Congratulations! You’ve made it to Napa Valley. Sure, Disneyland might take the crown for the most popular tourist destination in California but for the 21+ crowd, Napa Valley is the happiest place on earth.
Seriously though, Mickey Mouse and his gang of toons have nothing on Napa Valley. The proof? A 2013 Twitter study by the University of Vermont scanned specific words (happy, sad) associated with certain regions. The result? Ten million tweets ranked Napa at the top of the list.
With hundreds of wineries to choose from across a 30 mile stretch how do you make the best choices when you only have a day? Don’t sweat it. We’re locals and know what’s up.
Start with a good breakfast
Unless you’re spitting, tasting on an empty stomach is a bad idea. Best to buffer that alcohol before it enters the bloodstream. Hit up Model Bakery for a breakfast sandwich made with their world famous english muffins. They have two locations, one in downtown Napa and another in St. Helena.
Staying in the southern part of Napa? Consider the Boon Fly Cafe, known far and wide for their signature bacon bloody Mary and homemade donuts.
If you’d rather get a head start in the north part of town then check out Fume Bistro, a local favorite conveniently located just off highway 29. Their biscuits and gravy dish makes an excellent choice.
Next head to the hills
For your first stop, let’s avoid the herds flooding into tasting rooms along the highway and head Upvalley (as it’s known here) to venture off the beaten path. Flanking each side of the valley are mountains, home to some of the best little producers. On the Mayacamas side there’s Spring Mountain, a slightly cooler location known for their elegant Cabernet and Cab Franc. On the other you’ll find sun-drenched Howell Mountain, known for big, inky Cabernet and Zinfandel. Like the Montagues and Capulets, families on Spring and Howell Mountain proclaim their turf as the most righteous. Truthfully you can’t go wrong on either one.
Drive up Route 29 and into St. Helena, then wind (really, wind) your way to the top of Spring Mountain and take your pick from elite producers like Pride, Vineyard 7 & 8, Lokoya or Barnett. Lower on the mountain you’ll find Keenan and Schweiger, both excellent choices, along with Newton Vineyards where you can enjoy fantastic unfiltered wines while soaking in a killer view of their Japanese style garden.
Break for lunch
You’ll need to dedicate most of the morning for your first visit in the mountains. By the time you’re finished you might need some more grub. Good thing Napa is a food lovers paradise but with so many options, where you choose really depends on your schedule.
In a hurry? The DIY option.
Looking for a casual stop? We suggest either picking up some provisions at Oakville Grocery or Dean Deluca. Or head to the local favorite Giugni’s deli in St. Helena for a sandwich or Azteca Market for real-deal tacos – but make sure you bring cash.
For a super low key but totally delicious bite head to Kellys Filling Station, an upscale Yountville style gas station. Instead of a mini-mart they have a boutique shop with food, wine, beer, coffee and other artisan goodies. Their sauerkraut dog is a great choice. This might also be a good time to pop into (re: stand in line) Bouchon Bakery to snag some of their incredible macaroons for dessert.
Need a more time to recharge? The sit down meal.
Feeling more upscale? Tons of choices. In Calistoga, we love Evangeline for a ritzy southern-themed menu (think gulf shrimp, burgers, etouffee) and killer cocktails. In St. Helena, try Farmstead for hyper-fresh salads and grass-fed beef (the BBQ is terrific) or sit on the patio at Auberge du Soleil to feel like a rock star for bit. In Yountville, you can’t go wrong with Redd Wood (pizza/pasta) or local fave Bistro Jeanty (classic French bistro food).
Next stop – the valley floor
Now it’s time to explore the valley floor, where the vast majority of tasting rooms are found. So many great options to choose from, but we suggest picking one or two of the following.
Time’s fun when you’re having flies! That’s the saying at this popular Rutherford winery. The solar powered, LEED certified, and organic farmed winery was pioneered by John Williams in the early 1980s (who’s heavily annotated story is worth a read). With a down home feel and a stunning farmhouse it’s the perfect setting to relax with a tasting flight mid-afternoon.
Just a hop away from Frog’s Leap you’ll find Caymus Vineyards, one of the premier institutions in Napa Valley. There’s something for everyone here, with selections from Caymus, Belle Glos and Mer Soleil under one roof. While they do offer some lighter style whites and rose, if subtle, nuanced wine is your thing, look elsewhere. Their Cabernet sets the gold standard for a hedonistic and velvety style, and the Belle Glos Pinots are supercharged with deep, powerful fruit.
This new winery brings a strong pedigree as part of the Cade/Plumpjack family, and their first vintage of 2012 Estate Reserve Cabernet scored a perfect 100 points from Robert Parker. If you wanted to visit Cade’s Howell Mountain location but didn’t have time, you’re in luck because visitors can taste through Cade and Plumpjack wines here.
Unwind in Downtown Napa
We covered the hidden mountain gems and some valley floor favorites. Now that you’re in a good position to beat the traffic you can meander back into the heart of downtown Napa. The downtown area saw a huge revitalization over the past decade and today you can find a bunch of great boutique tasting rooms.
Trahan & Prime
Chuck Custodio pairs the down home, family feel with a laid back, unpretentious vibe and a nice range of affordable, yet delicious wines. Expect lots of fun and laughter during you visit. Also sharing the space is Prime Cellars, a small, high end producer owned by Ted Henry.
Mark Herold Wines
With a relaxed and quirky, fun staff, this place should definitely be on your list. Their delicious tastings are big on education without the pretense. Mark is a mad genius winemaker with a big personality and even bigger wines. They’re located right next to Oxbow Market which is perfect if you want to grab a casual dinner after.
Drop in here if you’re looking for ultra-boutique style wines you won’t find anywhere else. The legendary Mitch Cosentino started this operation, and he concentrates 30 years of experience into crafting small lots of custom blended wines.
- Get the $30 Downtown Napa tasting card
- Hire a limo driver/tour: Noble Wine Tours, Verve Napa Valley
- Take a hot air balloon tour
- View a directory of Napa wineries
Here’s a map of all the above mentioned wineries and restaurants:
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Feature photo by Matt Harris
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