Theater lovers flock to New York. Adventure buffs get their thrills in the canyons of Utah and Arizona. For oenophiles-devoted wine lovers-California’s Napa Valley is the holy grail. Just an hour north of San Francisco, the rolling vine-cloaked hills are home to about 400 wineries, from the smallest boutique enterprise where you might meet the winemaker in person, to giants such as Mondavi and Laird Family Estate.
While you might be perfectly content to sip wine all day, the Napa Valley offers plenty in addition to vine-its revitalized downtown, featuring the likes of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, along with 20 new tasting rooms and wine bars. The development of “restaurant row” along Main Street has brought an unprecedented level of downtown food focus and made the town a hot new destination for the wine-and-food obsessed. From Napa, the valley stretches 30 miles to Calistoga in the north, a destination known for its hot springs.
WINE TASTING AND TOURING
To get the most out of your visit, travel the Silverado Trail-a route that winds along the edges of Napa Valley.
“It’s very rural; sweeping views and no billboards,” says Stephanie Trotter-Zacharia of Casa Nuestra Winery. “It’s going beyond the storefront, back into the hills and seeing where it’s really made.”
Chardonnay and cabernet grapes are the most popular varietals in the region, although merlot, pinot noir, here, as well as a few sparkling wines. Tasting fees can be steep-up to $50 per person, depending on the winery. Some will waive the tasting fee with a purchase, but others won’t. Tipping in the tasting rooms is not expected, and many wineries offer tours. Many are family-friendly, though some require all visitors to be 21 years or older, so check ahead of time if you have children with you.
Vineyards come in all sizes and styles, and there is some unusual architecture to be found. Castello di Amorosa is a magnificent Tuscan-style castle, and at the organic Quixote Winery, you will find a surprisingly surreal, antimodernist chateau that is the only North American building ever designed by famed Viennese architect Frederick Hundertwasser. Traditionally, Old World wine cellars were actually caves, and Napa offers those as well. Schramsberg Vineyards offers educational tours through their 120-year-old caves five times a day, demonstrating the classic method of winemaking. You can even have a candlelight tasting by appointment.
“Napa is known for its unique tasting rooms, from ostentatious to functional and everything in between,” says Jody Ness, host of the Wine Portfolio television series. “But perhaps no experience is more decadent than an afternoon at Darioush’s uber-luxurious winery and tasting room.”
Ness also recommends Cakebread Cellars, one of California’s most established names.
“The family-owned winery makes wines of classic Napa distinction, with a perfect example of Napa chardonnay,” she says.
Plan your itinerary so that you don’t spend all day driving back and forth, and keep a cooler with ice packs in the car for wine. You can also hop on the Wine Train, an antique passenger railway spanning between Napa and St. Helena with breathtaking panoramas. The round-trip journey takes three hours and offers several stops and winery tours, as well as gourmet dining on the historic railway cars, with packages from $89 to $189 per person.
BEYOND THE VINE
Another great way to explore vineyards and Napa Valley sites is by bicycle. Recent visitors to Napa Valley, Brian and Pauline Landrigan rented bikes from the Calistoga Bike Shop, which also provided a wine-tasting route that stretched more than 20 miles through mostly flat terrain and included half a dozen wineries.
“It was great to get several miles of bike riding in, then listen to one of the local smaller wineries explain what they do, sample some wine and then hop back on the bike,” Brian Landrigan says. The shop even provided pickup service for the wine purchased.
“When you return from your ride, they go out to the wineries and bring back the wines you have bought. If you like wine and bike riding, we highly recommend this,” he added.
Along with the wine, culinary exploration is an important part of the Napa Valley experience. Many vineyards offer tasting dinners, gastronomy tours and even cooking classes. Napa, St. Helena and Calistoga all have terrific farmers markets, and there could hardly be a more perfect place to enjoy a picnic with a bottle of local wine.
Napa’s new food-truck craze has brought scores of gourmet trailer eateries to the area offering good picnic and budget options.
Perhaps the most romantic way to see the Napa Valley and enjoy its wine is by hot air balloon. In fact, hundreds of marriage proposals are made this way each year, and many folks even get married up in the air.
Ken Custis, a pilot with Napa Valley Balloons, says, “I enjoy sharing our sunrises, pointing out wineries and historical sites, providing a little history of the Napa Valley, and sharing the beauty of the Napa Valley with my passengers.”
WHERE TO STAY
The River Terrace Inn is in the heart of revitalized downtown Napa, nestled along the Napa River Trail and Oxbow Park Preserve. Boutique accommodations, an art gallery, luxurious spa and fantastic dining options offer modern elegance with laid-back California charm. Restaurant Cuvée’s locavore menu is solely dictated by regional availability and ripeness, and is offered alongside an award-winning local wine list.
Breakfast on the patio by the river, and being within walking distance of the hip downtown district. 1600 Soscol Ave., 866-NAPA-FUN, riverterraceinn.com
PLAN YOUR VISIT
- Info and calendar : napavalley.com
- Silverado Wine Trail: silveradotrail.com
- Napa Valley Wine Train: winetrain.com
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TOP WINE PICKS
- Jody Ness: Silverado Vineyards Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
- Brian Landrigan: Franciscan Magnificat
- Austin Woman insider: Chappellet Winery, 2005 Cabernet Franc