Napa Valley Vacation Guide
Grapes have been growing in Napa County since long before there were vintners, but the Native Americans who first called the area home never did figure out how to bottle the good stuff for mass distribution. That began in the 1830s in what is today known as the town of Yountville, around which some 400 wineries eventually sprang up. They flourish from the city of Napa north to the town of Calistoga, comprising one of the world’s best-known regions for lovers of Chardonnay and Cabernet, and as well as other varietals that grow in its “microclimates,” including Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc.
There is one city, Napa, plus the three main towns of St. Helena, Yountville, and Calistoga in Napa County. There are smaller towns along the county’s length, too, including Rutherford and Oakville, but most visitors look to the city or the bigger towns for accommodations, dining options, and transportation access.
Note that north of Yountville, Route 29 changes from a freeway into a two-way highway — one jam-packed with tourist traffic during the high season every summer. Getting around can be a challenge to your patience, but luckily, cars are not your only option for seeing the Napa Valley sights.
The city of Napa is at the base of the county, the first major hub you’ll encounter if you’re coming north from San Francisco. It is home to bed and breakfasts, inns, full-scale resorts — pretty much any type (and price range) of accommodations you might require. There are also a good number of restaurants, spas, and antiques shops, plus three separate golf courses, some of which have on-site condominiums with kitchens. The city of Napa is also where the Napa Wine Train starts and ends its round-trip tours of the county.
Napa County’s only city also goes by the name of Napa, but the city is not where most of the wineries are located. They’re to the north, many along Route 29 as it passes through the towns of Yountville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga. A good number of wineries are off this main route to the east and west, but you can certainly follow the main route to enough wineries to fill a week’s worth of tasting time, including some well-known operations such as Robert Mondavi.
One of the most popular stops in downtown Napa is COPIA: the American Center for Food, Wine, and the Arts. It’s a nonprofit center that explores wine, its relationship to food, and its significance in culture. There are wine tastings, courses in food and wine pairings, garden tours, and food classes that discuss everything from different kinds of tomatoes to Thanksgiving vegetable recipes. The on-site restaurant, Julia’s Kitchen, is inspired by famous chef Julia Child and prepares meals infused with ingredients from the COPIA gardens. Learn more about all that COPIA offers at copia.org.
In downtown Napa you might also want to enjoy a show at the Napa Valley Opera House, shop for specialty foods at NapaStyle, and rummage for collectibles at the half-dozen antiques stores. For a complete listing of all the local shops, places to stay, restaurants to sample, and more, go to napavalley.com.
St. Helena, a town of about 6,000 people, is located in the northern part of Napa County, between Calistoga to the north and Yountville to the south. The best-known winery near the town is Beringer, which has been producing wine at the same site since the mid-1800s. There also are a half-dozen or so artists’ galleries in town, plus various restaurants, antiques stores, and other quaint shops.
One of the biggest draws is the Greystone campus of the Culinary Institute of America. There, just as at the college’s Upstate New York campus, you can take cooking classes or enjoy a multicourse meal produced and served by the celebrity chefs of tomorrow at the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant on campus. Oftentimes, the menu will include wine pairings that highlight the best of the region’s offerings. Plan in advance — you’ll need to make reservations before you arrive if you want a table. Learn more at ciachef.edu.
Yountville is located between the city of Napa and the town of St. Helena, and it’s home to the Napa Valley Museum, where exhibits focus on everything from fine arts to natural science. One of the permanent exhibits is “California Wine: The Science of an Art,” which gives you an interactive introduction to the process of winemaking. Admission is $4.50 for adults, $2.50 for children between the ages of seven and seventeen, and free for children ages six and younger. The museum is open from 10 A.M. till 5 P.M. every day except Tuesday, when it is closed. Learn more at napavalleymuseum.org.
Also in Yountville, you’ll find the V Marketplace, a festival-style center that houses upscale and gourmet shops, restaurants, a wine-tasting cellar, cobblestone walkways, and gardens designed specifically to entice picnickers. Seasonal events are a big draw here, including the annual April flower showcase, the Father’s Day auto show, and the chamber music festival held in August. For details about stores and upcoming events, go to vmarketplace.com.
Calistoga is the town at the top of Napa County, the northernmost outpost of civilization, if you will, along Route 29. The locals do take their preservation of civilization quite seriously; fast-food franchises are banned in an effort to keep the town much as it has been for nearly two centuries. The town is known for its hot spring spas, more than a half-dozen of which offer mud baths for individuals, couples, and groups. There’s also an Old Faithful Geyser here, not as big as the one in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, but still worth a look if you’re enchanted by the sight of water spewing forth from the earth.
There are only four wineries in Calistoga proper, with most of the Napa Valley vintners located to the town’s south. There is, however, something here that no other Napa town offers: Safari West, a 400-acre wildlife preserve that is home to everything from giraffes to zebras and cheetahs. Open-air Jeep tours are conducted year-round, with prices ranging from $62 for adults to $28 for children between the ages of three and twelve. Details are online at safariwest.com.
Napa Popular Wineries
It’s impossible for anyone to tell you which are the “best” wineries in Napa County, as wine is as much about personal taste as it is about bottling techniques and blends of grapes. Having said that, there are a few brand names you are likely to recognize in Napa, and it’s always fun to visit at least a few of the more popular vintners just so you can tell your friends back home that you stood on the same ground where their grapes are grown. To that end, here’s a look at a handful of wineries whose offerings you’ve likely tried in the past — and whose in-house tastings may surprise you with some options that you can’t find in your local wine shop back home.
The Robert Mondavi Winery is perhaps the best-known in Napa Valley, and it offers a tour that is a good first stop because it includes information about the wine-making process that will help you understand what you sample at additional wineries in the area. The winery is open daily from 10 A.M. until 5 P.M. with the exception of four days each year: Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
There are more than a dozen kinds of tastings and tours here, so even if you don’t care about the wine-making process, you can enjoy a guided or educational tasting that incorporates cheeses, lunches, and dinners. There are even wine-tasting classes that last about two hours and help give you an idea of how to tell one wine from the next.
Located on the Silverado Trail near Yountville in the Stags Leap District is Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, not to be confused with the nearby Stags’ Leap Winery, which is a bit fussier about the apostrophe in its name and keeps its doors closed to visitors. It’s the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars that you want to visit for tours and tastings, with two levels of tastings available daily: $15 for the four wines of the day, or $40 for a sampling of premier estate wines.
You might recall from earlier in this chapter that it was Stag’s Leap that put Napa Valley on the world’s wine map during the 1976 tasting in Paris with a Cabernet Sauvignon that threw the French back on their bouquet-boasting heels. Cabs are still what you’ll find among the reds produced here, along with an occasional merlot. If you’re a white-wine drinker, look to sample Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs.
Beringer, founded in 1876, is the longest continually operating winery in Napa County, located just north of St. Helena on Route 29. You might be surprised to learn that today the winery is owned by a division of the Foster’s Group, best known for its American television commercials that pronounce: “Foster’s. Australian for beer.”
A half-dozen tours are available at Beringer, ranging from a look around the historic grounds to a semi-private tasting in the cellar. Prices range from $10 to $35 per person, and the tours and tastings are available daily from 10 A.M. until 6 P.M. during the high season, or until 5 P.M. during the winter months. The winery is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Don’t call it champagne, that has to come from France. What they make at Domaine Chandon, west of Yountville, is called sparkling wine. You probably know it by the name “Brut” on the gold label.
What you may not know is that the Domaine Chandon winery was the first to open a restaurant in Wine Country, back in 1977. It’s called étoile (no need to uppercase; this is, after all, not the Champagne region), and it offers lunches, dinners, and a seven-course tasting menu that pairs foods with Chandon wines. You’ll find everything from sashimi to veal tenderloin on the tasting menu, and there are two separate tasting options if you want to return for a second day to sample another seven of the vintner’s offerings.
The winery is open daily from 10 A.M. until 6 P.M. except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. The restaurant is open every day except Christmas if you want to sneak in a tasting of your own during dinner. Learn more or make much-recommended dinner reservations at chandon.com.
Lodging and Restaurants in Napa County
There is no shortage of places to stay or eat in Napa County. Here are some suggestions you might want to consider. Each suggestion is marked by one, two, or three dollar signs.
- Best Western Elm House Inn 800 California Boulevard (707) 255-1831 www.bestwestern.com $$
- Chateau Hotel and Conference Center 4195 Solano Avenue (707) 253-9300 www.napavalleychateauhotel.com $$
- Hilton Garden Inn 3585 Solano Avenue (707) 252-0444 www.hiltongardeninn.com $$–$$$
- John Muir Inn 1998 Trower Avenue (707) 257-7220 www.toc.com/johnmuirinn $$
- Napa Valley Marriott Hotel & Spa 3425 Solano Avenue (707) 253-8600 www.marriott.com $$$
- El Bonita Motel 195 Main Street (800) 541-3284 www.elbonita.com $$–$$$
- Harvest Inn 1 Main Street (800) 950-8466 www.harvestinn.com $$$
- The Inn at Southbridge 1020 Main Street (707) 967-9400 www.slh.com $$$
- Napa Valley Lodge 2230 Madison Street (888) 455-2468 www.napavalleylodge.com $$$
- Calistoga Inn 1250 Lincoln Avenue (707) 942-4101 www.calistogainn.com $–$$
- Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort 1507 Lincoln Avenue (707) 942-4102 www.drwilkinson.com $$–$$$
- EuroSpa & Inn 1202 Pine Street (707) 942-6829 www.eurospa.com $$–$$$
- Lodge at Calistoga 1865 Lincoln Avenue (800) 652-5130 www.thelodgeatcalistoga.com $$
- Rancho Caymus Inn 1140 Rutherford Road (800) 845-1777 www.ranchocaymus.com $$$
- Bayleaf Restaurant 2025 Monticello Avenue (707) 257-9720 www.bayleafnapa.com $–$$
- Celadon 500 Main Street (707) 254-9690 www.celadonnapa.com $–$$
- The Grill at Silverado 1600 Atlas Peak Road (707) 257-5400 www.silveradoresort.com $$
- Julia’s Kitchen 500 First Street (707) 265-5700 www.juliaskitchen.org $$
- Piccolino’s Italian Cafe 1385 Napa Town Center (707) 251-0100 www.piccolinoscafe.com $–$$
- Royal Oak at the Silverado Resort 1600 Atlas Peak Road (707) 257-5400 www.silveradoresort.com $$
- Siena at Meritage Resort 875 Bordeaux Way (707) 251-1950 www.themeritageresort.com $$
- Solbar at Solage Calistoga 755 Silverado Trail (707) 226-0800 www.solagecalistoga.com $–$$
- Zinsvalley Restaurant 3253 Browns Valley Road (707) 224-0695 www.zinsvalley.com $–$$
- Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen 327 Railroad Avenue (707) 963-1200 www.cindysbackstreetkitchen.com #36;
- Meadowood Napa Valley 900 Meadowood Lane (707) 963-3646 www.meadowood.com $$$
- Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant 2555 Main Street (707) 967-1010 www.ciachef.edu $$
- Domaine Chandon’s etoile 1 California Drive (707) 944-2892 www.chandon.com $$$
- Bosko’s Trattoria 1364 Lincoln Avenue (707) 942-9088 www.boskos.com $
- Brannan’s Grill 1374 Lincoln Avenue (707) 942-2233 www.brannansgrill.com $–$$