Explain Napa Valley to me
March 13, 2018 10:24 AM   Subscribe

I've been thinking about where to go for my 10th anniversary and thought that Napa Valley might be the perfect place. I know next to nothing about it other than WINE. Can you help me get started with what I need to know for a great weekend trip?

I'm thinking of flying to Sacramento or San Francisco on a Wednesday and driving to Napa. Returning on Sunday. So that gives us three full days. We like SPAs and good food and nice scenery. This will probably happen in May.
I don't know about what the good hotels are (we have a comfortable budget), or where to eat, drink or see. Did the recent fires/rain in California affect the area? Is three days enough to enjoy?
posted by CrazyLemonade to Travel & Transportation around California (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I’m going to recommend that you do this trip in Sonoma Valley instead, unless you have a particular fetish for particular Napa wines. Sonoma is much prettier and there’s a lot less traffic.
posted by vunder at 10:32 AM on March 13, 2018 [9 favorites]

Thanks! Ok I'm open to Sonoma Valley too. Same questions apply.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 10:48 AM on March 13, 2018

Was going to suggest Sonoma as well. I really recommend doing a wine tour with Sharon at Valet of the Moon. They drive your car (rental is fine and should she be at fault, they carry an Umbrella General Liability Business policy in the amount of 1 million). I did this with them a few years ago and she's a local and very knowledgable. We asked to be taken to wineries that were family-owned and down to earth, and she delivered. Our favorites were Robert Hunter and Canihan because the interaction with the owners and the wine itself, was just outstanding.
posted by vivzan at 10:50 AM on March 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Kind of agree that Sonoma is prettier, but I would be remiss if I didn't tell you about Oxbow Market in Napa -- it's a 'fancy restaurant' food court and artisanal market with a big patio overlooking the river. All of the little food stands have actual restaurants elsewhere and you can buy nice cheese and wine and oysters and things to take away with you.

Calistoga Springs is worth a visit, and it's about 40 minutes from Oxbow / Downtown Napa. There are LOADS of hot springs to chose from in that area, Calistoga is just the one I've been to the most.

The fires, as you guessed, were extremely devastating to the region. Not to say that it's a blasted plain or anything! But many vineyards burned, so maybe call before you stop by. I haven't been up there since it happened, so I can't vouch for any particular area's damage or lack thereof. That said, the tourism industry took a huge hit because of this, and I'm sure they will appreciate every dollar you spend!
posted by ananci at 10:51 AM on March 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

The aftermath of the fires are not going to affect you, personally, especially with the spring rains causing regrowth on the eerily black hillsides. While they were huge and destructive, far more land remained unburned. If you want to see big fancy buildings like Castello di Amorosa or ride the tram like Sterling, Napa is the place to go. (Just be careful that you know where you're staying. Napa the city is not really in Napa Valley, and it's 40 miles of sometimes terrible traffic to get from one end to the other.) Sonoma is much smaller, you can meet the actual vintner without paying $$$ for a tasting appointment, I far prefer it. Food and spas are excellent in both places, and you can choose to stay in the Sonoma area and hop over to Napa for the day. If it were me, I would get a hotel in Sonoma the city, such as the Four Sisters, which is very nice and romantic. It's walking distance from the main square, which has a California mission museum, excellent restuarants such as Girl and the Fig, and excellent tasting rooms from small wineries such as Maclaren and Westwood. We recently spent the whole day in Sonoma and never moved the car. Plenty of people drive, of course, and there are Lyfts if you prefer that, but a lot can be said for having everything in a manageable and attractive downtown. Or Glen Ellen is nice, more forested and a lot smaller. Calistoga is a good base in Napa Valley if you go that route.
posted by wnissen at 10:52 AM on March 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Looks like Robert Hunter Winery is no longer doing tours and that Robert Hunter passed away. :(
posted by vivzan at 10:54 AM on March 13, 2018

I personally completely love Napa (over Sonoma) but both are beautiful. I have never done the kind of trip you're describing but can offer some points of interest in both places:

In Napa Valley, I really enjoyed renting a small home outside St Helena, which has a bunch of pretty, overpriced restaurants and one FANTASTIC bakery that is worth the price (the Model Bakery); there are also a lot of long tree-lined walks by cows and grapes that you can take near there. Lots of spas there-- we went to Health Spa Napa Valley, which is not very fancy but has excellent masseuses. (St. Helena and its immediate environs were untouched by the fire.)

In Sonoma, Healdsburg is a beautiful and unbelievably expensive place to spend a day-- excellent, excellent restaurants and the whole town is very picturesque though, plus if you can push the trip to June you can attend the jazz festival. Geyserville, a little ways up the road, is a tiny little town with a 5-star restaraunt named Catelli's and a great pizzeria named Diavola. (Strongly recommend that you stick with the pizza there.)
posted by peppercorn at 10:57 AM on March 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

The amazing thing about wine country is you can visit for a day or a week or anything in between and still have a great time. My suggestion would also be Sonoma! It's prettier and also less crowded. The central square has a million tasting rooms and restaurants, so once you get home from wineries you can walk around and taste more/get some food in you. One place I love is a Portuguese tapas place called Tasca Tasca.

Wineries I have loved:

Gundlach Bundschu has an amazing cave that you can do a curated tasting in with a wine educator. I learned a ton about the region and the different wines, plus was able to taste I think ten? wines. It was a pretty good price, and I think free if you were a member.

Gloria Ferrer is really fun if you like sparkling wine--they are pretty much all sparkling though they do a few others. They have a tasting and tour that's pretty short but very interesting, plus they have a gorgeous glassware display. It's on the way in/out of town so a good one to hit quickly at the beginning or end of your trip. I suggest beginning so you can make hotel room mimosas the next morning!

Healdsburg is a GREAT little town with amazing food. I have had stellar meals at both the Healdsburg SHED and Chalkboard.

As far as hotels, whether in Napa or Sonoma I echo the suggestions to look at a map. There are tons of cute B&Bs in both places (Ramekins in Sonoma is SO CUTE and walking distance to the square, also has group cooking classes you can take if you need an indoor activity for the day) but not everything is actually "in town," and also "in town" doesn't necessarily mean "close to the wine."
posted by assenav at 11:04 AM on March 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

The west coast branch of the culinary institute is based there.
posted by brujita at 11:27 AM on March 13, 2018

It has been awhile for me since I've been in Napa/Sonoma but I'll cover some of the generalities.

First off, winery tasting start early in the morning and end relatively early. Think 9 or 10 as starting point and 4 or 5 for an ending point with some outliers of course.

The experience at each one will vary as well. Some will offer just tastings, others will also offer tours of the grounds and most if not all will try to sell you on their wine clubs. There may be some free tastings available but most will charge a small fee per person. Often these are waved if you meet some minimum purchasing threshold. There are of course lots of higher end experiences that available for a price or if you have connections. Lots of these places are open to the public but there will be some that require appointments or referrals.

Speaking of which, if you have a friend that is knowledgeable or if you are friendly with staff at a wine centric restaurant or a wine shop, they can recommend smaller, more boutique places to go to as well as those places that are by referral only. My most recent experience with this was two summers ago in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. A local restaurant owner/sommelier got our party into a few really nice private places. That's a really laid back way to enjoy wine.

Speaking of which, the more name recognition the winery you are attending has among the general public means lots more crowds up to the point that it can be circus like. That can be fun on occasion but it can be overwhelming. I thinking tasting and interacting with a knowledgeable professional is way more fun and that is only possible if the place isn't crowded. I've also found that the employees in the wineries have to deal with so many people that are treating the experience as a cheap way to get drunk that if you are at all respectful about the experience they will reward you with gratis pours of other wines.

Have fun!
posted by mmascolino at 11:29 AM on March 13, 2018

This is a big question.

The NY Times has a couple good articles in their "36 Hours" series:
36 Hours in Napa Valley
36 Hours in Sonoma County, Calif.

You can divide the area in different ways: by city, by valley or by viticulture region if you're really into the details of wine.

By city we have Santa Rosa, Napa (the city), Sonoma (the city) Calistoga and then all the little towns nearby. Honestly I think Napa and Sonoma look pretty identical but they're both nice. Santa Rosa is a much larger city with more hotels and the Snoopy Museum so it's another option for staying in the area. I mention Calistoga because it has hot springs. I've stayed at Calistoga Spa Hot Springs and it was nice. Not unbelievable, the rooms were pretty modest, but clean and lots and lots of hot water in the pools. Healdsburg is also nice and has a cute downtown with shopping.

There are also a ton of little wineries to the west of Santa Rosa and none of them are big names (at least in my mind) but they're all pretty close together and individually pretty nice so that's something that's a little off the beaten path of Napa & Sonoma proper. Santa Rosa also has the famous-around-here Russian River Brewing if you want to sample Pliny The Elder and their other beers.

By valley we have Napa and Sonoma, refer the NYT guides above. If you have specific wineries you want to visit then that's going to drive your decision.

By vinicultural region things get very fine grained: Napa, Sonoma, Russian River, Dry Creek Valley, etc etc. If you're not deeply into wine then this is way too much detail. But it is a thing.

One thing I'll suggest is renting a bike in Healdsburg and doing a ride around the Dry Creek area - you ride right by a lot of wineries and can see the vineyards up close and the roads are pretty quiet so it's really a lovely outing. Wine Country Bikes in Healdsburg rents bikes - they have tours but honestly I suggest just getting on a bike and going. They have suggested routes, here's a route I've done with my wife on a tandem.

One thing I'd suggest is doing a little research on specific wineries since some of the better ones require reservations for tours or tastings and while you can definitely just drive around and try whatever you may miss out on some of the better places. Also some places are really expensive and charge a lot for tastings so take a pass unless you're really interested. Also if you want specific styles of wine or champagne then plan around wineries that do those things. Like Korbel has nice champagne but it's not near anything that I can recall so you won't end up there by accident.

Anyway, there's tons to do and it's hard to go wrong, but at the same time it's easy to miss something so my suggestion is to do a little planning so you don't leave feeling you missed something better.
posted by GuyZero at 11:31 AM on March 13, 2018 [6 favorites]

But many vineyards burned, so maybe call before you stop by.

Vineyards are fire-resistant, so pretty much none of the vineyards burned. A very small handful of wineries burned (I think maybe three or four in Napa and Sonoma counties.)

The recent rain has added a great deal of green to a lot of the hillsides. If you're mainly staying in the wine areas, both Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley don't look particularly fire-damaged. The Russian River area and Dry Creek Valley were out of the fire damage totally and are fine. May would be a lovely time to visit.
posted by lazuli at 11:32 AM on March 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you can, I highly recommend going to dinner at Ad Hoc in Yountville. It’s Thomas Keller’s casual, family-style restaurant. We’ve had simple but *amazing* meals every time we’ve gone. You’ll need a reservation. Have fun!
posted by bananacabana at 11:32 AM on March 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

both Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley don't look particularly fire-damaged

And by "don't look" I mean that in a very literal way -- I drive through both regularly. My father visited at the holidays and I had to point out the fire damaged trees because he didn't even really register them.
posted by lazuli at 11:33 AM on March 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

We really enjoyed our tour with Paul from Terrific Tours.

2nding Russian River in Santa Rosa if you're into beer.

Next time I'm up there, I want to do the cheese trail.
posted by natabat at 11:36 AM on March 13, 2018

Everyone else has your other questions covered, so I'll just chime in to say that Sacramento is a much easier airport to navigate, and the drive from SMF to Napa or Sonoma is much less trafficky than SFO to Napa or Sonoma. If you don't have any reason to stop in the Bay Area, Sacramento is your hassle-free airport option.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:36 AM on March 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

I went to Napa for my honeymoon. We did a winery tour, took a balloon ride, and spent a day at a spa in Calistoga. I highly recommend it. Get the mud.

It was 20 years ago so I don't remember a lot, but there was one vineyard you got to via gondolas and another one that aged their wine in caves. The cave one was probably my favorite. Sadly, I don't remember the name but I'm sure someone will.

They offer limo tours of the wineries which we at first thought were dumb but after the third one or so it started to make a lot more sense. Pace yourself. Use the spit buckets.
posted by bondcliff at 12:29 PM on March 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I can't stress enough that it is worth it to make reservations at one or two wineries if you want to avoid the crush at some of the places that accept walk ins. There are some really lovely wonderful tastings out there must be scheduled in advance. If you have any favorite wineries in the area - check out what kind of experiences they have on offer. Many places are very accommodating if you shoot them an email or give them a call. Even if you aren't on their list or in their club. If you want a few specific recs - feel free to PM me.

You also do not have to buy a bottle or join the club after the tasting if you don't want to! Tipping is a nice thing to do for your tour guide though - especially if you liked them.

IMO The Shed in Healdsburg is a must.

My parents were one of the unlucky ones who lost their home in the Tubbs fire. They are thrilled for local tourism to ramp back up. Hope you have a fantastic time!
posted by rdnnyc at 1:23 PM on March 13, 2018

Lots of great advice above, so a few specific recommendations:
- There are some world class restaurants in Napa and Sonoma (e.g. French Laundry), so if you'd like to splurge on an amazing meal, or just eat some tasty food, bring your appetite! Here's a good rundown of great restaurants in Napa Valley and Sonoma County at different price points.
- If you're a fan of cabs, I love the tour at Nickle & Nickle - they do single-vineyard cabs and really educate you on how different this one varietal can be if you grow it just a few miles up or down the road, given the various water & soil conditions in the valley (side note: check out the difference in vegetation and greenery between the east & west sides of the valley while you're there).
- Do at least one lunch picnic style at a vineyard. You'll need to do a tiny bit of research ahead of time to make sure that the vineyard you're going to allows it (many do - here's a list for Napa), but it's a wonderful way to pause a bit and soak up the scenery. In Napa, THE place to stop for suppplies is Oakville Grocery - you can get some great cheeses & meats, a good loaf of bread, some olives, some fruit, etc. Then go do a tasting, get a bottle of your favorite wine, and sit on the beautiful grounds and enjoy your lunch. May weather will be perfect for this!
posted by Jaclyn at 2:14 PM on March 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

The best tour I ever got in Napa/Sonoma was the aforementioned Gundlach Bunschu. It's pretty great.

Coppola is fun, but for reasons external to the wine -- he's got lots of movie memorabilia there.
posted by uberchet at 3:22 PM on March 13, 2018

I really like Preston in Healdsburg. The atmosphere is cute and farmy, reminds me of before a lot of the tasting rooms were remodeled. The rosé is really good.
posted by vunder at 10:49 AM on March 14, 2018

Also, coupons! Wine tasting gets very expensive in both Napa and Sonoma—most are $20-$30 per person, which adds up quickly if you want to hit a bunch of spots. There are loads of 2-for-1 coupons online for both regions, and they won't bat an eye when you use them.
posted by standardasparagus at 10:59 AM on March 14, 2018

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