When you think about the Napa Valley of California, you automatically think wine. It’s for good reasons, especially since the Napa Valley has over 400 wineries. You could spend an entire week touring the vineyards of the region and still just barely scrape the surface. But to help you plan your next California wine country trip, I’ve put together this guide to the Napa Valley.
Located just north of San Francisco, on a good day you can get to the city of Napa in an hour. However, for touring the valley and visiting wineries, you’ll want to head further north. One of the original counties of California in the 1800s, it wasn’t until the mid-1900s that Napa County began to rise as a formidable wine producer. It was in the mid-1960s that Napa County saw its first large scale winery, which was established by Robert Mondavi. Many wine lovers are familiar with Mondavi since he was a leader in bringing worldwide recognition to Napa that has only continued to grow.
Planning a Visit
Napa is unique in that just about any time of year makes for a good visit. The fall months are certainly the most beautiful and exciting since harvest is in September and October. However, the winter months can make for a good visit since this part of California doesn’t experience the same winter that many parts of the U.S. does. But bring an umbrella and a warm jacket as the evenings can get cool.
While the city of Napa has many hotels to choose from, if you want something more boutique, you’ll find many smaller inns and bed and breakfasts spread further north in the countryside. If you’re visiting during September and October, book your plans early since this is the busiest time of year in Napa with harvest. Many of the towns in Napa Valley put on special harvest festivals during September and October.
Before you start going on a wine tasting excursion, make sure to have a plan. Some of the wineries you may not be able to just stroll up to on a Saturday afternoon. Many are public and allow walk-ins, while others are by appointment only – don’t let the appointment-only places scare you away though. It’s not that they don’t want visitors, it’s just that many are run by a very small staff so they can’t keep the tasting room open for drop-in visitors.
As with everything else, the costs of wine tastings are going to vary. The days of free tastings are coming to an end, but many wineries will offer a discount or refund your tasting fee if you buy a bottle of wine. If you go to a private tasting, then you can expect it to cost more than a winery that is open to the public; private tours, food pairings, and reserve wine tastings all add to the cost but can make for a more memorable experience. If you’ve got the afternoon munchies, consider doing a tasting that is paired with food.
Read more: Top 10 Wine Tasting Tours in 2011
The dining experience can vary in the Napa Valley, from boutique cafes in small towns throughout the valley to fresh markets to intimate dining overlooking the valley. A must-visit lunch spot is the Oxbow Public Market in the city of Napa. However, make sure you go on an empty stomach. Oxbow has everything from tacos to Nutella crepes to cupcakes and more. The open market is a good locale to sample from numerous restaurants and vendors.
If you want something more intimate than just a cafe or market, you’ll find plenty of that in Napa too. Some of California’s most notable restaurants are in the Napa Valley, including Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, which is an award-winning restaurant in Yountville and considered one of the top restaurants in the world. This is one to save for that special someone, though, since it has a prix fixe menu that may cost more than a few nights in your hotel.
As you’re planning your visit to Napa, think about what you’re interested in. If you’re a wine connoisseur who likes specific types of wine, then plan your visit around wineries that specialize in those varietals. If you’re a first-time visitor, then you may want to do your research and find a themed winery or one that caters to your interests. Or hire a driver for the day; once you brief him or her on your wine tastes, he or she can recommend wineries you’re sure to love. Even novice wine drinkers and first-time visitors can find wineries that pique their interest if they don’t have a favorite type of wine.
For example, Clif Bar & Company, the leader in organic energy bars and drinks, has a winery in St. Helena. This is of interest to cycling enthusiasts because of their Velo Vino tasting room, which blends Clif Bar’s love for cycling with their love for wine. Below are a few other unique wine experiences in the Napa Valley.
Cliff Lede Vineyards. Does rolling down your car windows and jamming to Hotel California make you think of wine country? I’m betting not, but after a visit to Cliff Lede Vineyards, it just might. The sounds of rock and roll ring throughout the vineyards as soon as you step foot into the tasting room. While most vineyard blocks are designated with an A, B, C or 1, 2, 3, system, the vineyard blocks at Cliff Lede are named after rock songs, including “Express Yourself,” “American Girl,” and “Pinball Wizard.” Located on the hilltop just above the vineyards and winery is Cliff Lede’s own accommodations, the Poetry Inn, which provides beautiful views looking over the Napa Valley and special packages for visitors to the winery.
Vineyard 29. With the nearby Silicon Valley, it’s no surprise to find a winery such as Vineyard 29 that is so dependent on the latest technology. Chuck McMinn, founder of Vineyard 29, brought years of experience working in the technology industry in the Silicon Valley at Intel to winemaking in the Napa Valley. One such technology advancement he’s brought to Vineyard 29 is the use of RFID tags. The use of RFID tags on wine bottles will help combat wine counterfeits, while also helping Vineyard 29 wine lovers learn more about the wine they’re drinking. Future mobile devices with an RFID reader will allow users to scan the RFID tag on wine bottles, which will in turn pull up tasting notes and food pairings for that specific wine. Make sure to call ahead since wine tastings at Vineyard 29 are by appointment only.
Napa Valley Wine Train. All aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train! While winding through Napa Valley offers many great views, the wine train offers a more unique look at parts of Napa Valley that your car just can’t get to. If there’s one thing to splurge on in Napa Valley, make it be this. I recommend doing the lunch ride, which is a three-hour train ride that leaves from Napa going north through the valley toward Calistoga. Lunch is a gourmet meal that is made-to-order on board the train. The meal I had included pork roast and scallop potatoes with tiramisu for dessert.
Tips and Other Things to Do
Napa Valley may be best known for wine, but there are plenty of other things to do in the area. After all, you can only drink so much in one day, particularly if you’re the designated driver. If you plan to get behind the wheel, either opt for a driver, visit the wineries by bike, or plan to limit yourself to only a few visits per day. Many wineries have picnic areas, so you can enjoy a leisurely lunch before you get back on the road. Or break up your day with some horseback riding, canoeing, cooking classes, or spa treatments. And for a bird’s eye view of the Napa Valley, take a hot air balloon ride over wine country.
- Spencer Spellman