By: Jordan Simon
Just 30 years ago, Napa Valley wines got no respect. But 1976 was, as they say, a vintage year: Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay bested some of France's legendary names in a prestigious blind tasting that shocked the wine world. Since then, this sublimely scenic destination has grown to become one of the world's most popular destinations for oenophiles, not only for the excellent quality of the wines, but for the touring experience, which the businesses of the Napa Valley have down pat – the area welcomes more than 5 million visitors annually.
The very qualities that make Napa a premium winegrowing region also make it a fabulous vacation spot. The lifestyle here is at once casual and sophisticated, dedicated to savoring all aspects of the good life, with a glorious countryside ideal for hiking and biking, superb dining, spas, golf, shopping, and a clutch of cultural options in the way of music, museums, and more. The Valley's cup overflows with an abundance of activities: You can take a cooking class alongside future celebrity chefs, learn about organic gardening, soar above the green-and-gold checkerboard of vineyards in a hot-air balloon, and listen to renowned musical acts al fresco while eating a gourmet picnic.
Too often in the thirsty rush to sample as much Napa nectar as possible, visitors end up bypassing the region's many other glories – after all, the Napa Valley possesses artistry in abundance outside the bottle. The city of Napa is splashed with marvelous murals; the Valley contains remarkable architecture from neo-Romanesque Victorian mansions to Craftsman bungalows to postmodern tasting rooms; notable artists maintain local studios, some open only by appointment; and many wineries feature prominent art collections and exhibits.
Given the wealth of recreational activities – day and night, every season – where should you stay and play? If you have three days we recommend sticking to the main routes and bigger wineries that can accommodate more traffic. With five days, venture out onto twisting back roads, discovering smaller boutique wineries and visiting the many fine art galleries and museums. Seven days permits leisurely exploration, including hiking or biking the panoramic trails, hitting the tees for golf, and comparing various spa treatments. Given that additional time, you can bookend your trip with a stay in San Francisco (an hour's drive), or venture west into adjacent Sonoma County for still more wine touring.
Though small, the Napa Valley area takes longer to get around than you'd think. It's roughly 35 miles long, shaped fittingly like a cornucopia, and contains more than 300 wineries, from vast multi-national conglomerates to small garage operations. Most are clustered along Route 29 (aka St. Helena Highway) and the more bucolic Silverado Trail (aka "The Trail") though several branch off on scenic, corkscrewing mountain roads. Traffic, especially during harvest (early fall) and summer is usually heaviest on Route 29, which can resemble a gridlocked city at rush hour more than a quiet country lane. To maximize your time, avoid mid- and late-afternoon visits, especially on weekends. If your schedule permits, start touring mid-or up-valley, since Bay Area day trippers can create logjams in the south.
Napa Valley is one of several valleys that comprise the larger area of Napa County. The City of Napa is probably the best known, but it is only one of five in the Valley. The five main tourism areas are, from south to north, Napa, Yountville, Oakville/Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga – all charming, historic and boasting their own character and energy. Downtown Napa is undergoing a renaissance, with the addition of the gastronomic Disneyland, COPIA, restoration of its 19th-century brick buildings, and restructuring of the Napa River to create a pedestrian river walk. Downtown is compact enough for walking, a half mile in either direction, although you need a car to explore the whole valley. Dozens of wine bars and co-op tasting rooms line the Napa WineWalk where you can sample 150 wines, including difficult-to-obtain "cult" bottles. Yountville probably has more gourmet restaurants per capita than anywhere in the country and its Vintage 1870 is a three-story brick Victorian that today houses more than 40 boutiques, galleries, and eateries. Oakville/Rutherford is most noted for its wineries rather than a centralized downtown while quaint (but not quiet) St. Helena boasts first-class shops and restaurants in abundance. Funky, arty Calistoga offers classic Americana along its main drag, Lincoln Avenue, several active geysers, and spa-hotels. For a literal "overview" in a hot-air balloon, Balloons Above The Valley (603 California Blvd., Napa; 707/253-2222, 800/464-6824; www.balloonrides.com) and Napa Valley Balloons (Yountville; 707/944-0228 or 1-800/253-2224; www.napavalleyballoons.com) offer one-hour narrated sunrise excursions, which culminate with a Champagne picnic brunch in a vineyard setting. Prices range from $205-$225, but book over the Internet or in advance for discounts.
But the most important place names don't have border signposts. As you explore, you'll hear about the different official appellations, recognized for their distinctive history and terroir, a French term embracing a site's unique growing conditions. For example, Carneros in the south is closer to the Bay: the moderating breezes, morning fogs, and temperature swings make it ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But higher-altitude appellations (longer, more intense sun yet thinner rockier soil and lower yield that concentrates fruit) such as Atlas Peak, Mount Veeder or Howell Mountain are generally better suited to later-ripening varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau (1310 Napa Town Center, Napa; daily 9am-5pm; www.napavalley.com) is a one-stop-shop and a place to pick up the Napa Valley Visitors' Guide which includes maps to all wineries and accommodations along with thorough listings. The website is the most comprehensive resource for feed- and drink-back: wineries, recreational info, events/entertainment calendars, insider tips, interactive maps, a photo gallery, message boards, and dozens of late-breaking Internet-only specials from spa treatments to two-for-one tastings to lodging discounts.
With over 300 wineries, you may be wondering where to begin. We've recommended several options below, listed town by town. For novices, you'll want to start at one of the larger operation like Robert Mondavi (see write-up below) which can give you a crash course in wine making and tasting. But if this old hat to you, you'll surely find a recommendation on our list that you will love – whether you're an art collector, a car lover, or are simply looking for a fabulous place for a picnic and a glass of vino.
The most efficient way to explore the valley is via car, but be sure to have a designated driver at all times. You might also consider one of the many companies that offer guided tours. The cheapest alternative, which packs four to eight wineries and a mid-valley picnic into its busy schedule is the Napa Winery Shuttle (707/257-1950; $52; www.wineshuttle.com). Platypus Tours (707/631-0757; $75; www.platypustours.com) charges per person to visit at least four wineries via comfortable limo coach, gourmet picnic included. Beau Wine Tours and Limousine Service (707/938-8001 or 1-800/387-2328; from $55; www.beauwinetours.com) charters sedans and Suburbans for customized tours, charging by the hour for a minimum of four hours. California Wine Tours (707/253-1300, 800/294-6386; $69; www.californiawinetours.com) offers competitive charters and a regularly scheduled full-day tour of five wineries from two downtown Napa locations. The gala specialty entry is the three-hour scenic gourmet dining excursion on the Napa Valley Wine Train (1275 McKinstry St., Napa; 800/427-4124, 707/253-2111; $49.50 per person for the ride, additional cost depending on meal; www.winetrain.com). The experience used to be the equivalent of dining in a rotating 50th-floor restaurant, but food and service have improved, and there's no denying the splendor of the plush, restored 1915-1947 Pullman dining and lounge cars that lend dual meaning to vintage and moving. There are also luncheon/winery tours, dinner theater, and even family options.
If you choose to go on your own, allot at least one hour for a full-scale tour and tasting, and factor in travel time. Complex county ordinances require some wineries to open by appointment only, but call ahead for hours (which change seasonally) and reservations even at the largest facilities. Entrance is usually free though most charge for both tours and tastings (the fee is often refunded with a purchase, or includes a tasting glass engraved with the winery logo). Sampling library (older) or reserve wines costs even more and reservations are required. Once you've seen one crusher, pump, fermentation tank, and cellar, you've got the idea, so this listing highlights wineries that offer something unique. Note that many wines, from playful experimental blends to serious single-vineyard bottlings, are available only at the winery's gift shop. If you love a winery's offerings, consider joining its (usually free) wine club: you'll receive newsletters, discounts, invitations to special events, even releases unavailable to regular consumers. We've listed additional recommendations in each area for those who have extra time; check their websites for more details.
Hess Collection Winery (4411 Redwood Rd.; 707/255-1144; visitor center daily 10am-5pm, tastings and art collection10am-4pm; free admission, tasting $10; www.hesscollection.com). The real reason to visit is the cutting-edge art collection compiled by Swiss magnate Donald Hess since the 1960s that eloquently comments on humankind's continual struggles. Though the work is often dark and disturbing, the exhibit rooms are light and airy. The ingenious gallery design features windows onto the vineyards, a fermentation room, a barrel chai (cave), and a bottling operation. Over 80 works are displayed, though Hess rotates them fairly often. Numerous biggies – Stella, Motherwell, Bacon, Kiefer – are represented.
Artesa Winery (1345 Henry Rd.; 707/224-1668; daily 10am-5pm, tours from 11am-2pm; admission free, tastings $10-$15; www.artesawinery.com). Though owned by Spanish cava giant Codorníu, Artesa is better known for its still wines; four major varietals are produced here: Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Merlot. It has splendid views and is a must-see for modern architecture enthusiasts – the property, concrete and glass growing out of the hill – is the work of architects Domingo Triay and E.R. Bouligny and houses a museum withwinemaking casks, presses, and other antique implements dating to the parent company's 16th-century founding.
Del Dotto Vineyards (1055 Atlas Peak Rd.; 707/256-3332; daily 11am-5pm; regular tasting $10-$20, 1-hour cave/barrel tasting $40; www.deldottovineyards.com). This boutique winery produces opulent Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Sangiovese. The tasting room/gallery has striking abstract paintings and bronze, plaster, and Murano glass statuary. It features one of the Valley's six original hand-dug 19th-century limestone caves still in use. Bonus:Taste the variation in wine aged in 70 different oaks (including barrels from Missouri, Virginia, and France's Tronçais and Nevers). By 2007, a new tasting room will open in St. Helena (where the Del Dotto family vineyards are located) with spectacular caves lined with antique tiles, mosaic marble floors, and Venetian chandeliers.
William Hill Estate (1761 Atlas Peak Rd.; 707/265-3024; 10.30am-4pm daily by appointment; www.williamhillestate.com). Continuing up Atlas Peak Road (a hot appellation for Cabs), this is a quiet respite from the busier wineries on Route 29 and "the Trail." You can also taste the wines from neighboring Atlas Peak Winery here; the staffers do an excellent job of explaining the unique character of each appellation.
Domaine Carneros (www.domainecarneros.com)
Andretti (www.andrettiwinery.com; yes, the racer)
Chateau Potelle (www.chateaupotelle.com)
YOUNTVILLE (10 miles from Napa)
Domaine Chandon (One California Drive; 707/944-2280; hours vary by season; $7 tour, tastings $10-$20; www.chandon.com). Founded by Moët & Chandon in 1973, this winery became the first California operation established by a French house using only the traditional méthode champenoise – the traditional method of making Champagne, and most, but not all, sparkling wines, a process explained in the lighthearted tour offered here. The on-site restaurant, étoile, offers pricey-but-worth-it French-Californian cuisine served in spectacular surroundings.
Robert Sinskey Vineyards (6320 Silverado Trail; 800/869-2030, 707/944-9090; daily 10am-4.30pm; flights $15-$20, specialty tours $25-$30; www.robertsinskey.com). One of the Valley's premier Pinot Noir producers, RSV also excels at such lesser-known varietals as Pinot Blanc and Cabernet Franc. We love their commitment to sustainable, organic farming and tours that explain biodynamic growing to visitors. The culinary director (and owner's wife), Maria Helm Sinskey, is considered one of California's top chefs and the winery offers marvelous artisan cooking classes (some with Maria), as well as wine and cheese pairings.
Clos du Val (www.closduval.com)
Pine Ridge (www.pineridgewinery.com)
OAKVILLE (13 miles from Napa)
Robert Mondavi Winery (7801 St. Helena Hwy. (29), Oakville; 707/968-2213, 888/RMONDAVI; daily 10am-5pm; tours and tastings from $15; www.robertmondaviwinery.com). This legendary innovator is the place to start if you've never visited a winery – and essential even for seasoned sippers seeking more education or just plain fun. The "basic" tour follows the path of the grape from the vineyard through the cellar to the finished wine. You'll see the winery's inner workings and learn about winegrowing, fermentation, barrel aging, and bottling, then end with a seated tasting. The winery also offers specialty tours that go deeper into specific aspects of winemaking. There are also special lectures on food and wine, a concert series, and free rotating art exhibits.
Far Niente Winery (1350 Acacia Dr., Oakville; 707/944-2861, 800/FN-DOLCE; daily 10am-4pm, appointment only; $50; www.farniente.com). This so-called Ghost Winery – a local term to describe a winery in existence between 1860 and 1900 – survived the collapse of the wine industry brought on by phylloxera (a devastating vine louse) and Prohibition. The manor was restored in 1979 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Plan well ahead to visit this historic property that includes 13 acres of lush gardens. The owner, an avid race car driver, also exhibits his collection of vintage vehicles. The tour takes in everything (including the caves) and ends with a seated tasting of artisanal cheese and five premier wines including the award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon and late-harvest dessert wine, Dolce.
Opus One (www.opusonewinery.com)
RUTHERFORD (14 miles from Napa)
Beaulieu Vineyards (1960 St. Helena Hwy., Rutherford; 800/373-5896; daily 10am-5pm; www.bvwines.com) was founded by Bordeaux native Georges de Latour at the turn of the century. In 1938, Latour hired a brilliant young Franco-Russian oenologist named Andre Tchelistcheff, who arguably became California's most influential winemaker. He was instrumental in developing indispensable vinicultural processes explained on the tour and the winery's longtime flagship, Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, remains a Napa Valley icon – the first Private Reserve Cabernet ever made and perhaps the most collected American wine – by the 1940s, it was poured at all major White House functions. Look also for Tapestry, another Bordeaux blend and a terrific value.
St. Supéry (8440 St. Helena Hwy.; 707/963-4507, 800/942-0809; daily 10am-5pm; tour/tasting $10-15; www.stsupery.com) offers an excellent self-guided tour using regional maps that explain everything from the appellation concept to a demonstration vineyard. And if you've ever wondered how wine can smell like chocolate or lemon, take whiffs at the clever Smell-a-vision display. There's a top-notch art gallery and shop onsite. They also conduct Riedel wine-glass comparison tastings, grape stomps, pétanque lessons, food-wine pairings, and behind-the-scenes tours.
Mumm Napa Valley (8445 Silverado Trail, Rutherford; 707/967-7700; daily 10am-5pm; tours/galleries free; tastings $5-$20; www.mummnapa.com). The famed California bubbly house is most enchanting when the outdoor patio overlooking the vines is open (try the top-of-the-line DVX). But even in winter, the winery's world-class photo galleries sparkle in their own right. The stunner is the Private Collection Gallery, holding 27 original, signed Ansel Adams prints on loan indefinitely. The Fine Art Photography Gallery presents three to four rotating exhibits annually, many traveling from prestigious institutions.
Cakebread Cellars (www.cakebreadcellars.com)
Grgich Hills (www.grgich.com)
HALL Winery (www.hallwines.com)
Peju Province (www.peju.com)
Rubicon Estate (www.rubiconestate.com)
Rutherford Hill (www.rutherfordhill.com)
ST. HELENA (19 miles from Napa)
Beringer Vineyards (2000 Main St., St. Helena; 707/963-8989; daily 10am-6pm, in winter until 5pm; $5; www.beringer.com) Founded in 1876, the Valley's oldest continuously operating winery (it made sacramental wine during Prohibition) was the first to offer guest tours back in 1934. There are several tour options, including hands-on demonstrations of food/wine pairing, regarded as some of the best in the Valley. The highlight is the 1884 Rhine House, an ornate 17-room Victorian mansion built from California native materials (stone, redwood, brick, slate) by founding brother Frederick Beringer to replicate the family home in Mainz-on-the-Rhine, Germany. Six-foot-high wainscoting embellishes each room and Art Nouveau stained glass depicts various themes related to each room's main activity – think butterflies and wild flowers in the original ladies parlor and cheeses and fruit in the dining room scenes.
Domaine Charbay Winery & Distillery (4001 Spring Mountain Rd.; 707/963-9327, 800/634-7845; Mon-Sat by appointment only; $20; www.charbay.com). The Karakasevic family's "Still on the Hill" is accessed via a steep winding road north from St. Helena and is the only distillery in the area. It offers a delightful, fun explanation of the distilling process. Unfortunately you can't taste the stronger stuff – single-barrel brandies, grappas, intensely flavored vodkas and wondrous whiskies – but you can sample their fortified wines and aperitifs from ports to pastis.
Joseph Phelps (www.jpvwines.com)
Kuleto Family Winery (www.kuleto.com)
Louis M. Martini (www.louismartini.com)
V. Sattui (www.vsattui.com)
CALISTOGA (27 miles from Napa)
Chateau Montelena (1429 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga; 707/942-5105; daily 9.30am-4pm; tour/tasting $25; www.montelena.com). In addition to Far Niente and Beringer, Chateau Montelena is another Ghost Winery, founded in 1882 (the main building, pond-dotted gardens and Japanese teahouses are lovely) Montelena is also historically significant because of the 1976 event that put Napa on the world winemaking map. Famed wine-writer Steve Spurrier gathered the who's-who of the French wine and food community for a blind tasting in Paris. Four white Burgundies and four red Bordeaux were tasted against six Chardonnays and six Cabernet Sauvignons from California; the French judges were horrified to discover the winner was Chateau Montelena's 1973 Chardonnay. While Chard is still a mainstay, Montelena is even more celebrated for its slinky yet dense Cabernet Sauvignons.
Clos Pegase (1060 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga; 707/942-4981; daily 10.30am-5pm, free tours, tastings from $10/flight; www.clospegase.com). This genuine "estate of the art" lives up to its hyperbolic tagline, "where vine meets divine." Owner Jan Shrem has long collected everything from Japanese porcelain and antiquities to contemporary art. Famed architect Michael Graves fittingly designed a facility that would showcase Shrem's enduring passions, art and wine. Standouts in Shrem's collection includes a six-foot bronze thumb "planted" by the vineyards and 17th century fountain of Bacchus (the god of wine) from the Italian Royal Palace in Turin. Most spectacular, however, are the 20,000 square feet of cathedral-esque caves replete with groin vaulting, side "chapels," and statues depicting Bacchus/Dionysus, Ganymede (cupbearer of the Olympian gods), and Pegasus. The caves also hold a vast array of drinking vessels, from 12th century Japanese cups to ancient Roman amphorae.
Sterling Vineyards (1111 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga; 800/726-6136; daily 10.30am-4.30pm; $15, weekends and holidays $20, under 21 $10; www.sterlingvineyards.com). Some people love this state-of-the-art winery solely for its acessobility by tram, which offers thrilling views along the way. The self-guided tour is first-rate, but most impressive is the Portfolio of Wine Art & History, with more than 1,000 artifacts amassed over a 35-year period, from early vineyard tools to Georgian silver drinking vessels, Venetian glassware, and porcelain figurines depicting the harvest or Bacchanalian myths. The print collection alone spans 500 years from illuminated woodcuts to lithographs and each piece was inspired by some aspect of wine – expect works by such famous names as Daddi, van Leyden, Picasso, Renoir, and Matisse. It is one of the world's most comprehensive specialized collections and a must for anyone who is interested in art and wine.
Schramsberg Vineyards (www.schramsberg.com)
There are activities aplenty in Napa, many are food-and wine-oriented of course, but there is much more to do in the region once your stomach is full of food and drink. The area's natural beauty means a wealth of opportunities for hiking and biking in the outdoors, while the local culture lends itself to enjoying the arts. When you're looking to kick back, there are several area spas and spa resorts that offer everything you need to pamper yourself. Golf enthusiasts will delight in the reasonable greens fees and stunning beauty of area courses, some of which wind their way through vineyards.
Arts and Culture
Be sure to check out the exquisitely restored 1879 Napa Valley Opera House (www.nvoh.org) for film programs, provocative lectures, leading jazz musicians, stand-up comedians, and theater. Art connoisseurs will appreciate the collection of work by Bay Area artists at di Rosa Preserve (5200 Carneros Hwy., just north of Napa; 707/226-5991; Gatehouse Gallery is open year-round, Tues-Sun 9:30am-3pm; tours $10-$15; www.dirosapreserve.org) which showcases art in all forms among three galleries and an outdoor sculpture meadow. The entire property is surrounded by vineyards, offering visitors the opportunity not only to enjoy the exceptional art collection, but to do it in a spectacular natural setting. The Tannery (110 South Coombs, Napa; Gordon Huether Studio X; 707/255-5954, www.gordonhuether.com) is a converted early 1920s leather tannery where established artists of every medium collaborate and inspire each other's work. Ira Wolk Gallery (1354 Main St., St. Helena; 707/-963-8800; www.iwolkgallery.com) showcases national artists from emerging to established, working in various styles. At Jessel Gallery (1019 Atlas Peak Rd., Napa; 707/257-2350; www.jesselgallery.com), poet/painter Jessel Miller showcases her works in a tranquil historic 10,000-square-foot stone building nestled amid lavish gardens. Lee Youngman Galleries (1316 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 707/942-0585; www.leeyoungmangalleries.com) hangs accomplished works by top artists, with a special emphasis on arresting Western landscapes. Ca' Toga Galeria d'Arte and Villa (3061 Myrtledale Rd., Calistoga; 707-942-3900; tours every Saturday May-October at 11am; www.catoga.com) features the works of Venetian artist Carlo Marchiori, who created murals and frescoes for the opulent Vegas retreat, Bellagio, and Singapore's venerable Raffles Hotel – the gallery itself is also a work of art.
Deluxe treatments are readily available at many of the area's spas – Auberge du Soleil, Meadowood, Carneros Inn, and Silverado (though you must be a hotel guest) are all highly recommended. But Calistoga's homier, less expensive spa-resorts, specializing in thermal treatments and offering pampering without pomp are an excellent value.
Indian Springs (1712 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 707/942-4913; www.indianspringscalistoga.com) offers a classic volcanic mud and ash bath, followed by a restorative soak in a hot mineral water tub, then a eucalyptus-lavender steam prior to cool-down swaddled in soft flannel. Facials are particularly good. Lavender Hill Spa (1015 Foothill Blvd. (29), Calistoga; 707/942-4495, 800/528-4772; www.lavenderhillspa.com) is set in a romantic garden and perfect for couples. Each bath cottage features two cushioned hot tubs, enabling couples (and lovelorn singles) to savor complete privacy. The seaweed and aromatherapy mineral baths are intoxicating and a foot massage is included. The volcanic mud bath utilizes a lighter mud enhanced with mineral salts, indigenous ash, white kelp, and lavender oil.
Chardonnay Golf Club (5 Jamieson Canyon Rd., Napa; 707/257-1900; www.chardonnaygolfclub.com), a 27-hole beauty snaking through 150 acres of Merlot and Chardonnay vineyards, as well as wildlife preserve meadows filigreed with lakes and creeks, offers the opportunity to play any two of three courses (Lakes, Vineyards, Meadows) for $45-80. The par-72 Napa Golf Course at Kennedy Park (2295 Streblow Dr., Napa; 707/255-4333; www.playnapa.com) is another natural habitat, contoured to the Napa River estuary flanked by oaks and redwoods. Greens fees run $38-$54. The 9-hole Vintner's Golf Club (7901 Solano Ave., Yountville; 707/944-1992; www.vintnersgolfclub.com) is similarly affordable ($26-$45 for 18 holes); the Mission-style clubhouse is most comfortable and greens are impeccably maintained.
Hiking and Biking
If you're the type who likes to enjoy nature on your own, there are plenty of outdoor opportunities for you to do just that. Napa abounds in great hiking/biking trails (and wonderful walks alternating Victorian neighborhoods with vineyards). Pratt Avenue in St. Helena from Hwy 29 to the trail and back is a classic country road with beautiful vineyard views. Drive up to Mt. St. Helena in Calistoga's Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, park, and hike to the summit through evergreen stands or take the trailhead on the right to Table Rock for astounding views of the Sierra Nevada and the Pacific. Napa's Skyline Wilderness Park (biking and horseback riding as well) has splendid vistas and a wide variety of flora and fauna for viewing (more than 100 bird species). If you would rather have a guide with you, check out the Napa County Land Trust (707/252-3270; times vary; www.napalandtrust.org). They lead guided hikes throughout the year, usually at locations closed to the public. Napa Valley Bike Tours (707/944-2453, 1-800/707-2453; from $85 half-day, $115 full day; www.napavalleybiketours.com) offers cycling tours with stops at several wineries; they can also craft lodging/dining packages. Another natural attraction worth a visit is the Old Faithful Geyser (1299 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga; 707/942-6463; daily 9am-6pm, 5pm in winter; $8 adults, $3 children 6-12, free under 6; www.oldfaithfulgeyser.com), an acceptable alternative if you've never been to Yellowstone; the geyser spews on a regular schedule (every 45 minutes), one of only three in the world.
Wherever you stay in the Napa Valley, you're only minutes from wineries; Napa, Yountville, and Calistoga offer several fine hotels within walking distance of top shops and restaurants. In midweek, prices drop and everything is less crowded, but early reservations are advisable in high season, no matter what time of the week you plan to visit – and extra-early during the harvest. Most moderate and deluxe properties have concierges who can arrange discounted activities and even free tastings at wineries. Historic inns, luxurious spa and golf resorts, reliable mid-priced chains, charming B&Bs, rustic ranch-style hot springs retreats, basic motels, even stylish boutique properties – whatever your preference, you'll likely find it. To help you choose the right home away from home convenient to attractions, we've outlined our favorites in three price categories.
Among luxury options, the incomparably romantic Auberge du Soleil (180 Rutherford Hill Rd., Rutherford; 707/963-1211; www.aubergedusoleil.com) features dramatic artwork in the remarkable outdoor sculpture garden, set among picture-perfect panoramas of the vine-studded valley below. The spa also takes its cue from the natural surroundings – it utilizes local mud, clays, olive oils, grape extracts and herbs in treatments. Meadowood (900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena; 707/963-3646 or 1-800/458-8080; www.meadowood.com) is another luxury resort with a golf course, a superlative spa, fine dining and gorgeous grounds. The concierge can sometimes help you obtain entrée to the fabled Cult Cab wineries. Carneros Inn (4048 Sonoma Hwy., Napa; 707/299-4900, 888/400-9000; www.thecarnerosinn.com) sits amid 27 acres of seemingly endless rows of vines, unspoiled farmland, and scenic apple orchards. The design takes its cue from the local countryside (barns, silos, ranchers' cottages) combined with stylish, modern interiors (including heated slate floors, Ethernet, and plasma TVs in the vast guest cottages). It features a spa and two excellent restaurants – the gourmet Hilltop restaurant and the more casual Boonfly Café.
In the moderate category, the elegant and boutique-y Napa River Inn (500 Main St., Napa; 707/251-8500; 877/251-8500; www.napariverinn.com), a member of Historic Hotels of America, occupies three separate structures and offers (in some rooms) canopy beds, fireplaces, tufted lounge chairs, velvet ottomans, and exposed brick walls. The maple floors, crimson and gold accents, claw-foot tubs, and brass fixtures recreate Victorian opulence without stuffiness. The gabled, turreted Napa Old World Inn (1301 Jefferson St., Napa; 707/257-0112, 800/966-6624; www.oldworldinn.com) is a B&B whose owners love to make their guests insiders and make them feel at home with homemade foccacia and tapenade in the afternoon, complimentary winery passes, and an evening assortment of decadent chocolate desserts. Fireplaces and feather mattresses on brass, sleigh, or four-poster beds are a lovely old-fashioned contrast with the modern Wi-Fi and DVD Dolby Digital home theater systems.
For budget lodgings, you can't beat the landmark Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Spring Resort (1507 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 707/942-4102; www.drwilkinson.com), which received a recent facelift but preserves its quirky charm and soothing spa facilities while the El Bonita Motel (195 Hwy 29, St. Helena; 707/963-3216, 800/541-3284; www.elbonita.com) has a cool retro 1950s motor court vibe; rooms are upscale motel and a bit too close to the highway, but the gardens are beautiful and it is in stumbling distance to bars and restaurants.
Napa offers a smorgasbord of dining options, from French and Italian to California/Pacific Rim, often utilizing fresh organic seasonal ingredients. Many top restaurants offer lighter bar menus that give a savory taste of the main event. Several wineries (such as Domaine Carneros) also offer wine bars with delectable small bites. And of course, in addition to the recommendations below, many hotels (Auberge du Soleil – even if you don't stay or eat here, stop by for a sunset drink on the terrace – and Meadowood come to mind) offer exceptional eateries. Advance reservations are a must, especially for weekend dinners. With rare exception, dress is casual, and the locals themselves are down-to-earth (no matter how much they get per ton of Cabernet).
Higher-end restaurants like Thomas Keller's French Laundry (6640 Washington St., Yountville; 707/944-2380; www.frenchlaundry.com) require not only a lot of money, but reservations two months in advance. But the once-in-a-lifetime experience (and nine-course tasting menu of small but perfectly prepared gems) in an intimate French country-style cottage is worth it. Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America (2555 Main St., St. Helena; 707/967-1010; www.ciachef.edu) offers innovative food and expertly paired wine choices with useful explanations in a castle-like, 19th-century edifice surrounded by spectacular terraced gardens. La Toque (1140 Rutherford Rd, Napa; 707/963-9770; www.latoque.com) has a prix fixe menu with masterful wine pairings and exceptional presentation. Terra Restaurant (1345 Railroad Ave., St. Helena; 707/963-8931; www.terrarestaurant.com) fuses Chef Hiro Sone's Asian roots with Mediterranean-style ingredients in a sublimely romantic setting. Dress at the above eateries is generally more formal (long pants and collared shirts for men).
The Napa Valley is teeming with excellent, moderately priced restaurants as well. A table at Bistro Don Giovanni (4110 St. Helena Hwy. (29), Napa; 707/224-3300; www.bistrodongiovanni.com), whether it be next to the wood-burning fireplace or on the romantic outdoor patio, offers an wonderful epicurean experience. Bistro Jeanty (6510 Washington St., Yountville; 707/944-0103; www.bistrojeanty.com) has classic French cuisine (think steak frites and coq au vin) at reasonable prices. Bouchon (6534 Washington St., Yountville; 707/944-8037; www.bouchonbistro.com) may be the best bet for those who couldn't get a reservation at French Laundry – it too is supervised by the famed Thomas Keller. If you are looking to get back to dining basics, Cole's Chop House (1122 Main St., Napa; 707/224-6328; www.coleschophouse.com) is a classic, clubby steakhouse. Hurley's (518 Washington St., Yountville; 707/944-2345; www.hurleysrestaurant.com) serves fresh seasonal California fare with Mediterranean flair (Marrakesh to Milan) in a casual, unpretentious space – pick from the lively bar or lovely patio. For the quintessential wine country dining experience, head to Mustards (7399 Saint Helena Hwy (29), Yountville; 707/944-2424; www.mustardsgrill.com). After two decades, it still exudes cozy warmth and offers a comprehensive wine list – more than 400 labels.
The budget restaurants in the area offer an excellent value – and then of course there is always the option for a picnic, practically a rite of passage for every Napa valley visitor. To stock up before you go on yours, the Oakville Grocery (7856 St. Helena Hwy.; 707/944-8802) offers a splendid assortment of wines, cheeses, charcuterie, fresh-baked breads, pastries, and more. Bouchon Bakery (6534 Washington St., Yountville; 707/944-8037; www.bouchonbistro.com) next door to Bouchon offers high-end, scrumptious picnic fare. For a sit-down event, The Bounty Hunter (First St. off Main, Napa; 707/255-0622; www.bountyhunterwine.com) offers 40 wines by the glass and American bistro fare. Gordon's (6770 Washington St., Yountville; 707/944-8246) is an ultra-casual locals' hangout with hearty breakfasts and lunches utilizing fresh local organic produce plus reasonably priced selections by the glass. If you need a family-friendly establishment, the cozy, noisy, and always-packed Rutherford Grill (1180 Rutherford Rd., Rutherford; 707/963-1792) offers great pub food and a casual setting. Taylor's Refresher (933 Main St., St. Helena; 707/963-3486; www.taylorsrefresher.com) is a diner that has won the culinary world's highest honor – the James Beard Award. Pair a $100 bottle of Cabernet with your burger? Why not – the locals do it all the time. Or try the sublime milkshakes. For small bites, try ZuZu (829 Main St., Napa; 707/224-8555; www.zuzunapa.com), a lively tapas restaurant with a great bar.
Napa offers a rich bounty of not only wines and foodstuffs, but antiques, crafts, and clothing from couture to cutting-edge funk. Shopaholic alert: Napa Premium Outlets (629 Factory Stores Drive, Napa; 707/226-9876; www.premiumoutlets.com) has 50 discount havens from Calvin Klein to Coach and Barneys to Banana Republic. Of course, most of your shopping will likely be at wineries with the goal of stocking your wine cellar, but when you're ready to stock your pantry, we have a few suggestions. Chocoholics should check out the daily tastings at Anette's Chocolate Factory (1321 First St., Napa; 707/252-4228, www.anettes.com) for their fix – chocolates are crafted from 50-year-old recipes and the result is sinfully scintillating truffles, fudges, caramels, chocolate wine sauces, and more. Olives and wine seem to go together (many wineries craft artisan oils); St. Helena Olive Oil Company (8576 St. Helena Hwy., St. Helena; 707/967-1003; www.sholiveoil.com) bottles everything by hand with no artificial additives including marinades, grilling sauces, tapenade, balsamic vinegars (cranberry or blueberry anyone?), and flavored oils.
But for foodies, the absolute, must-visit destination is COPIA (500 First St., Napa; 707/259-1600, Wed-Mon 10am-5pm; $5 adults, $4 students & seniors, children under 12 free; www.copia.org). Part museum, part restaurant, part classroom, part gardens, the "American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts" is a feast for the senses. Take classes on landscaping, pumpkin carving, or wine pairing, or dine at the superb onsite organic restaurant, Julia's Kitchen, a tribute to Julia Child. It houses the 2,500-square-foot retail store Cornucopia (500 First St., Napa; 707/265-5810; www.copia.org) which sells private label wines, has an astonishing gourmet food section, extraordinary kitchenware collections, and much more – an absolute must-visit for anyone with even a mild interest in food, cooking, and wine.
When To Go
High season runs roughly from April through October, with harvest, aka "crush season," (early September to mid-October) luring the other kind of crush. Hotels are priciest and reservations are often made a year in advance and top restaurants are booked for weeks ahead. May ushers in Taste3 (www.taste3.com), a gathering of some of the world's most dynamic professionals in wine, food, and the arts for lectures, panels, mini-seminars and of course, sumptuous meals devised by famed chefs and sommeliers. The season really gets going with early June's Napa Valley Auction (www.napavintners.com), the world's largest wine charity event with proceeds benefiting area charities. Early July ushers in the Napa County Fair (www.napacountyfairgrounds.com) and the Home Winemakers Classic (www.homewine.com). The Robert Mondavi Summer Festival (www.robertmondavi.com) is a series of open-air concerts in July and August luring the likes of New Orleans' Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Cesaria Evora, Buena Vista Social Club, and Dan Fogelberg. The Napa Sonoma Wine Country Film Festival (www.winecountryfilmfest.com) stretches over four weekends in July and August. Many of the nearly 200 entries are screened al fresco at wineries. The Napa Valley Chamber Music Festival/Music in the Vineyards (www.napavalleymusic.org) resounds through August at various locations. Harvest season sees dozens of smaller festivals and daily events.
Low season runs from November through March. Room rates (with the exception of Valentine's Day and Presidents' Weekend) are usually drastically reduced. The popular Carols in the Caves (www.carolsinthecaves.com) is an inspiring performance of Christmas and seasonal music in the Valley's wine caves on November and December weekends. Best bang for your buck is late October through Thanksgiving and late February through March, when temperatures are usually in the 50s and 60s. Fewer people visit and winemakers often have time to explain their process and philosophy personally. Autumn sees the brilliant contrast of vineyards against the changing leaves. The Mustard Festival (www.mustardfestival.org) enlivens February and March celebrating the vibrant yellow cover crop (helping prevent soil erosion) with a full menu of tastings, cookoffs, concerts, and other cultural activities staged at several wineries and restaurants.
The height of high season is during the crush/harvest, roughly mid-September to late October. Low season runs November through March, with late October through Turkey Day and March providing the best bang for your buck.
There are three area airports that represent every major domestic airline and several discounters.
San Francisco International Airport (www.sfoairport.com) provides hundreds of daily flights with nonstop or direct service on low-cost carriers like AirTran (www.airtran.com) and Spirit (www.spiritair.com), as well as American (www.aa.com), United (www.united.com), Continental (www.continental.com), US Airways (www.usairways.com), Northwest (www.nwa.com), and Delta (www.delta.com) to more than 50 destinations. The airport is 45-60 minutes from Napa by car.
Oakland International Airport (www.flyoakland.com) is another option, offering less possibility of being fogged in and slightly less traffic. A dozen airlines, including JetBlue (www.jetblue.com), Southwest (www.southwest.com), ATA (www.ata.com), American (www.aa.com), United (www.united.com), Delta (www.delta.com), US Airways (www.usairways.com), and Alaska/Horizon (www.alaskaair.com) fly here daily from 50 cities. It's roughly an hour to Napa.
Sacramento International Airport (www.sacairports.org) is less well-known, but often features lower fares and eliminates bridge tolls along the 75-minute drive. Another dozen airlines service it daily, including JetBlue (www.jetblue.com), Alaska (www.alaskaair), United (www.united.com), Southwest (www.southwest.com), Frontier (www.frontierairlines.com), US Airways (www.usairways.com), and American (www.aa.com).
You can also arrive by train: Amtrak (800/USA-RAIL; www.amtrak.com) provides service between Chicago and Oakland on the California Zephyr.
Once here, we recommend booking the best rental car rate for ultimate savings and flexibility to explore (designate a sober driver). Major airport rental car agencies include Avis (800/984-8840; www.avis.com), Dollar (800/800-4000; www.dollarcar.com) and Thrifty (800/FOR-CARS; www.thrifty.com). Budget (800/527-0700; www.budget.com), Hertz (800/654-3131; www.hertz.com) and Enterprise (800/261-7331; www.enterprise.com) also have downtown Napa branches.
GETTING INTO & AROUND NAPA
Evans Transportation (707/255-1559, 800/294-6386; www.evasntransportation.com) offers an Airporter and Premier Bus Shuttles several times daily to/from SFO and OAK. The fee to their Napa terminal is $29 one-way. Some hotels will pick you up there.
Napa County Transportation Authority/VINE (707/255-7631; 7am-7pm; www.nctpa.net) runs a free Napa downtown shuttle every 45 minutes. There are also free Yountville and St. Helena shuttles and an on-demand Calistoga HandyVan for seniors and the physically challenged as well as regular bus routes (schedules vary depending on route, usually 6am-6pm; $1-$2.50 depending on the zone, with an unlimited ride $6 day pass).