Photo Courtesy of James Daisa
As California’s most famous wine-growing region, Napa Valley is heaven for oenophiles. But despite its many tasting rooms, it’s essentially a farming community. The diverse experiences it offers range from the luxurious to the rustic. Travelers can expect a lot more than wine tasting—from gorgeous h…ikes in the mountains above the valley to the rich arts and culture. Or make wine tasting the entire point to a trip; no one will judge.
What to know before you go to Napa Valley
There is no bad time to visit Napa Valley. From late winter/early spring, when the vines are pruned and the tidy rows are ablaze with bright-yellow mustard seed, to the thrill of harvest in the fall, when wineries crush grapes and the air is filled with the sweet smell of fermentation, its charms evolve throughout the year. The peak tourist season is from August through October. Many wineries host harvest events, but during these months you will also pay the most for hotel rooms and spend the most time waiting in traffic or in lines in tasting rooms. If you picture yourself frolicking through the sun-drenched vineyard vistas that Napa is famous for, go anytime between May and October, when it rarely rains in this Mediterranean climate. But if you don’t mind a little fog and drizzly mornings, try winter, when wineries throw open their doors, reservations are readily available, and hotels are less expensive. Just keep in mind that some restaurants might have reduced hours in January and February.
Napa Valley is about 1.5 hours north of San Francisco and easy to reach from the San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento airports. If driving from San Francisco, the route over the Golden Gate Bridge, then west through the Carneros Valley is a much lovelier drive and a better introduction to wine country than the congested shopping mall corridor of American Canyon (Route 29). A convenient shuttle bus run by Evans Transportation gets you to Napa from the San Francisco and Oakland airports for $40, cash. Quite a few tour companies offer reasonable rates on day excursions from San Francisco.Public transportation is limited in the Valley. A bus called the Vine runs up and down Highway 29 between Calistoga and Napa throughout the day for $1.60 per ride or $6.50 for an all-day pass. With winetasting a main attraction to the area, tour companies are popular and can be surprisingly affordable. Many tour drivers have relationships with wineries that are off the beaten path, reservations-only, or otherwise little known or exclusive. Be sure to tell your driver in advance what kind of experience you are looking for, and he or she will make recommendations. Take note that the Napa Valley Wine Train is not really intended for transportation: It’s a half-day trip up and down the valley that includes lunch and a winetasting.
Floating over the valley in a hot-air balloon just as the sun is coming up is a magical experience. It’s a perspective few visitors get to have: The bright colors of fellow ballooners bobbing above the fog and the tidy rows of rolling vineyards below make a truly memorable experience. Aloft leaves from Yountville in the center of the valley; Calistoga Balloons lifts off from farther north. (Pro tip: You can get a similar perspective by hiking to the top of Mount St. Helena.)
While wineries are often the focus of visitors, the area markets and general stores should not be overlooked for insight into the local cultures. You'll find aprons, scarves, cigars, wine books, and canvas bags for sale. These shops also often carry an assortment of local products for sale, a nice way to support the valley economy.
The two primary reasons to visit Napa Valley are food and wine. With hundreds of wineries and world-class restaurants to choose from, you will likely spend much of your visit eating and/or drinking. Dining options range from three-Michelin-star restaurants with tasting menus that go deep into your pockets to casual taquerías where you can get a burrito the size of your head for less than $10. And between (or with) every meal there is wine of every kind to be had, from the cultiest cabernet to the easiest-drinking albariño.
In a valley that has been dominated by agriculture for the last 100 years, culture thrives, too. In downtown Napa, the JaM Cellars Ballroom sits in the 110-year-old Napa Valley Opera House, and now hosts live music, shows old movies, and hosts high school musicals. It also serves as one of the hubs for the Napa Valley Film Festival. The Uptown Theater attracts some surprisingly big acts, from Eddie Money to Ani DiFranco. Shows tend to sell out quickly, as it is one of the more happening places for live music north of San Francisco. The Hess Collection, a private contemporary art collection housed in the Hess winery on Mount Veeder, is a must-see for art lovers. It’s free to browse the gallery⎯and don’t worry, you are not likely to find a single vineyard landscape. Finally, the Rail Arts District in downtown Napa is a two-mile long corridor with more than a dozen colorful murals.
Auction Napa Valley is for wine-loving consumers with money to burn. The long weekend, which culminates in a daylong auction that raises millions of dollars for Napa Valley charities, is packed with dinners and tastings, and even those who don’t fork over the thousands of dollars it costs to attend can appreciate the general buzz in the air. Flavor! Napa Valley, which takes place in November, highlights cuisine as prepared by some of the Valley’s top chefs. The weeklong festival includes tastings, pairings, cooking demonstrations, and wine classes throughout the area. Festival Napa Valley celebrates the summer solstice with everything from dance and opera to early morning yoga classes and, of course, plenty of food and wine. The Napa Valley Film Festival takes place each November, with screenings of independent films and documentaries (not just about wine!) throughout the Valley. Parties and dinners held at wineries and restaurants attract a diverse crowd.
Bring a sweater. One of the things that makes Napa such a great place to grow grapes for wine is its extreme shifts in temperature, meaning a 90-degree day can sink to a cool 50 when the sun goes down. Also, take Silverado Trail instead of Highway 29. It’s usually less crowded and more scenic. Another rule: Don’t drink and drive. This is wise practice anywhere at anytime, but especially in Napa Valley, where drinking is common and cops are vigilant. Finally, when you go out to eat, sit at the bar. Most restaurants offer a separate bar menu, which has more affordable, casual offerings like steak frites or burgers—and you’ll probably get some good insider tips while you’re at it.
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Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California, smack in the middle of Wine Country. In addition to writing for AFAR, he has written travel stories for outlets such as Time, CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sunset, and San Francisco, to name a few. He also covers parenting, business, science, and gambling. Learn more about him at whalehead.com.
Courtney Humiston is a freelance writer, certified sommelier, and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. In 2010, she moved from New York City—where she was covering the dining scene for NBC New York—to study wine in Napa Valley. When she is not stomping grapes, pruning vines, or serving wine, she enjoys eating at the many incredible restaurants in Wine Country. She writes for 7x7 magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, Decanter, and The World of Fine Wine.