It’s ten o’clock in the morning in Napa Valley, and the first stop planned is a winery for a wine tasting. Yes, that’s correct. 10am. Wine. Tasting.
Welcome to Napa wine country, one of the premier wine-growing regions in the world. An early start is recommended for anyone who wants to get a full day in: a day of beautiful scenery, a touch of history, a lot of wine swirling, some tasting, and even a bit of wine dumping (drinking it all isn’t necessary; pouring some out is encouraged).
That said, anyone visiting Napa Valley for only a day is likely to find that touring three wineries is the max. And while some welcome walk-ins, tastings by reservation will give the best experience.
But before that, visitors should have breakfast and something in their tummies before they start to imbibe—taste, that is. Gillwoods Cafe in the heart of St. Helena is a good starting point. Visitors should get there before 8:30am to avoid the lines and enjoy traditional breakfast selections. Instead of country potatoes, diners can ask for their roasted tomatoes as a side. Anyone starting on the northern end of the valley should try Cafe Sarafornia in Calistoga for breakfast instead.
However the day begins, the first winery visit should be Silver Oak Cellars in Oakville. This is one of the best tours in Napa Valley. The tour guides are entertaining and knowledgeable—and they often take a bottle or two along and keep refilling glasses. Visitors should plan ahead and reserve a tour, which starts at $40 a person.
Now it’s time for lunch. Visitors would do well to keep in mind that (even though the weekend traffic on Highway 9 screams a different scenario) Napa County’s Winery Definition Ordinance aims to keep this area an agricultural region, not touristy. This means most wineries do not allow picnics on their grounds. An exception is V. Sattui Winery. This is one of the few wineries in Napa Valley that has an extensive deli/grocery/gift shop onsite. Few wineries have such commercial enterprises on their property, but places like V. Sattui (and Inglenook) have been around so long that they are grandfathered in.
Because of that, V. Sattui’s deli can get crowded. Visitors enjoying the day with a partner might want to split up once inside: one heading to the sandwich counter (the tri-tip sandwich is particularly tempting), while the other scours the store for wine and dessert. Another option is just to scoop up a loaf of bread, chunks of cheese, and a ready-to-go packet of plates, napkins, and environmentally friendly utensils. From there, visitors can simply find a bench outside to use while scarfing up their sustenance for the afternoon round of wine tastings.
For anyone who would rather have a more leisurely lunch, reservations at Rutherford Grill are available. From lighter fare (like the Caesar and rock shrimp salad) to more hearty selections (like barbecue pork ribs with coleslaw), as well as a variety of burgers, Rutherford will make sure diners are sated before their next round of winery visits.
The next stop, Inglenook, offers up a healthy dose of Napa Valley history, not to mention a celebrity name. Plus it is one of the most beautiful wineries in the valley. Dating back to 1879, this is one of Francis Ford Coppola’s wineries, and it’s rich in Napa Valley history. The $45-per-person tour starts with a glass of their refreshing white blend, Blancaneaux, in another rare Napa gift shop—the most elegant that can be found in the area. Next, the tour guide takes visitors into the vineyard, which overlooks Coppola’s home. The visit ends with a group sit-down tasting and a dash more history of the wines and families behind the winery.
Ending a packed day at the low-key and bucolic Frog’s Leap Winery is ideal. The main building, styled as a country farmhouse, has indoor, porch, and outdoor seats for their tastings. The setting overlooks their organic gardens. With its laid-back, relaxing vibe, this makes for a perfect final winery of the day.
On the way out, visitors can stop by Findings to pick up some wine-related souvenirs. Rabbit Rabbit Fair Trade [now located in Calistoga] is worth a visit, too, for their eclectic fair-trade home décor, children’s gifts, and stationery. For anyone not staying the night, grabbing a bite to eat before heading back down the road is recommended. Cook St. Helena serves simple Northern Italian fare in a small, cozy restaurant on St. Helena’s Main Street. The perfect way to close out a perfect day.
Napa County is the epicenter of Napa Valley, which loosely encompasses one of world’s most highly regarded wine-growing regions. Cities include Napa to the south and Calistoga to the north, as well as Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, Yountville, and American Canyon. St. Helena has a very charming Main Street, as does Calistoga with its Lincoln Avenue. The towns of Napa and American Canyon are much more commercial centers.
Places to Visit in Napa Valley
This article originally appeared in Issue 9.3 “Future”