Napa tips?
December 26, 2009 2:38 PM   Subscribe

Help me plan my romantic trip to Napa Valley.

So I managed to book several days in wine country and I was hoping for any advice on making the best of our time there on a couple's getaway. We'll be there this week Monday-Thursday. Our main interests are of course food and drink, but we are hardly wine experts and I was hoping for tips on how best to sample what Napa has to offer. We will be in downtown Napa and we will have a car, though I'd definitely prefer to avoid its use if we'll be drinking wine. Is the wine train a bad idea? Are there any other fun things or interesting sights you'd recommend in the area?

For bonus points, I'd like to take the scenic coastal drive up to there from Los Angeles on the way in (I-5 coming back I guess). I'm willing to invest a whole day (starting early) for this, so if anyone has a good idea for stopping points (don't say San Francisco) or a route that won't run longer than about 10-12 hours I'd really appreciate it. Also let me know if PCH is just a bad idea to begin with.
posted by drpynchon to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The PCH is beautiful, but I wouldn't try doing that much of it in one day; you'd arrive exhausted and possibly nauseous.

If you're traveling to wineries, you don't need to swallow everything you taste. Sample, spit, and buy a bottle (or several) of the ones you like. Getting soused while driving along is generally not the idea. Save most of the drinking for your evening meal.

When my wife (then girlfriend) and I did this ~10 years ago, a friend suggested we drive the Silverado Trail instead of 29. It's a more rural, less developed route with lighter traffic. We had a great time.
posted by jon1270 at 3:18 PM on December 26, 2009

Don't do PCH the whole way - go for the SLO/Cambria-Monterey bit, but do 101 to SLO, then 101/680/780... for the rest. You will thank us later, seriously. It's easily a 10 hour drive, more in traffic.

The drive is especially tiring because of the curves - you don't really realize how much your muscles are working to compensate for the (slight but noticeable after three hours) G-forces as you cruise around all those lovely bends.

Also - may God help you if it rains. Being stuck out there because of a landslide, having to turn around, and then go ALL the way back up 101 would be a nightmare, and you wouldn't be the only one, either.


Alternatively, 101 itself is also pretty, and an hour or more shorter. You could head up as far as Carmel/Monterey (a bit off 101, but nice), stay the night in a lovely B&B/inn-type place, and get to Napa refreshed in the early afternoon the next day.
posted by mdonley at 3:47 PM on December 26, 2009

Romantic? Picnic! Some of my favorite wine-tasting trips have involved lunches with recently-bought wine and cheese and bread. You may want to ask someone at the hotel for location recommendations. Some wineries allow picnics, some don't. There's also some sort of town ordinance that limits where you can picnic too.

The winery tips I'm about to give aren't particularly romance-related, but...

The tour at Mondavi Winery is really good. (Their wine is not my favorite, but the tour is worth it.) It's really informative, and starting your first day of wine tasting with the tour/tasting there provides a bit of knowledge that will then enhance the rest of the tasting you do. My father took me there the first time we went wine tasting, and since then I've taken a fair amount of my out-of-town guests there as well.

Cakebread is right across the street from Mondavi, and they are another solid reliable winery with good wine and a nice semi-guided tasting. You need to make a reservation there ahead of time. I also enjoy Frog's Leap - they're organic and fun. Reservations are also needed there. Sinskey is another consistent favorite of mine - they have a food-pairing bent, so you get appropriately paired small bites with your tasting fee.

If you go a bit further north, I've enjoyed tasting in Calistoga. Twomey is my favorite wine in all of Napa. Schramsberg has a nice sparkling wine tour/tasting. Calistoga has beautiful wineries and great wine, plus it's a bit further north than many of the Napa wineries so there's a bit less tourist madness.

I haven't been on the wine train, but I've only heard negative things about it. I gather it isn't used for getting from winery to winery - you just pay $50+ for lunch and tasting while the train goes down the tracks and then back.

Seconding Silverado Trail too! There's one more winery on Silverado Trail (I think) that I'd highly recommend. It's pricey but worth it. I'll post the name if I can remember it...
posted by soleiluna at 4:07 PM on December 26, 2009

Mud bath in Calistoga!
posted by sammyo at 4:08 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Personally, I think Napa gets boring after a day, maybe day-and-a-half. Its main appeal, IMO, is that it's just winery after winery, along two parallel roads. There are some great wineries there (Robert Sinskey is my personal favorite, and the Coppola winery not only has beautiful grounds, but has a small museum of memorabilia from FFC's movies. A lot of them, though, are completely unmemorable.

Sonoma, to me, is much more interesting and well worth the drive, especially if you're looking for romance- better scenery along slower, windy roads, and almost devoid of tour buses. Tastings will tend to be cheaper, and you're more likely to find (a) actual vineyards and (b) wineries making interesting wine.
posted by mkultra at 4:17 PM on December 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

The Napa Visitors' Center is right downtown, and has people dedicated to helping plan your day, for free, based upon what your interests are.

We ended up going to Berenger, which has a very nice house with amazing stained glass (but not a lot else), and Castillo di Amorosa, which is a very recently-constructed medieval-style castle with excellent tunnels and wine cellars. I tasted 17 wines that day.

As I understand the wine train, you just ride the train, eat dinner, and don't actually stop anywhere to look around. I could be wrong.
posted by rlk at 4:51 PM on December 26, 2009

Seconding mdonley's recommendation to do PCH from the Cambria area north to Monterey only. The area around Big Sur is some of the prettiest coastal scenery in the southern half of California and you'll go crazy trying to squeeze in more than that during one day. Even as is, you're going to have a pretty long day in the car. If you can get a night of sleep somewhere along that stretch, I'd highly recommend it as you'll get to appreciate the scenery a lot more.
posted by dhammond at 5:51 PM on December 26, 2009

I recommend being as thrifty as humanly possible in order to save up for one very fancy meal at one of the big name restaurants. That kind of experience, you will always remember. The Restaurant at The Meadowood in St. Helena is one such place.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 7:02 PM on December 26, 2009

The culinary institute of america has 1,3 and 5 day courses. If you guys like to cook as much as eat, this could be a fun thing to do.
posted by TheBones at 8:24 PM on December 26, 2009

If you've never done Napa/Sonoma wine tastings before than let me suggest that you take the time to talk to the people who serve at the wineries. In my experience, a lot of them are quite charming and engaging.
posted by mmascolino at 8:35 PM on December 26, 2009

Seconding mdonley's recommendation to do PCH from the Cambria area north to Monterey only

Just as an FYI -- not as a vote against -- you should note that though it's only 100 miles, the drive from Cambria to Monterey is 3 hours long. I know because I did it 4 weeks ago. It's beautiful, but it's the longest 100-mile drive you'll ever take, and I can't imagine driving on to Napa from Monterey after that.

(If you want a recommendation for an excellent $89 hotel in Monterey, send me a Memail. Like I said, been there, done that.)
posted by mudpuppie at 4:11 PM on December 29, 2009

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