Visiting California wine country has been on our bucket list for a long time. We even discussed this as a possibility when we were planning our honeymoon. When our long-time friend, James Allen, said he was available to host us in Napa Valley we jumped at the opportunity. It’s not everyday you get to rekindle a friendship while consuming delicious wine.
When we made it to James’s home on Friday afternoon he informed us that another long time friend from St. Louis, Ben Unger, was on his way over. We stayed up till 2AM (way past our normal bed time) sharing stories, constant laughs, and several bottles of tasty wine.
The next day we started James’s “Napa Tour”. First stop - Hess Winery. Because James is deeply ingrained in the wine industry, and has been for the past 10 years, we were given an “industry tasting”. This essentially means that you can try any and all of the wines available.
We made sure to spit the wine since we were getting an early start and wanted to make it through the end of the day. Good thing, because we tried about 15 different wines by noon. One of our favorites was the Gruner Vetliner.
As mentioned before, James has been in the wine industry for over 10-years and the week after our visit he was leaving for Germany to defend his Master’s thesis in Viticulture and Enology. He is a living encyclopedia for wine. It's incredible for someone with a curious mind and enjoys wine. Katy is the queen of questions and of friendly interrogations which is great for learning about all the various aspects of wine. James fielded the questions and was able to educate us about wine in more detail than we could ever possibly retain. It’s interesting and fun to understand the process of wine from farm to bottle plus gives you a greater appreciation for the finished product.
Next we stopped in the valley to have lunch at the Oakville Grocery Market. A nice spot to enjoy a relaxing picnic style lunch.
Driving through Napa is really beautiful. You pass through new and old vineyards that produce some of the world’s best wine. The actual valley area is quite dry and receives a lot of sunshine. This valley area is where the “Disneyland” style wineries are - huge buildings and lots of people.
As you head into the mountain hillside the roads gets smaller, canopied by trees and the crowds drastically reduce. The land opens up to beautiful and more quaint estates.
As we were driving to the next winery for another tasting James’s friend and local wine maker, Jake, invited all of us over to the Estate he works for, Robert Keenan Winery.
A wine lesson - A vineyard means they grow the grapes, a winery means they produce the wine, and an Estate means they both grow the grapes and produce the wine.
September is harvest season for most grapes so vineyards, wineries, and estates are all working extremely hard during this time to maximize their harvest and winemaking for the year. We showed up to Napa in the middle of Jake’s busiest season but he opened up his doors for us, literally. Keenan Estates was closed Sunday in order to focus on harvesting and production, but Jake made an exception.
Jake is a fellow St. Louisan which explains his incredible hospitality :) and we naturally hit it off. Jake poured the first glasses at the bar, then we moved to the patio that overlooked their most prized grape vines. He brought several bottles out for us. We drank wine, took in the beautiful views, and learned more and more about the process of winemaking. We learned different areas of the property and how the estate is fully sustainable with solar and water. It was around this time where we started consuming rather than spitting the wine. Our ethics and “moral fiber” prevailed!
We then moved down into the cellar where all the barrels of wine are stored. We tasted multiple wines directly out of the barrel. We even tasted freshly pressed grape juice Chris pressed the day before. The grape juice was super sweet and had whole chunks of grape in it.
Jake would serve us directly out of a barrel, give us all the details of the wine, we would enjoy, and then he would look for the next one for us to taste. It seemed like he enjoyed educating and sharing Keenan Estates fine wines as much as we enjoyed the opportunity to taste them.
At this moment we both realized how surreal and outrageously unique this experience was. This very quickly became a private tour of an Estate where we were drinking out of the barrels with the assistant winemaker and getting educated by a soon to be accredited wine scholar. So cool.
We all left the cellar to go explore the vineyard and the grounds. We made it to the highest point of the vineyard to check out the vines that have not yet been harvested and to catch sunset. We walked around plucking and eating the grapes while the sunset cast pinks and oranges across the vineyard’s hilltop. It was surreal.
We like to joke about how we are dirtbag travelers who live out of our truck, which is true, but once in awhile we get to be seriously spoiled. Our weekend in Napa was a special one and we thank James Allen for making it all possible! Thank you James!