It had been many years since my last visit to Napa Valley, so I was beyond excited to return. I was looking forward to visiting several wineries, dining on gourmet food, and exploring the charming town of St. Helena. Sometimes reality doesn’t match expectations, but this trip turned out to be everything I could hope for--even the weather cooperated. And while I can’t guarantee that everyone’s trip will go as smoothly and be as enjoyable as mine was, I do hope to share some of the best wineries, restaurants, and experiences Napa has to offer.
If you’re not familiar with Napa Valley, let me set the scene. The valley is 30 miles long and 5 miles wide. It encompasses five small towns; Napa, Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville, and American Canyon. The valley floor is surrounded by the Mayacamas and Vaca Mountain Ranges which provide a dramatic backdrop while driving through the area.
Napa isn’t cheap. The wineries, restaurants, and accommodations are expensive, especially during the peak season of August through October. If your budget is limited, consider making this a day trip, or plan a visit during the low season of January through March. It is more likely to rain during these months, but you’ll be rewarded with lower prices and fewer people. But no matter when you visit, or how long you stay, you’re going to be impressed with this part of California’s wine country.
How To Get To Napa Valley
Napa Valley is located about 60 miles Northeast of San Francisco. If you’re visiting from out of state, you have two major airports to choose from; San Francisco International or Oakland International. Personally, I prefer to fly in and out of Oakland International since it’s a bit closer to Napa and it’s flights are more likely to be on time. From the airport, rent a car and enjoy the drive.
If you live in California, or even one of the surrounding states, Napa can be a part of a great road trip. There are many small towns to explore both North and South of the valley. Or add a few days in San Francisco to your trip for a classic Northern California experience.
The Best Wine Tasting In Napa Valley
With more than 375 wineries in Napa Valley, it could take several lifetimes to try all the wine this region offers. And trying to select the best wine tasting in Napa is no small feat. But I’m confident that the five vineyards I’m recommending are among the best in Napa, if not the world. I’ve organized this Napa Valley wine tasting starting at the Southern tip of the valley and ending in the North.
Your first stop will be at the Cardinale Estate. While I didn’t have the opportunity to visit this location, I did taste several of their excellent wines with dinner. This is a small production winery well known for their Cabernet Sauvignons crafted by the highly respected winemaker, Christopher Carpenter. If an exceptional cab is what you crave, be sure to make a reservation to visit Cardinale. The cost of a tasting is $100-$150 per person.
The next winery is Nickel & Nickel, known for their single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons. Joe Harden, one of Napa’s younger winemakers, is responsible for creating the wines here. These cabs are not blended with any other varietals, making them a unique challenge for any winemaker. Instead of blending, the winemaker must rely on the quality of the fruit, fermentation, aging, and the composition of the barrels for producing the perfect taste. In addition to excellent wine, the grounds of Nickel & Nickel are filled with flowering trees and shrubs that attract songbirds and butterflies. This might be one of the prettiest wineries in Napa. It’s a peaceful oasis perfect for sampling wine. The cost or tastings range from $80-$150.
A highlight of my trip was visiting the oldest wine tasting room in Napa, Charles Krug. Run by Marc and Peter Mondavi, legends in the wine world, this could be a destination in itself. Here you’ll find a variety of wines including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and more. I had the chance to taste several of their excellent Cabernet Sauvignons including a 1986 vintage. Come for a tasting, reserve a cabana with friends, stay for an event, or combine this winery with visits to Beringer and Markham. Experiences range in price from $45 to $140. Event pricing and schedules can be found online.
The Stone Barn, built in 1886, is the signature site of Ehlers Estate, a certified organic vineyard. And it’s in this barn that visitors can relax in the stylish tasting room. Next to the barn is a grove of olive trees providing another comfortable spot for tasting wine. Winemaker, Laura Diaz Munoz, hails from Spain, but is now comfortably settled in Napa and making delicious wines including Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. Tasting is $75 per person. Come first thing in the morning and enjoy a combination of Bouchon Bakery croissants along with a wine tasting for $95.
In Calistoga you’ll find Larkmead Vineyards, led by female winemaker, Avery Heelon. This winery is focused on biodiversity as is evident from the plentiful native plants and flowers found everywhere on the property attracting a wide array of bees, butterflies, and birds. The focus on one crop---grapes----can deplete the soil in a vineyard and isn’t healthy for the overall ecosystem. I’m convinced this is one of the most beautiful wineries in Napa. Also on this property are three acres of research vineyards set aside to test grapes for an increasingly warmer climate. At Larkmead, you’ll enjoy Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, and Sauvignon Blancs. The flora and fauna of this winery are a serene backdrop for any tasting experience which range in price from $95 to $150 per person.
Napa Valley Wine Tasting Tips
Napa Valley wine tasting is both a wonderful experience and an expensive one. I was fortunate to be hosted for all the tastings that I’ve recounted, but visiting five wouldn’t be realistic for most people during one visit. So my first tip is to do your research. What type of wine do you enjoy? And what is the price you are willing to pay for a really good bottle of wine? This information will help guide your decisions. While I visited wineries focused on Cabernet Sauvignons and other reds, there are plenty that excel in Chardonnay as well.
Next, make reservations in advance. Many Napa wineries had gone to a reservations system before the pandemic, but now most require reservations. A few will accept walk-ins, but many absolutely will not. Some of the wine-tasting experiences will require reservations at least one month in advance.
Take advantage of winery tours. While I always enjoy wine-tasting, I’ve found that I learned the most about wine during a tour. Many tours start in the vineyards, move to the fermentation tanks, and end in the barrel room. Along the way you’ll learn about grape varieties grown in the region, how wine is fermented, what barrels are made of, and how long different vintages are aged. All of this informs my tasting of the wine.
If you’re booking more than one wine-tasting in a day, allow plenty of time for transit. During Napa’s peak season there’s going to be traffic. Many of the wineries are located in the surrounding mountains and these roads will take longer to traverse. It’s never fun to feel rushed on vacation.
Things To Do In Napa Valley Besides Wine Tasting
After you’re done tasting the wine, there is still plenty more to do in Napa. First, explore the charming towns. I had the opportunity to walk through St. Helena and it’s historic downtown. Here you’ll find dozens of boutiques selling home goods, clothing, and souvenirs. Calistoga, Napa, and Yountville also offer great shops, cafes, and dining.
Olives are another common crop in Napa, and much of it is made into oil. So head to Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturing Company for a great selection of gourmet foods. This family run operation started in the 1930’s and still bottles 20 varieties of olive oil each year.
If you love to cook try scheduling a cooking class at the Culinary Institute of America at Copia. This world class school for chefs also offers a large selection of classes for home cooks. Whether you’re interested in French, Spanish, or Italian cuisine, the CIA has something for everyone.
Where To Eat In Napa Valley
I don’t know what I love more about Napa, the food or wine. Fortunately, both are meant to complement one another, so I enjoyed food and wine in spades during my recent trip. I can’t pretend to have extensive knowledge of Napa restaurants, but I’ll share the ones I’ve personally experienced and recommend.
Our first stop in Napa was at Oakville Grocery, a local institution since 1881. Here you’ll find an impressive selection of cheeses, meats, olives, cookies, and of course wine. They also have an excellent deli where we ordered sandwiches. You can take food to go or enjoy it outdoors on their patio.
For my first morning in St. Helena I walked to the well known Model Bakery. Here you’ll find a tasty selection of freshly baked muffins and scones along with sandwiches and coffee. What they are especially known for is their English muffin, a much fluffier version of the store bought muffins I was used to. I tried one of their breakfast sandwiches prepared on an English muffin and it was delicious. This place is popular with locals and visitors alike, so it’s typically quite busy.
My most memorable meal of the trip was dinner at Press. I ordered the yellowfin tuna and now rank it as one of the best fish entrees I’ve ever had. Prepared with pine nuts, eggplant, and topped with sweet pepper relish, this was the perfect blend of textures and flavors. Be sure to try one of their craft cocktails before dinner and then definitely order a bottle of wine with your meal. Don’t know which wine to order? Be sure to ask the sommelier for advice.
If you don’t want to commit to one restaurant, try the Oxbow Public Market in the town of Napa instead. This 40,000 square foot market features a dozen restaurants like Field Work Brewing Company, Hog Island Oyster Company, and Live Fire Pizza. There’s both an indoor and outdoor seating area. It’s a fun way to sample a variety of food and beverages.
Where To Stay In Napa Valley
There are so many wonderful options for accommodations in Napa. I was fortunate to stay for two nights at Harvest Inn in St. Helena. This lushly landscaped property is located next to a large vineyard which provides the perfect view from most of their rooms. Many of the rooms, like mine, have a large brick, wood burning fireplace. A small bundle of wood and matches are provided for your convenience. There’s a restaurant and bar on site as well as two pools. Each morning I walked into town for breakfast which is an easy one mile jaunt.