We interview Karen Rowley, the co-founder of Curated Journeys, which takes Napa Valley visitors to exclusive wineries, private estates, vineyards, and caves and gives them personal interactions with chefs, winemakers, vintners, and culinary luminaries for an unparalleled experience in wine country.
How are private wine tastings different from your typical wine tasting?
It can be a lot of fun driving up and down highway 29 or Silverado Trail tasting wine at a number of wineries. You check in with the host, take a seat or hit that bar area, and start drinking wine. Sometimes you get a short description of the wine from the “educator” but mostly they are running from group to group pouring lots of wine. There will be a few different options for tastings that include only white, red or a combination. The rooms can be large or small, but can get quite crowed and frenetic, not to mention loud. It’s like a big party on busy Saturdays or Sundays. That’s typical tasting at an open winery. Private tastings offer an elevated experience that requires a reservation and usually gated access to a stunning tasting location. Many times, your group is the only one there or the groups are spread out in different tasting rooms. Often, the winemaker or the owner pours the wines and talks about the vineyards, history, process and conducts tours of the property. If it’s a wine educator, they are handpicked to know as much about the wine, vineyards, process and history as winemaker. Estate homes, caves, terraces, barrel rooms and a variety of intimate locations are the settings, where the pace is unhurried and the wine usually comes paired with bites, cheese, charcuterie or even chocolate to compliment the wine. Savoring the wine, the setting, the moment and the experience really distinguish private tastings from typical tastings.
What are the culinary trends in Wine Country?
• Quality products with local ingredients keeps trending from the best restaurants to the food trucks that line Soscal Avenue, so maybe here in Napa Valley the trend has become much more inclusive
• Plant forward food that emphasizes fruits and vegetables in traditional and new cuisine. Sneak in those veggies!
• The big emphasis on food at wineries with new kitchens opening up at a brisk pace and wineries like B Cellar that are completely focused on pairing food and wine
• A resurgence in quality restaurants in downtown Napa
• The Oxbow area has become a culinary haven
• New hotel builds with celebrity chefs like Las Alcobas in Saint Helena with Chris Cosentino’s acclaimed Acacia.
What’s trending in Napa Valley wine appellations?
• Preservation of heritage vineyards,
• 1-2 acre single clone vineyards planted in different appellations by the same estate for blending or single vineyard tastings
• The emergence of Coombsville as a major appellation because of it’s micro climates and ability to grow valley, mountain and coastal grapes
The way winemakers are letting the terroir of an appellation speak in their wines
• The influx of billionaires purchasing wineries in all appellations
• The explosion of labels touting appellations that do not own any vineyards or have a winery in that appellation
How is the Napa experience different at a small-production vineyard?
In my experience, small production vineyards tend be the ones behind locked gates, off the beaten paths, and owned by families that do it all. Dedication to their land, grapes and wine quality set them apart from some of the mass producers. I have visited many of the tiny ones and the pride they take in their business shows in the quality of the wine, as well as the authentic experience at their wineries. You get a sense of place that you can feel without the glitz of some of the more famous ones.
What sets you apart from other Napa Valley tours?
We give our guests access to gastronomic and wine experiences found only in cloistered kitchens, private vineyards, chefs' homes, winery estates, and caves. It’s a complete immersion into the secrets of Napa Valley's celebrated food and wine at very private locations with acclaimed chefs and rare wines. We treat our guests like they are family visiting from out of town and we are showing them an authentic side of Napa Valley that we know.
How do you go about curating these special experiences?
Putting together elevated experiences for Curated Journey is truly a labor of love, although a huge amount of work. I have been creating incredible culinary and wine tours all over the world with my company Many More Travels. I am used to working with numerous suppliers in different areas putting together complete packages, but Napa presented a big challenge since no road map existed for the kind of authentic culinary and wine adventures that I wanted to create. I was having amazing elevated culinary and wine experiences here in Napa Valley at private locations throughout the Valley so I started reaching out to the people I knew to see if they wanted to host my small groups in their homes, kitchens, caves, and wineries. The response was overwhelming from the amazingly hospitable friends here in the Valley who wanted to partner with me. We have worked nonstop for 6 months creating relationships, imagining the experiences, negotiating with venues, transportation companies, and putting it all together so guests will have a truly memorable experience. I had the fortune of meeting my business partner, Chef Barbara Alexander, through a mutual friend and she directs all the culinary aspects for the company.
What will guests experience on a tour with Curated Journeys?
While every one of our journeys is unique, each will include:
• Access to gated, hidden locations
• Exclusive tastings at stunning small production wineries
• All local transportation by luxury liveried vehicles
• Cooking classes in expertly-equipped gourmet kitchens
• Multi-course dinners at private estates, caves, chef's homes or other treasured locations paired with estate and reserve wines
• Sumptuous lunches including reserve and library wines
• Reserve and estate wine tasting daily at stunning, secluded locations
• All estate and reserve wine with meals
• Interaction with chefs, winemakers, vintners, and culinary luminaries