Napa Valley is the premier wine making region of California. The volcanic soil and moderate climate are ideal for growing grapes, and there are over 400 wineries in Napa Valley to prove it. With so many options, it can be daunting to choose which ones to visit. Then there’s the question of how to safely partake of the tastings without getting pulled over for a DUI offense. You could do the wine snob “sip and spit” routine, but where’s the fun in that? Ditto for a making one unlucky companion your designated driver. You can always call an Uber, but that cost adds up quickly. That’s why my friend and I ultimately settled on riding the Napa Valley Wine Trolley. It’s a responsible and cost effective way to make the most of your wine tasting weekend!
The trolley is a vintage San Francisco cable car with open sides perfect for admiring the scenery. Drivers double as tour guides who provide a wealth of knowledge about California’s wine industry. There are two Napa Valley trolley tours available. The Classic Tour takes guests to four different wineries and is a great introduction to the region for first-time visitors. I’ve been to Napa several times and was looking for something a little bit different. The Up Valley Tour ventures to the areas of Calistoga and St. Helena at the northern end of Napa Valley. The trolley makes stops at three wineries, including the famed Castello di Amorosa. The Up Valley Tour costs a little more, but the castle tour and tasting is well worth the extra money.
Napa Valley Wine Trolley and Castle Tour with Tasting
Castello di Amorosa
Our first stop, after a lovely 40-minute trolley ride from downtown Napa, was Castello di Amorosa. The centerpiece of this winery is an impressive replica of a 13th-century Tuscan castle. It was constructed in 1994 using medieval methods and materials imported from Europe. The project took 15 years to complete and the result can only be called a masterpiece. The castle spans a whopping 121,000 square feet and contains 107 rooms, including a chapel and dungeon stocked with torture devices. It even has a moat and drawbridge! Our tour was led by a genial and informative castle employee, who accentuated his talking points with two tastings along the way.
The castle tour concluded with an extended tasting in the beautiful vaulted brick wine cellar. We were each allowed to taste four different wines from a list of about 25. I suggest taking notes to keep track of your preferences. Most of the wines we sampled were available for sale in the gift shop. I only bought one bottle (a refreshing Gioia Sangiovese rosé that tasted like strawberries) because I didn’t want to blow my budget at the first stop of the day. But as it turns out, the Castello di Amorosa wines were the best of the bunch! Bottles are only available at the winery, though online orders are possible through their website. The cost of the castle tour and tasting is included in the wine trolley ticket price.
Happily buzzed, we boarded the trolley for a five-minute ride to our second winery of the day, Clos Pegase. The striking winery was designed by award-winning architect Michael Graves in a style described as “Postmodern Mediterranean”. Friendly Clos Pegase staff led us on a tour of the property and wine cellars, and passed their enthusiasm onto us. Lunch, consisting of sandwiches, pasta salads, and baked goods, was served in a private tasting room and was better than I expected. The wine tasting cost $20 per person, but this was waived with the purchase of two or more bottles of wine. My friend and I pooled our resources to buy two bottles, then split the cost of one tasting between us. We ended up spending $32 each and felt like we’d gotten a good deal.
Our third and final stop at Markham Vineyards was my least favorite of the day. Maybe it’s because we were all tired by this point, but the tour felt lackluster after the warm receptions we experienced at the previous two. The winery’s acclaimed art gallery has a large bar in the center, around which we tasted four different wines. I wasn’t crazy about any of them, and my friend, who is from France, deemed them “awful”. The tasting fee was $25 and no discount was offered for making a purchase. Needless to say, I left empty-handed, as did most of the others on the trolley. I guess the winery doesn’t need the extra business! (Markham Vineyards does have many positive online reviews.)
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Note: I have not received any compensation for writing this review. This is my honest opinion as a regular paying customer. I do not accept freebies or discounts, nor do I place sponsored links within my posts. I only include links I feel may be useful to readers.
If you are interested in more wine tasting adventures around the world, check out my guide to Porto, Portugal. The area is similar in climate to Napa Valley and is home to the world’s best Port wine cellars.