If you’ve never been to the Napa Valley you will be surprised by its expansiveness. Spanning over 27 miles north to south, from Calistoga to Napa (the city), Napa Valley is a wine a food lovers paradise – a veritable wonderland of eating and drinking that one can only hope to catch a glimpse of during any one visit. If you’re a serious foodie, you’ll need to devote serious time to the Napa Valley in order to discover all of the world-class wineries, Michelin-starred restaurants and gourmet markets that will tempt you along every one of those 27 miles.
You may have heard that Napa is Sonoma’s haughtier cousin. The more pretentious of the two famous wine regions, Napa leans heavily toward the high end, offering upscale accommodations, restaurants and wineries where the views parallel the price tags. Don’t expect to do the Napa Valley on the cheap – to do so would be an insult to the very institution of Napa, but it would also be a nearly impossible feat.
Why is Napa So Expensive?
Real estate is not cheap, especially in the Napa Valley, where wines made from these vineyards earn 95+ ratings as a matter of course and bring in top dollar. That all comes at a price, and as long as wine aficionados like you and me are willing to pay those prices, the cycle will continue. The bottom line is that you shouldn’t go to the Napa Valley with unrealistic expectations. If you embrace the experience and accept it for what it is, you’ll have a fantastic time. But if you expect it to be like other, less snobby wine regions of the world, you’ll likely end up with a bad taste in your mouth. But not literally. Don’t blame the wine!
The best way to tackle Napa is from top to bottom, even if you’re coming in from the south where all the airports are. If you start at the top and work your way down, you won’t have to do all that extra driving at the end.
Calistoga is a small town located at the north end of the Napa Valley. Being such a small town hasn’t stopped Calistoga from being a strong contender for tourism in Napa. More than 50 wineries can be found in the Calistoga region, ranging from fully organic (Dutch Henry Winery) to historic and grandiose.
Castello di Amorosa is one such grandiose winery, located just a few miles south of town. It’s a 13th century castle with a farm on the premises – quite a unique experience. There are a few wineries located right downtown on Lincoln Avenue, making it easy to do some tasting, then refuel before heading on to the next little town. Check out Huge Bear Wine and Knights Bridge Winery. If you stay in town for dinner, I highly recommend indulging in numerous farm-fresh shared plates of deliciousness at JoLē.
In and around St. Helena is where you’ll find top wine producers like Charles Krug, Robert Mondavi and Peju. All of these wineries are worth a visit. This is where you find those ultra-rich Napa Cabs that have made this growing region so popular. The wineries themselves are architecturally stunning. Expect tastings to be around $20-$40 a person for 3-4 pours of wine. You’re in the heart of the expensive real estate Napa has built its reputation on and it doesn’t come cheap.
Between St. Helena and Yountville are a number of great wine producers with sprawling estates that will nicely contrast the mostly tasting-room style wineries we’ve laid out so far. My favorite winery to visit on a lovely summer day in Alpha Omega. They have a nice patio area overlooking the vines and a nice fountain. In the distance you can see the Napa Valley Wine Train lumbering by. We like to stop at Oakville Grocery Co for picnic supplies – they have an incredible selection of sandwiches, cheeses and meats – then head over to Alpha Omega to enjoy a picnic with a cold bottle of their incredible Chardonnay that tastes just like a glass of crème brûlée (note: there’s a specific picnic area – food can’t be taken into the tasting room).
Another winery where picnicking is almost a requirement is V. Sattui. They have a small deli where you can buy salads, sandwiches and cheese, and on many weekends they have their own BBQ going outside where there are dozens of picnic tables.
If you’ve got the time, taking the Napa Valley Wine Train is a unique way to see the vineyards of the Napa Valley. The train runs along 25 miles of track and features a gourmet restaurant that serves a multi-course meal as you journey along the countryside.
You could easily spend an entire day strolling through the charming little city of Yountville. Find a place to park and then just walk around, popping into Bouchon Bakery for fresh pastries, stopping for an excellent wine tasting at Cornerstone Cellars and Hill Family Estate, then heading to an early dinner at Michael Chiarello’s Bottega for a plate of the fluffiest potato gnocchi I’ve ever eaten – that is if you weren’t one of the lucky few to security a coveted seat at Thomas Keller’s infamous French Laundry. It’s located directly in the center of Yountville, alongside other world-class restaurants like Keller’s Ad Hoc and Bistro Jeanty. Be prepared for culinary overload in Yountville. There are more wineries and restaurants in a few short blocks than you could hope to get through in one trip, and believe me, you’ll want to visit them all.
The city of Napa lies at the southern end of the Napa Valley, just before heading back down into the San Francisco area. In recent years, the city has undergone a revival of sorts that has ushered in luxury accommodations like The Meritage Resort & Spa and top restaurants like La Toque, plus one of our favorite places to browse delicious-looking food items, Oxbow Market. The market is home to half a dozen restaurants and a plethora of specialty food and wine retailers, including San Francisco’s popular Hog Island Oyster Company, the d Ca’ Momi Winery and Fatted Calf charcuterie. You’ll find a great winery located right behind the Meritage Resort & Spa, called Trinitas Cellars, as well as the grand terraces and gardens of Domaine Carneros, nearby.
Now that you’re equipped with exactly where to eat and drink in the Napa Valley, you’re sure to have a great time learning the ins and outs of the area.
Have you been to Napa? What were your favorite places to eat and drink? Tell us about it in the comments.
[hr] ** all photos kindly provided by Savored Journey Laura is the creator and writer of Savored Journeys, a website and blog devoted to the best affordable luxury food and wine adventures around the world. Over the last 20 years, she’s visited 43 countries and believes that culinary experiences are great way of connecting to a culture when you travel, and enhances your senses and overall travel experience. [divider]