North of San Francisco, Napa Valley is one of the best known wine growing regions in all of California. So it’s no surprise that wine lovers from around the world flock here to visit these renowned wineries and go winetasting at the source. However, there are a few helpful things to know before you set out to go winetasting in Napa—from logistics to etiquette.
Where to go: The towns of Napa
Napa Valley is about 30 miles long, with its main thoroughfare (the St. Helena highway) running south to north from the town of Napa to Calistoga. Along this road, there are several small towns: Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga. Although you’ll venture away from these towns while visiting vineyards, any of them makes for an excellent home base for the weekend or pit stop for lunch, dinner, or just a leisurely stroll.
It’s best to reserve (and pay for) a formal tasting
The best way to sample a winery’s offerings is to pony up for a formal winetasting. This is your chance to taste some (or all, depending on the spot) of the winery’s current releases.
Others incorporate food, chocolate, and other delicious treats into the mix. Across the valley, many tastings are seated—meaning you and your traveling companions sit as you would at a restaurant, and a server or host brings the wines to you. Some wineries also still use tasting bars; at these, you simply walk up to the bar and stand while you sip. Hosts do their best to facilitate your tasting, providing general tasting notes before you sample, then checking back after you sip to answer questions you might have.
Appointments are often required, always recommended
Even before COVID-19 restrictions came into play, many Napa wineries and tasting rooms required appointments (or reservations)—especially to taste rare wines or have a food pairing. To make these, go to the winery’s website or call ahead.
While some wineries allow walk-ins, reservations are still recommended on weekends, when day-trippers from nearby Sacramento and San Francisco flock to the valley.
Plan on two or three winetastings in a day
If you don’t normally drink a lot, one to two tastings will be plenty. Otherwise, most people will visit two, maybe three winetasting venues in a single day—ideally with a long lunch in between.
Most tasting rooms close by 5 or 6 p.m.
You may be used to drinking in the evenings, but winetasting in Napa Valley is a daytime affair. Most wineries are open daily from 10 or 11 a.m. until 5 or 6 p.m, so plan to start early if you want to visit two or more in a single day.
The cost of winetasting in Napa
Prices for these winetastings vary widely. At most wineries, basic tastings usually run between $30 and $50 per person. Many wineries refund the price of one tasting with each bottle purchased. More involved tastings—those that feature rare wines or are paired with food courses—tend to be more expensive, and they can range anywhere from $75 to $200 or more per person. These higher-dollar tastings rarely include rebates for bottles purchased.
Almost every winery offers a wine club, a subscription-based opportunity to receive regular shipments through the year. Generally speaking, wineries offer 10 to 20 percent discounts on tastings for members of these wine clubs; if you join the club when you visit, you get the discount before you go.
One more thing: Tips are not expected but always appreciated. You can leave gratuities however you feel most comfortable—as cash or on a credit card bill.
Take your time with your tasting
Once you’ve sat for a tasting, don’t rush. Basic tastings last about an hour, while more involved tastings can go anywhere from 90 minutes to two or three hours. Hosts are trained to pace the tastings slowly to keep everyone relaxed. Remember that you don’t have to drink every drop of each wine; tables and bars always are equipped with dump buckets into which you can pour any wine you’d rather not drink. (Especially if you don’t like a particular wine, this is where you’d put it.)
The best way to get around Napa Valley
The most common—and the easiest—way to get around is by car. If you’re planning to drive yourself, have a designated driver (seriously) and reserve a rental. Rideshares serve the region, as well; even at peak times, customers rarely wait more than 5 or 10 minutes for an Uber or Lyft. About a dozen private transportation companies operate in the valley, too; a few worth investigating are Napa Valley Tours & Transportation, Pure Luxury Transportation, and Beau Wine Tours & Limousine Service. Keep in mind that the valley is long and it can take longer than you expect to get from one end of the valley to the other; plan your tasting schedule accordingly.
Another popular option for exploring the valley is the Napa Wine Train. This old-school train service incorporates refurbished Pullman railcars and offers a variety of tours to explore Napa Valley; excursions range from a few hours to the entire day, with longer ones stopping at wineries along the way. The Wine Train also offers seasonal events aboard the rails—everything from special New Year’s Eve packages to one-of-a-kind Valentine’s Day trips.
Finally, bicycle rentals are available at bike shops in Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga. Currently, the Napa Valley Vine Trail, a dedicated bike path, runs 12.5 miles from just outside Napa to Yountville. Plans are in the works to extend the trail all the way up to Calistoga (and beyond), bringing it to a total of 47 miles from the bottom of the valley to the top.
Napa isn’t the only great place for winetasting in California
Napa Valley is arguably the most famous winemaking region in California and its popularity draws a lot of wine lovers. However, the region is home to only 14 of the state’s 137 distinct American viticultural areas (AVAs). Whether you’re looking to escape the crowds of Napa, or simply want to explore different varietals and flavor profiles influenced by the state’s varied geography, consider exploring other (but equally phenomenal) California wine regions. Nearby Sonoma and Mendocino counties, both of which cover a diverse geography stretching from the hot, arid foothills adjacent to Napa to the fog-swept coastlines known for their mineral-driven wines, are great options.
This article was originally published in 2018. It was most recently updated on May 19th, 2022, to include current information. Jessie Beck contributed to the reporting of this story.