Stony Hill alfresco tasting

3 Historic Napa Valley Wineries Day Trip

Larkmead, Stony Hill, and Louis M. Martini celebrate the past with an eye to the future.

A recent excursion to three historic wineries – Larkmead, Stony Hill, and Louis M. Martini – inspired this northern Napa Valley day trip. Larkmead Vineyards’ story dates back to the 19th century, Stony Hill Vineyard’s to the decade after Prohibition, and Louis M. Martini Winery’s to the one before it. Each winery played a role in creating the Wine Country as we know it today, but with new initiatives all are positioning themselves for the future. 

Pre-trip To-do list

1) You’ll need an appointment to visit the first two stops, Larkmead in southern Calistoga and Stony Hill on St. Helena’s Spring Mountain; especially in summer it’s wise to book a day or more ahead. It’s okay to drop in for Louis M. Martini’s Crown Bar Tasting, also in St. Helena, though you’ll need a reservation for the suggested tastings. 

2) It’s wise to make a dinner reservation, though except on summer and holiday weekends you’ll likely be able to find a table at one of the north valley’s top restaurants. For lunch you probably won’t need to book a table, but it never hurts.

Getting Going

 9 am

Cafe Sarafornia

Lunch won’t be until 1:45 pm (after 2 pm if you choose the wine-and-food option), so fortify yourself with a substantial breakfast at your lodging or head to Calistoga’s Cafe Sarafornia. The café is a locals’ favorite for eggs and other mainstays along with lighter fare. See the Calistoga Restaurants Cheat Sheet for other suggestions, among them Sam’s Social Club.

Two Morning Tastings

10 am

Larkmead Vineyards

Illustrious past, collector-quality Cabernet

Colorful landscaping by Anne Baker, daughter of the current proprietors, attracts honey bees and other beneficial creatures.

Larkmead Vineyards, whose tastings are geared toward collectors of its renowned Cabernets, lists its founding date as 1895. That was the year the second of this property’s three owners in the past century and a half took possession. Even before 1895, though, grapes were planted here by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, the free-spirited daughter of the initial owners, whose estate encompassed 1,000 acres now divided among a few wineries and Bothe–Napa Valley State Park.

Coit, who donated the funds to build San Francisco’s Coit Tower, named Larkmead for the meadowlarks then plentiful in the north valley. From 1895 to 1948, the Salmina family grew grapes and made wine on the estate, whose 150 acres (110 of them planted to vines) are stewarded by Cam Baker and Kate Solari Baker. Kate’s parents, Larry and Polly Solari, purchased Larkmead in 1948.

A visit to Larkmead revolves around aesthetics as well as history. White walls in airy, light-filled spaces provide a soothing backdrop for vintage wine bottles from the Salmina era and photographs and other ephemera that evoke this land’s illustrious past. Kate’s paintings please the eye, as does the colorful landscaping by Kate’s daughter, Anna Baker. Kate’s “Keeping Accounts” series of mixed-media collages incorporates Polly’s business ledgers to great effect.

Circa-1940s bottle of Larkmead Petite Sirah.

One stop on tours, a component of most tastings, is a 3-acre research vineyard, overseen by winemaker Dan Petroski, that’s being installed in anticipation of Larkmead’s 125th anniversary in 2020. Petroski, among the forward-looking wine-industry folk concerned about the effects of climate change on Cabernet Sauvignon, the Napa Valley’s premier grape, hopes to experiment with techniques for adapting to higher temperatures. In addition to Cabernet, Petroski is planting former Napa stalwarts like Charbono and Petite Sirah, along with Aglianico, Tempranillo, and other varietals known to thrive in high heat.

Tip: Book a group or private tasting and tour on Larkmead’s website. When the weather’s fine, you can opt for a porch tasting, though this doesn’t include the tour.

Why go: rich history; paintings by winery owner Kate Solari Baker; genteel hospitality; Cabernets made with finesse.

12 noon

Stony Hill Vineyard

Sommelier-beloved Chardonnay with Napa Valley views

Some of Stony Hill’s Riesling vines date back to the 1940s.

Oaks, Douglas firs, and other trees line the narrow road north of downtown St. Helena that winds west from Highway 29 through parts of two state parks up to Stony Hill Vineyard. Fred and Eleanor McCrea, who purchased this former goat farm on the eastern slope of Spring Mountain during World War II, first planted grapes here in 1948. 

Most of the vineyard blocks face north or east. During the summer, shade from the mountain comes early in the afternoon in some spots, making the setting a natural for the cultivation of white grapes like Chardonnay, Riesling, and Gerwürztraminer. Some Riesling vines planted in the 1940s, now thick and gnarly, continue to produce grapes for Stony Hill’s refreshing White Riesling.

As good as the White Riesling is, Stony Hill’s mineral-driven, sommelier-beloved Chardonnay sealed the winery’s reputation. Fred McCrea and, from 1977 through 2018, his successor, Mike Chelini, crafted these two whites, plus Gewürztraminer and a Semillon dessert wine, in a small, atmospheric winery equipped with oak barrels dating back to the 1960s. A peek into the old winery, nestled under oaks and redwoods and a space that seems more like a home for a gnome than a wine-production facility, is a highlight of Stony Hill’s easygoing tours.

Overseeing the 2019 vintage and future ones is Stéphane Vivier, brought on board the year after the Napa Valley–based Long Meadow Ranch purchased Stony Hill. The French-born Vivier, who also makes the wines for Long Meadow Ranch’s Anderson Valley estate in Mendocino County, describes himself as a New World winemaker with an Old World sensibility. This dual perspective should serve him well as he initiates infrastructure upgrades to complement the low-tech processes that make Stony Hill wines so unique.

Stony Hill tastings often include an older Chardonnay in addition to the current release.

In good weather, a tasting on a stone terrace with views east across the Napa Valley to Howell Mountain follows the tour. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, the sessions move indoors to the ranch-style residence the McCreas built in the 1950s, when the Napa Valley of today was only beginning to coalesce. Tastings often include an older Chardonnay in addition to the current release. Many guests are surprised to learn – and taste – how well Stony Hill’s white wines age.

Tip: Syrah is among the reds made here over the years, with Cabernet Sauvignon a 21st-century addition. The Cabernet is made in a lighter style than many of its Napa peers.

Why go: ageworthy whites; easygoing tour; peek into old winery; Spring Mountain setting.     

Lunch or a Winery Food Pairing

1:45

A Meal in Downtown St. Helena 

Year-round you can have lunch in downtown St. Helena at one of several excellent restaurants, among them Cook St. Helena (rustic Italian) and Goose & Gander (Modern American). Spiffed-up comfort food at Gott’s Roadside is another option, as is (on most days) the Clif Family Bruschetteria Food Truck. 

Optional Winery Food Pairing

Seasonal option for four or more:  From Thursday through Sunday between late spring and mid-fall, the splurgeworthy suggestion here is the Outdoor Cabana Tasting at Louis M. Martini Winery. At $150 per person (four-person minimum) the price may seem steep. Keep in mind, though, that this experience includes generous pours of well-regarded Cabernets and other wines.

A summer group enjoying an Outdoor Cabana Tasting shared a tomato and ricotta pizza paired with Cabernet Franc from Martini’s famous Monte Rosso vineyard.

Afternoon Tasting

3:30 pm

Louis M. Martini Winery

Bordeaux-style wines in splashy setting

Some tastings at Louis M. Martini Winery take place outdoors in good weather.

If you’re not already enjoying the Outdoor Cabana Tasting, proceed after lunch to Louis M. Martini Winery, having made a reservation except for the Crown Bar Tasting, for which walk-ins are welcome.

“The Eventual Choice of the American Public” reads the copy in a framed 1930s print ad for Martini Wines. The wording seems awkward until you realize it refers to the nearly decade and a half, then finally ending, that the U.S. banned alcohol sales. Louis M. Martini, who’d started making wine before Prohibition, set about building a winery amid 29 acres he purchased about a mile and a quarter of downtown St. Helena. The land cost Martini a mere $3,000 – these days an acre goes for six figures.

A 1930s advertisement for Martini Wines described the offerings after Prohibition ended.

Soaking up the history of this winery whose Italian-born namesake emigrated to San Francisco then returned to Italy to learn winemaking is one of the pleasures of a visit here. Equally appealing are the wines, particularly the Cabernet Sauvignons from the Monte Rosso Vineyard atop Sonoma Mountain and bottlings of Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and other Bordeaux varietals.

In 2019, Louis M. Martini Winery unveiled a splashy multimillion-dollar hospitality center designed by the firm of Howard Backen, among the Wine Country’s top architects. You can sip wines standing up at a Crown Bar Tasting, where your view includes a barrel room, but to delve deeper into this legendary brand, book a Heritage Lounge Tasting or a Historic Tour & Tasting. A food pairing is available with the former; the latter takes in the Underground Cellar. The artifacts in the cellar include huge old barrels, vintage wine bottles, and the aforementioned print ad. Whichever tasting you choose, take the time to explore the landscaped grounds.

Tip: Martini winery is open until 6 pm daily, so you won’t feel rushed whether you’re having a cabana tasting or arrive after lunch.

Why go: outdoor tasting spaces; professional hospitality; winery’s place in Napa Valley history. 

Dinner Suggestions 

Have dinner in Rutherford (Rutherford Grill or Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil), St. Helena (three-star Michelin at The Restaurant at Meadowood; prix-fixe at Gatehouse Restaurant, run by Culinary Institute of America students; or Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch (farm-to-table cuisine); or Calistoga (Evangeline, Lovina, or Solbar). 

For more Calistoga options, see the Calistoga Restaurants Cheat Sheet.   

Lodging Suggestions

If you need a place to stay, check out the Lodging Cheat Sheets for St. Helena and Calistoga. 


More Napa Valley Itineraries

3 St. Helena Wineries with a Personal Touch
48 Perfect Hours in Calistoga

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