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Not a Wine Mogul? No Problem! Insiders' Tips to Napa Valley

June 11, 2014

By G.E. Anderson

Guests sample wine during the barrel auction event of Auction Napa Valley at the Charles Krug Winery Friday. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Auction Napa Valley — the hottest event in the winemaking world — brought in a record high of $18.7 million this year for a variety of local charities. Inside an ineffectively air conditioned tent on the grounds of Meadowood Napa Valley resort in St. Helena, California, however, water was a more precious commodity than wine.

It was as if bidders were waving their paddles just to stay cool. Attendees bid on everything from world cruises in privately owned mega-yachts ($250,000) to Oscar party passes ($420,000). One winner walked away with dinner reservations with Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis for $150,000. Another paid $240,000 for the chance to meet Heidi Klum. This year’s top bid of $600,000 was for a founding membership at Promontory — Bill Harlan’s next winery, which doesn’t yet exist.

“It’s crazy — people are buying ideas,” remarked California’s Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, founder of PlumpJack and Odette and Cade wineries, who was on hand to witness his offering of a vacation package to Napa and Tuscany sell for $150,000. “But it’s all for a good cause.”

Odette Estate, founded by California Lt. Governor Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom. (Courtesy: Odette Estate)

The bidding was so heated that only two of the 50 lots up for auction sold for less than $100,000. As a first-time attendee without six figures of disposable income, my mission was to find out what Napa’s elite locals do for fun when they’re not attending gala auctions, or at least what they might recommend to their friends. Here’s what some of them had to say:

1. Visit in the off-season

“Everybody wants to come at harvest time, but in April and May, the grapes are just starting to grow, it’s a lot quieter, and the weather’s great,” says David Duncan, CEO of Silver Oak and Twomey Cellars. (June, it should be noted, might be pushing it, as temperatures in Napa soared to 100 degrees the day after the auction.)

Bidding at this year’s Barrel Auction. (Photo: Bob McClenahan for Napa Valley Vintners)

2. Go off the beaten path

Napa is home to famous restaurateurs such as Thomas Keller, Michael Chiarello, and Christopher Kostow. But if you didn’t just win the lottery — or this year’s $340,000 winning bid for you and 49 guests to buy out The French Laundry or Per Se for a night — you might want to try something more hoi polloi.  

“If you want to eat like a local, go to Cook’s,” Duncan advises. Or, at Auction Napa Valley’s pre-party, Cook St. Helena goes to you; owner Jude Wilmoth was on hand passing out plates of hand-made mozzarella paired with pea shoots, toasted hazelnuts, and a light cream sauce. Wilmoth’s advice? “Check out the Oxbow Market.” Kara Lind, founder of Kara’s Cupcakes, offered the same advice. “Oxbow is where I go for my cheeses,” she said. “And Gott’s. I also frequent Solage for Brandon Sharp’s cooking.”

Jeff Gargiulo, proprietor of Gargiulo Vineyards, also offered specific advice. “Establish a relationship with a winery,” he said. “They can make a call for you to set up reservations anywhere, and many have their own concierges. Or just sit at the bar at Mustards Grill. That’s one of the most authentic Napa Valley experiences you can have.”

(Courtesy: Appellation St. Helena)

3. Give yourself enough time

Don’t try to cram visits to all your favorite vineyards into a single trip. “Some people come here wanting to do eight to 10 wineries in one day; I advise them to allow for more down time and relaxing,” says Molly Taylor, concierge at Auberge du Soleil. Taylor creates customized itineraries for guests, who she says generally fall into two categories: collectors versus more mainstream tourists. “Collectors typically know what they like — big Bordeauxs, for example — and are just trying to branch out, whereas people new to the Valley might be less particular because they haven’t yet found their palette,” Taylor says. “After a couple of tastings, your palette becomes desensitized, so one or two per day is usually enough.”

4. Distances can be deceiving 

The region is full of squiggly roads that take more time to traverse than you might expect. Healdsburg may look close to Oakville on a map, but it takes about an hour and a half to get from one to the other. “Some visitors want to tour Sonoma and Napa in the same day,” Taylor says, “or they think that the Alexander Valley is right here. It’s not.”

(Courtesy: Arkenstone Vineyards)

5. Climb the mountains

“A lot of great wine is up in the mountains, so don’t limit yourself to the Valley floor,” says Tom Parker, a hedge fund manager from Mill Valley. “You can’t go wrong in Oakville — it’s where Mondavi went. And off the Valley floor, you get better views.”

6. Spit

Don’t think you’re being discourteous if you don’t drink the wine at a tasting room. “All the wineries have spittoons; use them,” advises Emma Swain, CEO of St. Supery Vineyards. “You’ll enjoy more if you spit,” Parker echoes. “People respect you for it,” he says. “It’s not an amateur thing to do; it’s a professional thing to do. The vintners don’t drink, they just swish and spit.”

(Courtesy: Uptown Theatre)

7. Napa Valley offers much more than wine

Swain notes that top musicians of all stripes come through town. “City Winery has 270 shows per year,” she said. “Then there’s Uptown Theatre.”

Outdoorsy types have no shortage of activities, either, from lake fishing to mountain biking to hiking trails. “The Calistoga Palisades is one of my favorite places to hike,” Swain says. “You can hike in the morning, and as you go over the fog line, the view of Mt. Tamalpais is breathtaking. Then go down into Calistoga for a mud wrap.”

8. Hire a designated driver

Some services will send a chauffeur to drive you around in your own car. Make use of them.

9. “Go to church on Sunday

Gavin Newsom offered that piece of advice, jokingly. “You might need it after all that drinking.”