Small is Big in Napa: Why You Shouldn't Just Hit Mondavi While You're in Napa

Napa is known for it’s big names and big wines.  Famous wineries such as Robert Mondavi, Charles Krug, and Beringer line Highway 29, and hoards of tourists visit these tasting rooms to experience the good life that Napa offers; however, if you’re looking for a different experience, a more low-key one, a more personal one, try some of the small-production wineries in the area.

At a small-production winery you’ll often meet the owner or wine maker, get a tour of the facilities, and actually learn something about wine that the college kids who summer-job it in tasting rooms at some of the bigger places won’t have time to tell you. And as we learned, you’ll even get to meet the vineyard dogs!

Here’s more details about a few of the small production wineries we checked out. Please comment and let us know some of your personal favorite small producers. Some of our readers are going to Napa soon, and we know they’d love more suggestions!

Keever Vineyards

Sitting a ways off Highway 29 along a winding, hill-side, private road, Keever isn’t quite as easy to get to as some other vineyards.  But it’s totally worth the trip.  The first thing you notice as you park your car is the view.  Situated in the hills just west of Yountville, the Keever estate offers some beautiful views of Napa Valley.

The view is certainly not the only reason to to visit Keever.  Their Cabernet Sauvignon is good.  No, not just good, it’s freaking good.  The vineyard is fairly small at only a few acres, most of it is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon.  Their production is a hands-on family affair.  Owners Bill and Olga Keever as well as their son, Jason, and daughter, Ashley, are all involved in the operation.  They all even participate in sorting the grapes at harvest time.

During our visit, we were given a tour of the facility by Olga and their playful dog, Bones.  We could tell that a lot of thought went into their winery.  They have custom made stainless steel fermentation tanks that are smaller than the typical tank, to give them more control over their small production.  They even carved a cave in the hillside to house the barrels as their wines mature.

Tasting and tours ($20/person) at Keever are by appointment only. Call 707.944.0910 to book a tasting and tour. 

Zahtila Vineyards

Proprietor Laura Zahtila didn’t start her professional career in the wine business.  After a successful career in technology at Cisco Systems, she decided to move from routers and switches to grapevines and barrels. (He Sips would love to follow in a similar career path.) 

When we arrived at this small-production vineyard, we were first greeted by Laura’s fiance Michael as well as veteran vineyard dog, Zoe, and Zoe’s apprentice Rocki.  We spent time in their tasting room sampling seven of their offerings, highlighted by the 2005 Laura’s Theme port style wine and 2005 Oat Hill Estate Zinfandel. 

You don’t come across Zinfandel all that much in Napa (it’s much more common in Sonoma and other parts of California) but it’s definitely doing well on Zahtila’s Calistoga property– which is on the northern end of Napa Valley.

We spent more than an hour chatting with Laura and Michael about the small-town life they live–and, frankly, I’m surprised we didn’t stop by a realtor’s office while we were there. They truly made us want to move to Calistoga, and our quick stop to its no-chain, quaint downtown added to this desire. Some day.

Tastings at Zahtila are $10/person.

Hopper Creek Vineyard and Winery

As we said in our earlier post, Hopper Creek in Yountville has more of a local-bar vibe than an uppity-Napa-vineyard vibe. At times, we felt like we were back in Chicago at a neighborhood, corner bar. Listening to Jeff Buckley, we tasted at least six wines (it’s hard to remember the specific from that point in the day).

We met the winemaker, Barry Grushkowitz, who was working the forklift while we were there.
We hung out with the young staff (and more dogs!), talked about wine–and we truly wish we could have stayed there longer. By the end of our tasting, the party had started when a large group showed up, and cheese was passed and bottles were open and everyone was having a good time.

The 2005 Estate Cabernet was particularly good and we bought a bottle to take home.
During our next trip to Napa, we’ll make sure to allow for more time

Retail sales and tastings are available at Hopper Creek from noon to 5 daily.

Filed under: Napa, Napa Trip 2010, Travel, Winery

Tags: Napa, Travel, wine

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