An Insiders Guide to Napa Valley
Napa Valley is best known as California’s premiere wine-tasting region. Besides wine tasting, however, there are several other experiences to try in Napa. From the arts to outdoor adventures, and farm-to-fork meals to family fun, we’ve got all the details you need for your next Napa vacation.
Despite its large reputation, you’ll discover that Napa Valley really isn’t as big as you imagine, geographically at least. Located north of the San Francisco Bay, Napa Valley is only about 30 miles long and 5 miles wide (at the widest point). Napa Valley is, in fact, a valley that sits between two mountain ranges – the Vaca Mountains on the east and the Mayacamas Mountains to the west. Despite the small size, there are 16 different American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) and a lot of different microclimates that make the region ideal for agriculture.
In Napa Valley, there is also a big shift in temperature from morning to night. This diurnal shift happens thanks to the San Pablo Bay that sits to the south of the valley near the Carneros AVA. Morning fog moves into the valley from the bay, traveling all the way to Calistoga. Then it burns off in the afternoons and the sunshine warms the valley floor. Because of this cooling and warming, the northern part of Napa Valley is the warmest, producing bigger bolder wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. In the south towards Carneros, the weather tends to be cooler and is the ideal climate for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and sparkling wines.
Another reason Napa Valley is such a great place to grow wine is that it has a huge diversity of soils. In fact, an impressive 50% of the world’s soils can be found there! From any given place within Napa Valley, you’ll not only find unique microclimates, but different soil compositions. What does this mean for wine? Wine from Napa Valley is very interesting and dynamic, and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon from one AVA can taste markedly different from Cabernet Sauvignon in another.
How to get around Napa Valley
There are two main roads that take you from the southern portion to the northern part of the valley. On the west side is Highway 29, which runs from the city of Napa all the way to Calistoga. On the east side is the Silverado Trail which is very drivable, unless there’s traffic. Start your day at the Napa Valley Welcome Center to get some pro-tips, see a map of the valley and to get yourself acclimated. For those who like a little outdoor adventure, you can try the Napa Valley Vine Trail. While it’s still currently being expanded, the bike/pedestrian/dog-friendly Vine Trail already extends over 12 miles from the town of Napa to the center of the valley. Eventually, the trail will extend from the Vallejo ferry terminal, all the way to Calistoga! You can rent a bike at one of the many bike rental places in town, and take a leisurely ride through wine country.
Why is Napa so famous?
The Judgement of Paris in 1976 really put Napa Valley on the map. It was the first time that Europeans (reluctantly) acknowledged the quality of wine that was being produced in the Golden State. This blind wine tasting was held in France with expert French judges. Award-winning French wines were pitted against several California wines. Judges were shocked when they scored both Napa Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon ahead of well-known French wines. Napa suddenly became a destination for wine lovers from across the globe, especially those in Europe.
What is the best month to visit Napa Valley?
There’s no bad time, but be aware that it can be hot in summer and chilly in winter in the valley. Fall brings harvest season and crush (and a lot of tourists) and in spring, wild mustard lights up the vineyards with a golden glow. Because each season is beautiful, it’s hard to choose the best month to visit Napa. Of course, we think you should visit during each season so you can decide which is the best month to visit Napa!
Is Napa Valley expensive?
It’s comparable to other prime tourist destinations within the Golden State, but there are still affordable finds for food and lodging for the more budget-conscious travelers.
Is it worth going to Napa?
Absolutely! If you consider yourself a wine aficionado or simply want to learn more about California wines, visiting Napa Valley is a must.
How many wineries should you do in a day in Napa?
We recommend visiting only 2 or 3. Wine tastings can last anywhere from an hour to a few hours, depending on the type of tasting or tour you select. It’s always a good idea to book tastings in the same area of the valley. Traffic can get backed up on busy days so be sure to allow plenty of time to travel between wineries. Pro tip – hire a driver.
Where to Taste Wine in Napa Valley?
With 500+ wineries in Napa Valley, it’s really hard to narrow down the best places to taste wine. First-timers shouldn’t miss a visit to the 1881 Napa Wine History Museum & Tasting Saloon in Oakville Grocery to learn more about the history of Napa Valley and/or taste over 60 wines by the glass from Napa’s finest producers.
Napa’s Most Historic Wineries
History buffs will not want to miss visiting some of Napa’s most historic wineries to help gain perspective on the people and places that made Napa what it is today.
- Chateau Montelena Winery, Calistoga- Founded in 1882 but made its debut on the world stage at the Judgement of Paris in 1976 with its crisp, clean and beautifully balanced Chardonnay.
- Schramsberg Vineyards, Calistoga – Founded in 1862 by German immigrant Jacob Schram. They produce elegant sparkling wines in the traditional method and offer cave tours.
- Beringer Vineyards, St. Helena – Napa’s oldest continuously operating winery, founded in 1875.
- Freemark Abbey, St. Helena – Napa’s 16th winery founded in 1886. Visit their beautifully restored tasting room to try their classically styled Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
- Inglenook, Rutherford – Inglenook, founded in 1879, has a small selection of old vines that are pre-1900 that are still used in their wines today. The winery is currently owned by Francis Ford Coppola who has restored the property to its former grandeur.
- Robert Mondavi Winery, Napa – Visit the mission-style estate founded in 1966 to taste world-class Cabernet Sauvignon from the iconic Kalon Vineyard.
- Louis M. Martini, St. Helena – This winery bears the name of its founder, an Italian immigrant who founded the winery in 1933 just after prohibition was repealed. Visit their historic tasting room for a taste of their Cabernet Sauvignons or red blends.
- Grgich Hills Estate, Rutherford – Founded by Mike Grgich in 1977, the former winemaker at Chateau Montelena whose Chardonnay took first place at the Judgement of Paris. Though the winery is somewhat lacking in charm, the Chardonnay is as beautiful as ever.
- Beaulieu Vineyard, Rutherford – Founded in 1900, BV is known for producing “Old World” style wines in California.
- Stags Leap, Yountville – The Cabernet from Stag’s Leap District won the red wine category in the 1976 Judgment of Paris and launched the label into the spotlight. Today you can still purchase a bottle from the famous cask, or try one of the many other (more affordable) wines from their estate vineyard.
Wineries with a View
Napa Valley is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Why not enjoy a wine tasting with a view?
- Chimney Rock, Napa – The drive through the Stags Leap District to get to Chimney Rock is stunning, as is the view from the outdoor tasting patio overlooking the vineyards.
- Fantestesca, St. Helena – Enjoy a private winery tour and tasting on their estate with Spring Mountain views. Winemaker Heidi Barrett (of Screaming Eagle fame) has been nicknamed the “Queen of Cult Cabernet.”
- Far Niente, Oakville – Experience the lush gardens, sprawling vineyards, historic wine caves and a tasting room that looks like it came from a fairytale.
- Long Meadow Ranch, St. Helena – Nestled in the Mayacamas Mountains, this sprawling ranch produces estate-grown wines as well as olive oils and offers cave tours and food and wine pairings.
- Round Pond, Rutherford – Taste beautiful wines on their beautiful patio or tour their winery garden and olive grove (they also make delicious olive oils).
Though Napa can sometimes have a stuffy reputation, there’s also a lot of fun to be had. Here are a few suggestions for truly unique wine tasting experiences.
- Artesia Vineyards & Winery, Napa – Instagram-worthy location with a sculpture garden, fountains and incredible views.
- Raymond Vineyards, St. Helena – At Raymond you’ll find lavish decor like the velvet-clad “Red Room” as well as the “Crystal Cellar” filled with Baccarat decanters. Owner J.C. Boisset is also known for his legendary parties hosted on the property.
- Clif Family Winery, St. Helena – Founded by the owners of Clif Bars, this friendly winery is perfect for a casual wine tasting or to fuel up with lunch from their food truck or snacks from their shop.
- Castello Di Amorosa, Calistoga – Tour their authentic 14th-century-style Tuscan castle and winery and taste a flight from their extensive wine list which includes several sweet and dessert wines.
- Oasis by Hoopes, Napa – A regenerative farm, animal sanctuary, and wine tasting visit all in one!
Which is the Best Town in Napa Valley to Stay In?
Each town within Napa Valley has its own vibe. Before you go, decide which wineries you’d like to visit and where you’d like to eat. That may help you narrow down the best location for you to put your feet up after a busy day of wine tasting.
- Yountville – Home to French Laundry and many other delicious offerings, Yountville is also a fantastic place to make a home base when visiting Napa Valley with its many shops, Art Walk, and tasting rooms. Try the Poetry Inn, a small luxury inn owned by Cliff Lede located in a Cabernet vineyard with spectacular views, Napa Valley Lodge within walking distance of world-famous restaurants and shops, Hotel Villagio, a modern but relaxed luxury resort, or Napa Valley Railway Inn for a memorable stay in a historic rail car.
- St. Helena – St. Helena has a charming, historic Main Street with excellent shops, galleries, and restaurants. It’s also home to the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone which offers cooking demos and tours. Its central location is ideal for a Napa Valley stay and there are plenty of great lodging options from luxurious spas to quaint inns. Try the Inn St. Helena for a boutique B&B experience, El Bonita Motel, a retro spot on the main drag, Wyndown Hotel or Wine Country Inn & Cottages if you prefer smaller boutique hotels or Meadowood Napa Valley for true luxury and privacy.
- Rutherford – There aren’t many choices here with the exception of the newly remodeled Auberge de Soliel Resort. It boasts one of the most famous panoramic views of Napa Valley and is luxurious and intimate with only 50 guest rooms and suites.
- Downtown Napa – Downtown Napa used to be a less-than-desirable place to stay when visiting Napa Valley. Thankfully it’s had quite a renaissance. There are many great shops and restaurants along the riverfront, as well as some excellent hotels and B&Bs in the area. Try the Archer, a boutique hotel with a cool vibe and rooftop bar, the Napa River Inn for rooms with a river view, the Hennessey House for a classic old-school B&B experience or the Milliken Creek Inn and Spa which is tucked away from downtown Napa but is still within walking distance of restaurants and shops.
What Food Is Napa Valley Famous For?
Napa Valley is famous for its incredible farm-to-fork cuisine, and most especially for its high concentration of Michelin-Starred and rated restaurants. One thing’s for sure – when you’re visiting Napa Valley you’re going to eat well. It’s hard to go wrong when it comes to restaurants, but here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Michelin Star Restaurants
- French Laundry – (Three Stars) If you’ve heard of the Napa Valley you’ve heard of the French Laundry, Thomas Kellar’s refined, fixed-priced California cuisine restaurant located in Yountville. Reservations are nearly as challenging to get as a ticket to a Taylor Swift concert (and even more expensive). Even if you don’t get a coveted seat, it’s still worth a visit. Park out front and take a stroll through TFL’s kitchen garden where you can get an idea of some of the deliciousness that happens inside.
- The Restaurant at Auberge du Soliel – (One Star) Farm-to-table restaurant located at the Auberge du Soliel resort in Rutherford with 15 consecutive Michelin Star awards. Enjoy a spectacular fixed-priced fine-dining menu and an equally spectacular view from its hillside location in Rutherford. But if you want to keep it casual you can also eat at the bar. And if you’re there on a Monday when the main restaurant is closed, you can enjoy seating on the entire patio with panoramic views. Either way, be sure to enjoy a glass (or bottle) from their award-winning 15,000-bottle cellar with an extensive selection of California wines.
- Kenzo – (One Star) downtown Napa restaurant that showcases exquisite Kaiseki delicacies, that fuse Japanese traditional cooking with innovative techniques. Enjoy wine from their own winery in Napa Valley, Kenzo Estate. You can also visit the estate for a tour and tasting.
- PRESS – (One Star) – Offering a four-course prix fixe menu, PRESS features legendary Bay Area purveyors alongside innovative new culinary talents to highlight Napa Valley cuisine. They are home to the largest collection of Napa Valley wines in the world.
For a Spectacular Meal with Local Wines
There is no shortage of amazing restaurants in Napa Valley. Here are some that feature farm-to-fork cuisine and plenty of California wines to wash it all down.
- Charter Oak, St. Helena – Family-style dining with food that highlights beautiful local produce from Napa Valley and beyond, including their own 3+ acre farm nearby. Their wine program is heavily focused on Napa Valley.
- Mustards Grill, Napa – They call themselves the “fancy rib joint with way too many wines.” They serve honest American fare and some of Napa Valley’s finest wines. Be sure to try their famous pork chop.
- Brix, Napa – Owned by the Kelleher family, their two+ acres of gardens and orchards provide ingredients for their California cuisine-inspired menu. Their wine list is California-focused and includes hard-to-find bottlings and winery-exclusive Napa offerings.
- Torc, Napa – Inspired by what’s great and grown at local farms, fished in local waters, and produced and harvested with care. The music is loud, the food is fresh and flavorful and the vibe is high energy. They feature an extensive list of Napa Valley and California wines.
- Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch, St. Helena – Showcases homey but elegant “farmhouse” and seasonal cuisine sourced at their farm and from other local purveyors.
- Bouchon Bistro, Yountville – Serves authentic French bistro fare from Thomas Kellar. They have a Vin en Carafe program which features selections made exclusively for the restaurant from top wineries in Napa Valley.
- Angèle, Napa – French country cuisine inspired by California’s bounty in the historic Hatt Building along the Napa River. They have an extensive wine program that celebrates the best of Wine Country.
- Bistro Don Giovanni, Napa – Traditional Italian featuring local fruits and vegetables, organic meats, and a comprehensive list of food-friendly California wines.
Keep it Casual
- Clif Family Bruschetteria, St. Helena – Clif Family winery’s food truck with seasonal ingredients from their own certified organic farm and other local purveyors. Enjoy bruschetta, porchetta, rotisserie chicken, farm-fresh salads, and seasonal sides. Do not sleep on the polenta tots! Plus pick up some of their delicious jams, hot sauces and other pantry items while you’re there.
- Oxbow Public Market, Napa – Oxbow in Napa has lots of fast-casual choices if you’re in a hurry, or you’re tired of fine dining. Try Gott’s Roadside for a burger and fries, Ritual Coffee for a pour-over, Hog Island for the freshest oysters you’ll ever taste, and C Casa for delicious Mexican food.
- Addendum, Yountville – A seasonal summer spot for buckets of fried chicken, crispy chicken sandwiches, or pulled pork that’s in the back of Ad Hoc and part of Thomas Kellar’s restaurant group. Pro-tip – you can request your fried chicken gluten-free! It’s open for lunch only – order ahead and tote along a bottle of sparkling for a perfect picnic in Wine Country.
- Oakville Grocery, Oakville – Gourmet food and wine shop that offers sandwiches, salads, pizzas, burgers and more.
- Rancho Gordo – If you’re a “bean head” then the Rancho Gordo shop in Napa is a must visit to purchase heirloom beans, pantry items and colorful merch.