FIRST TIME VISITOR'S GUIDE TO NAPA VALLEY
Before we start, get your bearings with this basic Napa Map.
FIND OUT HOW EASY IT IS TO PLAN YOUR FIRST TRIP TO NAPA!
Just mention that you're planning a trip to Napa Valley at work and
see what happens. All of a sudden people who you have never met start
climbing out of their cubicles to give you their opinions on what to
do, what wineries to go to, where to eat. But wait - you wouldn't
trust these people with your stapler, so why trust them with your
vacation plans? Let's face it - they're idiots!
Luckily for you,
planning a trip to Napa isn't as daunting as it might at first seem -
IF you follow these three easy steps to planning the Best First Timers
Trip to Napa Valley.
TIP: Everyone wants discount coupons these days, and who can blame them with most wineries charging at least $10 per person and some charging $20! A good place to find those coupons is right here!
STEP ONE: WHEN TO VISIT NAPA VALLEY
wants to come to Napa in Summer, but Summer brings crowds that will remind
you of Christmas at Costco. Unless you like standing in lines, fighting
for a spot at the tasting bar, and sky high hotel rates, avoid Summer.
The best time to visit Napa is Fall, meaning Sept to October. This is "crush" time when they harvest the grapes. You want to see a winery in action, you come in Fall. November is also nice because the weather is still good but the crowds and rates have dropped. The second best time is Spring when the mustard plants are all in bloom. This is a "gotta see it to believe it", but everywhere you look you'll see brilliant bright mustard plants with eyepopping color! It's like you stepped into a HD Plasma TV and someone turned the colors on full blast! There will be no grapes on the vines, but you hardly notice
So tip number one to first time visitors is to pick the right season to visit. Again, Fall or Spring are best.
STEP TWO: FIND A HOTEL IN THE RIGHT PART OF TOWN
If you've searched for a hotel on the internet, you might have
noticed that you can find some INCREDIBLE VALUES! Holy Cheapskate,
Batman, an $89 room in Napa? Well, you'd better think twice before
clicking the button because I'm here to tell you that nearly all of the
super cheap hotels that look too good to be true are... too good to be
true! Most of these are far, far away from the real Napa. Healdsberg?
American Canyon? Fairfield? Forgetaboutit! Don't be fooled by cheap rates!
So here's the lowdown. There are basically only 4 areas you want to stay at, and they are:
DOWNTOWN NAPA: Cool and trendy old town, lots of terrific
restaurants and usually the least expensive place to stay. Traveler's favorites? River Terrace Inn, Embassy Suites, and believe it or not,
the Best Western Elm House Inn. For Bed and Breakfast lovers, Napa Inn
passes the test with flying colors.
YOUNTVILLE: This is prime
real estate, a quaint town located within walking distance to some of
the very best restaurants in town, including famous French Laundry,
Bouchon, Bistro Jeanty, Hurley's, Redds, the list goes on. Best
places? Villagio is #1, Vintage Inn is #2, Yountville Inn is #3. You might also like the Napa Lodge, but it's a step down in class. It is,
however, located right in a vineyard.
ST HELENA AND RUTHERFORD:
If you were looking for hotels that are destinations in themselves,
this is it. Big bucks, but worth it resorts are Auberge du Soleil and
Meadowood. For a bit less cash, Harvest Inn is a top pick, and for
something really different go boutique at Rancho Caymus.
At the north tip of Napa Valley is a town made famous for their mud
baths. Dr. Wilkerson is the motel that started it all, but there are
other higher end options now, such as super pricey Calistoga Ranch.
Always start your hotel check with Vintage Inn and Villagio in Yountville. Sure, they can get expensive during high season, but if you ever find them in the $225 range, grab it! And if you're trying to save some cash, River Terrace Inn is very respectable. It's not quite as nice as Vintage Inn, but the outdoor patio is wonderful for starting your day, especially since they have complimentary breakfast (and coffee).
STEP THREE: WHAT WINERIES TO VISIT?
"Don't go to that one, it's too touristy..."
you'll hear again and again from all of the so-called Napa Valley wine
experts. They'll shoo you away from the well known wineries, calling
them tourist traps or saying that they're too commercial. But that
would be like going to San Francisco and NOT seeing the Golden Gate
Bridge, or going to Paris and skipping out on the Eiffel Tower. First
timers coming to Napa need to see the big iconic wineries, the ones
that made Napa famous.
But don't get me wrong - there are
plenty of friendly boutique wineries that should also make your list.
But whatever you do, have a plan before you go! Pick 3 to 4 wineries
you want to visit each day, and allow time for one tour.
THE BEST BIG NAPA VALLEY WINERIES FOR FIRST TIME VISITORS
- Domaine Chandon: Remember this, always start your day in Napa at Domaine Chandon. Featuring sparking wine (also known as champagne), it's the perfect introduction to Napa. Besides, do you really want to be sipping a big bold red cab at 10 in the morning??
- Robert Mondavi: In 1861, Charles Krug established Napa's first commercial winery. It was later bought by the Mondavi family in 1943 but by the mid-sixties the brothers Peter and Robert had a falling out with Robert leaving Krug and starting up his own winery. He changed the pronounciation of his last name from Mon-day-vi to Mon-dah-vi, and soon started building his own reputation as one of the finest winemakers in Napa. If your only experience with Mondavi wines is his low end Woodbridge, then you might be pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines. Beautiful grounds, and some of the best tours for first timers. Make tour reservations before you go, especially if you're coming at a busy time. TIP: Taking tours is a great way to get away from the busy crowds! Most large wineries offer a number of different tours, from basic winemaking to food and wine pairing, so spend some time researching your options and make that reservation before you leave.
- Beringer Vineyards: Another historic winery, founded in 1876 by two German immigrants. The "tunnel of trees" in front of the winery, planted by the Beringer brothers in 1885, hints at the beauty within. The lush landscaping, the ornate Rhine House (the original mansion that was modeled after their home in Germany), the historic farmhouse, and the stoic stone winery, you get a sense for what Napa used to be. Also offering great tours, though those looking for a wine production tour should note that the actual wine making facility is across the street - and closed to the public.
- Rubicon Estates: If you've never heard of Rubicon, perhaps you know it by it's previous names - Coppola, or Niebaum Coppola, or Inglenook Winery. What? Isn't Inglenook the crappy jug wine sold at Longs Drugs? Hold on, trust me on this. As one of the original Napa wineries, Inglenook was founded by a wealthy sea captain who had a passion for making fine wines, and ironically not in large quantities. It took 80 years to build their reputation, but far fewer to destroy it when they sold out to a large corporation known best for their alcoholic spirits than wine. In with the jugs, out with the quality, and soon Inglenook wasn't even made in Napa. Enter Francis Ford Coppola, flush with profits from The Godfather II. He bought the winery with the vision to return it to its old glory, and today no trip to Napa is complete without a stop at Rubicon. Sure, it's expensive to visit ($25) but in this case Coppola delivers. You'll feel like you somehow stumbled into an old winery in Europe.
- Castello di Amorosa: The famous Napa castle, as seen on the Travel Channel! Wait, don't smirk and walk away, Renee. Castello di Amorosa might at first seem like a tourist trap - afterall, what's a full scale medieval castle doing in Napa? But this is no Disney Epcot fake, no Las Vegas gondola ride smaltz, this damn castle is authentic down to every last detail. The two hour tour takes you through the castle, through the secret passageways and into the dungeon. It's less focused on wine, but a fascinating tour nonetheless. Short on time? For $10 you can enter the castle and winetaste. You have to see this one to believe it.
LESSER KNOWN NAPA VALLEY WINERIES FOR FIRST TIME VISITORS
- Cakebread: Appointment only, but don't worry - it's possibly one of the friendliest and best boutiques in Napa. Unlike most wineries where you fight for a place at the bar to get a taste, Cakebread takes smaller groups into the back where they'll do a bit of history and a bit of education as you sip their wines. Incredibly wines, an essential stop.
- Frog's Leap: You have to love a winery that was built on an old frog farm and has the slogan "Time's Fun When You're Having Flies!" One of the most unusual tours, they'll walk you through the vineyards and pour you glasses of wine to taste along the way. If you've done enough "timeshare" tours where you have to walk for an hour before you get a sip of wine, Frog's Leap will be your type of winery! Appointments required.
- St. Supery: Sure, it looks more like a corporate business park than a romantic winery, but St. Supery offers first timers a lot for their buck. Start with the free self guided tour, check out the free art exhibits, then make sure you visit the "smell-o-vision" gizmo where you get to smell some of the aromas of various wines. If it ever baffled you when people would say "tastes a bit like grapefruit", then a trip to the smell-o-vision should be on your agenda. Super friendly pourers, and their Elu blend is stunning.
- Regusci: You'll feel like you stepped into the movie "Under the Tuscan Sun". With farm hands shaking olives out of the trees in front, a sleeping corgi lazing in the sun, and a historic stone building built in the late 1800's, it's not to be missed. Friendly staff, especially Jonesy, the charismatic guy with the Welsch accent.
- Hall: Very cool small winery, you know you're someplace different when you see the handblown glass balls handing from the ceiling like giant drops of red wine. A free photo booth (send a picture back home), great picnic spot, and friendly staff.
- Frank Family: Once called the "crappiest winery in Napa" by their own staff since the tasting room was an crummy old house, they've just opened their new, definitely "not crappy" tasting room in a historic craftsman house. Irreverent wine pourers, you'll be smiling the moment you meet them. Very nice wines, make sure you try the Zin.
TIP: Visiting wineries can get really expensive, so share your tastings. Don't worry, it's perfectly acceptable. And don't forget to take notes on what you liked or didn't like at the various wineries as it's surprisingly easy to be totally confused by the end of the day!
ANOTHER TIP: Look for two for one coupons before you go - There's a bunch of free coupons on this Napa on a Budget page. And when you are in smaller boutiques, always ask what other wineries they recommend as they sometimes will provide you with a free tasting referral card. Sweeet!
STEP FOUR: WHERE TO EAT IN NAPA
And you thought picking out wineries was hard?!
known for their great food almost as much as their wines. You'll find
everything here from fantastic gourmet burgers at Taylor's Refresher to
$1,000 dinner for two at The French Laundry - and everything
in-between. Whatever you do, don't get lazy after a day of winetasting
and end up at a chain restaurant or, worse yet, fast food! You're in
Napa, the center of the universe for good wine and good food, so get
out there and experience Napa dining. Dressy or casual, expensive or
budget, there are plenty of options.
There are so many good restaurants, too many to list, but here is the short list of Good Eats in Napa.
- Thomas Keller's Restaurants: You might have seen the movie Ratatouille, the story of the rat who wanted to be a gourmet chef? It's been said that they modeled the fancy restaurant after The French Laundry (well, without the rats), arguably one of the best restaurants in the world. That's not just marketing fluff, The French Laundy has earned the reputation for being one of the top 3 gourmet destinations. At $250 per person before wine, it's easy to pay a thousand bucks after wine for a dinner for two. Reservations book exactly 2 months ahead of time and it's a rare night indeed when the restaurant is not filled. It's 9 courses, it takes 5 hours, but for gourmets and lottery winners it's an essential dining experience. But let's say you want to taste what all the fuss is about but don't want to blow next month's mortgage payment on dinner? Then head over to Bouchon Bistro, Thomas Keller's more casual (and more reasonably priced) restaurant. Fun and lively, you might be reminded of a trendy Paris bistro. For more casual Keller dining, try Ad Hoc, which serves up one thing and one thing only each night. Make sure you check the daily menu to make sure you like what they're serving, and if you see fried chicken you must go!
- Mustards Grill: If you're ever at odds on where to eat, just go to Mustards. Cindy Pawlcyn started the crazy "comfort foods gone upscale" thing, and even if this concept is no longer new, no one does it better than Mustards. Cindy also has two other exceptionally good restaurants, Go Fish (her take on a Pacific coast fish house) and Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen (like dining at Cindy's house).
- Rutherford Grill: OK, you got me - it's part of a chain. But it's so popular with locals and tourists alike that it has to be on the Best Napa Eats list. Always packed, but grab a seat at the bar if you can where the peoplewatching is the main attraction (and they serve off the full dinner menu as well). Fork tender ribs, rotisserie lamb, but try the Steak and Enchillada combo and always, always get the grilled artichoke to start. No corkage fee , so bring in that bottle you bought today with youand have it with your dinner.
- Celedon: Located in Downtown Napa, a casually trendy restaurant with a killer outdoor patio. Start with the mussels made with applewood bacon and melt in your mouth tenderness and you'll soon be in love with this place. Ribs, steaks, pastas, all good.
- Taylor's Automatic Refresher: What happens when you take an old rundown burger drive in and put a gourmet Napa twist on it? you get Taylors, home to the incredible seared ahi burger and featured on every Food TV and Travel Channel "best burger" special. Whether you opt for the Blue Cheese Burger or the Fish and Chips made with mahi mahi, the garlic or sweet potato fries, you'll see why this place often has lines stretching way into the parking lot.
- Bistro Jeanty: Located in Yountville, it's a casual French bistro that gets everything right. Step inside and have a seat at the communal table, open to anyone without a reservation, or sit in back near and have a romantic dinner by the fireplace. Start with the puff pastry covered tomato soup, or the salad with lardons and a soft boiled egg on top. More casual than Bouchon, and priced a bit more reasonably as well. Don't worry that you don't know much about French food - can you argue with a rib eye steak with fries?
- Market: Recommended by locals, a small eatery that's comfortable yet still has a trendy vibe. Down home food like fried chicken and crazy good adult mac and cheese, along with standards like lamb and filet mignon. Tons of oysters, hard to resist when they're this fresh.
There's so many other good restaurants like The Bounty Hunter, or Zuzu's, or Cuvee.... If you're a foodie you might want to stop in at each one and have a small plate and a glass of wine, then move on to the next one!
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS.... AND SHORT ANSWERS!
- Should we take the Wine Train? The idea of a refurbished pullman dining car serving up gourmet food and wines seems like a great idea, but it's execution needs some work. Food qualtiy is about as good as a good hotel buffet, sort of like what you would expect at a business convention. The trains are beautiful, however, though the windows could use a good washing, especially since the point of taking the train is to see the views.
- What about picnics? The best place to stop to get your picnic supplies is Oakville Grocery, a mom and pop country store that's gone upscale. Head up the hill from there to Diamond Oaks Winery where you'll find picnic tables under the majestic oaks overlooking the valley. You must buy a bottle to use their facilites, but at $16 for a chardonnay or merlot, it's a bargain.
- Where do we get a mud bath? Old school Dr. Wilkinson's is the place for the real deal of soaking in volcanic ash and peat moss. The Works, which includes the mud bath, facial mask, whirlpool bath, steam room, blanket wrap and 1/2 hour massage is a very reasonable $129.
- What's up with Copia? First, you might be bored by Copia, the wine and food museum. As of Nov, 2008, it's closed for "financial restructuring". Hopefully they get back on their feet and maybe liven the place up a bit. So scratch it off your "to do" list and go have a killer lunch instead where you get to taste good food and wine instead of reading about it! Seems like a good trade off.