It’s no secret that Napa is the land of wine. Vineyards stretch on for miles and every town boasts exciting cuisine and local shops. Whether you’re a first time taster or a veteran oenophile, there always seems to be too much to do and too little time in which to do it. Here are some tips to get you started.
The Wine Roads:
Napa has two main wine roads. Route 29, also known as the St. Helena Highway, runs along the western edge of the valley and is often the default path for any first time visitor. Some of the biggest names in the business, such as Mondavi, Beringer, and Sutter Home, have their wineries here, and this side of the valley is by far the more popular. However, don’t let the thought of crowds deter you, since many of these wineries cater specifically to the informal taster. Mondavi, for instance, offers a 3 hour tour (by reservation only) that will educate your palate and amaze you with the complexities involved in operating a national brand winery.
By contrast, the Silverado Trail is windier and sleepier than Route 29. It snakes up the eastern edge of the county all the way from Napa to Calistoga. The Silverado Trail provides access to wineries in the Stag’s Leap region, including Stag’s Leap Winery, which was instrumental in developing Napa County into a world-renowned wine center.
Connecting Route 29 with the Silverado Trail are several cross roads bisecting the valley floor. Napa valley narrows as you move north, but don’t think of the cross roads as barriers to the other side, as each is dotted with wineries, and could standalone as a full day’s tasting.
Downtown Napa is often the first stop for enthusiasts on their way up the valley. With too many restaurants and tasting rooms to list, Napa excels at concentrated fun. You can park and spend the day walking around the historic town, shopping for antiques, and, of course, tasting wine. With more tasting rooms than wineries, it’s easier to feel the pull of the vineyards a few miles away, but remember: tasting rooms are often operated by local wineries that are less accessible.
Don’t Miss: City Nights. Every Friday June-September, Veterans Memorial Park Ampitheater. Every Friday free music transforms downtown Napa into one giant block party.
Rutherford is home to such wineries as St. Supery, Alpha Omega, Frog’s Leap, and Beaulieu. Rutherford is also home to the Rubicon Estate, Francis Ford Coppola’s family winery. The chateau includes a museum of wine and film.
Don’t Miss: Mumm Napa. Located on the eastern side of the valley along the Silverado Trail, Mumm is the best place to go for champagne. Instead of the common standing-counter, sit at one of their tables overlooking the vineyards.
Yountville is home to the infamous French Laundry. This elegant Michelin 3-star restaurant consistently books up months in advance, especially during the summer. Yountville is also home to three other Michelin-rated establishments: Bouchon, Richard Reddington’s Redd, and Etoile.
Don’t Miss: Pastries and fresh bread at Bouchon Bakery, right outside the Bouchon restaurant.
St Helena is probably the most famous of Napa towns, and the best place to stay overnight. Route 29 slows to a crawl as it passes through the bustling main street. There are numerous galleries, high quality restaurants, and romantic B&Bs, all within walking distance, which comes in handy after a day trying those tannins.
Don’t Miss: The farmer’s market, every Friday, May through October, 7:30am-12noon. Not exactly a local secret, but the market holds some of the best, freshest produce you’ve ever tasted.
Calistoga sits at the northern tip of Napa County. Calistoga wine first became famous when Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay won first prize at the 1976 Judgement of Paris, putting Napa wine on the world map. Despite its fame, Calistoga was not recognized as a distinct growing region until December of 2009. If you need a break from wine, grab a fresh cup of coffee at Yo El Rey, which offers fair trade coffee freshly roasted in-house, or relax at any of the spas in town: Calistoga is home to a wonderful system of natural hot springs, and many spas offer attractive packages for any budget.
Don’t Miss: Yo El Rey, an organic, fair trade coffee shop in the center of town. They roast their beans in-house, in the center of the room.
Between the wine, galleries, spas, restaurants, and local events, there’s more than enough to fill a long weekend. Also, keep in mind that the Napa’s main towns and roads are really just a starting point. Many of Napa’s best wineries are boutique gems you can’t find in your local wine shop, and are just a mile or two off the beaten path. Check out the Preiser Key to Napa Valley for an exhaustive list of the counties wineries and their tasting policies. While many of the wineries hold regular, drop-in tasting hours (10-5 is the standard), many more are by appointment only. Plan ahead, and you won’t be disappointed.