Last updated on February 27th, 2017
This Discover Wine series focuses on regions of the world where wine reigns supreme. If you’ve ever considered traveling for wine, and even if you haven’t, we want to introduce you to wine regions you may or may not have already heard about, so you can expand your knowledge or wine and learn more about what makes a particular wine region unique.
One thing all of these wine regions have in common is their hospitality and genuine interest in welcoming visitors to their wineries. Whether you go to this area specifically for the wine, or you just add on a wine tour while you’re there, you’ll find it easy enough to stop by the wineries for a tour and tasting (even if many of them require advanced reservations). They will welcome you with open arms and a glass of wine!
In this edition, we explore the Napa Valley Wine Region in the North part of California. It is one of the most famous wine regions in the United States and is home to many top producers, with prices to match.
Napa Valley Wine Region
If you’re into wine even a little bit, you’ve likely heard of the prestigious and well-known Napa Valley Wine Region. Napa is Sonoma Valley’s rich cousin. Napa is where you’ll find the expensive vineyards that produce the equally expensive Cabernet Sauvignons and Zinfandels and Pinot Noirs of California. The soil is rich and fertile – producing an undeniable powerhouse of wine that is world renown.
Real estate is not cheap in the Napa Valley wine region. Wines made from some of the top Napa vineyards earn 95+ ratings and bring in top dollar – I’m talking in the hundreds of dollars per bottle. If you’re making a trip to Napa for wine tasting, it’s good to know what you’re going to get and set your expectations accordingly. (Read this post if you’d like to get a sense of what a weekend in Napa is like.)
The bottom line: It’s going to be expensive. But if you embrace the experience and accept it for what it is, you’ll have a fantastic time. It’s not unheard of for Napa wine tasting fees to be $20 or $30 per person for a few pours – in fact, $20+ is the norm. Hotels and restaurants also tend toward the luxury to ultra-luxury side. It’s Napa. It’s a lifestyle!
How to Get There
Flying into to Napa Valley is fairly easy and there are a lot of options. If you fly into Oakland or San Francisco, the Napa Valley is around an hour and a half drive. Or you can fly into the Sonoma Country Airport in Santa Rosa, CA, and Napa is only an hour drive from there (depending on traffic, of course). If you fly into Sonoma, you can hit up both wine regions for the price of one! -Highly recommended- Also, if you fly into Sonoma on Alaska Airlines, you’ll get the privilege of checking a box of wine on the return flight for free! If you’re driving, Napa is only 1.5 hours from San Francisco and it’s only 9 hours from Portland, Oregon!
We don’t like having to drive around the wine region when we know we’ll be doing wine tasting, but a car is necessary to get around the area. If you’re not willing to sip and spit, you might want to consider hiring a driver for the day. We’ve found taxi drivers are very willing to negotiate a reasonable rate to drive you around all day.
You could also go on an organized wine tour. We like to find good tours on Viator. It’s easy to search and they have all the best tours listed.
Where to Stay, Taste and Eat
As Napa is a luxury area, there are also a good number of luxury accommodations where you’ll be pampered and treated like royalty. The first thing you have to consider is where in the Napa Valley you’d like to be located. The valley runs almost 60 miles from Calistoga down to the town of Napa. If you know of a couple of wineries you’d like to visit, you could base your stay off that. Getting between wineries can be trying with traffic and distance taken into account, so you’ll want to make a good plan in advance. Since this area is so large, I’m going to arrange the information based on area.
Here are the main areas where you can stay in the Napa Valley, from north to south:
Calistoga is a small town located at the north end of the Napa Valley. It’s a small town, but it’s charming and packed with great wineries, eateries and cafes. On the more affordable side, there’s Best Western Plus Stevenson Manor within walking distance of downtown, or you can go all out with a luxury stay at the Calistoga Ranch, which is an Auberge Resort.
There are more than 50 wineries in the Calistoga region, including the fully organic Dutch Henry Winery and the grandiose Castello di Amarosa, which is located a few miles to the south of Calistoga. It’s a 13th century castle with animals housed on the premises – it’s a unique experience and the wine is very good. There are a few wineries located right downtown on Lincoln Avenue, like Huge Bear Wine and Knights Bridge Winery.
- SolBar at the Solage Calistoga Resort on the Silverado Trail
- Calistoga Kitchen for brunch
- High-class lunch at The Lakehouse Restaurant at Calistoga Ranch
You’ll find top wine producers and some of the most expensive wines in the region in and around St. Helena. This is where you find those ultra-rich Napa Cabernet Sauvignons that have made this growing region so popular. To go with the high wine prices, you’ll mostly find high-priced luxury hotels in St. Helena. It’s just what they do.
Many of the wineries in St. Helena are architecturally stunning. Some of our favorites are Charles Krug, Robert Mondavi and Peju. All of these wineries are worth a visit. Expect tastings to be around $20-$40 a person for 3-4 pours of wine. You’re in the heart of the expensive real estate Napa has built its reputation on and it doesn’t come cheap.
Between St. Helena and Yountville are a number of great wine producers with sprawling estates that are quite different than the ones we’ve listed so far. My favorite winery to visit on a warm summer day in Alpha Omega. They have a nice patio area overlooking the vines and with a beautiful fountain to look at. In the distance you can see the Napa Valley Wine Train.
This is a good place to stop for lunch. You have the Oakville Grocery Co for picnic supplies – they have an incredible selection of sandwiches, cheeses and meats – then head over to Alpha Omega to enjoy a picnic with a cold bottle of their incredible Chardonnay that tastes just like a glass of crème brûlée (note: there’s a specific picnic area – food can’t be taken into the tasting room). Or stop by V. Sattui winery for a picnic. They have a deli where you can pick up lunch, and there are plenty of picnic tables outside. For dinner, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen and Brix Restaurant are our favorites.
Make sure you spend some time walking through the charming little city of Yountville. If you stay here, you’ll be treated to a small-town feel, but with a big-city price tag. Hotels like Bardesonno and Hotel Yountville deliver consistently great experiences. The Napa Valley Lodge is also a great place to stay.
You’ll find a different kind of tasting experience in Yountville. Tasting rooms line the main street and you can just pop in for a wine tasting of Napa Valley favorites. Cornerstone Cellars and Hill Family Estate are two of our favorites.
Bouchon Bakery has awesome fresh pastries, but that’s not the only of Thomas Keller’s coveted restaurants. There’s, of course, the famous French Laundry. It’s located directly in the center of Yountville, alongside other world-class restaurants like Keller’s Ad Hoc and Bistro Jeanty. But don’t get near-sighted and miss Michael Chiarello’s Bottega for a plate of the best potato gnocchi I’ve ever eaten. Be prepared for culinary overload in Yountville. There are more wineries and restaurants in a few short blocks than you could hope to get through in one trip.
Located at the southern end of the Napa Valley is the city of Napa. It’s the closest to the airports and you might get the impression that it’s not a spectacular because it’s not in the heart of Napa, but the city has had a revival of sorts that has ushered in luxury accommodations like The Meritage Resort & Spa.
Napa boasts top restaurants like La Toque, plus one of our favorite places to browse delicious-looking food items, Oxbow Market. The market is home to half a dozen restaurants and a plethora of specialty food and wine retailers, including San Francisco’s popular Hog Island Oyster Company, the d Ca’ Momi Winery and Fatted Calf charcuterie.
As you can see, there are so many great choice and it’s incredibly hard to make it to even a small portion of the Napa Valley Wineries in one visit. You know what that means! You’re going to have to come back again. It’s a tough world, I know.