We chose to make Elizabeth Spencer in Rutherford, California, our first stop on our Napa Valley wine tasting adventure because we had intriguing things about its wine, and the tasting room is almost entirely in an outdoor courtyard. Then, we found out it was just a few steps away from Rancho Caymus Inn, where we were staying, and we knew that it was fate.
Note: If you are going to Napa Valley for wine tastings, make reservations before you leave. In some cases, you’ll need to make reservations well in advance. In other cases, you can do it the day before. It is rare to get into popular places without a reservation because they need to staff the tasting.
Elizabeth Spencer Wine Style
Unlike many places we visited, Elizabeth Spencer is strictly a winemaker. They acquire grapes from all of the AVAs in Napa Valley and then make wines according to their own particular style and taste. They are a small producer — we love discovering new, smaller wineries doing exciting things. They have also just been acquired by JCB (if you’ve ever heard of the fantastic Oakville Grocery, you’ll know the famous owner).
The winery explains its approach: “The model for all of our wines is purity of flavor, great persistence and length, and intensity without excess weight.”
For us, this translated to well-balanced wines that had enough character to be interesting, but they weren’t huge wines – they didn’t overwhelm. And we appreciated that because we don’t love big, buttery Chardonnay or jammy Cabs.
Unless you are there for a special wine tasting event, Elizabeth Spencer typically offers two tasting menus: 1) Signature Tasting Flight and 2) Reserve Tasting Flight. Cheese and Charcuterie plates are available – you might even get a chance to enjoy some of the herbs grown in the winery’s garden.
The tasting space is in an outside courtyard, which is lovely. It also feels safer given where the Covid numbers are right now. There is also a covered room at the edge of the garden. The tasting lasted for about an hour, and it was a very mellow experience. Our wine guide Nate was not only knowledgeable but fun. And he gave us some terrific suggestions for places to visit during the rest of our stay.
Wine Tasting Cost
In order to get the widest selection of wines, Andy and I took different tasting menus. He tried the Signature, and I went with the Reserve. At the time, these cost $50 and $75 per person, respectively. There is a charge if you cancel your reservation without 48 hours notice because they have to staff the tasting room. They are typically closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so plan accordingly.
Andy and I agree on many wines, but not everything, so splitting the tasting options works well because we can both try each other’s choices. Let me start by saying that there is nothing that we didn’t enjoy to some degree. Literally – there are no bad options here.
Of the Reserve Tasting wines, I loved the 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder. This was a little bit of a surprise for me because Cabernet Sauvignon can be too big for me, but this one was delightfully balanced. Herbal notes and maybe lavender on the nose (although I may have been influenced by the stunning garden behind us) and black fruits on the tongue. I got some plum and spice. Andy also liked it because it wasn’t overly tannic, and I agree. Obviously, it was a joy to drink now, but our wine guide Nate (Nate, the Great!) suggested that this wine would also age beautifully. I’d also happily dry the ES Syrah and the Petit Verdot again.
Of the Signature Tasting wines, the Rosé of Pinot Noir was a delight. We meant to go back and get it before we left, but we headed back home before the winery was open. We will absolutely be picking up a bottle the next time we go back. Andy was a fan of the Roussanne; I was a bit more neutral (I lean toward more minerally white wines). We also had a debate about whether we liked the Cabernet France or the Merlot more. Poor Merlot – still getting stung by Sideways, which is unfair because it can really be a lovely wine.
If you are staying anywhere near Rutherford, make a reservation at Elizabeth Spencer. It was my first wine tasting experience in Napa Valley, and it was a terrific way to start. It was less expensive than most of the tasting rooms (some were incredibly expensive), and it was a wonderful, no-pressure way to spend our first afternoon in Napa. And most importantly, the wine was complex without being overpowering – they really have found a terrific balance.
For more Napa Valley wine tasting adventures, click here.