Driving Range: Our California Cheesemonger's Favorite Napa Valley Wine & Cheese Stops
Situated just an hour north of San Francisco, the Napa Valley produces some of the best and most coveted wines in the world.
It is also stunningly beautiful, flanked on both sides by wooded mountains plunging down to a valley floor covered with acres of grapevines in perfectly aligned rows, like carefully raked Japanese Zen gardens. But this is serious agriculture; Napa now produces approximately 10 million cases of wine annually and is home to over 400 wineries spanning the 30-some-mile-long valley, starting in the cooler, southernmost Carneros region and culmi- nating in Calistoga, the small town at the northern end, which lies on top of an active geothermal zone and is known for its natural mineral and mud baths.
As a Napa-based cheesemonger, I spend a lot of time pairing local wines with cheeses—yes, it’s a rough life . . . but someone has to do it. Knowing that most
of us like to taste wine with food, a number of wineries now offer cheese (as well as other food) programs to complement their wines. Here’s a lineup of cheese-friendly Napa wineries for your hit list:
Located at the southern entrance of the valley in the Carneros region (where most of the local pinot noir is grown), this majestic chateau was founded by France’s Champagne Taittinger in 1987. The tasting room offers samplers of their different sparkling and red wines alongside accompanying plates of select cheeses—and other food offerings, including caviar, smoked fish, and charcuterie— without reservations.
L1240 Duhig Road, Napa; 707-257-0101; 10:00 a.m.–5:45 p.m. daily. Advance booking advised on weekends and holidays.
Artesa Vineyards & Winery
Built into a tall hill on a 350-acre estate, this winery’s panoramic vista and light, art-laden design will take your breath away. Besides their regular tasting room, they offer a selection of private tours and tasting classes, including “Vino con Queso,” an intimate gathering serving limited- release and reserve wines paired with artisan cheeses.
1345 Henry Road, Napa; 707-224-1668; 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily. Advance booking required.
Patz & Hall
Located in a corporate park in the southern end of the valley, this winery is renowned for its pinot noir and chardonnay made from various single-estate vineyards. A tasting here includes a seasonal cheese selection and small food complements, carefully paired to match the wines. Ask about their intimate Library Wines & Gourmet Cheese Tasting, led by owner Heather Patz.
851 Napa Valley Corporate Way, Suite A, Napa; 707-265-7700; 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday. Advance booking required.
On the eastern side of downtown Napa is the Oxbow, a region named after the curved shape of the adjacent Napa River. The Oxbow Public Market (a food-centric boutique) and a handful of winery tasting rooms are within two short blocks, and Waterstone Winery (a.k.a. Taste at Oxbow) is in the center of it all, serving their wines alongside specifically chosen cheese plates. Ask about Cheese 101 and Wine & Cheese Pairing classes.
708 First Street, Napa; 707-265-8523/9600; 12 p.m.–7 p.m. daily. Advance booking advised.
In a historic building that was once a brewery, then a saloon, brothel, meat company, and deli, this multiwinery tasting room not only is fun but represents 20 of the best local small-production wineries. It also has a serious cheese program called “The Cheese Course” that includes a 90-minute tasting-and-pairing class led by a wine and cheese professional.
1245 Main Street, Napa; 707-255-7150; 11 a.m.–6 p.m. daily. Advance booking required.
Whetstone Wine Cellars
Located in a 19th-century French-style stone chateau, this family-owned winery off the beaten track offers a private, casual tasting with personalized service. A sprawling front lawn with massive shade trees completes the scene. Ask for the cheese plate, which is carefully selected to pair with their wines. They also offer cheese-and-wine-pairing classes for groups of ten or more, led by a cheesemonger.
1075 Atlas Peak Road, Napa; 707-254-0600; By appointment only. Advanced booking required.
Though opulent on the outside (this 22,000-square- foot stone winery is based on ancient Persia’s Persepolis), the inside is relaxing and extra comfortable. Starting every day at 2:00 p.m., the 90-minute “Fine Wines, Artisan Cheeses” tour culminates in their barrel cellar for a seated tasting of a flight of current-vintage wines and meticulously paired cheeses. Ask also about “By Invitation Only,” an exclusive tasting in the owner’s private cellar.
4240 Silverado Trail, Napa; 707-257-2345; 10:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m. daily. Advance booking required.
Hartwell Estate Vineyards
Nestled atop a small hill in the Stags Leap District, this small-production winery bottled its first cabernet sauvignon in 1990, and its winery and tasting room were completed in 1999. Sign up for the “Wine and Cheese Portfolio” and you’ll be treated to a tour of the winery with a glass of wine, then a seated current-release tasting with cheeses in a private room.
5795 Silverado Trail, Napa; 707-255-4269; 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday. Tastings are every day at 2 p.m. Advance booking required.
The sister winery to Duckhorn Winery (located a ten-minute drive north), this light, airy, and inviting Yountville winery showcases both zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon blends made in the California style. Tastings are well thought out and presented on a tray, with a flight of wines accompanied by two cheeses that you can savor at your leisure. Ask also about Duckhorn’s “Food for Thought,” a semiprivate wine-and-food tasting that focuses on sensory exploration.
7257 Silverado Trail, Yountville; 866-367-9943; 10 a.m.–4 p.m. daily. Advance booking required.
Frog’s leap Winery
The big red barn that Frog’s Leap is centered around was built in 1884 and renovated in 1994 to house the winemaking facility. Surrounded by edible organic gardens and trellised vines that are dry-farmed, visitors sit on the patio and take in the peaceful views of the valley floor and mountains. Every wine tasting comes with a simple cheese plate with accompaniments.
8815 Conn Creek Road, Rutherford; 707-963-4704; 10 a.m.–4 p.m. daily. Advance booking advised.
Peju Province Winery
Family owned and run, this Rutherford winery is easily recognized by a 50-foot, copper-clad stone tower and meticulously pruned sycamore trees lining the driveway. Peju makes over a dozen wines, all of which are available at the tasting room. Their “Private Wine Tasting with Artisan Cheeses,” led by a wine professional in a private room, focuses on local cheeses paired with their current- release wines.
If you're a wine lover, sign up to be a member of the Peju Wine Club. Club members get preferential treatment that usually includes free tastings, free pairing plates, and invitations to private release parties. And you’ll get shipments from the winery throughout the year so you can host your own wine-and–cheese-pairing gatherings.
8466 St. Helena Highway, Rutherford; 800-446-7358; 10 a.m.–6 p.m. daily. Advance booking required.
Started in 1886 by Josephine Tychson (one of the first female winegrowers on record), this winery is located just past the town of St. Helena. The stone building is tucked back and unassuming, but the “Wine & Cheese Pairing” comes with samples of the winery’s current vintages carefully paired with local cheeses and house-made condiments, and you’re left to sample at your own pace. Also ask about their “Decades” tasting, which pairs aged cabernet sauvignon with different foods.
3022 St. Helena Highway North, St. Helena; 707-963-9694; 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily. Advance booking advised.
Written by Thalassa Skinner, formerly the manager at Oxbow Cheese Merchant in Napa. She is a cofounder of culture as well as the coauthor of Cheese for Dummies. Photographed by Megan Clouse