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How To Be a Napa Valley VIP


When visiting Wine Country you can play it loose, scouting out wineries on the fly and elbowing up to the tasting room bar with dozens of other drop-in guests. But if you want to get the royal treatment—formal private tastings in exclusive surroundings complete with comfy seating, in-depth wine education, and perhaps even gourmet snacks and jovial banter—you'll have to book private tastings at a few of the following hidden Napa gems. These winery visits will cost more than bellying up with the crowds, but the adventure is a bargain considering the memorable experiences in store. Whichever wineries you choose, don't plan on visiting more than two or three in a day; like the fine wine poured at these establishments, they should be savored, never rushed. –Erika Lenkert

Far Niente is a storybook winery where you can admire the historic stone structure, California's largest southern azalea garden, a seriously enviable classic car collection, and the flavors of rich, luscious chardonnay, powerful Cab, and dreamy dessert wine for $50 per person. (1350 Acacia Dr., Oakville, 800-363-6523, www.farniente.com)

Joseph Phelps Vineyards pours its famed Cabernet Sauvignon blend Insignia and five other tasty wines at its incognito hillside location. The casual terrace tasting is $20, while the one-plus hour sit-down experience will set you back $30 per person. (200 Taplin Rd., St. Helena, 800-707-5789, www.jpvwines.com)

Robert Mondavi Winery is reputed for having one of the most comprehensive educational programs in the valley—including my favorite, the three-hour Essence Tour and Tasting; pay $60 and you can stick your schnoz into wine glasses filled with leather, apples, blackberries, and dozens of other elements attributed to wine and compare them to various varietals. Tres fun! The starter tour is a great winemaking and property adventure for $25. At the other end of the spectrum is the $110 tour and three-course lunch extravaganza. Fabulous, darling. (Highway 29, Oakville, 888-766-6328, robertmondaviwinery.com)

Rudd Winery and Vineyards pays attention to detail in everything from the nuances of its Cab blend, Cab, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc to its facilities with supercool square stainless-steel fermentation tanks, chic underground caves, and gardens graced with century-plus-year-old olive trees. It's not surprising everything is in the best of taste; the winery belongs to the owner of famed gourmet emporium Dean & DeLuca. A tasting will set you back $25, while a tour and food and wine tasting (a la D&D's executive chef) costs $50 per person. (500 Oakville Crossroad, Oakville, 707-944-8577, www.ruddwines.com)

Schramsberg Vineyards is a captivating 217-acre sparkling wine estate once frequented by Robert Louis Stevenson. Its hand-dug caves carved by Chinese laborers in the 1800s are the stunning setting for a sparkling wine schooling, which includes a stroll through the old and atmospheric caves and delicious bubbly portfolio for $25. (1400 Schramsberg Rd., Calistoga, 707-942-2414, www.schramsberg.com)

Swanson Vineyards by far the most stylish, relaxed, and playful place to swirl, sniff, and sip, this wildly colorful tasting room welcomes a handful of guests to gather around a centerpiece table for an one-hour party complete with tasty red and white wines, cheese, and fine china and crystal. Every time I visit, I am charmed by the dramatic Parisian-inspired environs, fun conversation, and house-made bonbons; For $25 to $55 per person, depending on the type of tasting, you can be, too. (1271 Manley Lane, Rutherford, 707-967-3500, swansonvineyards.com)