Photo by Matt Morris

7 Best Wine Travel Experiences of 2020

Napa Valley,  California

Be Winemaker for a Day in Napa Valley, California

Whether you’re out for some fun or considering a career change, playing winemaker for a day lets you challenge your senses and test your blending mettle. Sure, you could order a kit and do chemistry experiments in the basement, but training in Napa sounds a lot more enjoyable, not to mention, more successful: You would have top-quality fruit and highly skilled cellar masters on hand, after all.

Lush vineyards at Larkmead in Napa Valley, foggy mountains in distance
Larkmead/Photo by Jimmy Hayes

A handful of wineries sell the opportunity for visitors to blend their own bottles, though with different iterations on the theme. At Conn Creek Winery in St. Helena, book the “Barrel Blending Experience.” A wine educator will provide an overview of Napa Valley’s regions and fruit expressions. Then, armed with tips and strategies, you’ll taste through Cabernet Sauvignon barrel samples from around the region before crafting a proprietary blend to bottle and take home.

Expect a bit of flair with a visit to Raymond Vineyards. You’ll be asked to don a silver lab coat before you enter the stainless-steel “blending room” for a 90-minute “Winemaker for a Day” session. Participants get juice from three grape varieties to create three blends. They’ll then select their favorite final product, the bottle will get a personalized label and Raymond will file away the recipe for future orders.

Jospeh Phelps winery set amongst tress
Joseph Phelps/Photo by Matt Morris

If your lodging is near downtown Napa, you won’t have to drive far to partake in “Bottle Blending Day Camp” at Judd’s Hill Winery. Sessions start with snippets of education, but you’ll get your hands dirty fast. Mix and match the grapes used in a traditional Bordeaux-style red blend to make a final product that’s bottled, labeled and sent home—just remember to check your suitcase.

The blending experience at Joseph Phelps Vineyards seeks to answer a specific question: Can you make a wine as good as or better than its flagship Insignia? You’ll receive the six components of the current vintage but won’t be told the secret recipe. Experiment with ratios using pipettes and beakers, then taste how your creation compares to one of Napa’s most decorated bottlings.

Person blending wines in stemless glasses
Blending at Miner Family/Photo by Stephanie Wolden

Miner Family runs a similar session. The founder, Dave Miner, left a career in the software industry, so there could be hope for you, yet. Find out when you book “The Oracle Blending Seminar.” Guests are introduced to single-varietal expressions of the Napa-grown varieties used in their flagship wine, The Oracle: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. After you learn the characteristics of these five grapes, you’ll create your own cuvée for comparison to the current release.

You probably shouldn’t quit your day job after just one of these sessions, though if you do, a few more options exist. At Larkmead, Winemaker Dan Petroski hired a 45-year-old history teacher who sought to change his life and receive a deeper, behind-the-scenes look at winemaking as a harvest intern. According to Petroski, “there are opportunities if you have the luxury of more than one day.” —Lauren Mowery

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