Exploring the Land of Pinot & Chardonnay in the Carneros AVA, Southern Napa – 5 Hot Spots

If you’re looking for the perfect day in wine country look no further. Lisa is here to show you the way around the Napa side of the Carneros AVA (American Viticulture Area) which is situated on the southern end of the Valley. Easily accessible from both San Francisco and the East Bay it’s a good place to head to for an afternoon tasting or even a full day itinerary. Here are her top 5 suggestions and whether you’re on the hunt for the region’s top Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (what the region is know to produce in at its best) or a variety of other wines and provisions, Carneros is the perfect way to start your journey exploring California’s top wine regions!

Winery #1 – Bouchaine Vineyards

Bouchaine is a darling winery with a true farmhouse patio vibe. This stop really is a must to see beyond the wineries and absorb the environment of lush rolling hills as far as the eye can see. If you’re a wine geek and curious about Pinot and Chardonnay terroir, this is it folks! This backroad scenery is almost too easy to miss so a short drive off Hwy 12 is a must for anyone who wants to see the real Napa side of Carneros (Carneros overlaps the southern portions of Sonoma and Napa). Lisa typically likes to suggest this as a first stop since it is, in fact, at the southern-most tip of the AVA and will make your commute from winery to winery that much easier. It’s also fun to enjoy varietals in the region where they grow best. It always brings the quality of what’s behind production to the forefront of your glass and they set a good standard in sustainability with their Napa Green certification. The Garden Experience is dog friendly so feel free to bring your pup and take in the views for a low-key wine tasting experience.

  • Where: Bouchaine, Carneros
  • What: Mostly Chard and Pinot Noir, be sure to try the Pinot Blanc and Riesling
  • Cost: $75 per person – $150 per couple
  • Pro-tips: Casual winery; bring layers even if the weather is just slightly cool and you’re typically exposed to the classic San Pablo winds; I suggest outside over inside for some sunshine and views; give yourself a little extra time on the way to pull over and take some pictures alongside the vineyards
  • Favorite things: Sustainable wines, the terrace views, the drive to the winery
  • Recommended tastings: The Terrace Tasting for some sun-soaking and gorgeous views atop Carneros. For a larger group you might just want to opt for a table in the Garden

Winery #2 – Cuvaison

Cuvaison is pleasant for a quaint tasting and nice if you want a little more privacy and not seeking a big crowd. Think romantic getaway or just the perfect day date, you’ll certainly be able to enjoy good conversation and good wine without the background noise and possible bachelorette parties around you on all sides (ahem, like some others). If you’re in the mood to be lavish opt for the Cuvaison and Caviar Experience, which is self-explanatory, and allow yourself a little more time to settle in and get comfortable with this one. It’s also the perfect way to sneak in some bubbles for the day. It’s very conveniently located while at the same time remaining discreet and you won’t feel rushed going from place to place as it’s so easy to get in and out of. Keep an eye out for the red tractor! It creates the perfect photo op and is quintessentially Carneros.

  • Where: Cuvaison, Carneros
  • What: Sauv Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, some Cab and Merlot
  • Cost: $50 per person – $150 per couple
  • Pro-tips: Not as exposed to the San Pablo winds but still in the heart of Carneros so have your layers. If you’re in wine country in search of more of a ‘scene’ scratch Cuvaison and just head over to my next suggestion – Domaine Carneros across the street. Great people watching and all the sparkling!
  • Favorite things: The Brandlin wines from Mt. Veeder, surprisingly
  • Recommended tastings: If you’re only visiting 1 or 2 wineries go for the Cuvaison and Caviar Experience (especially if you like bubbles). If you’re squeezing in 3 stops reserve the Estate Tasting and you’ll be in out in a timely manner; reservations required

Winery #3 – Artesa

Talking about taking YOUR entrance! Upon arrival this winery will sweep you off your feet! The stunning structure welcomes you with beautiful infinity fountains and a near 360 view of the AVA. Artesa is art meets landscape meets bunker. And you’ll know what I mean when you see it. Give yourself a little extra time on the front or back end of your tasting to take it all in and get some good pictures. As you enter you’ll be greeted by all things Artesa at their main tasting bar and boutique and you’ll have a few different options for preferred seating. My favorite place to snag a spot is the courtyard as it offers up a little reprieve from the sun, which can certainly be helpful when drinking wine all day. The winery offers a nice break from the typical Chardonnay and Pinot you find all over this region and excites the palate with a multitude of fun varietals, notably coming from Spain. If you’re a red drinker, this stop is for you!

  • Where: Artesa, Carneros
  • What: Mostly medium to full-bodied reds, some whites (Spanish varietals – since the family is from Spain)
  • Cost: $45 – $105 per person
  • Pro-tips: Give yourself a little extra time before your tasting for some pictures, it’s a landscape that begs to be photographed
  • Favorite things: The entrance to the winery – breathtaking; the architecture and 360 views, the courtyard tasting
  • Recommended tastings: The Artisanal experience, unless you are ravished and need to soak up a little of the alcohol, then go for the Tapas and Wine experience (pro-tip: don’t ruin your appetite if you have dinner plans!); reservations required

Winery #4 – Domaine Carneros

>>Winery’s note for publishing: (please credit “Untapped Media” for any photos with the label that; otherwise, please credit “Courtesy of Domaine Carneros”)<<

Now Domaine Carneros takes the cake for the region’s most exciting sparkling program. Almost anyone who has driven by has surely not missed the French-inspired Chatêau, impeccably manicured wine estate off Hwy 12. Here you will find all the makings of a well-thought-out winery experience and the most recent addition of their Jardin d’Hiver glass conservatory will have you begging to experience an exclusive food & wine pairing in this setting. One of the most important characteristics of a quality sparkling program is the use of méthode traditionnelle aka traditional method. Simply put they are using the time-honored, original method of making sparkling wine that has been used, which originated in Champagne, centuries ago. No cutting corners here and this contributes to the wine’s finesse, texture and balance. It is deployed across all the wines you will find at DC excluding their still wines, of course. Which leads us to that point. If you happen to not be the biggest fan of bubbles you’re still in luck! Plenty of Pinot Noir and some Chardonnay from their six different Carneros AVA estates are offered as well and they don’t disappoint. For those who want to dig in to all the geeky details of sparkling production and why it’s so special, take the time to sign up for a tour and tasting (at time of article tours are not currently offered due to pandemic) and you’ll leave with a few nuggets to impress your friends for years! Lastly, check out the sabering sword in the glass case inside the Chatêau. These are used for dramatic effect when used but – spoiler alert – a butter knife will also do the trick here. However, they do offer a tasting that demonstrates the excitement of sabrage!

  • Where: Domaine Carneros, Carneros
  • What: Traditional method sparkling and some still wine – almost all Chard and Pinot
  • Cost: $40 per person – $175 per person
  • Pro-tips: If the weather is hot, ask your server to serve as you drink. When they’re all poured at the same time they will surely warm up and nobody wants warm bubbles. However, if you’re a stealthy sipper let them do their thing; the grand staircase is prime for that perfect photo but do be mindful it’s heavily trafficked and there are a lot of people that just want to make their way to the wine; I love, love, love their FAQ’s – they’re relevant to many wineries in our current climate
  • Favorite things: The sparkling wines
  • Recommended tastings: The Art of Sabrage. When I talk about the sabering sword, here you have a chance to see it in action. This is a stunning display of entertainment also what makes the experience of wine so exciting! Give yourself plenty of time if you sign up for it and worth the splurge if you’re interested in eating AND drinking; if you like caviar then indulge in the Ultimate Chips and Dips, my personal favorite; reservations required

Winery #5 – Saintsbury

Now, a great, authentic way to experience Carneros is a visit to Saintsbury. A winner for the true Pinotfile where you’ll find small-lot, vineyard-specific Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. I’ve been frequenting this winery since I first moved to the Bay and a staple for any of my Pinot and/or Chardonnay-loving guests. Although the setting is casual and quaint, the wines are anything but and it’s the ideal spot to grab some shade, indulge in great conversation and enjoy feeling removed from the everyday hustle and bustle. The garden tasting experience places you next to their barrel room and actual winery where all the magic happens. And if you are, in fact, an enthusiastic consumer of Pinot and Chardonnay opt for the “Library Tasting” with a private host who will take you on a deep dive into Saintsbury history and special Library wines. Co-founders Dick and Dave are pioneers of Carneros and have truly built something special on this specific plot of land. Most of these wines you won’t find in the market so be sure to grab what you like!

  • Where: Saintsbury, Carneros
  • What: Site-specific Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (click the link for the sale)
  • Cost: $40 – $60 per person depending on size of group
  • Pro-tips: Tucked away and not as exposed as some of the others but expect some nice shade. Buy what you like of the Single Vineyards as they’re almost impossible to find in stores; get some pictures near the vines! They’re right there next to you; eat at Boonfly Café for breakfast or lunch, it’s right there across Hwy 121 and an all -time favorite
  • Favorite things: The wines; the calming, natural environment
  • Recommended tastings: The Library Tasting in the garden; reservations required

I hope this helps you navigate your way through the world of wine! See you on the soil!

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