The rolling hills of Napa Valley have become synonymous with images of culinary excellence and award-winning wine. Much to many Francophiles’ surprise, the area was put on the global wine map when two local vineyards won in a blind taste test at the “Paris Wine Tasting of 1976.” Napa Valley is now best known for its dry red wines, the most popular of which is Cabernet Sauvignon but Merlot, Pinot Noir and even Chardonnay have received high praise. (If you are more interested in vineyards producing white wine, check out the neighboring laid back Sonoma Valley.) I consider the Napa Valley region as the apex of “rural chic” and the culture is still steeped in its agricultural history. Napa Valley is an hour drive north from San Francisco and it makes for a great weekend getaway.
Situated between the sloping hills of the Vaca and Mayacamas mountains, Napa Valley includes five cities: Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, Calistoga, and lesser known American Canyon. The region stretches for over 30 miles from north to south, and be prepared to have up to a 40 minute drive between destinations. Napa Valley can get expensive. Tastings at inexpensive vineyards start at around $35, and seeing multiple vineyards in a day can add up. Please note: I enjoy wine, but I am not a sommelier, so my itinerary is focused on a positive experience rather than as a wine critique! Pace yourself both physically and financially and remember to hydrate, as the area is known for hot temperatures and drinking all day can cause dehydration.
I enjoy watching movies and reading books about a place before I visit. For Napa, I recommend watching movies such as Wine Country, Bottle Shock, or the oldie but goodie, The Parent Trap. A few of Dean Koontz’s novels are set in Napa, but I would recommend The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by Julia Flynn Silor.
When to go: I would recommend going in the spring-time, after the rainy season, when the landscape is lush, green and abundant. Autumn and winter are also often good times. I would be wary of going in the summer, as Napa gets very hot and temperatures can go above 100 degrees.
Where to stay: I love staying in downtown Yountville, as it has a quaint downtown and walking around the center is always fun. I have previously stayed at Maison Fleurie, A Four Sisters Inn, and really enjoyed the ambiance.
Friday: Dinner in Napa
Get a reservation for dinner at Allegria (1026 1st St, Napa, CA), an upscale italian restaurant in a historic bank landmark, built in 1916. Take a stroll through Napa’s downtown after dinner. Please be aware that much of the town shuts down earlier in the evening, since most tourists spend the day sampling wine.
Saturday: Wine tasting
Start your morning with a pastry and coffee from Bouchon Bakery (6528 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599), in the middle of the quaint downtown section of Yountville.
Drive up to Calistoga, and start your day at Sterling Vineyards (1111 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga, CA 94515). This has the only aerial tram in Napa Valley and offers cascading views of the area. By the late afternoon, the tram can get hot and crowded, so I recommend starting here.
Next stop is Chateau Montelena Winery (1429 Tubbs Ln, Calistoga, CA 94515) this beautiful 19th century chateau and vineyard was put on the world vintner map when the Chardonnay won the “Judgement of Paris” wine competition in 1976. The movie, Bottle Shock, is a fictionalized depiction of this new world victory!
After visiting two vineyards get a late picnic lunch at V. Sattui (1111 White Ln, St Helena, CA 94574). You can pick up some food from the store and sit outside at many of the park benches. After lunch, you could continue on with winery tours, but I would recommend regrouping at your hotel and window-shopping the quaint shops in downtown Yountville.
For dinner consider the French restaurant, Bouchon Bistro (6534 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599). For those who are looking to burn through some serious cash, French Laundry (6640 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599) is a delicious 9 course prefix experience ($310/per person). Located in an unassuming stone farmhouse, this restaurant is repeatedly listed among the top restaurants in the world and received 3 stars in the Michelin guide.
For those who still have the energy, consider an after dinner drink at Restoration Hardware (6725 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599) which is open until 10:00PM.
Sunday: Hot Air Balloon ride and Oxbow Public Market
For those who are not afraid of heights, start your morning very early with a memorable sunrise hot air balloon ride provided by Napa Valley Balloon, Inc (4086 Byway East, Napa, CA 94558). This could be missed for those who want to sleep in and save some money. Prices run roughly in the low $200’s per guest.
Try a grab and go brunch at Oxbow Public Market (610 1st St, Napa, CA 94559) before heading home for a weekend well spent (in more than one way) in Napa Valley!