So I have to confess something here. I’m not much of a drinker. I know, I know. Is it too late now to say sorry? Just kidding, I’m not sorry. You’re wondering: how could a light imbiber possibly have anything to say about the most famous wine producing region in the US?
Turns out, there’s a ton of things to do here that don’t necessarily involve spirits, and don’t worry, I will feature some absolutely fantastic wineries on our journey through the beautiful Northern California countryside. There’s just one question you have to ask yourself:
Wine or wine not?
Most people fly into SFO/OAK and drive the 1-1.5 hours, but a closer option is to fly into Sacramento and drive ~ 1 hour. I get it, usually you try to fit in the sights of SF while in this region, but if you’re here just for the purpose of going to wine country, SMF is a great option.
Other than being well known for its mediterranean climate vineyards, this area is known for being foodie heaven. To start off your first full day in Napa, may I recommend a light al fresco breakfast at the Napa Valley General Store. You’re in California, you need to sit outside and bask in the sweet kisses of the golden rays of the sun.
This restaurant has hearty breakfast and brunch fare and is located adjacent to the Napa river. Stroll down main street, pass plenty of delicious eateries (Morimoto, Ca Momi, Oenetri) and boutiques and see some of the tasting rooms like Vermeil Wines (that’s right, Dick Vermeil has wines). Ca Momi has an insane mushroom tagliatelle…mmm.
Walk across the bridge on third street and head a few blocks up to Oxbow Market, a collection of artisanal vendors selling everything from pizzas, tacos, olive oils to Three Twins Ice cream.
Gott’s Roadside is another Napa classic, the type of place that serves traditional diner food, with California panache, Niman ranch hot dogs or kimchi burgers anyone?
Your next stop is Yountville, where the bounds of deliciousness has no limits. The quality of food here is so good; I have never eaten anything bad here, and a main reason for that is Thomas Keller. This man almost single-handedly put this region on the map in terms of establishing California cuisine. He has 7 Michelin stars; 3 of which are at The French Laundry and 1 at Bouchon–basically 4 in one square block. As Napa trips can be very spendy, if you don’t want to leave without tasting some of his food, I highly recommend visiting ad hoc and Bouchon Bakery.
Addendum is a little chicken shack behind ad hoc and is only open for lunch on Thursday, Friday and Saturday for an even more affordable option. It serves family portioned meals of his renowned fried chicken. It’s all rosemary-fried melt in your mouth delicious. But, it’s temporarily closed until March. Wah wah. Sorry.
Of course, if you really want to splurge, get that Bouchon or French Laundry reservation months in advance, you deserve it! TREAT YO SELF!
Yountville has a small main drag, again with restaurants and shops and it’s nice to take a leisurely stroll through the interior design shops and galleries. Again with the food: Mustards, Hurley’s, Redd Wood, Bistro Jeanty…they’re all great. Bottega, Michael Chiarello’s Californian take on Italian comfort dishes, is also a standout in this town.
Continue on your trek as you get onto Highway 29. This is the main drag that will take you into Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena all the way to Calistoga.
My friends like to stay up here when they come to visit due to convenience of location, and they always make it a point to visit the smaller, family owned and operated wineries. I am also a fan of sparkling wines, so I make it a goal to visit at least one of these wineries every time I’m in the area. At the smaller brands, you can get one-on-one attention from the vintners instead of being herded through a touristy destination like cattle. That being said, I think it’s worth going to one or two big name wineries during your stay, as there is a lot big money can buy in terms of organization, art and architecture in these often grand cellars.
Wineries: Chapellet (the most beautiful, sweeping views of Lake Berryessa), Rutherford Hill, Taylor, Alpha Omega, Beringer, Domaine Chandon, Rombauer, Mumm, Robert Mondavi, Castello di Amorosa, and Schramsberg. There are, of course, wine tours abound where you will have a designated driver (this is of utmost importance and cannot be understated). But watch out, it’s a rabbit hole. Once you join one wine club, they’re like Pokemon, gotta catch ’em all.
If you’re passing from St. Helena through Oakville, make sure you stop at the Welcome to Napa Valley sign, or take the road less traveled, scenic Silverado Trail where you will see vast landscapes of vines or wildflowers depending on the time of year.
You have time to at least visit 2 wineries on your first day, before you start to see stars both literally and figuratively. I like to mix it up and do a large then a small winery for different experiences, but the sky’s the limit, do your research!
As cheese and nut plates have undoubtedly not filled you up, plan on checking into your accommodations and sobering up before dinner. A great place to stay and eat is Harvest Inn/Table by Charlie Palmer. I’m a fan of the Charlie Palmer, I’ve never had a bad steak in one of his restaurants, and this is no different. Their tenderloin was perfect, and you have to be sure to get the dungeness crab avocado crostini. Avo toast on steroids, for real.
The foie gras was maybe top 3 most decadent things I’ve ever eaten in my life. It also gave me the worst heartburn I’ve ever had, but it was worth every antacid I had to pop. The best thing about this place is located in the resort, so you can stumble back to your room, after sampling some of the wine offerings they have on their extensive list.
The next morning, you should take a walk around downtown St. Helena. Make it a point to visit Model Bakery, where you can sample the fluffy wonder that is one of their famous english muffins (one of Oprah’s favorite things!) and Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company for a latte.
Or you can save your stomach for brunch at Archetype. This restaurant is the Chip & Joanna Gaines dining room of your dreams. It’s rustic, French farmhouse-inspired, and their Lemon Ricotta Pancakes and Norwegian Eggs are exquisite.
You’re now ready to take on your day of wine tastings by the horn; a realistic expectation is about 3 wineries. V. Sattui has a marketplace where you can find cold cuts and cheeses if you want to pack your own picnic as well, a great option to allow for more efficiency.
For dinner, go straight to Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen for food that will warm your heart and soul. Cindy Pawlcyn is a legendary restauranteur, and with this upscale yet down home supper club vibe, she shows you exactly why she’s the boss of more than a half dozen popular restaurants in Northern California. Don’t skip dessert, you’re on vacation!
This last day is your wind down, I think you’ve earned it. You should spend some time in Calistoga, at the far end of the Valley. Calistoga is renowned for its purportedly healing mineral waters and hot springs. I don’t know if they really are the fountain of youth, but I know that I like them. Some touristy stops on the way that make great photo ops include Castello di Amorosa (above) and the Old Faithful Geyser of California ($15 for adults).
Hipster brunch can’t be beat at Sam’s Social Club, where you can feast upon egg in a hole, avocado toast and deviled eggs. It’s also a stone’s throw from my two favorite spas in Calistoga: Indian Springs and Spa Solage.
Now, if you’ve never had one, definitely try a mud bath as they say the specific clay in this area has rejuvenation powers. It is also a weird feeling to have people paint or cover your nude body in warm mud and you will certainly not forget the experience. End your afternoon in the peaceful serenity of their mineral water pools before departing the magical adult wonderland that is Napa Valley.
And a special plug for the BottleRock festival, one of my top music festivals. Held annually over Memorial Day weekend, their lineup is jam packed with top acts, culinary superstars and the best food the valley has to offer. Just imagine diving into a bowl of 8 noodle ramen, then slurping up a Humphrey Slocombe cone while watching Morimoto expertly carve the biggest ahi tuna you’ve ever seen while Foo Fighters rock out in the background. That was last year. This year’s lineup is insane: Bruno Mars, The Killers, Muse, Chainsmokers, Halsey, Snoop Dogg, Incubus, the Head & the Heart — emoji heart eyes forever. And there’s wineries dotting the entire perimeter of the festival! It’s the best, and definitely worth a visit if you’re looking for a visit to reason the famed valley.
Where do you like to wine and dine in the Valley?