A sommelier dedicates years to studying the notes and aromas of wines. That’s never been my calling, but at least I know not to pair red wine with seafood. Hey, it’s a start.

Europe has dominated the wine conversation for centuries. Not to mention South Africa and the Marlborough district of New Zealand. Argentina and Chile can hold their own, too. But if you can’t go to those places, Napa Valley is a formidable contender. It’s the premiere wine region in California.

In the early days, Napa Valley was home to only a few wineries. Now, there are more than 400, most of which are family-owned. I didn’t know which one to choose, so I left that to my experienced friends. I couldn’t ask for better company as I dipped my toes into this new world.

Napa Valley is only 50 miles northeast of San Francisco, but thankfully, the fog didn’t follow us. There were blue skies over Beringer, the oldest, consistently operating winery in California. This historic estate offers tours and tastings for all group sizes. We got our sip on at Rhine House.

Photo Credit: Spencer Jones
Photo credit: Spencer Jones

Chardonnay, Merlot and three varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon were featured. We paired these with a charcuterie board of delicious cheeses, meats and fruits. Our wine specialist, Jesus, infused the experience with fun and laughter. He explained how the wines were produced without the monotonous verbiage. He regaled us with stories of his years as a competitive flamenco dancer in Spain. Drinking wine during competitions was forbidden, he said. But it was a different story off the dance floor.

I, like most people, don’t think much about the technical side of wine. But if you want to enjoy it like a professional, Visit Napa Valley suggests the following.

First, observe the color and clarity. Swirl the glass to release the aromas and sniff to prepare your palate. Next, sip and enjoy the complexities. Finally, spit the wine into a “dump bucket,” if you don’t want to get inebriated. I don’t quite see the fun in that last step, but to each their own!

Napa is a worthwhile day trip if you’re based in Northern California. You can get there from San Francisco in an hour, and it’s like a postcard, with its rolling hills and vineyards. The climate is pleasant all year round, and the celebrated grape varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. Even if you don’t touch a drop of wine, you can take advantage of the fine dining, spas and outdoor activities.

Would I visit this region again? Yes, but I want to be extra next time. I’d like to book a seat on the Napa Valley Wine Train, so I can dine and imbibe in a vintage train car. What’s life if you can’t enjoy the finer things sometimes?