Summer is right around the corner; the grapevines are starting to fill out and soon will be heavy with grapes and lush foliage. It’s a wonderful time of year in wine country. Living in the Bay Area and being passionate about food and wine means I often get asked for wine country suggestions, particularly since I actually used to live in Napa and worked at a winery for a summer. I love wine country and boy do I have lots of recommendations! So consider this the first of a three part series on Wine Country….Napa, Sonoma, and Beyond.
First up, Napa! If you’ve never been to wine country before, Napa should be first on your list. Yes, it’s touristy and at times a bit cliche but it’s Napa! You should experience all Napa has to offer first and then move onto the smaller and more quaint wine regions like Sonoma, Russian River and Alexander Valley. Exploring and understanding Napa will allow you to appreciate the others even more. Trust me. If you can, try to go during the week since the weekends are more hectic. My recommendations for what to do, where to eat and of course where to taste are below…and to see some pictures of many of the wineries and surrounding valley check out my Napa Valley Album. It will inspire you to start planning your trip right away!
Wine Tasting: Starting in Carneros and working your way up the 29 and Silverado trail towards Calistoga…here’s a map to get your bearings, starting at the bottom left.
- Artesa – I have a bit of an emotional connection to this winery since it’s where I interned while living in Napa for a summer. The things I love most about it are:
- It’s a Spanish-owned winery (the famed Raventos family) so they specialize in some varietals that are a bit more unique for Napa, like Albarino and Tempranillo. They also make a great bubbly and of course, since they’re in the Carneros region of Napa, their Pinot Noir (especially the Reserves) and Chardonnay are top notch.
- The grounds here are amazing with the winery being built into a hillside and completely covered with grasses. Amazing sculptures from their artist in residence along with breathtaking views of the bay and valley.
- Their cellar tour (11am & 2pm) is great…mostly because it is accompanied by the ethereal chants of benedictine monks throughout. A Raventos family tradition for blessing the wine…really makes for a unique experience. They also do a really nice Vino con Queso pairing by appointment.
- For bubbles head on over to Mumm Napa or Domaine Chandon which is quite a bit fancier and more Disney-like, which some people like. But I prefer the more laid back Mumm which also has a beautiful view of vineyards from the table-service (vs. standing at a bar) tasting room.
- Frog’s Leap is my absolute favorite winery…we’ve been members there for years and often find ourselves enjoying our time there so much that we abandon our other winery plans entirely and just hang out at Frog’s Leap. Similar to Mumm, they do full sit-down tastings on their outdoor wrap-around porch overlooking vineyards and their produce farm. Frog’s Leap is a sustainable winery, which I love, using organic grapes and dry farming in order to develop wines that have terroir. They have the game corn-hole for you to play in the yard or you can take a stroll and explore their beautiful property, wine in hand. They also offer a complimentary cheese, nut and dried fruit plate to go along with your tasting…which is rare in Napa these days. Seriously, you’ll want to move in here.
- Silverado – Silverado is a beautiful property set up on a hill. You feel a bit like you’re in Cinderella’s castle and have great views of the valley. Their wines can be found a bit more widely than some of these other wineries, and it’s good quality. Particularly their Cabernet’s and some of their more unique bottlings when they’re available (Claret, Malbec, Rosato, etc…)
- Robert Sinsky – this is a great winery for a picnic since they have outdoor tables & don’t mind you bringing your own food. The wife of the owner is also a chef, so they have a big wood-fire oven in the back of the tasting room and are often cooking up yummy little treats for you to try. The wines here are great…especially the Vin Gris which is a beautiful pink in color but wonderfully balanced. Opening a bottle of this signifies the start of summer to me…but it sells out extremely fast so make sure to grab some if they have it while you’re there!
- Another great picnic spot a little further towards Calistoga is Elhers…they have an idyllic property with a bocce ball court and fantastic wine (especially their flagship 1886). They also have a really fun sensory experience that helps you learn about wine and refine your palate. This was one of my favorite wineries early on in my Napa experience and even after visiting so many others I still love it.
- Del Dotto – this one is a splurge, but oh so worth it at least once. It’s $50/person but you get a full candlelight cave tour and taste wine thieved right out of the barrel. Many other wineries do this for special occasions (and often cheaper), but Del Dotto does this every day which makes scheduling a bit easier. Tasting straight from the barrel before the wine is fully aged with the wine cave smell all around you is one of the most magical things about wine country to me…
Restaurants: We all know about The French Laundry, Bouchon, etc… but I’ve chosen to share my go-to favorites that I go back to time and time again. They tend to be a bit friendlier on the wallet as well…
- Gott’s Roadside – formerly known as Taylor’s Refresher the one in St. Helena is a staple along route 29…upscale Napa kicking off their wine country best and eating outside at a roadside diner. Their patty melt is amazing, as is their seared ahi tuna burger.
- Oxbow Public Market – this is a bit newer, but amazing nonetheless. It’s right in downtown Napa and basically a collection of amazing local food purveyors and artisans. We love Pica Pica, the Fatted Calf (around the corner outside next door to Model Bakery) and of course Hog Island Oyster company. You could spend all day here…it’s a foodie haven!
- Picnic Fixin’s from Oakville Grocery or Dean & Deluca or Brown’s Valley Market (which was my go-to since I lived right down the road…much less hectic & touristy than Oakville & D&D as well). Seriously though, a trip to Napa isn’t complete without a picnic lunch at a winery sipping on wine, try to do it at least one of the days you’re there!
- Auberge du Soleil – a beautiful property with tables up on a wrap-around balcony for drinks and snacks. The ambiance is extremely romantic and special, particularly at sunset.
- CIA at Greystone – the Culinary Institute of America is in an amazing castle-like property here and, of course, the food is great. I do think there are better dinners to be had for the value though, so I only suggest it for drinks/appetizers.
- Solbar – delicious Californian cuisine in a tranquil spa-like setting. Perfect way to wind down your day
- Michael Chiarrello’s Bottega – I know, I know…celebrity chef’s restaurants are a bit cliche, but honestly this place is amazing. The ambiance is warm and familial and the food is seriously amazing. Try the Polenta under Glass starter…yum. During nice weather sit outdoors, so nice on a warm evening.
- Bistro Don Giovanni – another amazing Italian restaurant with a great outdoor space. Trust me, after a day of wine tasting it’s hard not to crave Italian food and this is some of the best there is.
- Zu Zu – switching it up a bit, this is a Tapas & Paella restaurant in downtown Napa. Really delicious & intimate with great sangria and festive music.
- Rutherford Grill – this is another Napa staple with a perpetual line out the door. It’s a Hillstone restaurant with your more typical American fare…the iron skillet cornbread is yummm-my.
Things to Do: if you can manage to pull yourself away from the wineries & food long enough (I rarely can), there are lots of other fun things to do in Napa…here’s a sampling:
- Napa by Bike is amazing…it’s a different experience for sure with less drinking and more outdoor exploring but it’s relatively flat in Napa so even for less experienced cyclists it can be a really fun experience. Likely better suited for spring or fall than the dead of summer though! Napa Valley Bike Tours & St. Helena Cyclery are good options for guided tours and rentals.
- Napa Valley Wine Train – I’ve actually never done this, but have heard good things!
- St. Helena is the perfect town to ramble around and just wander through shops.
- Spa Solage – I love this spa! Get any treatment you’re interested in (they’re all amazing) and then spend the rest of your day at their beautiful property with food & drinks delivered to you pool side. Fabulous!
- Mud bath in Calistoga – if you’re spending any time in Calistoga, you have to do a mud bath…dirty, warm, soothing and detoxifying all at once. It’s a unique experience that will leave you silky soft.
- Castello di Amorosa – okay, this is like the Disnyland of wineries…but it’s about as authentic of an Italian castle as you’re going to get since they imported almost every detail from Italy. Good spot if you have kids with you since it’s more child friendly than most wineries in Napa.
- Napa City Nights – free summer concerts (and movies once a month) at the downtown ampitheater (across from Zu Zu) on Friday nights.
So get out there and start gourmet globe trotting in Napa…great wine of course, but so much more! Whatever you decide to do, I hope you have an amazing time exploring our little piece of wine country paradise here in the Bay Area. And as always…please share your good finds (or differing opinions) with the rest of us!
Need some more convincing to plan your trip? Check out some photos here!