Cool caves, cabanas along Sage Canyon Loop/Highway 128 — eastern gateway to the Napa Valley
The Sage Canyon Loop — Highway 128 to the Silverado Trail to Highway 121 and back again — has so much to offer wine enthusiasts that it’s really not possible to see everything in one trip. But with its convenient eastern entrance to the Napa Valley from Winters, it’s easy to continue exploring this wine trail again and again.
That’s just what the Three Amigas — Jesse Loren, Spring Warren and myself — did recently, beginning our day early, with a 10 a.m. appointment for wine tasting at the completely underground Jarvis Winery, which began this Winters Wine Trail story last month. The story picks up where the last one left off, as we strolled the lovely Jarvis grounds back to the car and continued just a quick skip down the road to Del Dotto Winery’s Napa site, which features historic caves carved out by Chinese laborers in 1885 with axes and shovels.
Located just a quick hop off Highway 121 at 1055 Atlas Peak Road in Napa, we again chose to do a private wine tasting by appointment — something all three of us were growing quite fond of because the quality of the visit is so much more than crowding into a tasting room and jostling your way to the front of the pack to get a taste.
We were greeted by Luis Pettinato, Del Dotto’s tasting room manager, who said (in a velvety Italian accent) as he splashed some 2010 Chardonnay into three glasses, “Grab your glass, we’re going to walk around.”
Glasses in hand, we strolled into the large barrel gallery at the cave entrance, nicely accented with artwork purchased from Donald Trump. Luis explained the historical background of the building, which began as a whiskey distillery in the 1800s during the Gold Rush. The strikes of pickaxes from the laborers still etch the cave walls that create a winding underground wine cellar, which provides a perfect temperature and atmosphere for fermenting. Del Dotto’s caves are amongst the original six wineries in the Napa Valley that feature underground caves, and of them, Del Dotto’s are the second oldest.
One of the really unique features of Del Dotto Winery is that they take one vintage and divide it into barrels of varying “toasts” — the amount of burning done on the inside of the barrel. The top of the barrel can also be toasted, which is where the term “toasted head” comes from.
Tasting one vintage from different barrel toasts really allows you to sharpen your abilities to detect flavors, from vanilla to brown sugar to black pepper. Luis explained that most of the barrels are oak, but may be from trees grown in different parts of the world, and each with a different toast. It’s the toast that brings out the natural sugars in the wine as it ferments, we learned.
With our mini-education on toasts, we were ready to put what we’d learned to the test, and followed Luis into the dimly but mysteriously lit tunnels to start sampling the effects of different toasts. Real candles adorned the barrels, creating a flickering otherworldly atmosphere, enhanced even further by Latin and Italian music lilting throughout, and even some classic crooning. We strolled in to Harry Connick Jr. singing, “The Way You Look Tonight” — what a way to set a mood — and then were off on Luis’ heels for an underground adventure.
Unlike wine tasting in a room, where the wine is finished and poured from bottles, at Del Dotto, you can taste samples pulled right from the barrels with a “wine thief” — a tube-shaped suction device.
Tasting wine at Del Dotto isn’t as simple as saying, “I like it, I don’t like it,” swish and spit. It’s an educational adventure, and Luis would ask us what we tasted in the wine: a hint of bubblegum in the Sangiovese? Is that possible? Yes, he responded. Very good! But as we traveled along, just noting the tasting undertones wasn’t enough. Luis started quizzing us on the toast level, and whether the oak itself was French or American. Amazingly enough, we got most of them right! But, we had an excellent teacher.
Luis was clearly relaxed and enjoying our underground excursion, and commented as we walked, “This is my office.” He certainly makes his day at the office seem like play. The personal attention he gives on his tour was so much more enjoyable than attempting to elbow your way through a herd of tourists crowded around a wine tasting bar and hoping to flag down a pourer.
Besides wine, Del Dotto also makes its own olive oil, which is another taste treat following the cave tour. Back in the room at the entrance of the caves, a lovely little spread of meats, cheese and dark chocolate was waiting for us, as well as samples of Del Dotto’s port, Can’nani, which was so amazing and luscious that one bottle had to come home with us.
Pettinato said that making an appointment for a cave tour is the way to go at Del Dotto, to truly lean about the barrels and the wine, and spend time with someone who can answer each and every question you might have expertly. The winery is open year round, and walk-ins are accepted on occasion if they aren’t too busy. Besides the Napa winery, there is another winery in St. Helena, the Del Dotto Venetian Estate Winery & Caves.
At the Napa site, cave tours with barrel tasting are $60 per person and are offered daily, and are available for visitors 18 and older. A tour takes about 90 minutes. Wine tasting at the bar only is also offered for $30, by appointment.
Lunch and sunshine
Having learned the art of calling ahead for wine tasting appointments, our next stop was Clos du Val on the Silverado Trail. Why Clos Du Val? Because on our first Sage Canyon Loop excursion, as we were rounding the corner from Midsummer Cellars on our way to Piña Napa Valley, amid the countless gorgeous vineyards we passed, one just stood out.
The late afternoon sun was starting to sink toward the coastal hills, and there was this expanse of vineyards stretching up to a massive stone winery, covered in vines, nestled at the base of the hills — the other side of the hills we see from Winters.
“Ooh, what’s that place!” I exclaimed, and then we saw the sign: Clos Du Val. “Let’s make sure we go there next time,” I told my pals. No argument there. This is one of the joys of exploring this Highway 128/121 loop — you discover something new on every adventure.
When I called ahead for our tasting appointment, I asked for advice on where to stop for lunch. After visiting the Jarvis and Del Dotto wineries in the morning, we’d surely need to slow the pace down a bit before moving on. I was told that Soda Canyon Store was our best bet, because not only is the food excellent, it’s right around the corner from Del Dotto Winery and on the way to Clos Du Val.
Fabulous advice. And that’s the other little trick about finding the most amazing wineries and eateries in the Napa Valley — ask the people who work at the wineries where they would visit and where they’d stop to eat. That was how we’d found Del Dotto — the kind folks at Jarvis Winery recommended it. Sitting off the main drag a bit, we’d not likely have found it on our own. (Lucky you — all you have to do is read the Express.)
Soda Canyon Store. Two words: Eat there. The deli sandwiches are to die for. I had trouble just picking one, but settled on a “Napa Valley” — turkey, pesto, avocado and sprouts, in a tortilla wrap. It’s what “yum” tastes like. There were also plenty of side salads to choose from, and cookies almost as big as the sandwiches. You need a tasty, hearty lunch if you’re going to keep on tasting.
After a most wonderful lunch, we were ready to keep on keepin’ on — on to Clos Du Val, which was just a quick trip up the Silverado Trail.
There it was again, that beautiful expanse of vineyards and stone winery. We drove up the long, sloping driveway, and having arrived a little early, were able to nose through the gift shop, where we spotted a must-have gift for wine loving friends: wine purses! They’re cute, colorful hard-shelled purses that could hold a bottle of wine or all your lady stuff.
Before we could do any damage to our credit cards with wine purses, however, we were greeted by Tracey Mason, executive vice president of global marketing at Clos Du Val, who escorted us out to the canvas-covered cabanas with a stunning picturesque view of the vineyards and hills.
Tracey enlightened us to the fact that the wineries along the Silverado Trail from Napa to Calistoga are actually a mini-region all their own, and within it are several districts. Clos Du Val is part of the Stag’s Leap District, which Tracey says, “plays an important role in our sense of place,” which, she notes “has a unique terroir” (the natural environment, including soil, topography and climate) that helps shape the wine in this district. The Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, is “an iron fist in a velvet glove,” while the Zinfandel is a “quaffable red wine.”
“I don’t think there’s any place better than the Stag’s Leap District,” says Tracey, noting that the district, which extends from Napa to Yountville, has 18 wineries in a three and a half mile radius, ranging from small, family-owned wineries to larger ones like Clos Du Val.
“You can get a bit of everything,” she says of the district, which she describes as “compact,” and adds that visiting the district is “a great way to see a lot” without getting bogged down in the “melee” of traffic on Highway 29.
In the warm orange glow of the cabanas on this rather chilly spring day, we all settled into the comfy cushions and enjoyed the sunshine and the wine, as Tracey walked us through the varietals we’d be tasting, ranging from whites to reds, and gave us some highlights of Clos Du Val, now in its 40th year in the Napa Valley.
“We’re one of the most friendly and down to earth wineries,” said Tracey, noting that picnicking is not only encouraged there, but celebrated. Clos Du Val was voted Napa Valley’s best picnic area, and frequently hosts live music and special events. She says not only does the winery offer “a really authentic experience of the Napa Valley, but participants will also experience the unique geography and “the grandeur of what is Napa.”
“The lifestyle is celebrated on the Silverado Trail,” she says with a smile.
Tracey also advises those who wish to stay overnight in the Napa Valley to do so in the Stag’s Leap District “to have the best experiences and least traffic.” She says Yountville offers some great lodging choices.
Clos Du Val grows all of its own grapes, some there on the Napa grounds, others in Carneros and Yountville. That’s a lot of grapes, but Tracey points out, “it takes a ton of grapes to make 60 cases of wine.” Clos Du Val produces more than 1,000 times that — and that makes it only a medium sized winery for the Napa Valley.
Sipping and chatting, we were all starting to feel snoozy in the warm sun and would happily have curled up like cats on the comfy cabana sofas for a siesta, but sadly, our adventures on the Sage Canyon Loop had come to a close. It was time to bid Tracey farewell and head on back down Highway 128 and home. Our final destination? Main Street Cellars in Winters, where we still had plenty of time for tasty snacks and a whole glass of wine that we could actually finish!
Visiting Clos Du Val is simple — they’re open daily, year round, and walk-in tastings are welcome. However, reservations are recommended, and tastings range from $15-$30 per person. Winery tours are $30 (includes tasting) and offered at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and must be scheduled in advance.
Del Dotto Historic Winery & Caves, 1055 Atlas Peak Road, Napa, CA, 94558; (707) 963-2134; www.deldottovineyards.com; hours, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily, closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Days.
Soda Canyon Store, 4006 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA, 94558, (707) 252-0285; www.sodacanyon store.com; hours, Monday through Saturday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Clos Du Val, 5330 Silverado Trail, P.O. Box 4350, Napa, CA 94558; (707) 261-5251; www.closduval.com; hours, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, open year round, closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Days, as well as the day after Thanksgiving.