Reading about and tasting wine are excellent ways to expand your knowledge of an enormous subject, but nothing substitutes visiting the estates where passionate winemakers work to bring the best out of remarkable terroir.
Here are five wineries – 4 in Napa, 1 in Sonoma – which any serious WSET or CSW student should visit. (This list could have been much longer.)
Hendry Ranch, Napa Valley (hendrywines.com)
The Hendry family has been farming their Napa property since 1939. Current owner George Hendry has witnessed the evolution of Napa Valley from a perspective that few have enjoyed.
Access to the seventy-five-year-old Hendry, a trained physicist, is possible through the estate’s Owner-Winemaker Seminar Tour and Tasting, which can last up to three hours. (Such is Hendry’s depth of knowledge you will want the tour to last longer.)
Mr. Hendry personally treats guests to a presentation on his farming philosophy and the science and economics of grape growing and winemaking. Depending on availability, Mr. Hendry will pour samples of his Albariño, Pinot Gris, Unoaked Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Novice and advanced wine students alike will benefit from this experience.
3104 Redwood Road, Napa, CA 94558 | 707-226-8320
Hanzell Vineyards, Sonoma Valley (hanzell.com)
Hanzell Vineyards produces some of the most legendary Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in California. If the “grand cru” designation possessed any legal weight in California, Hanzell would be the first to acquire it.
Their elite Ambassadors 1953 Vineyard contains the oldest Pinot Noir vineyard and oldest continuously producing Chardonnay vineyard in North America. These old vines, in addition to their view south toward San Francisco, are truly breathtaking.
Any serious wine student should consider taking advantage of Hanzell’s expensive but worthwhile library tasting, where majestic older vintages are paired with current releases.
18596 Lomita Avenue, Sonoma, CA 95476 | 707-996-3860
Chappellet Vineyards, Pritchard Hill, Napa Valley (chappellet.com)
Following the advice of renowned winemaker André Tchelistcheff, Donn and Molly Chappellet planted their first high-elevation vines in 1967, the year after Robert Mondavi founded his famous winery in Oakville.
Wine students should be aware of the effects of altitude on winegrowing, and Chappellet’s visitor experience offers this perspective, in addition to insights on cover crops, no-till and organic farming.
When the weather permits, your host will take you into Chappellet’s estate vineyard, an experience as memorable as the wines you will taste afterward.
Did I mention that Chappellet makes Chenin Blanc?
1581 Sage Canyon Road, St. Helena, CA 94574 | 707-286-4219
Schramsberg Vineyards, Napa Valley (schramsberg.com)
Any wine student should be familiar with the art of producing sparkling wine. One can find a compelling presentation on this subject at Calistoga’s Schramsberg Vineyards, owned by the Davies family since 1965.
With a portfolio boasting some of the best Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs and Brut Rosé in California, the Schramsberg cave tour walks you through the traditional method of sparkling winemaking (the method used in Champagne).
The tour lasts an hour and fifteen minutes, and includes a tasting of four wines.
1400 Schramsberg Road, Calistoga, CA 94515 | 707-942-4558
Del Dotto Vineyards, Napa Valley (deldottovineyards.com)
Offering one of the livelier tours in the Napa Valley, Del Dotto is worth a visit for multiple reasons, a key one being the opportunity to taste a single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from both French and American oak barrels.
Any wine student who progresses up to and beyond WSET Level 3 will need to know the effect that different oak programs have on a wine. The ability to note this difference will benefit students sitting exams that include blind tastings.
Spanish and Australian wineries, for example, use significant quantities of American oak. California (and, of course, France) tends to emphasize French oak.
Del Dotto offers tours at both its Napa and St. Helena estates.
1445 St. Helena Hwy South, St. Helena, CA 94574 | 707-963-2134