Nestling into Napa
When it comes to wine regions to travel in America, Napa is king. What wine lover wouldn’t love an extended weekend of driving the winding roads alongside a sea of vineyards that stretch for miles, and sipping through an array of red, white, sparkling and rosé wines before relaxing at a vineyard spa.
While it’s true that you can have that idyllic experience, you better have your ducks in a row before you go. I’ve heard too many horror stories about romantic weekend escapes or girlfriend getaways that end in let-down expectations. The griping usually begins with complaints about driving from one winery to another in Highway 29 tourist traffic.
Having trekked Napa a few times, I’ve received a fair amount of requests on how to navigate this beautiful wine region. So, I’ve come up with a few standby tips that are key to unlocking the best of Napa.
While most major cities have a variety of transit options, your two main choices in Napa are to hire a limousine or van service—which can be expensive—or rent a car. Some of the roads can be a little tight and curvy to some of the boutique wineries, so a car is a little easier. (Just be sure someone is a designated driver.)
Know the landscape
First-time visitors to Napa should understand the region is one long, linear strip of geography that runs north along Highway 29 from Carneros to Calistoga. It takes at least an hour to traverse the length of it—with no traffic.
Your best bet is to look at a map and plan your winery visits at the north or south end of the map based on where you want to end up at the end of the day. Otherwise, you’ll spend most of your time in the car passing miles and miles of vineyards without actually tasting any wine.
I like to start the day with a little bubbly. Domaine Carneros is a beautiful sparkling wine house owned by the French Champagne producer Taittinger, located on the southern end of Napa in the Carneros AVA.
Be ready to buy
While you’re likely to spend anywhere from $25 to upwards of $60 for a tasting, keep in mind that all Napa wineries are in business to do one thing: sell wine. When you have an appointment to take someone’s time to explain their wines, you need to be prepared to buy their wine. Particularly at the smaller wineries. That said, if you've paid a tasting fee at a larger tasting room and don't like the wines, you don't have to feel obligated to buy wine.
This is another reason why it’s good to do your research. Ask friends, restaurant sommeliers and wine merchants for an idea of some wineries that they would suggest for you based on the types of wine you like. Then you’ll know how to organize your time, and your wallet.
A simple rule of thumb: The longer someone spends with you for a one-on-one experience correlates to the amount of wine you buy. (Note: Signing up for a winery mailing list doesn't count.)
Stay where you play
After a long day of wine tasting, the last thing you want to do is cram into a car and take a long drive to your end destination. As previously mentioned, it definitely helps to plan your wineries around the places where you intend to end up. And finding the right accommodations are key.
Try not to stay anywhere south of the town of Napa. It’s really better to stick to accommodations in the small towns along the way such as St. Helena, Yountville or Calistoga. Perhaps the most memorable experiences are at small inns and bed and breakfasts where you can expect a more personal touch from area locals.
Some of my top picks were suggestions from those who know Napa best: the wineries.
“I love to send folks to Milliken Creek Inn. I know it’s the best of all things luxurious with beautiful gardens and outdoor design. Being a Texan, I know it’s fun to stay where we can enjoy the fantastic California cool mornings and evenings while meeting others.”
— Alison Smith Story, Smith Story Wine Cellars
"Lavender B&B is the main place I recommend to guests at our winery and to friends visiting from out of town. Everyone we’ve sent there has always given great feedback.”
— Kelsey Hertig, Director of Special Events and Wine Club, Vineyard 29
— Laurence Schlatter, Proprietor of Merryvale Vineyards
“We love to send people to the Inn at First, Beazley House, and the Blackbird Inn. But my personal first choice is Oak Knoll Inn. This is what makes them special: their location in the middle of a vineyard with very few neighbors; their small size with only four guest rooms; their breakfasts are to die for; the staff creates fantastic, customized wine tasting appointments – and they really know their stuff; every evening at 6 p.m. they offer a large hors d’ oeuvre tray and invite wineries to pour their wines, tell stories, tell lies, and generally have a good time. They are hands-down the best B&B in Napa Valley.”
— Michael Trujillo, Director of Winemaking and President, Sequoia Grove Winery
— Aaron Feaver, Director of Retail Operations, Frank Family Vineyards
When to go
Planning exactly when to go to Napa is as important as planning out the wineries you visit. While it’s exciting to see the wine country during harvest season, when clusters of grapes are hanging from the vine (usually late July through most of the fall.), this is perhaps the most stressful time for grape growers, winemakers and vineyards managers. They are often sleep deprived and otherwise focused on the grapes they need to make wine, not the overall customer experience.
If you want a nice, relaxed experience with your appointment hosts, try the late spring. The vineyards are just as beautiful, particularly when the vines have started to flower. Though you won’t see many grapes, you’re much more likely to get a laid back, less stressful host.
And one last thing, leave yourself enough time to relax and enjoy the wineries you visit. Trust me when I say you’ll likely be doing a lot of driving. If you stick to three wineries a day with a fun lunch and dinner stop along the way, you won’t regret it.