The best historic winery tours in Napa and Sonoma

If you are a wine lover and a history buff, these top historic winery tours are not to be missed in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Photo: Simi Winery, Sonoma County. Image: Simi.

SONOMA, July 6, 2013 – Delicious wines, remarkable views and once in a lifetime wine experiences are plentiful in the heart of Northern California wine country. Winemaking in California as we know it today really started gaining ground in the 1970s, and after the Judgment of Paris in 1976. In this international blind wine competition, California wines beat out the French wines for top prize. This shocked the French as well as the wine world and put California on the map.

The modern history of California wine may have begun with the win in Paris, but winemaking has been going on for centuries in the Golden State.  California’s viticultural history dates back to the 18th century when Spanish missionaries planted the very first vineyards in order to make wine for churches to be used in mass. The California Gold Rush in the mid-19th century brought waves of new settlers to the region, increasing the population and demand for wine. The new and growing wine industry took hold in Northern California around the counties of Sonoma and Napa.

SEE RELATED: Lake County Winery Review: 10 must-try wineries

Today there are more than 1,200 wineries in the state, ranging from small boutique wineries to large corporations and holding companies. So it is hard to know where to begin.

In order to get an understanding of California winemaking, there is no better way than with historic and ghost winery tours. These are wineries that date back to pre-prohibition and have interesting and often remarkable stories of not only how the wineries began, but also how they made it through prohibition and continue to thrive today. By the time that Prohibition was repealed in 1933, only 140 wineries were still in operation.


Simi Winery, Sonoma County. Circa 1930s. Image: Simi

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Simi Winery, Healdsburg, Sonoma County

Simi Winery lost history begins in Healdsburg, in 1876. It was founded by two brothers from Tuscany, Giuseppe and Pietro Simi. Simi’s first harvest in 1890 took place in the stone cellars that still exist today at the winery. Tragically, in 1904, both Simi brothers died suddenly, leaving the winery without leadership or hope for the future. 

However, a brave and strong-willed Isabelle Simi, Guiseppe’s daughter, stepped up and took over management of the winery at the age of 18. It was through her guile and leadership that the winery thrived. In 1920, Prohibition began and Isabelle promised her staff that no one would be laid off and that she would keep the winery running. Isabelle was crafty enough to install false walls in the winery to hide her barrels of wine. But Prohibition lasted much longer than Isabelle expected and, as a result, she sold all the vineyard holdings to keep possession of the cellared wine. Finally in 1933, Prohibition was repealed and Simi was immediately prepared to sell 500,000 cases of perfectly cellared wines to the very thirsty public.

But Isabelle did not stop there. She pioneered the idea of the wine tasting room, fashioning California’s first tasting room out of an old 25,000-gallon redwood wine cask. Isabelle was a pretty remarkable woman, as you can tell.  You can learn more about her and her family’s feel-good story during Simi’s wonderful historic tour. You will be able to walk the historic Simi grounds, see photos of now and then, and see history in the making on a guided stroll through the property.

Tour details: Tours operate daily at 11 a.m. and again at 2 p.m. The cost is $10 per person. Reservations are needed for groups of 10 or more. Simi Winery has a wide selection of foods available for purchase, so sit out on the terrace with a glass of Simi wine, and enjoy fresh items from Chef Kolin Vazzoler’s kitchen.

Tasting suggestions: Simi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Simi Landslide Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Simi Dry Creek Valley Petite Sirah, Simi Alexander Valley Chardonnay, Simi Chardonnay Reserve Russian River Valley and Simi Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County.

Read more about Simi Winery in Tony Clark and Simi Winery shine at Viviano in Valley Forge


Korbel California Champagne, circa 1880s. Image: Korbel.


Korbel California Champagne, Russian River, Sonoma County

The Korbel Brothers’ story is as tried and true as an “American Dream” tale gets. Albeit this is a dream with a political and scandalous twist! In the mid-1800s, America offered new hope to the three Korbel brothers, who had come to the U.S. to escape the political unrest in their native Bohemia (Czechoslovakia). Brothers Francis, Anton and Joseph found their way to California and founded their company: Korbel.

They initially began with manufacturing cigar boxes and other industrial wood-based products. But as Northern California’s lumber boom slowed, the Korbels turned their attention to farming. In the Russian River Valley the soil was sandy, the mornings were filled with fog from the nearby Pacific Ocean, and summer days were long with sunshine. The brothers found these conditions to be perfect for growing grapes and producing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, French Colombard, and Chenin Blanc.

By the mid-1890s, the Korbels shipped their first California champagnes, and by the turn of the century KORBEL was an internationally known, award-winning label.

The historic tour begins with an extended tour around Korbel’s breathtaking property and champagne cellars stories are told of the three brothers and their struggles in Bohemia. There is even a tale about a clever prison escape the brothers made with the assistance of their mother — and the real reason for the brothers’ venture to America. The tour includes a 20-minute video that talks in detail about these storied beginnings. Visitors walk through the very same halls that the brothers once walked, and ultimately end the tour in the tasting room with samples the Korbel California Champagne.

Tour details: Winery tours are offered daily, 11 a.m. - 3 p.m., no reservations are needed, and the tour takes approximately 50 minutes. There is no fee for the tour.  The Wine Shop/Tasting Room hours are from 10 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. The Garden Tour is offered daily, 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday (mid-April through mid-October). Korbel also has a delicatessen and market that is open daily, 10:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

Tasting suggestions: Korbel Le Premier, Korbel Brut, Korbel Natural


Spring Mountain Vineyard, Napa Valley. Image: Spring Mountain.



Spring Mountain Vineyard, Napa Valley

In the late 19th century, there was a boom of activity in the wine business in the Napa Valley. European wines were often too expensive as well as hard to find. San Francisco was hustling and bustling, and only a short train ride away. Dozens of wineries were popping up and thousands of acres of vineyards were being planted. In 1873, a German immigrant, Charles Lemme, bought about 285 acres of land on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley. And here is where the Spring Mountain Vineyard story begins.

The vineyard has been continuously farmed since it was first planted, surviving Prohibition. The large stone winery, La Perla, stands today much as it did one hundred years earlier. And it still holds most of the original farming and winemaking equipment.

The new Spring Mountain Vineyard was once three separate properties, each with its own vineyard, winery and historic beginnings: Spring Mountain Vineyards (Miravalle) 257 acres, Chateau Chevalier (Chevalier) 120 acres, and Draper Vineyards (La Perla) 435 acres.

The uppermost property on the estate, La Perla, was founded in 1873 by Charles Lemme, and was expanded by the Schilling Spice family. It featured the first Cabernet Sauvignon planted on Spring Mountain. The old winery remains today, along with much of its original equipment and horse drawn carriages and wagons. Immediately below La Perla is the first vineyard planted by Fredrick and Jacob Beringer in 1882.

Adjoining to the north of the Beringer vineyard was a Frenchman, Fortune Chevalier, whose stone winery, Chateau Chevalier, was making wine in 1891. And finally, next door to Chevalier was Tiburcio Parrott who grew olives, citrus and grapes. Parrott built a grand home on the estate, which he named Miravalle.

Guests who visit Spring Mountain Vineyard will experience an elaborate estate established in the 1880s. From the greenhouse garden surrounded by fragrant European and American Beauty roses, to the canopy of antique olive trees, a visitor is transported to another place in timeless beauty. For guests with additional time or a serious interest in wine, Spring Mountain offers three different levels of tastings. Each option gives the visitor a more in-depth look at the property, including their vineyards, winery and historic caves. Wine educators guide guests around the grounds of the estate and surrounding vineyards for a glimpse of the distinctive property and unique terrain.

Tour details: All tours include a seated tasting at a private table, and run 90 minutes to two hours. These tastings commence at 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. by appointment.

  • Estate Tasting – Features new releases and one library selection — $50 per guest (waived with a purchase of $150 or more per guest).
  • Library Vertical Tasting – Features a vertical selection of Cabernet Sauvignon – $75 per guest (waived with a purchase of $175 or more per guest).
  • Explore Elivette Tasting – Features five vintages of their signature Bordeaux blend, Elivette — $100 per guest (waived with a purchase of $225 or more per guest). This is a limited time offering which is being extended through October 2013 by popular demand.

Tasting suggestions:

Elivette (any vintage), Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, and Estate Syrah. 


Related Articles:

Lake County Winery Review: 10 must-try wineries

Urban wine tasting in San Francisco

Review of downtown Napa (part 1)

Review of downtown Napa (part 2)


Read more of Sherrie’s work in Wine Country Weekly and at Out And About San Francisco in the Communities section of the Washington Times. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook for even more inside scoop. 


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Sherrie Perkovich

Sherrie is a perky, music and wine-loving, Northern California local that seeks out and spreads the word about San Francisco experiences as well as unforgettable wine-related travel experiences.  She is CMO of The Grape Hunter USA, where they focus on helping artisan wineries and developing unique wine travel for consumers. Follow her on Twitter @BigNoseWino

Sherrie is a San Francisco local that fancies herself an extroverted fine dining, wine drinking, know-it-all.  If it’s happening near SF, Sherrie is in on it.  Follow her columns,  for the widest range of Out and About San Francisco ~ San Jose treats and Wine Country Weekly.  


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