Napa Valley: the home of arguably America's most famous vineyards. Click To TweetNapa is to California what Bordeaux is to France and Tuscany is to Italy. In California wine country, eating and drinking are celebrated daily. World-renowned chefs partner with celebrated wine makers to transform a normal activity into a luxurious experience. Hollywood even made a movie about California’s wine country called Bottle Shock, depicting Napa’s rise to fame in the 1976 Judgement of Paris wine competition. California put America in the global wine picture.
Napa Valley is a 90 minute drive north of San Francisco. Only 30 miles long and 5 miles wide, Napa Valley has over 500 wineries dotting its picturesque landscape. The climate and soil are perfect for harvesting delicious Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines. There are 7 winery towns in Napa Valley, each with its own unique charm: American Canyon, the city of Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga.
The city of Napa is in the heart of the Napa Valley wine region. It has a riverfront promenade of shops and restaurants and late 19th century architecture. There’s a farmers market and cheese shop in the Oxbow Public Market. The Napa Valley Wine Train makes a stop through here with its vintage Pullman cars.
Yountville is just north of the city of Napa. It’s a small country town with vineyards that stretch from the Mayacamas Mountains to the Napa River. You can easily walk or bike through the entire town’s picturesque countryside. There are more than a dozen local boutique wineries, including Cliff Lede and Domaine Chandon. This tiny rural village boasts more Michelin stars per capita than any other place in North America, bringing in lots of famous French chefs from cooking tv shows. The world-famous French Laundry restaurant is one of the most prestigious restaurants with 3 Michelin stars, and you can watch the chefs from outside the restaurant through glass windows. Pre-fixe meals at the French Laundry start at $295 per person not including wine, and each upgrade is $150 extra.
Chateau Montelena winery put Calistoga on the world map, as the movie Bottle Shock showed. Chateau Montelena is famous for winning the white wine portion of the Judgement of Paris wine competition against 9 other wines from France and California in a blind tasting. 11 judges judged Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay to be better than its French counterparts, which was unheard of in the 1970’s. If you’re looking for relaxation, people have been flocking to Calistoga for its soothing mineral pools and healing mud baths for over 100 years.
There are different types of wine tastings you can choose to do. Wine bar tastings means you walk up to the bar and choose which wines to taste. These usually cost $10-$50. Sit down tastings are by appointment only but it’s a much more personal experience. These are a bit higher in price. Table service tastings is perfect for a family or group of friends to sit in an elegant salon or gorgeous terrace. Walk around tastings are part tour, part tasting and allow you to chat with wine makers or chefs as you walk around the winery. Barrel tastings use a special glass tube siphon to “steal” some maturing wine from a barrel without letting any air in to spoil the rest of the barrel while it’s in the middle of developing its full potential.
Some wineries are very small and may require an appointment to taste their wines. Some wineries have a permit that require an appointment to wine taste. While other wineries don’t require an appointment, it’s always a good idea to make an appointment to make sure they are ready to host you.
Tip: wineries almost always have a cost to taste. However, if you know someone in the wine industry gets to taste wine for free. If you have a friend in the wine industry in Northern California, entice them to come wine tasting with you for free tastings! Although it’s polite to buy a bottle (or multiple bottles) if you’re in the industry and tasting at other wineries.
How to Taste Wine
The worst thing you could do is go to Napa Valley and wine taste like an amateur. There is a proper method for wine tasting and your form will dictate how wine connoisseurs see you.
First, you want to look at the wine. Observe the color and clarity, which can tell you the age, varietal, fermentation techniques, and barrel process. Next, swirl the wine by lightly twirling the stem of the glass. This allows oxygen into the wine to open up the aromas. Then, bring the glass up to your face with your nose in the glass. Every wine is different and it’s like a game to try to identify the different, subtle scents each wine produces. Finally, sip the wine. Take a small sip of wine to clear the palate, then take a second sip to really get the taste of the wine. Roll this second sip around in your mouth, noticing different tastes from the front of your tongue to the back of your tongue. If there is a third sip left, enjoy.
Napa Valley Wine Train
The Napa Valley Wine Train are restored vintage rail cars that offer an authentic, memorable experience with fine dining service, and multiple course meals. The train runs on 25 miles of track in the heart of Napa Valley with 10 rail cars, including 3 lounge cars, 1 deli car, 2 gourmet express dining cars, 1 Silverado car al-fresco style dining, 1 vista dome dining car, 1 grappa power car, and 1 chef de cuisine kitchen car with glass observation corridor.
There are 4 lunch tours and 1 dinner tour. Lunch and dinner trains typically take 3 hours. One welcome wine is included in every wine tour package, and you can purchase wine, beer, and cocktails on board throughout your journey. Prices range from $179-$289 per person.
When to Go
Any time of year is a good time to visit Napa Valley! Each season brings a different ambiance. The Napa Valley weather doesn’t change much from season to season, and wineries are open year-round.
From September to Thanksgiving, you can see the leaves changing which creates a beautiful backdrop for peaceful vineyards. For the full wine-making experience, visit Napa Valley in late October for the harvest. Harvest season encompasses the art and romance of wine-making and is the most popular time to go, so be sure to book accommodations early – like four months in advance.
In winter, most vineyards celebrate the holidays with Christmas lights, displays, tours, and tastings. Inns sample wines paired with local cuisine and offer live music. Though wineries are closed on Christmas Day and New Years Day, there are plenty of end-of-year celebrations to enjoy some magic on your holiday.
January to March is the low season and the best time to go to avoid crowds. There aren’t any grapes on the vines and the leaves have all fallen, but you can find a leisurely wine tasting at affordable prices. The weather is variable during this time so you might see a rainy day, but that’s the perfect excuse to cozy up to a fireplace in a wine chateau and sip your favorite pinot noirs.
March to May is spring in full bloom in Napa Valley. Mild weather and greenery makes it a perfect time to get up close and personal with nature. In addition to tasting wines at the vineyards, spend an afternoon outside traversing trails or lavender fields.
Summer in Napa Valley runs from May to August. It’s a time to celebrate art, culture, food, and music. There are festivals and celebrations like BottleRock Napa Valley, Festival del Sole, and the Napa County Fair & Fireworks for 4th of July.
Napa Valley Versus Sonoma Valley
Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley are collectively known as California’s wine country, and they sit side by side. The two are valleys on either side of the Mayacamas mountain range, but they are far from interchangeable.
Napa covers almost 800 square miles, although most of the 500+ wineries are clustered within 30 miles between the city of Napa and Calistoga. Sonoma Valley covers over 1,600 square miles, with roughly the same amount of wineries as Napa Valley. It feels less crowded than Napa because the valley is double the size. Sonoma Valley is what Napa Valley used to be 30 years ago before the world-fame and 4.5 million tourists per year.
Napa and Sonoma are about 30 minutes apart at the closest points, but at the farthest points can take up to hours. Your best bet for wine tasting is to pick one region and stick to its wineries, unless you have the time to visit both. So how to choose between the two?
You can find some of the most respected wineries in the world in Napa Valley. As I said before, you can find the famous Chateau Montelena, who’s Chardonnay was judged to be better than French Chardonnays in the 1976 Judgement of Paris competition, in Napa Valley. You can also find common household name wineries like Mondavi, Chandon, Louis M. Martini, Opus One, and Robert Mondavi in Napa Valley. The famous Silverado Trail runs north to south and has tasting room after tasting room throughout the valley.
That’s not to say Napa Valley is better than Sonoma Valley. Sonoma wineries tend to be more spread out and have a more laid back, intimate atmosphere. There are usually lower tasting fees and less crowds as you get away from the main roads. There are a wider variety of wines in Sonoma Valley, from pinots to zinfandels and charbonos to gewurztraminers, whereas Napa Valley focuses on Bordeaux and cabs. Sonoma also has a wide selection of sparkling wines for a change of pace. You can find famous wineries like Sutter’s Mill, which makes Sutter Home wine.
Also in the city of Sonoma, you can find Mission San Francisco Solano, founded July 4, 1823 and now part of Sonoma State Historic Park. Sonoma used to be a military base. Mission San Francisco Solano was the last and northernmost mission in Alta California. It was the only mission built after Mexico gained independence from Spain. It’s a cool piece of history where you can see the set up during the mission’s active life, read about the history, and watch an educational video while you wait for the wineries to open at 11:00 a.m.
What’s the Verdict?
Whether you know a little about wines, a lot about wines, or nothing at all about wine, everyone will appreciate Napa Valley’s beautiful vineyards, scenic backdrops, and delicious wines of all kinds. If you want to taste or buy some of the best and most famous wines in the world and try some Michelin star restaurants, Northern California is a good place to start. It’s a relaxing place, but only a 90-minute drive from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco. Any trip to Northern California would benefit from a few days in Napa Valley.
Have you been to Napa Valley? What is your favorite winery? Do you have a story that will stick with you forever from this region? Tell me something about your trip or your desire to go to Napa Valley in the comments below!
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