Napa Valley At-A-Glance
The Napa Valley is generally regarded as America’s most famous and most prestigious wine producing region. Except during peak traffic times, it is an easy hour’s drive to the northeast from San Francisco or to the southwest from Sacramento. The Valley runs approximately north-south for some 30 miles. Its width ranges from about a mile at its northern end to about five miles at its widest point near its southern end. It is framed by the Mayacamas Mountains on its western and northern sides, by the Vaca Mountains to the east, and by San Pablo Bay to the south.
From north to south, the principal towns of the Napa Valley are Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville, and the town of Napa. Between St. Helena and Yountville, the hamlets of Rutherford and Oakville are important grape growing and winemaking centers. South of the town of Napa, American Canyon is significant as a commercial center and as the second largest town in Napa County (after the town of Napa). The Napa Valley is home to over 400 wineries, some of the best restaurants in the United States, world-class spas, and many other amenities.
Thanks in part to an abundance of natural beauty, and in part to stringent efforts to preserve both the beauty and the agricultural heritage of the region, the Napa Valley remains largely unspoiled by its success and notoriety as a wine tourism destination. It is worthy of as much time on your itinerary as you can devote. Count on two days just to get a sense of the Valley and longer to fully appreciate it. If you have a week to spend here, you will not run out of places to go, things to see and do, and great wine and food. And you certainly will not be bored.
Napa Valley’s reputation is built on Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. These are the varietals that won blind tastings against the French in the legendary Tasting of Paris in 1976, putting California and America on the world wine map. But just about every wine consumed in America is to be found somewhere in the Valley, including Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Zinfandel among many others. In particular, fans of sparkling wines will find a lot to like at venues like Mumm in Rutherford and Domaine Carneros. Part of the fun of visiting the Napa Valley, and a good reason to schedule several days here, is exploring the new wine varietals and new interpretations of established varietals that are constantly emerging and evolving here and throughout the California Wine Country.
Travel-Wise Tip: The main arteries in the Napa Valley are Highway 29 and Silverado Trail. These run roughly north-south and in parallel through the length of the Valley, with Highway 29 to the west and Silverado Trail to the east. Silverado Trail is by far the less traveled and least congested of the two thoroughfares, especially during peak seasons and hours. The two roads are not far apart, so switching between them to avoid congestion can add to your enjoyment of the Valley. Traversing between the two is tricky, however, because not all east-west roads connect the two arteries. It will behoove you to know which east-west roads are connectors, or “cross roads,” and which ones are not. The cross roads are easily identified on the Napa Valley map in the back of Wine Country Guide magazine and also on our standalone Napa Valley Map.
Top Picks For Wine Tasting
With so many wineries to choose from, it can be mind bending to develop an itinerary that lets you appreciate the beauty, history and diversity of the Napa Valley and the wines produced here. There are so many good choices you could make … here are our suggestions:
- Artesa Vineyards & Winery, 1345 Henry Road, Napa; 888-679-9463. Among the most dramatic and beautiful wineries in the world, Artesa is built upon a Carneros hillside with views to San Francisco. The wines here are exquisite. Ask about the special wine and food pairings.
- Beaulieu Vineyard, 1960 St. Helena Hwy South, Rutherford; 800-264-6918. If you think you know the BV brand, think again. Founded by Napa Valley pioneer Georges Latour in 1900, Beaulieu Vineyard is an integral part of the Valley’s history and makes wines for every palate and budget.
- Beringer Vineyards, 2000 Main Street, St. Helena; 707-963-8989. On the Register of National Historic Places, this breathtaking winery offers among the best tours and tasting experiences in the Valley. After your tour, sit on the Rhine House wrap-around porch and sip through a flight of reserve wines.
- Etude Wines, 1250 Cuttings Wharf Road, Napa; 707-257-5300. Etude means study in French, and this winery is a “study” in the crafting of Pinot Noir. Enjoy a flights highlighting different interpretations of this notoriously challenging-to-make wine at the tasting bar or on the patio.
- Grgich Hills Estate, 1829 St. Helena Hwy, Rutherford; 707-965-2784. Vintner Hall of Fame inductee and Tasting of Paris winner Mike Grgich, now well into his eighties, continues to nurture his six different wine varietals as if they were his children. Chardonnay is the fair-haired child.
- Mumm Napa, 8445 Silverado Trail, Rutherford; 800-686-6272. There are at least two reasons to visit Mumm. One is their world-class sparkling wines, which you can enjoy on a terrace with beautiful views. The other is a gallery of photographic art that is among the best in the Bay Area (or anywhere).
- St. Clement Vineyards, 2867 St. Helena Hwy North, St. Helena; 707-963-7221. Housed in a meticulously preserved and restored Gothic Victorian home dating to 1878, St. Clement is famous for a Bordeaux-style blend called Oroppas. Eight wines here are available only at the winery.
- Stags’ Leap Winery, 6150 Silverado Trail, Napa; 800-395-2441. Call ahead to reserve one of two fixed tasting appointments at 10:00 and 2:30 daily. You’ll tour the historic Manor House with castle-like stone tower and enjoy a flight of five excellent wines.
- Sterling Vineyards, 1111 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga; 800-726-6136. At this iconic winery guests take an aerial tram some 300 feet up the mountainside to the winery, where they are greeted with a glass of wine. Make a reservation for the Reserve Tour & Tasting, 11:00 daily.
- Whitehall Lane, 1563 St. Helena Hwy, St. Helena; 800-963-9454. This winery is a perennial award winner—including recognition three times in five years for producing wines ranked among the top five worldwide, and “winery of the year” distinctions from two respected wine authorities.
Where To Dine
Here are some of the restaurants we consider to be among the best in Napa Valley. Please see our Top Restaurants page for a more comprehensive listing of highly rated restaurants in the Napa Valley.
Travel-Wise Tip: For a truly unique Wine Country dining experience, the Napa Valley Wine Train is another excellent choice for a leisurely lunch or dinner. This Wine Country institution operates a beautifully restored and luxuriously appointed antique train over 25 scenic miles of track through the heart of the Napa Valley. Chef Kelly MacDonald orchestrates three onboard kitchens to produce gourmet meals, cooked to order and served on fine linens in formal dining cars. A three-hour dining experience, the Wine Train is a half-day destination unto itself. Check the Wine Train website for the schedule of lunch and dinner service that will be available during your Wine Country stay. Reservations are required; book as far in advance as possible.
Travel-Wise Tip: As in other popular tourism destinations, and depending on the season, the best Wine Country restaurants may be booked hours, days, weeks—or in a few cases even months—in advance. This is much more the case for dinner than for lunch, though it can be quite difficult to get a mid-day table at some popular spots. It’s never inappropriate to call ahead for a reservation, and it may save you the disappointment of being turned away or the inconvenience of a lengthy wait.
Beyond Wine Tasting
Here are some services that may make your stay in Napa Valley more enjoyable:
|Bicycle Rentals & Tours|
|Limousine Tours & Transportation|