BUT FIRST, A LITTLE BACKGROUND
The first time I visited the California Wine Country was in 2009, right after my 21st birthday. It was on that trip, in the summer of 2009, that I fell in love with Napa. Since then, I have tried to visit Napa Valley yearly, as it is one of the easiest weekend getaway destinations from Los Angeles.
This guide is a curated compilation of my “most favorite” spots to sip, stay, and play in Napa. There is still so much for me to see and discover up there, so by no means is this an exhaustive list. I imagine I will keep adding to it annually (at least I hope!)
HOW THE VALLEY IS LAID OUT
It’s common for travelers to confuse Napa County with Napa the city or Napa as a viticultural area, because so often, the valley itself (sometimes all of the area’s wine country, erroneously) is just referred to as Napa. But in fact, Napa can refer to any of these three things.
The Napa wine growing region — or more specifically, the Napa Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is made up of 16 sub-regions, which you will often see listed on wine labels. Examples of AVAs are Rutherford, Stag’s Leap, and Calistoga. If grapes were grown in a single, specific AVA to make a wine, you’ll see it on the label. At its southwestern most point, the AVA begins in Los Carneros, then flows northward, ending in Calistoga.
I should note that some AVAs are also the names of towns. Examples here include Yountville, St. Helena, Rutherford, and Calistoga. So if you see “Rutherford” listed on a bottle of Cabernet, it’s not necessarily because the wine producer is based in Rutherford the town — but it does mean the grapes in that wine were originally from the Rutherford AVA. Have I lost you yet?
The major towns that most people visit within Napa County all lie along Highway 29, which runs north to south. Driving north out of Napa (the city), you’ll hit Yountville, then Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and finally Calistoga at the northernmost point.
On the eastern side of the valley, running parallel to Highway 29, is Highway 121, better known as Silverado Trail. While there aren’t as many touristed towns along this stretch, there are many wineries along this route, so it’s a common stretch to drive. Between 29 and 121, many small country roads cross and connect the two parallel highways, so if you are driving around and need to hop over to one side of the valley, it’s usually quite easy to take the next turn and cross.
WHEN TO VISIT
I do not think there is a bad time of year to visit wine country. The high season is typically between the late spring through the late fall (you’ll see hotel prices going up starting in April and stay up through November), but things really hit their peak in the late summer, when harvest kicks off. Winter is considered the quiet season, but I really enjoy visiting then because there are no crowds, it is easier to make reservations and you can really feel like a local.
That being said, each season has something beautiful to offer in Napa. In the spring, you can experience “bud break,” or when the first tiny buds make their appearance on the vines (usually in March/early April). The temperature is cool at night, and the air can be damp, but everything feels fresh and vibrant (however, note that if you have bad seasonal allergies, it might not be the best time to go). In the early summer months, you’re treated to small clusters of grapes forming on the vines and brilliant sunny days; in late summer, those clusters grow large and plump in preparation for harvest. After harvest, in early October, the leaves on the vines begin to change color, just like trees in autumn, so the valley is covered in beautiful orange, yellow, and red foliage. In winter, the weather can turn rainy and cold, but it’s a perfect excuse to curl up with a glass of red wine next to the fireplace with a faux fur blanket.
Okay, so there are many transportation options when it comes to getting to Napa. I have tried them all, from driving 8 hours up from Los Angeles, to flying into SFO and renting a car, to flying into Oakland and ubering there. Nothing, and I mean nothing, has been easier than how I got there this past weekend.
I decided to try a new airline which my dad had been raving about non-stop called JetSuiteX. JetSuiteX is a semi-private airline, where travelers are able to access their flights at private terminals in each airport they service, allowing them to skip the normal security lines and crowded baggage claim, and instead arrive at the airport only 20 minutes before departure.
After flying up to Napa on JetSuiteX, I cannot imagine ever going up there any other way. We flew out of a private hangar next to the Burbank Airport, arriving about 30 minutes before take off, checked our bags for free, showed our IDs, and walked onto the plane. The best part about it? The ticket prices are comparable to the major airlines I have flown up there on in the past, and JetSuiteX can get you that much closer to Napa (they fly into Concord, San Jose, and Oakland).
I have rented a car in Napa before, but honestly, it was a waste because I really did not want to drive. I mean, who wants to drive, or should drive after a fun day of wine tasting? NO ONE!
The best option is to hire a car for the day. There are a plethora of car-for-hire companies in the area.
Increasingly, Uber has become very popular and easy to use in wine country, especially in the more populated towns/areas. However, be aware that in some areas, service can be sporadic, since drivers are typically hauling passengers significant distances. Sometimes you can luck out and snag a car within a minute or two; other times, you’ll wait — at least 15 minutes (or more). I have found that Uber Select and Black typically have more cars on the road up there than UberX.
WHERE TO STAY
Choosing a hotel is a personal thing, and so dependent on who you’re traveling with, how long you’ll be staying, which part of the valley you want to be in, what you plan to do, and of course, your budget. There are so, so many options that it would be difficult to list them all, but I would say that my most recent favorite places I have stayed in were The Ink House and Carneros Resort – both completely different and equally as luxurious, in their own ways. If at all helpful, I have also detailed my two favorite parts of Napa to narrow down your search.
Yountville: If you’re into the food scene and don’t feel like having to drive after dinner each night, the location of Yountville can’t be beat. There are so many great spots to eat right in Yountville, from the casual to once-in-a-lifetime meals, (it’s the home of The French Laundry, after all). While it can be busy during the day with visitors hitting up Bouchon Bakery, at night — and especially in the off season like in the winter — I find it still has that sleepy, quaint, small town feel.
Calistoga: Since it’s in the northernmost part of the valley, Calistoga feels less developed and a bit more rural. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely a town in Calistoga with plenty of bars and cute restaurants, but the town is smaller and a little sleepier than towns like Yountville or St. Helena. Also, if you’re into spa treatments, Calistoga sits on natural hot springs, so many of the hotels and resorts there offer mineral pools and baths.
WHERE TO DRINK
Ok, here it is. The number one question about wine country I always get asked is, “What wineries should we go to?” To be honest, this is a difficult question to answer, because the winery experience is so vastly different from place to place, and like a hotel choice, is dependent on many factors: how many people are you with? How much time do you have? What are you interested in doing at the winery? What kind of wine do you want to try? How much do you know about wine? How much do you want to know about wine? Do you care about architecture and design? You can see how all these variables would influence a recommendation.
Think of wineries as like restaurants — each will have their own aesthetic, ambiance, layout, and menu.
One idea if you have no idea where to begin: visit the wineries who make wine you really like or love. So you bought a bottle of Domaine Chandon sparkling for New Year’s last year and loved it? Awesome! Did you know you can visit them and see where it’s made, right in Yountville? If you’re a Cabernet lover, consider checking out some of the storied producers, like Stag’s Leap or Opus One.
To take a tour and learn how wine is made:
To explore specific varietals and/or experience smaller producers:
To check out legendary and/or significant, historic producers:
Somewhere to spend an entire afternoon:
For the bubbles:
For architecture enthusiasts:
WHERE TO EAT
Other than wine, why else does one go to Napa? The food, of course! Napa is a food lovers dream. Never in my life, in all of my travels, have I visited a city which has consistently good food, no matter where you go. My favorite part about the Napa Valley restaurant scene is that it is primarily rooted in farm to table culture, making everything so incredibly fresh, healthy, and tasty.
CASUAL TO DRESSY CASUAL:
GREAT FOR DINNER:
WHERE TO UNWIND
After all, one might need to unwind after all that wine.
Some may say that floating through the air in a balloon is not a great way to decompress, but after experiencing it for the first time this last visit, I would say it is the perfect way to relax.
One of my bucket list items has always been to fly in a hot air balloon. What better place to check that off your list than in Napa Valley, a place with some of the most iconic views in the world?
I am so glad that I bit the bullet and did the 5:30am wake up call, because it well well worth it. I took a ride with Napa Valley Aloft, the best hot air balloon company in the valley. We took off right after sunrise, around 7am, and it was the most breathtaking view I have ever seen. We flew above rolling green hills and vineyards, taking in the unparalleled beauty of Napa.
Another activity I would recommend is treating yourself (and maybe loved one) to a spa day. I like to spend my “off afternoons” at the spas in Napa, primarily because most are located in beautiful hotels and it’s a great way to check out all of the various luxury properties. My recent spa experience was one of the best I have ever had, in any city, at The Spa at Bardessono Hotel. Nestled in the heart of Yountville, Bardessono is a “deep green” eco-conscious hotel that screams luxury, with a subtle modern aesthetic, and utmost privacy. I recommend trying their “Yountville Signature” treatment that will leave you feeling like a million bucks after a sugar scrub, 90 minute massage and hydrating scalp treatment.
I hope you enjoyed this guide, and can take some helpful tips up to Napa with you next time you visit. Cheers!