The Most Beautiful Winery Castles in Napa and Sonoma
In Northern California wine country, many gorgeous tasting rooms dot the land but to really amp up the wow factor, Napa and Sonoma winery castles are the sights to see. The history of the winery castle harks back to the grandiose chateaux (“castle” in French), deeply ingrained in French winemaking history. This term applies largely in Bordeaux but also in other regions, such as the Rhône and Loire Valleys. In Burgundy, the preferred term is “domaine,” translating to “estate” and referring to all vineyards that make up a single property. There are no requirements that a French chateau or domaine be grand, though there are certainly many extravagant examples throughout the country. Here at home, winery castles in Napa and Sonoma are largely authentic to the French concept of growing and making wine on site, paying homage to where our favorite beverage was perfected. Here are nine winery estates across our valleys that honor the European chateau/domaine tradition in grand ways, and look like castles.
Sonoma Winery Castles
In 1974, Tom and Sally Jordan turned their attention from winegrowing to building a magnificent winery near Healdsburg—a chateau that would combine food, wine and hospitality in such a way that visitors would feel as if they had traveled to France without leaving California.
The Jordans had visited France often and particularly appreciated the wines and wineries of Bordeaux. They pored over books on French architecture and hired San Francisco architect Bob Arrigoni to realize their vision. They broke ground on the 58,000-square-foot French-inspired chateau winery in 1975, and the production wing of the winery—including 12 towering 6,000-gallon oak casks—was finished one week before the first harvest in 1976.
Today, guests will see a largely unchanged chateau, with a dining room overlooking the oak cask room, a kitchen abutting the cellars, a tasting library, guest suites with doors that open to the barrel room, and office space, all under one roof. Visitors can explore the Winery Chateau through the Jordan Winery Tour & Library Tasting, which features wine tasting with food pairings and a walk around the building that includes a stop in the hall of towering oak tanks.
Like many French chateau models, the land at Jordan is used not just for grapegrowing and winemaking, but also self-sustaining activities such as fruit and vegetable farming, housing bee hives for honey, harvesting their olive trees for oil production, and chickens laying eggs for Jordan Executive Chef Todd Knoll.
First off: It’s jean, as in Levi’s, and not the French pronunciation zhon, as the founders of this iconic Kenwood winery and estate do not hail from France.
Winery namesake Jean Sheffield married Ed Merzoian, a Central Valley table grape grower. Ed’s family, Jean, and her brother, Ken Sheffield, partnered to purchase the Goff family summer home on Highway 12 in Kenwood in 1973 and turn it into a wine estate. They converted the 1920s two-story house into a winery headquarters and visitor space. They also offered VIP guest accommodations in their wine country castle for a period of time, after the winery itself was completed in 1980.
Despite several ownership changes over the years, Chateau St. Jean remains a significant part of the Valley of the Moon’s winemaking, tourism landscape and winery architecture. Current winemaker Margo Van Staaveren works her 38th harvest at the winery in 2018.
Most casual tastings are conducted in a modern visitor center, though the adjacent chateau hosts several guest experiences, chief among them “Unlock the Chateau,” in which players find clues and solve puzzles throughout the house to find the “escape room,” where a special tasting awaits ($60). The Chateau Reserve Wine Flight & Bites ($35), also in the chateau, includes light bites paired to the wines.
Some might remember this Geyserville winery as Chateau Souverain, which had many owners until Nestlé took over in the late 1980s. Architect John Marsh Davis combined a French country-style chateaux with two towers representing a modernistic take on Sonoma’s hop kilns in the mid-1970s. One of the towers topped the Chateau Souverain restaurant whose opening chef was none other than Gary Danko, now known for his wildly popular, eponymous restaurant in San Francisco.
Today, movie producer/director Francis Ford Coppola and his wife, Eleanor, own the estate and renamed it after the movie mogul. They’ve made it a family-friendly playland, with multiple tasting sites, pools, cabanas and movie memorabilia on display. Their restaurant, Rustic, is the Italian-style opposite of the French-centric Souverain menu, favoring roasted meats, hearty pastas and pizzas.
The exterior architectural features of their Sonoma winery castle are still a sight to behold. While Coppola renovated many of the structures, the four-sided, sloped mansard-roofed buildings of French origin remain, their pyramid tops scraping the Alexander Valley sky. The grand staircase leading from the parking lot to the visitor entrance is selfie heaven.
Guest experiences at Coppola are vast, though most don’t tie into the chateau’s history (the Souverain brand is now owned by E. & J. Gallo), but rather Coppola’s Italian and cinematic roots. Tastings start at $15 and there are myriad options.
Steve Ledson originally designed this massive Sonoma winery castle as his residence in 1993. But he changed his mind, converting it to a visitor destination that includes three tasting bars, multiple tasting suites for private experiences, wedding space, a room for special events and a marketplace deli for those seeking sustenance to take home.
Ledson’s design, a modern take on Gothic, French Normandy architecture, has eye-popping towers and turrets, set off against a steep slate roof. Inside are massive staircases, marble fireplaces, indented coffered ceilings and more than five miles of wood inlay, hand-cut and installed by Ledson’s son, Mike.
Private tastings in a guest suite or on the veranda are $75; Classic tastings at one of the three bars are $20-$30.
Napa Winery Castles
On the Napa side of Carneros, the Taittinger family of France’s Champagne region built Domaine Carneros in the late 1970s, as its U.S. sparkling wine outpost. The building, said to be inspired by the 18th century Château de la Marquetterie in France, comes out of nowhere as drivers pass by on Highway 12. This chateau is an enormous yet tasteful structure surrounded by its own vineyards and those of other producers.
Designed by Napa’s Valley Architects, Domaine Carneros’ french winery has a grand staircase, elegant tasting salon, inviting patio and bountiful gardens. There are several wine flights and food pairing experiences from which to choose, and while Domaine Carneros produces still wines, the sparklers are the stars. Guided tours are available by appointment, and daily tastings start at $30.
The 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting put Chateau Montelena on the world wine map when its 1973 Chardonnay won first place in a blind evaluation among a panel of French wine critics. Yet the architecture alone is worth a visit to this historic Calistoga winery.
The English Gothic–style castle winery in Napa, built by the original owner, A. L. Tubbs, in 1888, has super-thick stone walls that provide year-round protection of wine from the elements. This, combined with its hillside location, regulates temperatures at the winery, beneficial in making and storing high-quality wines. The winery was non-operational from the early 1900s until 1972, when Jim Barrett purchased the property and resumed winemaking there.
Montelena offers an intriguing contrast of brooding stone edifices and the serenity of the Chinese garden and Jade Lake, with its resident swan. Estate tours with tastings of the chardonnays, rieslings, cabernet sauvignons and zinfandels are $50; vineyard tours with tastings are $60. Walk-in tastings are $30.
In contrast to the other Napa and Sonoma winery castles, Stags’ Leap does not feature a chateau. But this Napa stone winery qualifies for this list on the grounds that its Manor House, finished in 1892 by Horace Chase and his wife, Minnie Mizner, is a throwback to the days when agricultural properties with homes served as retreats for wealthy San Franciscans.
Chase partnered with his uncle, W. W. Thompson, to buy the land in Napa where grapes had been planted since the 1880s. The wine cave was blasted in 1893. Financial issues and Prohibition stalled their winemaking efforts, although there are stories that the Manor House became a speakeasy for gangsters and bootleggers in those adventurous times.
When Carl Doumani bought the property in 1971, he built up its winemaking business, and the Manor House was where he entertained visitors and the wine trade. The large, wrap-around porch was perfect for this, allowing guests to take in the view of the vines. Inside, the original fixtures, stained glass, huge fireplace and brooding ambiance speak to the gloried speakeasy days of the property.
Several guest experiences are available, some of them seasonal. The place to start is the Estate Tour & Tasting ($65), which includes a tour of the estate and tasting in the Manor House. Legend says the place is haunted, though by a friendly ghost.
Italian immigrant Victorio Sattui founded a winery in St. Helena in 1885. His great-grandson, Darryl – now known as Dario – Sattui brought the winery back, post-Prohibition, in 1976, and the tasting room and deli have found enormous success, offering small-production wines from grapes grown throughout Napa and Sonoma.
Yet Dario had a larger drive, to construct a winery that spoke strongly to his family’s Italian roots. It took him several years to complete Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga, a replica of a 13th century Tuscan castle, complete with drawbridge, dungeon and medieval dining hall. The 107-room castle is Disney-like, though Sattui paid attention to detail, using 200-year-old bricks made from the Hapsburg dynasty in Europe and 2,000 custom Italian nails that anchor the oak doors of the great hall. It’s now widely known as the “Napa Castle.”
Admission and tastings start at $30 and there are multiple upgrades offered. As one would expect, the wine offerings include Italian-style varietals such as barbera, sangiovese, pinot grigio and pinot bianco, yet there are also Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons, Russian River Valley pinot noirs and Anderson Valley gewürztraminers.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Inglenook, under the winemaking direction of John Daniel, produced some of the most stunning cabernet sauvignons in California, wines of such character that they caught the attention of the Bordelais in France.
Gustave Niebaum, a wealthy Finnish sea captain, founded Inglenook in 1879 and commissioned William Mooser, a San Francisco architect, to design the great stone chateau in concert with Hamden McIntyre, who designed the winery. Construction began in 1881 – yes, 1881 – and the chateau stands proud today, under ownership of Francis Ford Coppola.
Through various owners and names (Rubicon Estate and Niebaum-Coppola among them), Coppola has returned the winery estate to its original name. In addition to the looming chateau structure, there is a reflecting pool graced by stately oaks and ample landscaped grounds for visitors (appointment only) to roam.
Several tasting/tour options are offered, and one of the most popular is the seated Heritage Tasting, with estate wines, including flagship Rubicon Cabernet Sauvignon, paired with artisan cheeses ($45). The Inglenook Experience ($50) includes a tour of the chateau, cave and grounds, finishing with a tasting of estate wines with paired cheeses.