I thought I’d share a few tips for visiting Napa today.
I’ve visited Napa Valley several times in my life, at different ages and life stages.
Visiting Napa is different than visiting wineries in other locations.
(Yes, it’s even different than visiting other California wineries … such as those along California’s Central Coast.)
If you have an opportunity to visit Napa, perhaps a few of my tips will help you plan your trip.
• First of all, if you’re flying, Oakland is the closest large airport. (I flew into San Francisco, most recently, since I had work there. I rented a car once I was done and drove to Napa. I flew out of Oakland on my return flight.)
• If you’re in college, or want a drink-fest, you will probably gravitate to the wineries with inexpensive “tastings.” I know when I was in my early 20’s I wasn’t super particular about what wine I was drinking. I was just happy if I could afford wine at all. Now that I’m old and decrepit, I’ve come to appreciate truly good wines.
• Napa newbies often feel like they have to go to as many wineries as possible with whatever time they have available. I suppose that’s fine if you’re in a competition with someone over who saw the most wineries. Personally, I like *good* wine. I’m a proponent of visiting quality wineries (and really enjoying the experience) vs. a high quantity of so-so wineries.
• If you’re on your honeymoon, anniversary, or some other special occasion, splurge on a nice hotel. There are a lot of really nice places to choose from. I knew I would barely be in my hotel during my most recent trip. I did *not* spend money on a nice hotel. (My hotel was clean. It had a great shower and a comfortable bed. That’s all I needed.) I did spend money dining at a few award winning restaurants. I did spend money purchasing some special wines that aren’t available at the retail level. Decide what your priorities are for your particular visit and plan accordingly.
• If you have underage kids, it’s better not to bring them. I watched a mom yell at her ten year old son because he had wandered off to put his hands in a winery fountain. She was upset with him. She’d been drinking wine for an hour and ignoring him. What did she expect? You can’t expect a kid (or anyone) to happily sit and watch you drink for hours on end. By the way, the boy wasn’t hurting anything by putting his hands in the fountain. I almost put MY hands in the fountain as a sign of silent solidarity with him.
• Every season has something different to offer in Napa. Summer gets hot, but the vines have a lot of grapes to show off. It varies based on weather, but in general, grapes are harvested from late August through October. In November the vines don’t have grapes but the leaves turn gorgeous fall colors. In spring, you can experience “bud break” as the vines renew themselves with fresh growth.
I find all seasons to be beautiful in Napa.
Here’s a spring photo of the budding of soon-to-be grape clusters:
A close-up of a future grape cluster.
• Don’t fall into the theme-park trap.
There are hundreds (thousands!) of wineries in the area. Some of them have built “attractions” in an attempt to get your business. Do you want to spend a few hours looking at the moat at a winery? Or would you prefer to spend that time in the vineyard of your favorite winery while talking to the owner? It’s something to keep in mind as you plan your trip.
For instance, I went to visit one winery purely to see the grounds. I knew the photography opportunities would be spectacular. I had no interest in the wine, and I knew it going in. On the other hand, I only did that with ONE winery. I planned the rest of my visits focusing on the actual wine at the wineries. (You might do something similar if you’re a fan of architecture and want to check out an interesting winery because you’ve heard they have an amazing building.) Put a little forethought into your visit so you don’t get distracted by every shiny object that comes your way.
Lake Jade at Chateau Montelena
• In general, I recommend visiting two to three wineries per day. If you do more, you’re probably not going to remember much about them. (Of course, depending on a given situation/geographical location, it may vary.) If you’re only doing tastings and no tours, you’ll be able to fit more into each day …. but how much wine can you drink before you
get trashed need a nap?
• If you’re headed to Napa for a drink-fest, please hire a driver or pre-determine a designated driver within your group. In fact, getting a driver is a good idea for everyone. Even if you don’t intend to drink much, it’s easy to have one sip too many when there’s so much delicious wine surrounding you.
• Napa police have regular DUI checkpoints, as they should.
• It’s easy to research wineries ahead of time, but you can also pick up a winery map for free at almost every Napa hotel or restaurant. The map will give you information about all the wineries, including whether or not you are free to “stop in” or need an appointment ahead of time. If you do want to call for an appointment, the map is useful because it also includes the phone numbers and addresses of each winery.
• If you’ve never been to Napa before, I would suggest starting with a tour of one of the large production wineries. It really is fascinating to learn how wine is made. It’s also very interesting to understand the differences in how a large winery and a small, family run, winery operate. On my recent trip, I took my guest (a Napa newbie) to Mondavi Winery. It’s a huge, beautiful, winery. For thirty dollars we went for a 75 minute tour which included a great educational introduction to the history of Napa and winemaking. A tasting of three wines concluded the tour. It was nice to have that experience first as we progressed on to smaller, more intimate, wineries.
• There’s a difference between a “tour” and a “tasting.” Tours include tastings but also give you a look at how the wine is made, a bit of history about the winery, information regarding what is different about *that* wine vs. another winery’s wines, etc. During a tour you might see wine being bottled, you might have the opportunity for a barrel tasting, you might be able to taste a grape or two off the vine, and/or many other experiences you wouldn’t have if you were at the winery just for a tasting. I enjoy meeting and talking to the people at a winery. I like the experience of immersing myself in the culture of, and really understanding, a winery. That being said, I wouldn’t want to “just” tour all day. For my recent visit, I scheduled one tour per day. During the rest of the day, I visited wineries for tastings and/or (since I’m a photographer) for their visual appeal. (By the way, it does vary, but most tours are about 90 minutes long.)
• If you have a favorite Napa Valley wine, it’s a smart idea to book a tour at that winery when you plan your trip. Many of the wineries only allow a limited number of people per tour. Smaller wineries can be difficult to get into without prior scheduling.
• Napa Valley is divided into appellations (micro-climate grape growing areas). Many people plan their visits geographically by appellation. For instance, if you love cabernet sauvignon you might want to compare the wines from neighboring wineries in the Stag’s Leap District to see which winery makes your favorite cab.
• There are some world-class restaurants in Napa Valley. Some of them are booked months in advance. If you’d like the experience of dining in a Michelin Star restaurant, plan ahead.
• Some wineries, and some restaurants, offer pairings. You can experience a wine and chocolate pairing. You can experience a several course meal with a wine chosen perfectly for each course. If you love wine and food, you’ll love Napa. (As an aside: Most wineries have food/dining events periodically throughout the year for their wine club members. Some wineries even offer cooking classes.)
• Don’t forget, the Napa area has a lot to offer besides wine. There are plenty of absolutely amazing restaurants and spas. There are a lot of hiking and biking opportunities. There’s shopping, golf, movies, horeseback riding, art galleries, etc., etc. Take the time to breathe in the scent of the vineyards and enjoy your visit.