Most of the world’s great winemaking regions are considered romantic destinations; after all wine is a generally a celebratory drink meant to be savored over great food and conversation, an emblem of “the good life” and the luxury of time to enjoy it. Napa Valley is one of California’s most famous winemaking regions, and undoubtedly one of the most romantic destinations in the state.
There are more than a hundred hotels and 400 numbers of wineries now catering to the nearly 5 million visitors that arrive here each year, and planning a trip can be overwhelming. Here are a few tips and recommendations to get you started.
Romantic Things to Do in Napa Valley
Other than the wine-tasting, some of the most popular romantic activities around Napa include hot air ballooning over the vineyards, canoeing and kayaking on the gentle Napa river, hiking though Bothe-Napa state park, cooking classes at area wineries or at the Culinary Institute of America, biking the Napa Valley’s backroads, or relaxing at some of the unique spas located at hotels up and down the Valley, including the famous mud baths in Calistoga.
Romantic Wine Experiences
If it’s your first trip to Napa Valley, the sheer number of wineries to choose from can be overwhelming. One of the easiest ways to figure out where to go it to hire a guide for the day; you can tell the driver what you like (white vs red, Cabernet vs Merlot, small producers vs large) and he or she can suggest places based on your interests. It’s a low-stress intro to wine country and you’re free to taste as much as you like since you don’t have to worry about driving. Another option is to do the research yourself, again based on interests and what you want to experience.
Are you after simple tastings or do you want to do something more involved, like wine-blending, a tour of the cellars or vineyards, or a food and wine pairing? Many wineries now offer much beyond the usual tasting. You can blend your own custom wine (complete with custom name and label) at Raymond Cellars, go horseback riding through the vineyards at Chalk Hill, take an extensive cave tour and learn about sparkling wine at Schramsberg, pair wine and food (or chocolate) at Whitehall Lane, sip wine on a back porch or wander through the garden at Frog’s Leap, sample various olive oils with your wine at Round Pond, or watch the sun set at Friday evening tastings on the terrace at Silverado.
Or try a Wine Country Tour by Horse and Carriage for a unique tasting experience.
Romantic Places to Stay in Napa Valley
St. Helena is one of the prettiest towns in the Valley – centrally located, big enough to offer a variety of choices but small enough to still be a charming escape from city life. Harvest Inn is just off Highway 29 and less than one mile (an easy walk) from downtown St. Helena, but once you pull into the property’s drive, it feels very secluded. Adding to the feeling of intimacy, the rooms are spread among several brick buildings that are surrounded by redwood trees and flowers that often hide cozy seating areas.
There are a few different room types to choose from, including some overlooking the vineyards, with large stone fireplaces, or with private outdoor whirlpools. Rooms have mini-fridges, flat-screen TVs, and DVD players, and the resort offers free breakfast and a Friday and Saturday night wine and cheese reception in the lobby’s Wine Bar. There’s also a small fitness center, a spa, and two pool areas (one is adults-only) open 24 hours a day.
Just north of St. Helena on a quieter side road off of Highway 29, the Wine Country Inn is another great option for those who want a romantic experience among the vines. The property sits adjacent to the vineyard and guests are welcome to stroll through or grab a seat on the wooden bench swing. The Inn offers free breakfast and nightly wine reception, as well as a free shuttle to several area restaurants.
There’s a massage cabana that looks over the vineyard (in room spa treatments are also available), and a pool and Jacuzzi, but in keeping with the resort’s atmosphere of romance and tranquility, there are no TVs in the rooms, and no fitness center onsite (though guests can use one just two miles away). Each room has a different theme, but the best accommodation can be found in the luxury cottages, which are totally private and offer small kitchenettes, fireplaces, private patios, and two-person jetted tubs in the bathrooms.
Closer to downtown Napa, is the Meritage Resort and Spa. It’s in a somewhat odd location in a corporate park. But once you’re on the grounds, it’s a self-contained playground, with an onsite restaurant, snack bar, lounge, wine tasting room, cave spa, two pools (one is adults only), three hot tubs, a sports lounge with bowling alley, fitness center, business center, bocce ball court, croquet lawn, and several common areas with stone fireplaces. Behind the resort, guests can hike through several acres of vineyards.
Rooms are comfortable, with marble baths, plasma TVs, desks, safes, mini-fridges, and a welcome bottle of wine. Many rooms have private patios or balconies.
Romantic Places to Eat in Napa Valley
Napa Valley has become known as much for food as it has for wine. No matter what your tastes and budget, you can find something perfect for your palate, often using locally produced and seasonal products. One of the area’s best farm-to-table restaurants is Farmstead at Longmeadow Ranch. The ranch sustainably and organically produces wine, olive oil, poultry, meat, and fruits and vegetables, which are used to create its upscale comfort food. The burger is one of the best in the Valley and the corkage fee for bringing your own wine is just $2, which is donated to a local charity.
In St. Helena, the seasonally-changing menu at Goose & Gander ranges from light bar snacks and salads to small plates and larger entrees, all using local ingredients. The wine list is extensive, but the cocktails shouldn’t be missed.
Napa’s restaurant scene has its share of ultra-romantic – and very expensive – restaurants, like the French Laundry, La Toque, and Etoile, but those looking for candlelit ambiance at a lower price point still have quite a few options. Cozy Bistro Jeanty in Yountville serves traditional French fare with most entrees priced under $30 and appetizers available for $10-$15. Another Yountville favorite, Redd, mixes Asian influences with Mediterranean flavors and traditional New American dishes for an experience that is as high caliber as nearly any other but at a smaller cost.
Redd’s casual little sister, Redd Wood, which is also in Yountville, puts the focus on wood-oven-fired pizzas, shareable pastas and salads, and eclectic small plates with a Mediterranean flavor. Most dishes range from $10-25, and two people could easily fill up without spending more than $50.
Romance on a budget
A romantic trip to Napa can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to break the bank. If you’re willing to do a little research, there are several ways to save money.
Look for free and discounted tastings
Long gone are the days when tastings at most Napa wineries were free or just a few bucks; now most tastings range from $10-$15 for the basics, going up to $20-$40 for more involved tastings and $50 or more for special experiences, extensive tours, or library tastings. If you visit three wineries per day, the costs can add up quickly. To cut down on costs, look for wineries that offer a refunded tasting fee with the purchase of wine (many also waive the tasting fee for wine club members, so if you really love the wine, the membership could be worth the investment).
Googling the name of the winery plus the words “discount” or “coupon” can also yield a bevy of two-for-one tasting coupons that can help you save. And don’t forget that it’s perfectly acceptable to share a tasting between two people.
Eat on the cheap
After a few too many decadent multi-course meals in Napa, sometimes there’s nothing more appealing than a simple salad or a well-made burger. Mustard’s delivers all your favorites – soups, salads, burgers, sandwiches, and a few heartier entrees – in a relaxed and inviting setting just off Highway 29. Most entrees are under $15.
Many wineries in Napa allow visitors to bring a picnic to enjoy on the grounds along with their wine-tasting or a game of bocce ball or baggo. Dean and Deluca in St. Helena is one of the best places to pack your picnic box with gourmet goodies, like charcuterie and cheese, made-to-order sandwiches, and other snacks like crackers, artisan bread and olive oils, spiced buts, or a decadent pastry or selection of handmade truffles. Further south, downtown Napa’s Oxbow market offers a wide range of goodies, like wine and olive oils, cheeses, and spices, plus a few quick and casual food vendors selling everything from pizza to tacos.
Make new friends and share the cost
If you’re set on a tour but the cost of hiring a private driver is more than you can afford, look for a group or semi-private Napa Valley winery tour option. A group tour will be the cheapest option; a semi-private or small-group tour offers a more personalized experience without too much added cost. Most small-group tours have fewer than 12 people and can be personalized according to the group’s preferences. It’s a good way to save money but still enjoy the perks of a guide’s service in Napa.
- Katie Hammel