Over the last decade, wineries have begun to rethink the whole tasting experience and investing in upscale settings, with prices to match. If your image of a winery tasting room in Napa or Sonoma is a long bar dotted with open bottles and black plastic spit buckets no one uses anyway, you’re out of date.
New tasting rooms are opening at twice the rate of new wineries, a trend that isn’t always welcomed by local residents, who complain about traffic.
Millennial hot spot Scribe, a picturesque hacienda winery in Sonoma that opened in 2007, helped shift the paradigm. Soon, other small, remote wineries began opting for swanky, salon-style wine bars in more urban settings away from the vineyard: Outland, in downtown Napa, is a collaboration among three tiny producers – Farella, Poe, and Forlorn Hope.
A few blocks away is the tasting room for Blackbird, which it dubs RiverHouse by Bespoke Collection, and charming spots from the likes of Acumen, Brown Estate, and Mark Herold are also nearby.
Why? Selling direct to consumers is essential for small and medium-sized wineries because it cuts out the wholesaler and retailer middlemen that take substantial cuts from profits. And it’s become a way to cement customer relationships, persuade you to join their wine clubs, and keep buying their brands.
Here’s my pick of six wineries with new, very different tasting rooms. For most, reservations are necessary.
Silver Oak Alexander Valley
Silver Oak Alexander Valley, a popular Napa producer of plush, collectible cabernets (LeBron James and Oprah are fans), has opened the ultimate sustainable winery and tasting room at its Alexander Valley vineyard in Sonoma.
The floor-to-ceiling windows of this sleekly modern, barn-style building – boasting green touches such as solar panels and salvaged redwood siding from old 1930s wine tanks – frame panoramic views of 75 acres of cabernet vines.
A tour includes a look at the US$1 million membrane bioreactor that filters 100 percent of the water (4,700 gallons a day) from the cellar, as well as a screen showing how much water has been used that day. Tastings feature the latest vintage of Silver Oak’s Napa and Sonoma cabernets. Tours range from US$30 to US$300, with the best tasting option being the 90-minute food and wine pairing with tour, including four wines, for US$90
Napa wineries that make the most expensive cabernets, such as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate, don’t have tasting rooms. So it’s a big deal that Bill Harlan’s newest venture, Promontory, has opened its doors to tasters.
The stunning 840-acre estate in the foothills of Mount Veeder is run by his son Will, who wants you to savor the atmosphere in which this intense, smoky, mineral cabernet is made. He’s hoping you’ll bond to Promontory for life.
The stone, glass, and steel winery exhibits a cool, austere, almost bleak-chic aesthetic in an untamed landscape, plus 80 acres of vines. Private tastings of the current and library vintage take place in small, serene, Japanese-influenced rooms with windows overlooking gorgeous mountain vistas.
Promontory debuted with the 2009 vintage, and it is sold via mailing list, but if you visit, you’ll go to the top of the wait list and can buy the wines (current release 2012 costs US$700 a bottle), including older vintages, at the winery. The US$200 tasting fee cost is deducted from any wine purchase.
As more wineries go high-design, ditto for their tasting rooms. Cabernet producer Quintessa, a 280-acre estate in Rutherford, created three 250-square-foot wood-and-glass private-tasting pavilions set in prime vineyard viewing spots on the ridgeline of Dragon’s Hill.
These design-award-winning spaces seem like the perfect minimalist structures for mindful yoga at dawn, but they’re just as soothing at a wine tasting. Immersed in the landscape and vines that produce the winery’s lush cabernet and vibrant sauvignon blanc, you can sample barrels from some of the 25 vineyard blocks, a current vintage, and a rare library wine. Then take a walk through the winery and caves.
We rate the best best tasting option as the 90-minute, US$125 Quintessentially Quintessa package.
Celebrated Sonoma pinot brand Kosta Browne added a new winery in Sebastopol a few years ago, and now there's a tasting room to match. Founded in 1997, KB made its name on rich, lush versions of pinot from purchased grapes. Almost all of its 14 bottlings go to the 20,000-plus devotees on the mailing list. (The wait list is very long.)
But at KB's Gallery tasting lounge, even new waitlist members (just sign up!) can reserve one of the twice-a-day tasting slots to try and buy the wines. Through a large glass window in the lounge, you can look down into the minimalist barrel room to watch cellar workers as you taste or settle on a long, earth-toned banquette.
Among the offerings is the new boundary-pushing Observation series of pinots and chardonnays (my pick: the 2016 Free James pinot), exclusively available at the winery. Tastings of five or six wines are customized to your interests and include a tour and a barrel sample - or two.
The cost is cost is US$75 for active members and US$125 waitlisters; the best time for waitlisters to pop by is the 10am Monday-to-Thursday slot.
Prisoner Wine Company
Cult label Prisoner Wine Company's first-ever tasting room, designed as a daylong destination in Napa called the “Makery.”
Bought by Constellation Brands in 2016 for $285 million, the brand offers wine tastings, yes, but will also the chance for guests to hang out in individual studios with local artisans-in-residence, from soap makers to potters, and take classes with them.
An on-site culinary center complements blending seminars, an outdoor wood-fired oven, live music and much more.
The Prisoner, a complex, innovative red blend with a Goya-inspired label, debuted in 2000 and quickly became a hit. The idea for the Makery came from events the brand hosted with creative types in six cities. Now there are 10 wines; don’t miss a taste of new blend, Dérangé.
Ashes & Diamonds
The stark, white buildings with porthole windows and a floating, zigzag roof give Ashes & Diamonds, a winery that opened in September 2017, a mid-20th century Los Angeles vibe.
Founder Kashy Khaledi, a former exec at Capitol Records and MTV, wants to make this estate just north of the city of Napa into a cultural hub, with regular winemaker “conversations” and special dinners such as September’s “Peace in the Middle East Feast,” all served up with mellow playlists featuring the likes of Nina Simone and Bob Marley.
Khaledi enlisted several well-known Napa winemakers, who each produce one or more of the eight wines. Diana Snowden Seysses makes a couple of single vineyard cabernets, while among those that Steve Matthiasson does are a cabernet franc, a rosé, and a white blend.
The goal behind the cabernets is to hark back to the Napa cab style of the 1960s and 1970s when the wines had a lighter, more herbal character and lower alcohol. They’re on wine lists at buzzy New York restaurants like the Modern, Nomad, and Eleven Madison Park. Definitely sample the Red Hen cabernet.
Tasting places include a bright outdoor patio, a casual lounge and bar with colorful chairs, and a buzzy restaurant serving small plates – don’t miss the wood fired chicken thighs with spiced hummus – that doesn’t close until 7pm.
Costs range from US$40 to US$250, with the best tasting option being the US$95 A & D wines package, plus food.