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The Pinot Noir Die-Hard’s Tour of Napa Valley

You don’t have to be a cabernet or chardonnay aficionado to make the most of Napa.


When most people think of Napa Valley wines, they think of bold, tannic cabernet sauvignon and well-oaked chardonnay. And rightly so—these are the varietals that put Napa Valley on the map. Pinot noir, on the other hand, is a varietal more associated with Sonoma Valley, Paso Robles, Santa Maria, and Santa Barbara. But don’t be fooled: There are some darn good pinots coming out of Napa—pinots that will rival the best of any region in the world. As a matter of fact, the best single sip of wine I’ve ever tasted was a Napa Valley pinot noir. One of the best-in-class Napa pinots can be found at Aubert, whose wines start above $100 and which is open only to members. But you don’t have to be a joiner to hit these five must-visit spots. 

Whetstone Wine Cellars 
Bottles: $50–$125 
Tastings: $45–$65; reservations required
Set in a historic building just outside downtown Napa, this winery is known for its parties and its pinot. Whetstone has long been a favorite of locals—and musicians like the Plain White T’s—and has a reputation for partying hard but keeping it classy. Here you’ll likely meet Jamie and Michelle Whetstone, who are as laid back as they are serious about winemaking, and their five dynamic pinot noirs. It’s worth splurging on the 2014 Taylor’s Folly ($125), as it’s a luscious ride through plumb and dark fruit, earth, and pie crust. But you won’t go wrong with the velvety 2017 Jon Boat ($50) or the other the pinots in between. Hang out on the patio and sip on the benches or head inside on a rainy day, but plan to spend at least an hour at this welcoming winery.

Robert Sinskey Vineyards
Bottles: $42–$70
Tastings: $40–$175; reservations not required
Back in the day I made my first-ever wine purchase in Napa Valley at Sinskey, near Yountville. Admittedly, that first bottle was cab franc, but it was pinot that got me in the door and the pinot that I still buy now. Sinskey is currently still offering the 2012 Vandal Vineyard Pinot ($70), which is about as good as it gets for pinot lovers who seek out cinnamon, winter spices, and complex layers of dark berry flavor. Like Whetstone, the winery makes five different pinot noirs, so you’ll have plenty to choose from. But make sure you don’t miss the 2014 Los Carneros ($42) because it’s a perky, zesty pinot that’s filled with life (think raspberry and tart strawberry). This place is known for its cozy tasting room and local culinary treats, so come a little hungry, and don’t shy away if it’s a rainy day. 

Bottles: $20–$38
Tastings: $30–$75; reservations required
Hendry, in Napa proper, makes two pinot noirs that are an incredible value for the price. They’re both complex, spicy wines with a variety of flavors that range from tart strawberry to sweet cherry and earthy baking chocolate. The folks behind Hendry refuse to take themselves too seriously—they’ll make pairing suggestions that range from pizza and pork tenderloin to duck and farro. No matter what level of pinot lover you are, you’ll feel comfortable here and will have the opportunity to learn a great deal. 

Bouchaine Vineyards 
Bottles: $35–$100
Tastings: $20–$50; reservations not required 
Set among the rolling hills of Carneros, this off-the-beaten-path winery makes, drum roll please, 12 different pinot noirs. That’s right, when you visit Bouchaine, you can design your own pinot tasting based on what you like or what you want to spend, or you can just dig in and try all 12. It can be easy to lose focus as you sip through pinots that range from tart, acidic, and almost pink to deep and brooding and full of currant and dark chocolate. But if you are a lover of pinot, it’s OK to loosen up and enjoy the ride. Then walk it off with a stroll around their gardens. 

School House Vineyard 
Bottles: $50–105
Tastings: free; reservations required
Schoolhouse Vineyards makes just four wines: A refreshing chardonnay, two red blends, and one infamous pinot noir. The staff will happily and leisurely pour them for you at a picnic bench on their country vineyard property at the base of Spring Mountain, just up the hill from the town of St. Helena. Here you get a taste of what Napa Valley was 65 years ago, as well as one of the most off-the-radar, yet most respected, pinot noirs in America. These wines are handmade, hand-bottled, hand-labeled, and hand-sold to those in the know. Book an appointment right away—there’s only so long a place like this lasts.


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