To the uninitiated, Napa can seem daunting. Driving through the procession of towns—Napa, Yountville, St. Helena—along Highway 29 (“highway” is an aspirational term here) or the parallel Silverado Trail, visitors will see a jumble of familiar and unfamiliar names—often emblazoned upon majestic gates.

Know this: Napa is cabernet sauvignon. It’s what people make, it’s what people drink. You’ll also find sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, of course. But those are just the appetizers (or what you drink with the appetizers), and Cab is the main course. But do all Cabs taste the same? Of course they don’t.

The best way to de-daunt the Napa Cab landscape is to taste through the AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). It’s really the only way to understand the idea of terroir—and to see exactly how differently they taste. Plus, it’s delicious and fun. And the best way to do that in Napa is to do the Conn Creek Barrel Blending Experience.

The proud winemaker.

The proud winemaker.

Napa has 16 designated AVAs, which differ dramatically in climate, soil, and elevation. At Conn Creek, in a special barrel tasting room, you’ll find barrels containing 14 cabs from those AVAs (from the same vintage, made into wine the exact same way), plus a barrel each of the typical blending wines (merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc, and malbec). The cabs are divided into sections, from “soft” to “supple” to “complex” and “rich.” After a brief and helpful introduction, you are set free among the barrels to try each individual wine.

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What else to do while you’re in Napa.

Once you’ve tried each of the wines and got a sense of the variations, it’s time to make your own blend. With some guidance in mind (for example, it would be overkill to use all of the AVAs in a single blend), graduated cylinder in hand, we take to the barrels. If you don’t get something you like the first time, you can try again, and when you’re happy with your blend in the cylinder, you make a full bottle of it. Cork it, slap a label on it, and you have your own proprietary blend. My blend was 40% St Helena (Craig Buttuello Family Vineyard), 20% Stags Leap (Clos du Val Vineyard), 20% Mt. Veeder (Saffron Vineyard), 10% cab franc, and 10% petit verdot. It tasted great—a little earthy and spicy, not too tannic, but nicely balanced.

The Barrel Blending Experience is $95 per person and is offered 10:30 am and 2:00 pm everyday except Wednesday. Conn Creek Winery, 8711 Silverado Trail, St. Helena, CA.