What to expect, where to go, and how to get around on your next visit to California’s wine capital
The Napa Valley is an epicurean fantasy come to life. Spanning towns such as Napa, Rutherford, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga, the 30-mile stretch of fertile soil is home to scores of luxurious accommodations, restaurants with more than two-dozen Michelin stars among them, and acres upon acres of vineyards that line the landscape like corduroy.
There are more than 400 wineries across Napa Valley. Some are over the top, some are understated. Some are cavernous, others are the size of a tiny garage. Vibe, style, and approach at each of these wineries differ completely. Where you choose to spend your visit can dictate your Napa experience. Here’s what you need to know.
How does winetasting work?
The best way to sample a winery’s offerings is to pony up for a formal winetasting. As the name implies, 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.
Many wineries require appointments—especially when you’re aiming to taste rare (the technical term is “reserve”) wines or have a food pairing. To make these, go to the winery’s website or call.
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.)
Most wineries are open daily from 10 or 11 a.m. until 5 or 6 p.m.
How much does winetasting cost?
Prices for these experiences 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 $125 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.
How should I get around?
There are a few different ways to get around the Napa Valley.
Perhaps the most common—and the easiest—is by car. If you’re planning to drive yourself, have a designated driver (seriously) and reserve a rental; cars are available from all area airports, as well as from most of the major valley hotels. 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 the top of the valley to the bottom; 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, for the truly adventuresome, bicycle rentals are available at bike shops in Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga. Currently, the Vine Trail Napa Valley, a dedicated bike path, runs 12 miles from downtown 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.
OK, got it. So where should I taste?
Best wineries for rookies
The wine world can be intimidating if you don’t know your stuff. Some wineries are better than others at making beginners feel comfortable. The best of the bunch is Robert Mondavi Winery, which opened in Rutherford in 1966 and was named after its founder. The winery was designed in mission-style architecture, complete with a bell tower and expansive archway. Inside this superlative structure, the late Mondavi set up different tasting stations throughout the winery; all told, visitors can sample more than a dozen different wines. What’s more, the vineyards are close enough to the tasting room to touch. (There’s even a food program, put into motion by Mondavi’s late wife, Margrit.) Other great wineries for beginners include V. Sattui Winery, which has an extensive selection of varieties and a stellar general store to pick up house-made food items or wine and brand-related tchochkes; and Clos du Val, which offers panoramic views of the Rutherford growing appellation and pours a nice selection of wines.
Best wineries for oenophiles
“Cult wines” are what wine lovers call wines that are hard to find. (It’s no coincidence that these wines are also usually super expensive.) Naturally, then, the best wineries for oenophiles are the wineries that make these in-demand wines. Here are three about which you’ve probably heard: Caymus Vineyards, a stone winery in Rutherford; Silver Oak, an Oakville winery that is famous for its iconic water tower; and Opus One Winery, an Oakville winery that looks like a modern fortress built into the landscape. Others that command attention include Duckhorn, Quintessa, and Dana Estate, which sits in an incredible winery that dates to the 1880s. Finally, VGS Chateau Potelle had the highest-selling lot at Auction Napa Valley 2018, an event during which oenophiles bid on barrels of wine to be bottled at a later date.
Best wineries for food pairings
In the olden days, wineries served one thing and one thing only: wine. In recent years, however, many of the biggest wineries have embraced small courses of food that the winemaker pairs with each wine. These food-and-wine pairings transform the average experience—whereas previously guests would stay at a tasting for nearly an hour, now most guests stay at least two hours. Still, not all food pairings are created equal. Right now perhaps the best pairings are at the recently completed Piazza Del Dotto Winery & Caves, where visitors can choose from snacks or full meals. Close seconds: B Cellars, in Oakville, which offers year-round pairings and adventures around the vineyard, and Signorello Estate in Stags Leap, which was burned to the ground in the Tubbs Fire of 2017, reopened to the public in the summer of 2018, and serves a sizable portion with each of four glasses of wine.
Best wineries for selfies
At Alpha Omega Winery, the winery is separated from State Highway 29 by a giant fountain that has become one of the most photographed icons of the valley. At Raymond Vineyards, where walls are red and picture frames abound, guests marvel at owner Jean Charles Boisset’s quirky decor. Other popular places to preen for the camera: uber-hipster Ashes & Diamonds Winery, with its 1970s motif; brand-new The Prisoner Wine Company, which offers food pairings and maker experiences; and Darioush Estate, which has Persian-style columns lining the entrance; and Hall.
Best wineries for the whole family
Believe it or not, some Napa Valley wineries welcome kids, too. The perennial favorite: Castello di Amorosa, which has been built to replicate a Tuscan castle from medieval times (complete with bricks and stones shipped over from Italy). While the winery offers dozens of wines for grownups to taste, it also has emus and a cavalcade of farm animals. Simply wandering around the dungeons and turrets is an adventure for guests of every age. Other family-friendly wineries include Honig Winery, which gives goldfish crackers, apple juice, and coloring supplies to all child visitors, and Sterling Vineyards, which requires that guests take a cable car to the hilltop winery from the parking lot—a fun ride for kids and the young at heart.
For more information
There’s no shortage of information about the Napa Valley on the internet. The best spot for all of the official material is Visit Napa Valley, the organization charged with marketing the destination. Other great resources include the Napa Valley Travel Guide from AFAR and the local newspaper, the Napa Valley Register.
From January 23 to January 25, 2019, AFAR Experiences is heading to Napa. Register now for exclusive, invitation-only entry to some of the region’s most prestigious and memorable places, alongside local winemakers and artisans, renowned chefs, and cultural experts.
>>Plan your trip: Guide to Exceptional Northern California Wine Country