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Napa Valley travel guide: Where to visit, eat and stay

The engine of U.S. wine production and home to world class Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa is a 'full package' destination. Jess Lander shares her insider knowledge on the best places to visit, so you can plan your ultimate wine tour...

Napa Valley has long been the engine of U.S. wine production and while other California and American AVAs have started to gain notoriety, none have come close to acquiring the star power of Napa. It’s not just the world-renowned Cabernet Sauvignon — though that was the impetus, starting in the 1970s — but also Napa Valley’s incredible culinary scene, luxury resorts, rejuvenating hot springs, and stunning scenery combined with a sort of small town charm that makes this destination the full package.

It hasn’t been all glamour though. Napa Valley had to once again prove its resilience in the face of another round of devastating fires in 2020, just as the valley was already reeling from lengthy shutdowns triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. But as spring turned to summer this year, tourism rebounded in a big way, and the harvest season is expected to be even busier. Long gone are the days of walking into a winery and bellying up to the tasting bar. Napa Valley hotels, wineries, and restaurants are now booking up weeks in advance and reservations are necessary nearly everywhere, so it’s vital you plan ahead.

Fact file

Planted area 17,891ha

Main soil types More than 100 soil variations, including half of the world’s 12 recognized soil orders and 33 different soil series.

Climate Dry Meditteranean with hot summer days and cool evenings.

Appellations Atlas Peak, Calistoga, Chiles Valley, Coombsville, Diamond Mountain District, Howell Mountain, Los Carneros, Mt. Veeder, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, Spring Mountain District, Stags Leap District, Yountville and Wild Horse Valley.

Production More than 1,000 different brands of wine generate approximately $50 billion in annual revenue.

Main grapes Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel


Napa Valley travel guide: Wineries to visit

You’ll need a car to get to Napa, which is about an hour’s drive from San Francisco and three regional airports. Once you’re there, you can easily explore the 30-mile, narrow valley and its collection of tiny bucolic towns, which extend from Napa to the hot springs haven of Calistoga, along a pair of parallel two-laned roads. You can also hire a driver or book a wine tour from one of the area’s many transportation companies. For something a little more unconventional, snag a seat in one of the Napa Valley Wine Train‘s antique cars, tuk-tuk through vineyards, or hitch a ride in a vintage VW bus.

The unofficial gateway of Napa Valley is downtown Napa, easily identified by a pair of bridges that cross the Napa River. For decades, tourists would drive right past this part of town, but these Victorian-lined streets have undergone a major renaissance in the past five years, turning downtown Napa into a true and walkable hub for dining, shopping, and wine tasting. Here, you’ll find over a dozen urban wine tasting rooms (plus, a few breweries and distilleries) and many offer a chance to try premium wines that aren’t otherwise easily accessible, like the storied Mayacamas Vineyards, founded in 1889.

Sample library vintages of their classic Napa Chardonnays and Cabernets at their contemporary and chic downtown outpost — a stark departure from their historic mountain estate known for its stone gravity-flow winery and old, redwood wine casks, some of which have been used for ageing for nearly 100 years. Dating back to 1891, the Mayacamas estate is a difficult trek along a rough and windy road, so this is the next best thing.

Mayacamas

Mayacamas

While tourists often flock to the likes of Robert Mondavi Winery, Charles Krug, and V. Sattui, Clos du Val is another pioneering member of the valley that offers a more intimate, refined, and relaxed tasting experience. Set within Napa’s famous Stag’s Leap AVA, Clos du Val’s inaugural wine from the 1972 vintage was part of the 1976 Judgment of Paris that put Napa Valley on the map. The original tasting room still stands, but right next door, the new Hirondelle House brought Clos du Val into the modern day. The glass-walled structure is designed to feel like home (albeit a very fancy one), with sprawling vineyard views that can be enjoyed whether you choose to sit inside or on the garden patio, where you can skip a formal tasting for bottle service.

When you need a break from big and jammy Cabernet, swing by Prager Winery & Portworks, just south of St. Helena on Hwy 29 and a 20-minute drive from downtown Napa (the driveway is hard to spot, but if you hit The Harvest Inn, you’ve gone too far). Prager doesn’t have the pomp and circumstance of your usual Napa Valley tasting. In fact, it’s more reminiscent of a dive bar covered in dollar bills that patrons write messages on and pin to the walls. As for the tasting room hosts? They’re almost always donning blue jeans. Prager is the only Napa Valley winery dedicated to fortified wine production and their portfolio ranges from a vintage Port to a tawny to a white Port and even a late harvest Riesling.

Also in St. Helena, just on the other side of the valley, Joseph Phelps has hands-down one of the best views in Napa Valley. A narrow road will take you up into the hills, but it won’t be until you walk through the tasting room doors to the outdoor terrace that you’re greeted by a stunning panorama of vineyards — a unique lookout that only Joseph Phelps has. But this isn’t the only draw. The family-owned winery has long been considered one of the top and most forward-thinking wineries in Napa Valley and the bountiful table food and wine pairing ($300), akin to a five-course lunch with wine pairings, is worth the splurge.

Schramsberg Vineyards is the closest you can get to the dark and damp underground cellars of Champagne in California. Arguably the most notable producer of sparkling wine in North America, Schramsberg’s historic, 200-acre estate is nestled within the forests of Diamond Mountain in Calistoga (10 minutes from downtown St. Helena). Tour the caves before your tasting and learn the ins and outs of the classic Méthod Traditionelle winemaking process. You might even get to take a turn at the riddling racks. But if you’re not able to get up to the winery, Schramsberg has a second tasting room in St. Helena called Davies Vineyards, which offers a bubbles & caviar brunch experience on the weekends.

Back on Highway 29 and a few miles north from Schramsberg, AXR — named for the AxR1 rootstock that succumbed to phylloxera in the 1980s and 90s, yet spawned a renewed era of California winemaking in Napa Valley — crafts the kind of robust single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons that Napa hangs its hat on. While AXR is a newer project (the 2013 vintage was their first), the estate is a trip back in time to what locals refer to as “Old Napa.” Almost certainly haunted, the Pre-Prohibition site has served many purposes, from Native American hunting grounds to a brewery, winery, an inn, and saloon. Private tastings take place inside a charming white cottage and a tour includes a walk through a magical redwood grove.

24 hours in Napa Valley

Morning

Skip the lines that form at Napa Valley’s staple breakfast joints — Model Bakery and chef Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery — and follow the locals to Contimo Provisions. The Ham & Jam biscuit at this tiny downtown Napa cafe might not sound like much, but it’s the stuff of legends (and keeps it light, because there’s more food ahead). Downtown is quietest in the mornings, so take your biscuit on an easy stroll down to the Napa River waterfront and enjoy the view. Walk over the First Street bridge and you’ll come upon the famous Oxbow Public Market, where you can grab a coffee and shop for locally-made provisions to bring home.

Lunch

Make a reservation for the 11:30 AM slot of Ashes & Diamonds A&D Wines + Food experience ($125 per person), which will cover both wine tasting and lunch. Located five minutes from downtown Napa, this stark white, modular, and mid-century modern winery looks unlike any other wine estate in Napa Valley and represents the ushering in of a new era of Napa wines, or rather, a return to a style that’s minimalistic, approachable, and lower in alcohol led by cult Napa vintner Steve Matthiasson. Sit down for a multi-course, family style meal featuring a seasonally-rotating lineup of fresh, wood-fired, and veggie-forward dishes paired with Ashes & Diamonds wines.

Afternoon

Book a second wine tasting at the newly-opened Faust Haus set in a restored hilltop Victorian in St. Helena (just past the famed Beringer Vineyards and about a 25-minute drive from Ashes & Diamonds). Despite its location, Faust Haus reps Napa Valley’s best kept secret, the Coombsville AVA in south Napa. Grab a seat on their serene garden patio, soak up a sweeping, birds-eye view of Napa Valley, and taste through Faust’s cooler-climate Cabernet Sauvignons known for their incredible balance, finesse, and acidity ($75 per person). Before you go, take a tour of the Victorian’s unique and impeccably-designed rooms and underground cellar.

Head north one mile to Brasswood Bar + Kitchen for a pre-dinner snack. Order up the Mozzarella al Minuto, a plate of hand-pulled, melt-in-your-mouth, made-to-order mozzarella that first became famous at the now defunct Tra Vigne Restaurant. The tradition was quietly reborn at Brasswood where it’s usually not printed on the menu, so you’ll have to ask for it.

Evening and overnight

Make a reservation well in advance for dinner at Bistro Don Giovanni, a 20-minute drive back to Napa and located in front of Ashes & Diamonds. Request an outdoor table by the fountain for the best ambiance and snack on fried olives to start. While you can’t go wrong with one of the handmade pastas (like the gnocchetti with lamb ragu), the seared salmon filet is the menu’s unexpected star.

Come full circle upon your return to downtown Napa for a nightcap at the women-owned Cadet Wine & Beer Bar, the local wine community’s playground tucked down an alleyway. This is the best spot in this relatively sleepy town to sip rare Champagnes, discover some of Napa Valley’s most beloved boutique producers, and dance the night away to a live DJ. When you’re ready to call it a night, the contemporary and minimalist Archer Hotel is within stumbling distance of Cadet. Rest easy knowing that local coffee and lemon ricotta pancakes from the hotel restaurant await your hangover the next morning.


Napa Valley travel guide: Where to stay, eat and shop

Rooftop at Archer Hotel Napa

Accomodation

Archer Hotel Napa

Set in the heart of the buzzing downtown Napa and mere steps away from dozens of tasting rooms, restaurants, and shops. Enjoy Happy Hour at the rooftop bar and dine at the celebrity chef-run steakhouse.

Auberge du Soleil

A secluded hilltop resort boasting just 50 recently-renovated rooms and panoramic views of Napa Valley from the pool, spa, and its Michelin-starred restaurant.

Harvest Inn

Oozes storybook romance alongside meandering brick pathways, fountains, and redwood groves in St. Helena. Many rooms have vineyard views and a few come with private outdoor jacuzzis.

Dr. Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort & Mineral Springs

A newly remodeled hotel that pioneered Calistoga’s famous mud baths in the 1950s. Simple, fun, and affordable.


Restaurants to visit

Bistro Don Giovanni

Fresh and authentic Italian cuisine in a warm and inviting setting. A favourite of locals and tourists alike.

Ad Hoc + Addendum

If you can’t get into The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s most casual eatery serves up American comfort food (including his legendary fried chicken) via a four-course pre-fixe menu that changes daily.

The Charter Oak

An upscale, yet more approachable dining concept in St. Helena from chef Christopher Kostow of the three-Michelin starred (and temporarily closed due to the fires) Meadowood. Dishes are simple, hyper-seasonal, and made for sharing.

Press

A longtime Napa staple, Press is a modern interpretation of the classic steakhouse boasting the largest collection of Napa Valley wines in the world.

Bistro Jeanty

From coq au vin to cassoulet, this bistro-style, Napa Valley landmark has been serving authentic and comfort-driven French cuisine in the heart of Yountville since 1998.


Shops

Oxbow Public Market

A large and lively marketplace featuring roughly 20 vendors. Shop goods from local artisans and producers, like olive oil, spirits, wine, cheese, chocolate, and souvenirs.

Oakville Grocery

Established in 1881 and located in the heart of Napa wine country. Pull over for fresh sandwiches, salads, wood-fired pizzas, picnic supplies, and locally-made provisions to take home. Expect a line.

Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturing Co.

Family-run since 1931. Find the unassuming white barn on the back streets of St. Helena and shop for flavoured olive oils, balsamics, and other Italian food specialties.


How to get there

Napa is approximately an hour’s drive from San Francisco and three California Bay Area airports: San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento. A rented car is best for visiting the wineries, but visitors can also book an array of car services and wine tours, many of which will handle all of the logistics and booking.


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