trap but this is one of those places that would definitely be interesting for kids to visit. It was built as a 13th century Tuscan castle which you can explore inside and out if you pay for a wine tasting (but inside is off limits if you are not planning to taste the wines).
If you take a guided tour, it is more expensive but you will see more. Though I am not sure if a torture chamber is appropriate for kids. We did not take the tour and explored on our own before the tasting and we felt it was sufficient: we saw a garden, a chapel, a defense wall, a tower, an inner court yard and a dining hall.
This winery also offers a couple of more bonuses for kids: there are farm animals roaming the grounds, including goats, chickens and peacocks that are really fun to watch and kids can do a little tasting of their own which would include grape juice.
The wine tasting at Castello di Amorosa is a nice experience because you can actually choose which wines you want to try (5 out of about 20). They pour generous portions so if you are visiting with someone else you can choose 10 different wines and share the experience. Out of the wines that I tried I liked 2014 Cabernet and a Moscato/Riesling blend. I love sweet wines but Moscato on its own is just too much sugar but this combination with Riesling gave the wine a nice freshness and crispiness – perfect served chilled on a warm summer day.
There is one more winery that I would recommend in Napa Valley for its family friendliness and superb educational component – Raymond Vineyards. It offers a great variety of educational experiences but the two that are appropriate for a family visit are a Sensory Corridor and a Theater of Nature.
In the Sensory Corridor you can smell several vials that represent different distinct aromas of wine. For kids it was a fun game to figure out what a certain smell stands for.
The Theater of Nature is a huge outdoor exhibit dedicated to biodynamic farming. It explores how various factors are involved in the agricultural process (and influence the quality of the final product): the type of the soil, pollinators, farm animals, weather, lunar cycles etc. It is a unique experience which I have not seen on such a scale anywhere else and we learnt a lot about farming in general and wine making in particular.
But Napa Valley is not just about wine. In the movie there is a scene where a fancy Brit is given to try some California wine with some simple farm food – guacamole and tortilla chips. It is a beautiful silent scene where all communication is done through the main character’s eyes’ expression which changes from distrust to surprise to utter enjoyment. Napa is indeed a food capital of the West Coast. And not just any food, but good, healthy, farm-to-table and delicious. Many famous chefs created their gastronomic “temples” in the Valley: Chefs Keller, Morimoto, Chiarello, Pawlcyn and others. Midday is a great time to dip into the scene of fine cuisine starting with a tour of Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone.
CIA has a 11.30 daily tour of the establishment which can be upgraded to a “Greystone Experience” with a glass of wine and an entree from their cafe (highly recommended). The tour lasts about an hour and takes you behind the scenes of where the future culinary geniuses are being trained in several extensive 2 or 4 year programs.
We visited among other things:
a training kitchen
a chocolate discovery room (all sculptures in the photo below are made from chocolate)
a wine education hall
Overall it is an experience like no other. It will definitely be of interest for both adults and kids. And have I mentioned that the CIA grounds are totally gorgeous?
Once it is dinner time, Napa Valley also offers a great selection of excellent restaurants. We decided to go with French cuisine (along with the theme of the movie) and stopped at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville. The restaurant offered a great selection of French food that is delicious and reasonably priced.
Overall it was a great trip even though a visit to Napa for me is more of a special occasion event than a regular occurrence. For easy-going, any day of the year trip, especially when travelling with kids, I would recommend Sonoma. You can read my earlier post about family friendly wineries in Sonoma to get useful tips.
One more tip on structuring your itinerary: Chateau Montelena, Castello di Amorosa and CIA are located in the Northern part of the Valley and it makes sense to visit them together in whatever order you may prefer. Raymond Vineyards and Bistro Jeanty are located further South so it makes sense to visit Raymond Vineyards just before dinner.
If you are just starting to explore the wonderful world of wines I would recommend another post on this blog regarding things you need to know about wine tasting. It will give you the useful tools and resources needed for the exciting sommelier experience.
If you found this family road trip itinerary useful, please do me a little favor and share this information with others, for there’s a good chance that it will help them with their travel plans. 🙂