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California wine country has been busy at work coming up with creative ways to showcase their most profound offerings. The paradigm shift in opportunities to taste wine over the last year, despite the pandemic, far from faltered—it seemed to multiply almost tenfold. And the alternative ways to visit Napa virtually—with wine country just a click away—are likely here to stay. And how could you argue with having top-flight $125-a-bottle cabernet shipped directly to your front door for a private, or semi-private virtual tasting with the winery owner, and often, the highly regarded winemaker? However, as oenophiles return to the best tasting rooms in California, we’ve hand-picked nine of the most luxurious wine tasting experiences around California. These wineries are sensitive to continued mask mandates and guest preferences for indoor versus outdoor tastings. It’s best to pick up the phone when booking any of these tasting opportunities to hash out the conversation in real-time about what to expect and how to have the time of your life—safely, and come on, extravagantly.
Up in Calistoga, by Napa Valley’s northern edge with rolling hills in the distance, you’ll pull up to an ivy-covered stone castle straight out of a fairy tale. This is the rustic, yet elegant Château Montelena whose “Concierge Program” grants wine lovers access to a customizable tasting experience from an extensive library of their genuinely iconic wines. They’re able to offer red and white wines from almost every vintage going back to the 1970s, which provides a rare opportunity to taste the Napa of yesteryear—like when proprietor Bo Barrett was still a local farmer and not one played by actor Bill Pullman in Bottle Shock.
And if you ever wondered if Napa’s legendary white wines can age, this is one way to find out. Curated tastings start at $250 per person, and wines are based upon availability. Certain vintages housed at the winery, such as the 1973 chardonnay—the world-famous bottle that took the top spot for white wines at the Judgment of Paris tasting—are not even available for purchase. There are just a handful of bottles still at the winery, and perhaps, if you’re truly fortunate, you’ll be able to take an epic Instagram selfie with one, but no promises! It is, however, a guarantee that you’ll taste some epic wines. To book, head to www.montelena.com/visit or call 1-800-222-7288.
Zaca Creek is the new luxury retreat in bucolic Buellton, California, smack in the picturesque Santa Ynez Valley—it’s a shining new monument to the outer reaches of hospitality among California’s central coast. If you’ve been searching for a reason to visit this wine region, roughly a 45-minute drive north of Santa Barbara, where some of the best chardonnay and pinot noir in all of California is made—this is your moment. The Inn at Zaca Creek boasts six stunning suites designed with the kind of rustic stonework that you’d expect of medieval castle living, only with all the trappings of 21st-century luxury. The Tavern at Zaca Creek is helmed by executive chef Cullen Campbell, who was twice invited to cook at the James Beard House and is the previous owner of Phoenix-based Crudo and Okra Cookhouse & Cocktails restaurants. At Zaca Creek, Campbell dishes up locally sourced ingredients imbued with old-world French and Italian flair.
As far as luxury wine country packages go, their “Zaca Creek Decanted” experience goes above and beyond—literally. Starting at $15,000, you’ll be flown into the valley via a round-trip chartered private jet (available from select cities) and treated to a two-night stay in the resort’s luxury suites. Included in the package is the option of on-site wine tastings featuring an illustrious Who’s Who of Santa Barbara wineries, or a multi-course winemaker dinner in the property’s subterranean wine cellar, with menus custom-crafted by chef Campbell. Ask Stephen Villa, Zaca Creek’s general manager, and wine director, about opportunities to taste verticals—including some pretty rare bottles—of local wine icons such as Dragonette Cellars, Brewer-Clifton, and Liquid Farm. The resort also offers massage, yoga, meditation, hiking, and horseback rides among the vineyards. To book any experience at Zaca Creek, call 805-688-2412 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A visit to Kosta Browne will result in two immediately beautiful surprises. First, you’ll wonder aloud how you never knew that the iconic cult label was produced in a building in plain sight at The Barlow, a game-changing outdoor mecca of food, wine, spirits, and craft stores in Sebastopol, California. The second is that once you’re quietly ushered into the serenely peaceful and immaculate greeting space that Kosta Browne has painstakingly designed, you’ll be handed a glass of seriously profound Champagne. Champagne in California wine country? That’s just the beginning of the “Observations Series” tasting experience. After Champagne, you’ll climb a flight of stairs to an elegant gallery overlooking the pristine winery below (or taken outside to their newly renovated courtyard to allow for an open-air experience.)
Over 90 minutes, you’ll be treated to an in-depth tasting of five exclusive estate and single-vineyard pinot noirs and chardonnays. The focus of the tasting is on their limited-production “Observations Series,” crafted by the winemaking team from select blocks and barrels each year and available only at the winery. As for the estate wines they’ll pour, think of those sips as a glimpse into your future wine cellar because you’ll need some patience. It typically takes six to eight years of being an active mailing list member before you’re offered an allocation of the estate wines.
The Observations Series tasting is for a maximum of six people, is custom-curated for each party, and costs $125 per person for members (to become a member, simply sign up for the mailing list—there is no barrier to signing up). You can even meet the experts who might host your tasting—some of whom have worked at three-Michelin-star restaurants. And don’t forget, you’re actually at the production facility, which means that winemaker Julien Howsepian could make an appearance. Head to www.kostabrowne.com/visit to become a member and book your experience.
With the regal columns, the stately statues, and the neo-Mesopotamian architecture, you’d be forgiven for mistaking Darioush for a mystic temple. But what they lack in chakra attunement, they make up for with utterly fantastic wine and food. Founded in 1997 by husband and wife Iran-born duo Darioush and Shahpar Khaledi, today the winery draws upon three estate vineyards to source grapes from Mt. Veeder, Oak Knoll, and their 33-acre estate off Silverado Trail just north of the town of Napa. The wines are produced by Steve Devitt (formerly of Newlan Vineyards & Winery and Signorello Estate), Hope Goldie (an Opus One alum), with support from consulting winemaker Michel Rolland.
While Darioush offers several tastings, their “By Invitation Only” experience is the two-hour tasting and four-course luxury food pairing that serious collectors should plan to book. A current sampling of wines includes a 2018 pinot noir, 2012 shiraz, 2014 Sage red, and 2014 Darius II. For the uninitiated, the Sage Vineyard Series ($175 a bottle) is only produced during exceptional vintages and comes entirely from the Sage Vineyard estate on Mount Veeder. By contrast, the Darius II bottling is the $275 crown jewel of the estate, meant to capture each vintage’s singular expression. In keeping with the Khaledis’ passion for fine art—they own a collection of Middle Eastern art that rivals top museums—the label features a piece of art by London-born John Henry Dearle called “Apple” licensed through London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Taste this, and more, surrounded by exquisite art, in an elegant, warm, upscale environment, with dazzling food pairings, all for $150 per person. Reserve online at https://www.darioush.com/be-our-guest/by-invitation-only or call 707-257-2345 to speak with the concierge.
Cliff Lede Vineyards
Canadian-born Cliff Lede is a self-described “Bordeaux enthusiast” who hired legendary viticulturist David Abreu to plant his vineyards, which Lede named after his favorite rock songs, like “Dark Side of the Moon.” The winery’s sublimely crafted and rather lyrical wines include a sauvignon blanc that is a dead-ringer for First Growth Bordeaux Blanc, as well as Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernets and an array of opulent reds in between. Today, Christopher Tynan, a veteran of Cain, Blankiet, and Colgin, is at the helm. Tynan has earned numerous chart-topping 100-point scores if you care to know, but really, the wines he crafts speak for themselves. Pro tip: It's also worth checking out the dynamite pinot noirs and chardonnays that Ryan Hodgins crafts under Cliff Lede's other FEL label (named after founder Cliff Lede's mother Florence Elsie Lede.)
The wine tasting experiences at Cliff Lede Vineyards come in many forms, each available for a minimum of four guests. The tastings are tiered at different prices, but if it’s luxury you crave along with collector-level wines, then you’ll be magnetically drawn to the two-hour “Diamond Luncheon Experience” alongside the “Anthology” tasting, which comes to $450 per person. These private tastings feature Cliff Lede’s best of the best from their library. All wines are specially curated for the occasion and paired with a remarkable lunch among the vineyard’s beautiful Yountville estate. Also included is a tour of their scenic vineyards. Book ahead with an email to Sherell Guyot, email@example.com, or a phone call at 707-754-4205.
Crown Point may mark the crown jewel in the realm of upscale wine tasting experiences in the Santa Ynez Valley—and offers all the more reason to start thinking of the Central Coast as your annual wine country destination. Proprietor Roger Bower has lured top Napa talent to work magic on his estate in the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA. The team includes Simon Faury (an alum of Merryvale and Harlan Estate), along with two of the world’s top consulting winemakers, Philippe Melka (of Melka Estates and Atelier Melka) and Michel Rolland (Bond, Bryant, Staglin, to name a wee few). Together, this all-star trifecta turns out utterly deep, dark, brooding, and gorgeously structured wines that are enjoyable a few years after release but are designed for cellaring.
Their “Taste of Crown Point” is an entry-level, hour-long tasting featuring their Estate Selection wine across two vintages, such as the 2014 Crown Point Estate Selection, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, malbec, and merlot grapes, or the 2016 Crown Point Estate Selection, a lavish, black-and-red-fruited, expensive French-oak-kissed cabernet sauvignon-driven blend with merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc, and malbec. A seated tasting with a view is $65 per person. Alternatively, you could level-up to “Discover Crown Point,” a 90-minute experience featuring both their estate-grown cabernet sauvignon and Estate Selection wines, plus a vineyard and winery tour, and locally paired cheeses for $100 per person.
Sign up to become an Allocation Member by committing to an annual shipment of wines, which grants members-only access to their “Past, Present, & Future'' tasting experience. Get ready to be whisked away to breathe in that sweet smell of grapes growing on the vine while riding in an open-air utility vehicle climbing a hill to a breath-taking view of the vineyard estate. Then let the top-notch hospitality team pamper you with a rich taste of the Santa Ynez Valley as you sample past, present, and future wines (a barrel-sample of still-aging sauvignon blanc, as the name suggests). An expert cheesemonger will be on hand to guide with food pairings. This tasting is an experience worth the membership. For the two-hour happy ordeal, just $250 per person, book online at https://crownpointvineyards.com/tastings/book-a-tasting or call 805-693-9300.
Beyond the Mayacamas Mountains on the northern edge of St. Helena in a tree-lined hideaway among the redwoods, you’ll find AXR’s tasting room where you can sample handcrafted selections from partner Jean Hoefliger, a winemaker of international prestige who walks you through your very own wine blending process. After receiving tips from the expert, you’ll craft your own personal cabernet sauvignon blend and learn how the various vineyards and oak barrels affect the flavor of the wines you love.
But the real fun is getting to spend time with a tried and true Napa winemaking star. You could geek out with Hoefliger about the name “AXR,” an infamous rootstock that was widely planted in California before it was ravaged by a louse called Phylloxera. (You might ask him to explain why they named their winery after such a thing.) And while you’re crafting your dynamite blend, know that he’s always up for debate of some kind. He did, after all, craft a 100-point wine called The Debate. Hoefliger is best known for a long stint as the winemaker at Alpha Omega, but he worked at French icon Château Lynch-Bages before that. Today, he lives in Marin County, happily consulting for an array of wineries, and his supreme talent is on full display in the lemon-scented, ginger-spiced textural chardonnays, laser-focused sauvignon blancs, and expertly crafted, finely layered red blends at AXR. So, book your blending session well in advance ($250 per person), and come prepared to walk out with more than you ever thought you’d know about winemaking and Napa Valley. To book, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 707-302-8181.
Louis M. Martini
Suppose a visit to the recently renovated Louis M. Martini Winery is not something you’ve factored into your upcoming trip to Napa Valley. In that case, you’ll be missing out on one of the prime upscale tasting opportunities in all of Napa. The Howard Backen-revamped open and airy winery offers a veritable playground of oenophile tasting options. Thoughtful food pairings are curated by chef Jeffery Russell (a Charlie Palmer alum). He is sure to resume the multicourse seated dinners they once hosted in the winery’s underground cellar when it’s safe. But of most interest is their spacious outdoor cabanas and the “Cabana Experience.”
You might just feel like the president of the wine advisory board while sampling some of Napa Valley’s finest wines in a private cabana for a relatively enhanced picnic experience that offers a tasting of four of Louis M. Martini’s meticulously crafted wines. Try their Lot 1 Cabernet, a rich, powerful, and deeply layered red, alongside duck rillette; their Gnarly Vine Zinfandel with some truffled popcorn, and charcuterie; a Meritage red with a wild mushroom and truffle pizza. Groups are limited to six people for now at $100 per guest. Reserve well in advance to ensure availability at https://www.louismartini.com/tour-and-tastings or by calling 707-968-3362.
You’d never know it, but French-born Pierre Seillan, the affable, humble vigneron who works hand-in-hand with his daughter Hélène is one of the most decorated and critically praised winemakers in the world. He’s been the singular guiding force behind Vérité, which was established in 1998 by Jess Jackson. To this day, Seillan turns out stunning Bordeaux-style reds from Sonoma, and the latest release—the 2017 vintage—marks his 20th harvest in the U.S. and 50th as a winemaker. The wines—La Muse, La Joie, and Le Desir, which retail for $425 each—are already earning high praise from critics. They are collector-level dream bottles, and they age remarkably well. So well that, really, the best time to enjoy one of these 2017 vintage releases is sometime in the spring of 2027, and if you’re smart enough to have locked into several bottles, try them now and again until 2047.
As for the more immediate and rewarding tasting experiences that Vérité offers, “The Perfect Flight” is for up to six people at a time. This experience includes a guided tasting, including info on Vérité’s history and philosophies on winemaking. Then, the fun part: two sample vintages each of their 100-point-earning wines, La Muse, La Joie, and Le Desir. Each wine is served to the group at the same time for simultaneous reaction and discussion. Request all appointments by email and note that the price, $350 per person, results from the wines’ actual retail price, which, depending on the vintage, runs from $410 up to $670 per bottle. Simply by booking and participating in this experience, guests will be invited to join the wildly coveted Vérité mailing list. Email email@example.com or call 707-431-3930 to book.