When two wines – a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay – from California’s Napa Valley won the 1976 Paris Tasting over some of France’s most famous wines, the area was home to just a few dozen wineries.
Today, there are some 500, owned by multigenerational families, big corporations, Silicon Valley millionaires, celebrities and everyday people, drawn by the allure of winemaking and the beauty of a valley located just 45 miles north of San Francisco.
It may be a booming business, but Napa is still a relaxing destination for those seeking both the luxurious and the laid-back. The small towns that dot Highway 29 are charming, the people are kind, the food is outstanding and the wine, well, the wine is as good as they say.
Here are tips for getting the most out of a trip to Napa Valley.
A WINE EDUCATION
Napa Valley really is all about the wine. But don’t let that intimidate you.
No one really wants to go to school while on vacation, but a wine course can go a long way to helping you get the most out of this destination. You can also impress your friends and one-up your boss back home.
The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena offers a variety of classes, from a two-hour “Tasting Wine Like a Pro” for $95 to a five-day “Wine Lovers Boot Camp” for $2,100. You will taste dozens of very good wines each day, studying color, bouquet and body over and over. The spit bucket will be your best friend.
Auction Napa Valley is an upscale weekend of charity events and wine tasting in June. While the pricey Saturday Live Auction is the banner event, the Friday “Barrel Auction” is an affordable way to taste hundreds of yet-to-be-released wines and bid for cases for later delivery. It’s a favorite of locals and nearly all the winemakers and winery owners are there.
For winery tours and tastings, ditch the stretch limo crowd at the big wineries along Highway 29 and head to the hills, where a plethora of medium- and smaller-sized wineries awaits. For many of the best tastings, a winery will charge $20 and up and visits are by appointment only. Here’s just a small selection of wineries that earned high marks for their wine and atmosphere:
r Joseph Phelps off the picturesque Silverado Trail serves wines on a pretty terrace that looks out on the undulating vine-covered hills. A renovation is under way in 2014, but tastings will continue in the vineyard. (www.josephphelps.com)
r Pride Mountain sits high up on the Mayacamas Mountains in the famous Spring Mountain district of St. Helena. (www.pridewines.com) Fisher rests on the other side of Spring Mountain in Sonoma County and makes wines from both Napa and Sonoma. (www.fishervineyards.com)
In Napa, you’ll get to taste Cabs and Chardonnays, but also great Sauvignon Blancs, Syrahs, Pinot Noirs, and the real authentic California gem: Zinfandel. Many restaurants offer a curated selection from other places, like Oregon, Europe and South America. Your cup, or rather your Riedel wine glass, will runneth over.
BREAKFAST, LUNCH & DINNER
There’s an old saying in the wine world that “what grows together goes together” – a way of saying that a region’s wines pair well with its foods. A Napa spin on this could be where great wine flows, great food follows.
There is no shortage of excellent dining choices up and down the valley, from Thomas Keller’s Michelin three-star restaurant The French Laundry in Yountville, where the prix fixe tasting menu costs $270 per person, to the Azteca Mexican grocery’s taco and burrito counter in St. Helena.
Yountville, population 3,000, must have one of the highest concentrations of fine dining establishments anywhere in the world. Locals love Keller’s more casual restaurant Ad Hoc, where the four-course, family-style dinner menu for $52 changes daily. Fried chicken night is a favorite.
At the northern end of the valley, outside the old Western town of Calistoga, is Solbar in the upscale but casual Solage resort. The one-star Michelin restaurant combines local produce with soul food recipes and dinner or lunch by the pool is a favorite of the vintner crowd.
Napa is a city of 75,000 in the midst of a makeover that has put it back on the food-and-wine map. The Oxbow Market, which opened in the middle of the last financial crisis and thrives today, is one of the best places to try and buy regional food and wine, from homemade charcuterie at the Fatted Calf to oysters from nearby Hog Island to innovative tacos at C CASA. Go on Tuesdays, Locals’ Night, for specials and a hopping scene.
In St. Helena, at the intersection of wine sophistication and small town quaintness, it’s hard to go wrong. But breakfast at The Model Bakery on Main Street is a must, with its mountains of pastries, breads and a chipotle pesto breakfast sandwich made on its famous homemade English muffins.
For lunch in St Helena, Gott’s Roadside is known for its hamburgers, fries and shakes and other Americana staples. Cozy up to a picnic table in the lawn out back, and grab a glass of wine or one of the interesting draft beers, for a nice break from the grape juice.
TAKE A DRIVE
Hopefully, you’ve rented a convertible and can take advantage of the warm, sunny days for a spin through the valley. The Silverado Trail on the east side is a gorgeous curving road that snakes through the vineyards from Napa to Calistoga, not to be missed.
In the hot springs resort town of Calistoga – supposedly named by a pioneer who wanted to make it the Saratoga of California but mistakenly called it “The Calistoga of Sarifornia” – try the mud baths. You could do this at one of the chic spas, but go for the real pioneer treatment at the authentic, no-frills Dr. Wilkinson’s.
If you have got time, continue the drive to another wine region, Sonoma’s Alexander Valley and its pretty town of Healdsburg, also a famous dining destination.
It would be a shame not to continue the drive out to Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock filmed “The Birds.” Apart from stunning coastal scenery complete with sea lions and seals, Bodega’s Dungeness crab catch is a main draw when the season opens in November. Spud Point Marina has live and cooked crab and a mean clam chowder.
As you work your way back to Napa Valley, a stop in Tomales Bay for the freshest of oysters at Hog Island is highly recommended. As the sun sets, families, friends and couples picnic with wine and oysters at the bay’s edge and you will wish this were not just a trip to Northern California, but rather a prolonged residence.