As my mom and I turned left off the St. Helena Highway, I saw what looked like an old Spanish mission complete with a bell tower waiting for us at the end of the driveway. But we weren’t going to a church service. We were at the Robert Mondavi Winery to taste wine.
Founded in 1966 by Robert Mondavi, who was 52 years old at the time, the iconic Napa Valley winery recently ranked 12th in the inaugural World’s Best Vineyards list released in July and took the top spot in all of North America. The awards focused on overall vineyard experience, including wine quality, architecture, natural surroundings, and service.
Located in Oakville, California, Robert Mondavi Winery is centered around the historic To Kalon vineyard—ancient Greek for “the highest beauty”—which was first planted in 1868. In fact, the vines directly behind the famous “Welcome to Napa Valley” sign on the St. Helena Highway are part of Robert Mondavi’s large estate.
The winery isn’t just physically in the center of Napa Valley. It also lies at the symbolic heart of California wine country. Robert Mondavi Winery not only helped California wine gain prominence in the late 20th century but it also was one of the first to turn itself into a destination worth visiting, instead of a production facility where wine is made. Today, it’s hard to imagine wineries without tours, tastings, restaurants, and art galleries. Robert Mondavi Winery helped pioneer the concept.
We walked through a wide arch at the entrance to the winery flanked by large sculptures on each side—a Beniamino Bufano bear on the right and a seven-foot-tall copper bust by Len Urso on the left. In the lobby, we met the sommelier who would be guiding us through the hour-long Exclusive Cellar Tasting.
To begin, he walked us through more of the Mondavi art collection and up to where visitors can see the most beautiful views of the To Kalon Vineyard surrounding the mission-style buildings of the winery.
Next, we headed inside the To Kalon Cellar to see where the Mondavi Reserve wines are fermented in massive French oak tanks and then made our way underground into the aging room. Far from a dank cellar, this space felt more like a quiet chapel. But instead of churchgoers, the room was filled with hundreds of wine barrels with a statue of St. Francis in the middle watching over them. In a private room off the main cellar, we tasted four wines paired with cheese and charcuterie.
First up was the winery’s signature fumé blanc, which gets its “smoked” name from aging in 100 percent French oak barrels for nine months. Described as a sauvignon blanc with French sensibilities, it is one of the first wines Robert Mondavi made at this location and has hints of peach and baked pie crust. Before we moved into the cabernet sauvignon the winery is best known for, we sipped the 2015 Reserve Pinot Noir, which paired nicely with a buttery Point Reyes Toma cheese that was set out for us.
The highlight of the tasting, of course, were the two cabs that capped off the experience. The biggest flavors came from the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, which was made from grapes grown right outside of the building where I was drinking. My favorite, though, was the 2014 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon, made with grapes grown in the nearby Stags Leap subregion of the Napa Valley. With the big, classic flavors of a Napa cabernet, the wine also somehow manages to be velvety at the same time.
In addition to the Exclusive Cellar Tasting I experienced, travelers can also take part in a private “Four Decades Dinner” (six-guest minimum) that features wines from the past four decades and an annual summer concert series that raises money for Napa Valley Unified School District’s high school music programs. Art lovers can also take part in an art collection walking tour that pairs wine with a stroll through the Mondavi permanent collection that includes sculptures by Beniamino Bufano and Pablo Picasso.
Book Now: Exclusive Cellar Tasting, $65 per person, robertmondaviwinery.com
>> Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Napa