Glass does Napa in the off-season

EACH autumn, thousands of wine lovers flock to Napa, California, to take part in the region’s harvest season. Disciples of this pilgrimage, which takes place roughly between June and October each year, ascribe an almost spiritual quality to the experience—harvest devotees trek from one winery to the next for the opportunity to breathe in the intoxicating aroma of crushed fruit, and pay homage to the grapes to be used in the next year’s vintages.

But then again, maybe they’ve just been over served – summer may be the most popular time to visit Napa, but it’s also when reservations are impossible to come by, tasting rooms are bursting at the seams, and the blazing California sun at its hottest. And then there’s this irony: “The actual harvesting of the grapes tends to happen in the middle of the night when it’s cool out,” said Scott Billeci, Regional Sales Manager at ZD Wines. “So there’s not actually all that much harvesting to see.”

Napa’s worst kept secret, according to many of the locals I spoke with, is that the off-season – the months between November and May – is actually the best time to visit the valley. The most obvious advantage to a wintertime visit, they say, is the opportunity to sample the valley’s top varietal, Cabernet Sauvignon, during the season in which it is meant to be enjoyed. As the locals say, “Cabernet is King” in Napa, accounting for more than fifty per cent of the grapes grown in the valley, but who wants to be holding court with a bold red in the middle of a scorching Californian summer? During the harvest, “you’re going to get more of our rosés, whites, and lighter reds, like pinots,” in the valley’s tasting rooms, said Dustin Harmon, a wine expert with Vintner’s Collective. “Of course, crazy Cab fans will do a flight of red regardless of the weather—but I can tell they’re struggling.”

For this reason, Napa has designated the cooler months of the year as “Cabernet Season,” an occasion many of the region’s over 400 wineries mark with special events to showcase their top reds. The pinnacle of these experiences, offered by ZD Wines, is perhaps the Winter Wine Escape, a weekend-long celebration of the winery’s multi-vintage Cabernet, known as Abacus. This year’s bottling, sold in packs of three for $2,025, is a blend of vintages from each of the past 26 years. “It’s definitely our most prized wine,” Billeci said. “The escape weekend gives us an opportunity to really show it off.”

The event, which costs $3,200 per couple, includes Abacus tastings from multiple years, a paired dinner, and a stay in one of the region’s many high-end resorts. (Carneros Resort and Spa, for instance, played host to this year’s festivities.)

                               This year’s Abacus bottling, a blend of vintages from the past 26 years

Food pairings also become particularly inventive during an off-season visit. “I get excited to bring some bigger tasting items to the table that pair well with full-bodied Cabernets,” said Chef Derick Kuntz of B Cellars Winery, who crafts tapas-style dishes, mostly from ingredients grown in the winery’s on-site garden, to accompany various flights of wine. “It’s all about the comfort foods in winter,” he added, like pastas, pizzas and meats, which can be more compelling to visitors than some of the lighter fare served during the warmer summer months.

Comfort food pairing at B Cellars Winery

V. Sattui Winery offers perhaps the valley’s most playful take on a comfort food pairing. During its wintertime Opposites Attract experience, guests enjoy a selection of the winery’s most sophisticated Cabernets served with what could most charitably be described as selections from the “other” end of the culinary spectrum – junk foods like Cheetos, Doritos and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Lowbrow? Sure. But the tasting, conducted by wine expert, Marc Golick, is among the more educational in the valley. “It’s basic food science,” Golick explained, as I sipped from a $225 bottle of 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and bit off the head of a gummy bear. “The MSG in chips like Doritos are actually from the same family as umami,” he continued, “which is the ultimate softener of tannins—notice how it helps bloom some of the richer flavours you’ll find in big cabs.”

Junk food pairing at V. Sattui Winery

Many of Napa’s tasting room experts suggest an off-season visit for precisely this reason—easier access to many of the region’s top wine experts. “There are just fewer people here during the colder months,” said Larry Bombach, a wine educator at Burgess Cellars, whose tasting room is perched 357 metres above sea level, with stunning views of the winery’s vineyards below. In peak season, many tasting rooms require reservations, which often need to be made weeks to months in advance. During winter, however, “you can practically walk in here, or almost any place, and get our undivided attention.”

View from the tasting room of Burgess Cellars

For an unschooled wine lover like me – whose knowledge on the subject is limited to insisting a certain vintage is “drinking well this year” without actually knowing what that means—the increased access to wine experts was probably the biggest advantage to my off-season visit. Without crowds to compete with, I was treated to what amounted to private oenology lessons at many of my tastings.

For instance, with only one other couple vying for the attention of our educator during the popular Barrel Blending Experience at Conn Creek Winery – during which participants blend their own bottle of Cabernet while learning about the impact different soils and climates can have on the taste of wine – I now feel confident in my ability to use the term “terroir” correctly in a sentence.

Barrel Blending experience at Conn Creek Winery

Similarly, during my stay at Milliken Creek Inn and Spa – which offers free daily “happy hours” to its guests, I was among the only participants to attend a tasting hosted by Hope and Grace Wines, whose specialist gamely enlightened me on the merits of aging wine in French versus American oak barrels. (The latter can contribute an unwanted vanilla aftertaste, if you’re curious.)

Reservations at resorts like Milliken are also easier to come by in the off-season, and rates more reasonable. But a less obvious reason to book a stay in winter is to take advantage of your resort’s cosier features, many of which go underutilized during the warmer summer months. This is particularly true of many of the accommodations in the small town of Calistoga, home to a variety of natural hot springs, mud baths and top-end spas. Calistoga Ranch –  situated in a private canyon spawning 635,356 square metres of land—boasts private hiking trails, private hot tubs in each of its 50 freestanding lodges, and a spa with heated mineral pools that become particularly attractive when your visit doesn’t coincide with the peak of a hot California summer. A soak in Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa’s piping hot geothermal water-fed pools, or a mud bath at Indian Springs Calistoga, also become more appealing when the temperature outside these tubs isn’t something similar.

Calistoga Ranch, which has 635,356 square metres of private hiking trails

Geothermal water-fed pools at Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa

If none of these reasons have yet convinced you of the virtues of a wintertime visit, perhaps this one will: “The rattlesnakes,” said my waiter at Auberge du Soleil, when asked why people should visit Napa in the off-season. “They’re hibernating in winter.”

by David Dodge

Calistoga Ranch, 580 Lommel Rd, Calistoga, CA 94515

Tel +1 855 942 4220

Milliken Creek Inn and Spa, 1815 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558

Tel +1 707 255 1197

Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa,  1880 Lincoln Ave, Calistoga, CA 94515

Tel +1 707 942 0991