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There seem to be a million wineries in Napa Valley (though the actual number is closer to about 450). On any given weekend, you’ll probably only have time to visit just three or four, so to make the most of your time, we picked out the most over-the-top, interesting of the lot. In addition to wine tasting, each offers something unusual, from a tour to food pairings, etc. While these experiences don’t come cheap—they range anywhere from $50 to $100—they’ll definitely make for a memorable day in Wine Country. Note that most activities beyond the tasting room require advance reservations, so call ahead.

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Artesa Vineyards & Winery: Napa 

This spectacular Spanish-owned winery just an hour from San Francisco is set right into a grassy hill that acts as a sod roof atop its stunning minimalist architecture. Visitors reach the third-floor tasting room by walking up a pyramid-like staircase on either side of a reflecting pool complete with sculptures and fountains. Stunning panoramic views of the surrounding pastoral rolling hills are enjoyed at the top. The “Spanish Tapas & Wine Pairing” starts off with a glass of Grand Reserve Sparkling wine paired with chocolate and strawberries. Participants then adjourn to an exclusive setting where small production, limited-release and reserve wines are paired with tapas from local purveyors.


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Castello di Amorosa: Calistoga

Reached by crossing an drawbridge, this castle has its own well, church and stables. It has 107 rooms and is America’s only authentically replicated 12th-century medieval Italian castle. You’ll see hand-painted frescoes, secret passageways, a dungeon torture chamber, and, comfortingly, an escape tunnel. Two-thirds of the castle is underground, where wines are stored. The introductory “Guided Tour & Premium Wine Tasting” takes care of basic business, but expanded options include food pairing and reserve wines.


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Darioush: Napa 
This ultra-premium estate winery features dramatic Persian architecture that is also reminiscent of the grandeur of Egyptian monuments. The spectacular tasting area is in the center of a high-ceilinged, temple-like room that features a “wall of water.” The “Fine Wines, Artisan Cheeses” tour includes a visit to the vineyards and the cellar barrel room. Pours are generous, and by the end of the tasting, everyone is chatting and reaping the communal enjoyment of sharing wine with others.

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The Hess Collection: Napa

Located on the slopes of Mt. Veeder, where rocky soil on steep, terraced hillsides makes grapes that turn into premium wine, this remarkable winery was built in 1903 and was once the original Napa Valley home for the Christian Brothers (the Catholic teaching order). An impressive admission-free art gallery features an eclectic collection of contemporary paintings and sculptures that includes works by Robert Motherwell and Gerhard Richter. A special “Tour of the Palate” provides a guided tour of the gallery and owner Donald Hess’ private collection, plus a pairing of three current-release wines with three small plates.


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Inglenook: Rutherford

Though not quite as famous as its legendary owner, film director Francis Ford Coppola, this gorgeous winery does live up to high expectations. The days are gone when it was possible to just drop in for a tasting here. Now, visitors must reserve a tour, but that includes the pleasures of driving through a stately iron gate and down a grand, long lane lined with cone-shaped chestnut trees before arriving at the chateau. The “Private Experiences” tour can be made to order. You can carry your glass of wine with you as you tour the property, view the vineyards and see the authentic Tucker automobile and Coppola’s magic lantern collection on the chateau’s second floor. Then you’ll settle into a private tasting room with a platter of olives, nuts and cheese to sample the wares, including a delicious 2013 Rubicon that currently retails for $210.

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Jarvis Estate: Napa

Located in the scenic Mt. George area, this is the first Napa winery that operates entirely inside a cave. Visitors park out in a meadow and walk into a 45,000-square-foot cavern. “Tasting Tour” highlights include walking beside natural underground springs and cascading waterfalls, then sampling delicious wines in an elegant tasting room.


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Judd’s Hill: Napa

Famous for its special events—think Lobster Luau and December Hanukkah Hootenanny—this small, family-owned winery also offers a “Bottle Blending Day Camp” that is described as, “Like chemistry class all over again, but fun.” A “Guided Tasting” is also available by appointment.


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Long Meadow Ranch: St. Helena

This relatively new winery complex includes a restored Gothic Revival farmhouse with a tasting room, the Farmstead restaurant set up in a repurposed barn and farm-to-table country food, a small vegetable garden and a seasonal farm stand. The solar-powered wine-making facility is up in the Mayacamas Mountains in nearby Rutherford, and can be visited only on the “Mayacamas Estate Experience” tour.  After a van ride up, participants enjoy lovely valley views, taste wines made from 100% varietal grapes—including a 2013 E.J. Church Cabenert Sauvignon (the winery’s best)—and tour the wine caves. Two olive oils made on site are also sampled, and a plank holding housemade salamis, marinated olives, cheese and almonds keep things steady. A “Chef’s Table” experience back at the farmhouse is another option.

Sterling Vineyards: Calistoga  

Featuring a stunning white stucco, cubist-style architecture, this winery was built to resemble a Greek monastery. It’s accessed via a 4-minute aerial tram ride that provides a birds’-eye view of the surrounding vineyards, and children are welcome. Several special reserve tastings are available, but the “basic ticket” includes the tram ride, a self-guided tour providing spectacular views of the Napa Valley and a taste of current release wines (kids get a juice drink).

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Sutter Home Winery: St. Helena 

After all these spectacular tours that empty your wallet, here’s a winery that is very special indeed, because it is one of the few that still offers free tastings! This is the winery that introduced a fruity, pink-colored White Zinfandel to the world in 1971, and you can taste that, as well as some of their premium Chardonnays and Cabernets. Afterward, stroll through the surrounding garden that was inspired by the renowned Butchart Gardens in Victoria, B.C. and includes a rose garden with more than 150 varieties, and a garden of dwarf Japanese maples.


All photos by Carole Terwilliger Meyers

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Tagged: California, San Francisco

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Carole Terwilliger Meyers
Carole is a Berkeley-based travel writer who most especially enjoys cultural and culinary travel. She contributes to an assortment of publications and is the author of 18 books. Carole oversees two websites, and, and she blogs at
Carole Terwilliger Meyers
- 6 days ago

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