SO YOU WANT TO GO TO NAPA?
Today there are thousands of wineries in the US that offer wine tasting in dozens of different wine regions. Even Alaska has wineries now. However, the place that started it all is Napa. Located within easy driving distance of San Francisco, every wine drinker should make a pilgrimage here at some point. Napa is home to the majority of grocery store brands: Mondavi, Fetzer, Charles Shaw, but it also home to scores of smaller independent wine makers. Wine made in Napa runs the gamut from cheap swill to high end award wining wines. It’s hard to figure out where to go and how to get there. I’ve been to Napa multiple times with newbies and after several trips have perfected an itinerary which takes you to places that have good wine but also have beautiful estates to give you the full Napa experience. Follow this trip, and I guarantee you will enjoy your time.
For starters, when people are considering a trip to Napa, inevitably the question of the wine train comes up. Don’t go on this train. You drink on the train, see minimal places and miss the back roads and off the beaten path places that make Napa interesting. If you want to drink on a train, buy a bottle and ride the Amtrak. Enough said. But that leaves the question of driving. Ideally you may have one person in your group who doesn’t like wine and/or volunteers to be the designated driver. Otherwise, I HIGHLY recommend hiring a driver for the day. There are a lot of companies who do this in Napa and depending on the size of your group, it’s well worth the expense. Otherwise, one person will feel left out and by the end of the day, no one should be driving regardless of attempts to “only try a sip here and there.” Here are some places to start your research for a driver in Napa:
WHERE TO STAY
Now that you have a driver lined up, where to stay? Napa is notoriously expensive for hotels but if you want to splurge, this is the place to do it. If you are looking for more economical options, you need to stay outside of the valley itself. I recommend the Double Tree in American Canyon which regularly has rooms at around $100-$125/night. For the lower budget hotels, Fairfield has Comfort Inn and Best Western where you can easily stay for less than $100/night. The added bonus of staying in Fairfield is that you are minutes from the Jelly Belly factory which offers free tours daily of the jelly bean factory. It makes for a fun excursion the day after tasting. Now the catch with staying in either American Canyon or Fairfield is that you are a good 30 minutes from Napa so you will probably want to plan to meet your driver in Yountville or another location. At the end of the day, you can have dinner before driving back to your hotel.
WHAT TO DO
Now to the most important part: going to Napa! Below is an itinerary that I have followed myself several times and always had fun. Salut!
STOP 1: Breakfast at Bouchon Bakery
This is Thomas Keller’s take on a French boulangerie. If that name and boulangerie mean nothing to you, no matter, just go, you’ll like it, trust me. Croissants, breads, desserts, coffees, it’s a perfect start to the day. BE WARNED: the line can be long (30 minutes or more). Wait. It will be worth it. The earlier you get there, the shorter the line (or on weekdays, no line at all). They open at 7:00am. Get there early and enjoy your breakfast while strolling through quaint Yountville. It’s so charming; last time I was there, they had fresh rose petals in the public fountains. Allow 1 hour.
STOP 2: Frog’s Leap
Ready for some wine? Let’s start tasting! This stop will require some advance planning! Frog’s Leap is a beautiful country like estate with grande verandas, rocking chairs, and a working farm. It’s also comparatively small. As such, reservations are needed for tastings. You can make the reservations online as well as schedule a tour. If you are interested in taking a wine tour during your visit, this is a great place to do so as it is a smaller operation. There are many things I like about Frog’s Leap but perhaps the best is that after your tasting, they encourage you to have some more wine, explore their grounds, and relax. They will not ask you to leave nor will you ever feel hurried here. In fact, every time I’ve been here, we end up staying long after our tasting is over. Allow minimum 2 hours.
STOP 3: Grape Stomping at Grgich Hills
Depending what time you got started and how long you spent at Frog’s Leap, you may want to go straight to stop 4 for lunch. If not, a stop at Grgich Hills is worth the time. A typical tasting room, what you really want to sample is their Chardonnay. As they will gladly tell you, their owner was the winemaker who oversaw the Chardonnay that beat out the French wines in the 1976 blind tasting in Paris. It’s great stuff and reasonably priced for the quality. What is also great about Grgich Hills is that in the fall during crush season, they do grape stomping a la “I Love Lucy.” Although kitschy and touristy, there is no denying that it’s still fun. Plus, once you have stomped the grapes, you step out on to a clean white T shirt which becomes your souvenir to take home. This is the only place that I have ever seen (in Napa or elsewhere) that does grape stomping.
STOP 4: Picnic lunch at V. Sattui
V. Sattui is an Italian style winery with a full Italian deli and store. The crowds here on the weekends can get pretty heavy so an alternative is to stop by en route or coming from Bouchon in the morning and make your food purchases in advance, stick them in a cooler in your trunk, and return here at lunch time to eat. Picnicking in Napa is tightly regulated, which sounds ridiculous, but is true. As such, there are limited places that have permits to allow picnicking on their grounds. V. Sattui is probably the most popular one because they have the full service deli and market on site. On many weekends they have grills set up and they serve an array of BBQ items. They have many picnic tables but if you bring your own blanket, you can save yourself the trouble of looking for a seat. When you are inside, don’t forget to buy sets of disposable plates and cups (they are packaged in sets for two) and if you want to buy a bottle of their wine, they’ll open it for your to enjoy with your meal. On the weekdays, the crowds are considerably less and if you have time, they have a brief cellar tour that takes you to their underground barrel room, which is an uncommon site in Napa. They also sell local grape juice bottled in wine bottles here which makes a great souvenir for kids and non-drinkers back home.
STOP 5: Hall Winery
Reservations are recommended, but not required at this stop of the trip. Hall Winery is complete opposite of Frog’s Leap so makes a nice juxtaposition and shows a different side of Napa. Owned by a wealthy Texas couple, the winery and grounds are littered with modern art sculptures and installations. A trip here is like visiting a small art museum. When the Halls bought this winery, they poured a ton of money into it, hired great people to operate it, and then stood back and let the experts run the show. The result is some of the best wine in the valley. With bottles consistently scoring over 90 points on the various wine rankings, the wine is consistently excellent. Their showstoppers are their reds and are priced accordingly but they also make a solid affordable Sauvignon Blanc. Depending on your budget, you may find that to stock up on wine from here to be a bit excessive but all the more reason to come and taste. One of my favorite things about tasting is trying wines that I would not ordinarily purchase for myself. Even if you don’t buy it, it’s good to know what higher end wines taste like.
STOP 6: Explore Downtown Napa
If you still have time and want to visit another winery, ask the tasting staff at any winery what their favorite winery is. This is how I have discovered all of these wineries, by asking. Guide books and pamphlets tell you who paid for advertising but by word of mouth you find out who put the dollars into the wine and is producing good stuff.
But if you have had enough of wine for the day, wander around Downtown Napa. There are lots of unique food, clothing, and wine shops here worth a visit and it’s a nice way to end the day. Once you have had enough of wandering, it’s time for dinner. There are plenty of amazing options in Napa and you can spend a lot of money eating dinner here. Below are some of my favorite spots; keep in mind on the weekends, it is always best to make reservations. After dinner, if you’ve done your day right, you can head back to your hotel with great memories of a wine filled day in Napa.
Goose & Gander Be sure to the visit the downstairs bar and order one of their creative herb infused drinks
Mustards Grill This restaurant has been in the valley for over 30 years and is a locals’ favorite.
The Conservatory at Greystone This is the practice kitchen for students of the Culinary Institute of America who are studying farm-to-table preparations.