Winery Spotlight: A Virtual Look at Hall Wines New Tasting Center

11 Dec
December 11, 2013

On our honeymoon in 2011

During my first visit to Napa Valley in early 2009, Hall was one of the most memorable wineries of the trip. My husband suggested it after reading several great reviews of the wine in Wine Spectator and I couldn’t really argue with that! Situated on Highway 29 just south of downtown St. Helena, Hall Wines – owned by Craig and Kathryn Hall – has built a small “campus,” comprised of new and historic facilities. Signature red signage and accents direct guests to the tasting center, where they will be awed by an extensive collection of uniquely Hall-commissioned art installations.

On that initial stop, the wine did in fact blow me away. At that time, I remember enjoying tastes of nearly everything on the list – Sauvignon Blanc, “Darwin” Proprietary Red, “T Bar T Ranch” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley Merlot, “Jack’s Masterpiece” Cabernet and “Kathryn Hall” Cabernet. Each sip tasted better than the last. True to their style, several of the Artisan bottles also featured label art – some of which changes with each new vintage or comes with an interesting story. (For example, the Darwin tells of their experience nearly going down in a small plane crash in Australia.) The staff was also very friendly, enthusiastic and knowledgeable – I loved the Hall “vibe.”

Stunning crystal chandelier

Stunning crystal chandelier

On subsequent visits, we also tasted at their Rutherford location, an experience that begins with an estate tour, stories of Kathryn’s role as Ambassador to Austria, and look at some of the more notable art installations. It culminates with a relaxed tasting in their breathtaking cave. The most impressive element in the room is the rustic crystal chandelier, which looks like an upside-down grape vine, or the roots of a tree growing above. What’s really intriguing about the Hall’s properties is that they are impeccably appointed, “smartly” designed and built with a purpose. Trees outside the St. Helena tasting room look exactly like oversized grape vines. A large picture-window inside the Rutherford tasting room perfectly frames the Valley view below. Even the barrels that line the interior of the cave are painted to exactly the same shade of Hall red in stunning uniformity.

I’ve been fortunate to be able to find some Hall wine in Chicago but appreciate the opportunity to try more of their Artisan reds while in Napa. Read more →

Napa Valley Itinerary – November 2013 Visit

08 Dec
December 8, 2013

On a whim, we decided to make one more visit to Napa Valley this year and went out during Thanksgiving weekend. We were pleasantly surprised by the quietness we experienced in restaurants and tasting rooms, as well as the festive, holiday décor already in place. In a previous post about the best times of year to visit, I didn’t include anything about the holidays. Now, I would highly recommend a November-December trip if your schedule permits!

This time, we really made a point to taste at “new-to-us” wineries, having received several great tips from the Barlin’s of and Tasting Scout. As a result, there are plenty of highlights to share about our Napa Valley itinerary.


We were able to hit 13 wineries in 4 days, which was a comfortable amount for us. Sometimes, we’ve overdone it and had to race all over to ensure we get to appointments on time. At nearly every stop, we were the only people present!

Old Favorites

  • Laird – Our first, unplanned stop and one of my favorites from this visit. We’ve ben to Laird several times now and I continue to be amazed by the number of wines they produce – we tasted at least 12. Quality is also high on all of them. My top picks were their 2012 Cold Creek Pinot Grigio, 2010 Cold Creek Ranch Chardonnay, 2011 Phantom Ranch Pinot Noir (sadly, the Ghost Ranch was sold out).
  • Hall – We squeezed in a stop at Hall and were glad we did. They were two days away from opening their stunning new winemaking and
    Hall's new tasting room

    Hall’s new tasting room

    tasting center. (More on this to come in a future post.) We received a nice, advanced tour of their campus and got to see more of the Hall’s renowned art collection. Back inside, we tasted four or five wines from their higher-end menu, which included T Bar T Merlot, Kathryn Hall Cabernet and new Walt Pinot Noir. They recently acquired the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir-producing Walt, which happened to be my favorites this time (although everything Hall does is delicious).

  • Round Pond – This was the third time we tasted at the picturesque Round Pond winery. They do a unique wine and food pairing, bringing visitors three small bites from their gourmet kitchen to complement a Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet and Proprietary Red. Each time I’ve left Round Pond, I’ve slapped myself for not joining their reasonable club and decided to do so this time. Their reds are just so velvety and they’re not readily available to me in Chicago or anywhere else.
  • Larkmead – If there’s only one winery we could visit or recommend, it’s usually Larkmead. A) The setting is beyond beautiful, B) They have stellar, stellar, wines and C) The staff is so friendly and knowledgeable. Larkmead has a long and storied history and their farming expertise shows through the quality of their wine.  However, we miss the Sauvigon Blanc and have been unable to taste the new one due to limited availability. Read more →

Holiday Wine Sale with Winestyr

23 Nov
November 23, 2013

I love wine and I love “flash” sales, so I am really excited to partner with the new, online craft wine distributor, Winestyr ( to give my readers an exclusive discount. Winestyr launched to help those who need a little more help selecting which wines to buy and they focus on smaller-production wineries. You can read more about them on Chicagoist and TechCrunch.

If you’re looking to bring wine to an upcoming holiday get-together, or wish to “gift” a wine-winestyrlover something special, hop on over to  Now through Dec. 20, 3013, you can enter code BECKY at checkout to get $25 off your order of $50 or more.

If you’re not exactly sure what to get, give their Gift Finder tool a try. You can plug in options for who you plan to buy for, their taste preferences and the amount you wish to spend and get recommendations from their experts.

Some of my suggestions include:

Feel free to share this deal with your friends and networks. Cheers and happy holidays!

Celebrating One Year of Living Napa Cabulous

18 Nov
November 18, 2013

Happy Birthday to me! Well, to my blog, Living Napa Cabulous. While I had been tweeting about wine for years prior, I decided to launch the blog a year ago to expand my wine reviews and travel tips beyond 140 characters. I’ve learned and experienced a lot over the past year, many of these memories thanks, in part, to this venture.

If there’s one big lesson I’ve learned, it’s that blogging takes more time than I initially thought! Juggling two blogs, a (new) full time job that requires travel, charity work, a fairly balanced sleep schedule, gym time and any form of social life is challenging. Though I lost some steam in the frequency of my posting, I still keep up frequently on Twitter and post here when I have something really remarkable to share.  

Another lesson I learned is that the blogging community is both warm and competitive at the same time. Through blogging, I have met some Living Napa Cabuloustruly amazing people, including the wine-loving, Green Bay Packer Backers I live-tweet through each game with on Sundays. I also met fellow wine lovers here in Chicago who have since become some of our best friends – including the great minds and palates behind and the new Tasting Scout app, as well as others who I’ve met through local events.  Just this past weekend, we got together with our Barlin Wine friends, which often means we get to introduce each other to wines the other may not have tried or would otherwise be thrilled to taste. Our regular night out line-up included the difficult-to-get Larkmead 2009 Cabernet Franc, Wren Hop Vineyards Siren’s Lure 2009 Pinot Noir and Merryvale 2008 Profile, in addition to some tasty port from Prager Port Works. (For the record, the Wren Hop was my favorite of the night, which says a lot since I’m not ordinarily a Pinot lover.) Read more →

10 Questions with Seasons 52 Master Sommelier George Miliotes

19 Oct
October 19, 2013

This past week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with George Miliotes, Master Sommelier and Director of Beverage for Seasons 52 – Darden’s Seasons 52 fresh grill restaurant concept – at the new downtown Chicago location. As a frequent business traveler, I was first introduced to Seasons 52 in Orlando, Fla. and was immediately intrigued by the length of their by-the-glass list. A scan of the rest revealed many of my personal favorites. I was thrilled to learn that a Seasons 52 would be opening just a short walk from my office, right off of the Magnificent Mile, and was recently invited to preview the space before it opened to the public on Oct. 17.

Over a glass or two of wine, we talked about Seasons 52’s extensive list, his list-building “strategy” and his personal wine preferences. Read on for a summary of our conversation.

Q: We’re starting our night with a glass of Mer Soleil Reserve Chardonnay – what was behind your decision to pick this wine tonight?

A: I have great respect for the variety of high-quality wines the Wagner family (behind Caymus, Belle Glos, Mer Soleil and Conundrum) creates. They’re confident about doing their own thing…while many Napa winemakers opt for Carneros grapes, they knew they could get a better product with grapes from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Read more →

Add these Napa Breakfast Restaurants to Your Itinerary

25 Jul
July 25, 2013

I’m back after a hiatus that was largely driven by my pre-summer health kick, an extremely busy period at work and the launch of a second personal blog. However, you can always find me on Twitter!

A topic that excites me just as much as wine is breakfast. I could easily dine on “first meal” fare all day. It’s well-known that Napa Valley is home to incredible restaurants, but some of my personal favorites are those I visit before hitting the tasting rooms.  While we usually choose to stay at hotels that provide breakfast (on purpose), we do sometimes venture out to these spots for a change of scenery and cuisine. Check out these Napa breakfast restaurants during your next visit.

Auberge du Soleil (Rutherford)

If you’re in Napa for a special occasion, an al fresco brunch at Auberge du Soleil is a must-do. A short drive up Rutherford Road, you will reach

A view from Auberge du Soleil

A view from Auberge du Soleil

the picturesque resort and immediately experience their world-class hospitality. They have a beautiful dining room, but I strongly suggest the outdoor deck because it offers stunning valley views. When we visited, they presented a three-course brunch menu. I took my usual sweets-inspired route and selected a decadent French toast. My husband opted for a savory egg dish and breakfast sausage. This meal could out-price many others you’ll have, but one benefit is that you will likely be able to bypass lunch for the day. I can promise your meal will be a memorable one.  Reservations are required.

Bouchon Bakery (Yountville)

If you prefer to grab and go, Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery will still give you an iconic Napa Valley experience. Situated next to Bouchon restaurant in the heart of Yountville, you can peruse their pastry display for traditional cinnamon rolls, bagels, croissants and other delights that meet your fancy, like quiche.  I usually snag a little treat for later, as well. (Are you beginning to get a sense of why I needed a pre-summer break? I have a massive sweet tooth!)

Gilwoods Café (St. Helena)

One of two  great diners I’ve visited, Gilwoods is a cozy spot in “downtown” St. Helena with big windows that overlook the street and shops. They have a healthy amount of tables and seem to get people in and out fairly quickly, so wait times are reasonable. They have an expansive menu with a variety of classic breakfast selections that they serve all day: omelets, scrambles, waffles and pancakes to name a few.  They also bake all of their own pastries. Prices are very affordable. Read more →

The Evolution of Wine Recommendations

25 Mar
March 25, 2013

I’ve mentioned that by day, I work in word-of-mouth and social media marketing at Zocalo Group in Chicago. We specialize in making our clients the most talked about,  recommended and chosen brands in their categories. The idea behind this ties closely to my interests with wine, knowing that scores tend to be the ultimate form of a recommendation. I recently wrote a blog post about how wine recommendations are evolving, as well as the role wine bloggers play for the emerging Millennial market.

Here’s an excerpt from my post:

“Through [blogging], I’ve observed a fascinating, ongoing (and sometimes polarizing) discussion over the way wine is talked about, recommended and chosen. For the past 40 years, wine critic and founder of The Wine Advocate, Robert Parker, has helped to shape and define what success looks like for Napa Valley wineries. But, let’s face it, every individual has their own taste preferences and an entire industry has revolved around appealing to one person’s palate.

Today, there is a proliferation of bloggers sharing about wine, each in their own way… However, do wineries even care when we give a positive recommendation, since they can’t create more of their small-production wines to sell? A fellow blogger, who did not disclose he was such, recently told me he was talking about Yelp with a winery host during a tasting in Napa. Her closing comment was that, “there’s only one thing worse than a Yelper – and that’s a wine blogger.” What?! Could this be why’s list of the 100 Most Influential People in the U.S. Wine Industry has featured only one blogger/online personality in the top 20? We have to consider that the Baby Boomers who brought much of the buying power (and were swayed by scores like Parker’s) have begun to be replaced by younger, socially-driven drinkers and Millennials, who are seeking high-quality wines at a much, much lower price point.

My advice to bloggers, critics of bloggers and to wineries would be to embrace the evolving landscape. Socially-minded drinkers are only going to grow and our sites are likely the places they’ll go for recommendations. Why should any one person, score or method limit the way we think about wine?”

Click to view the rest.

Image courtesy of

A Special Look at Buccella Wines’ 2010 Releases

10 Mar
March 10, 2013

Over the past year, Buccella has grown to become one of my favorite wine producers in Napa Valley. As a premium, small-production boutique winery, Buccella is largely known for its bold reds. Back in November, I wrote about my amazing experience drinking Buccella’s 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and noted that I’d love to be able to try the Merlot after several of my Twitter followers suggested it was equally impressive. I was thrilled to learn that I’d be able to do just that on my recent trip to Napa Valley.

Buccella WinesBuccella

Winemaker Rebekah Wineburg, along with owners Bill and Alicia Deem, welcomed us for an intimate tasting of their 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cuvée Katrina Eileen. (Click each to read tasting notes.) As expected, we were blown away by all three wines, but I was particularly taken by the Cuvée, which is named after the couple’s first daughter. This shouldn’t have been very surprising to me because I am on a 100% Cabernet kick and this wine is made from perfectly-ripened fruit from Yountville and Coombsville vineyards. I actually hadn’t known it existed until we visited. Then, I would say, we all bonded over the Merlot. It’s not often we meet or drink with people who appreciate this varietal as much as we do. They say that even though some people have questioned their decision to make a Merlot, they do it because they like drinking it so much. And, we’re oh, so glad.

I couldn’t help but ask whether or not their youngest daughter, Tessa, would also have a wine named after her one day. I learned that Tessa actually means “harvest,” which was fitting for her fall 2009 harvest birth. To commemorate this, they created a special barrel of a blend of wines made from grapes harvested on her birthday. They offered 5 cases of this wine at the Napa Valley Vintners Premiere Napa Valley Auction in 2010 and it sold for $46,000! Buccella has continued to make this special barrel every year from grapes harvested on her birthday. Other than the Premiere Auction, the Tessa Blend has never been bottled to sell. Read more →

Napa Valley Wine Tasting Round-Up

27 Feb
February 27, 2013

February 2013 “Best of the Best” Wines

In my last post, I profiled our favorites among the 22 wineries we visited earlier this month. This wine tasting round-up was equally as challenging to create because there were 125 to consider! I was not able to take extensive notes on each glass, but I did a daily retrospective to pick out those that were drinking best and whittled my list to 27.

One of the benefits of visiting Napa Valley in February is that many wineries typically release new vintages in the winter. Several were pouring 2005 and 2009+ Cabernets and it was lovely to be able to compare the two after a bit of time in the bottle. If there’s one thing I took away from this trip, it’s that I’m a sucker for 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.

On this visit, we really tried for at least a 50/50 split of new and old favorite wineries to allow for more exploration and discovery. I’ve noted that when I do find something I like, I tend to drink a lot of it – so, I’m looking forward to adding several new finds to my repertoire. Cheers!

February 2013 “Best of the Best” Wines


Napa Valley Tasting Round-Up

20 Feb
February 20, 2013

February 2013 “Best of the Best” Wineries

With our first Napa Valley visit of the year now in the books, I wanted to share a quick recap on just some of the incredible wine, food and Living Napa Cabulousexperiences. We were thrilled to benefit from sunny, 70-degree temperatures, which are pretty unusual for wine country during this time of year. The stunning, mustard yellow vineyards were even more beautiful than I remember.

We stayed at the lovely Solage Calistoga resort, which allowed for much-needed relaxation. I was even able to keep up with my Spinning classes at their indoor/outdoor fitness facility and will likely never get enough of their one-of-a-kind pool area or Solbar restaurant.

During the daytime, we filled our itinerary with a great mix of new and favorite wineries.

By the Numbers

Days in Napa Valley: 6

Miles driven in the Valley: 309

Wineries visited: 22

Wines tried during tastings: 125 (not including wine ordered at dinner)

Oysters ordered: 48

Orders of bread pudding for dessert: 3

Pounds gained: TBD

Best of the Best: Wineries

We had so many great tastings, but five wineries jumped out as the “Best of the Best” this visit for their overall experience and top-to-bottom offering of solid, high-quality wine. For those considering a trip to Napa Valley, I would certainly recommend these stops:

Read more →