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Visiting the Amazing Napa Valley

Sep 3, 2013 | 0 comments

I am one lucky girl…living in San Francisco puts me only an hour away from Napa Valley, oneo f the world’s best wine regions and home to some amazing restaurants as well. We never get tired of heading that direction to do some wine tasting, enjoy the gorgeous views of the valley and sample some fine food.

But there are literally hundreds of wineries (more than 400), and with a distance of nearly 30 miles from the south to the north end of the valley, where do you start?  It’s not easy to know which wineries are the really great ones and which are the most fun to visit.

If you are a first time visitor to Napa Valley, your wine tour might be a little different than for someone who has been several times before. For example, a tour in a great winery to show you how wine is made is a great thing to do on one of your first visits, but those who have been on a tour or two may want to skip that and get straight to the tasting. The rest of this post contains recommendations on wineries to visit, restaurants to enjoy and places to stay. These recommendations are the more select places to eat, drink and sleep, so if you’re on a tight budget, you might need to do a bit more research.

napa view 3

Wineries with Good Tours

  • B Cellars
    This winery has moved to St Helena, and has built a new tasting room, cave and so much more, all of which are stunning. In the tasting room, they have built a full commercial kitchen with a great chef who creates absolutely delicious small plates to go with each of the wines in their tasting. Appointments are absolutely required, but they do a full tour, sit down tasting with food pairings and great explanation of the wines. Highly recommended.
  • Robert Mondavi Winery
    Robert Mondavi is viewed in many ways as the father of Napa Valley. He began in the wine business with his family in 1963, but after a feud over the winemaking practices at their winery, went out on his own in 1965, founding the Robert Mondavi winery in 1965. He went on to create some of the practices that are still in use today in modern winemaking, such as labeling wines in the US by varietal. While the wines aren’t considered the best wines of the valley, some of their reserve wines are great. The tour there is one of the best, and does a great job of walking you through how wine is made, from harvest to bottling.
  • Opus One
    This winery has always impressed me immensely. It started as a joint project between Robert Mondavi and Baron Phillippe Rothschild of the famed Chateau Mouton Rothschild. The thing I love about this place is that it was built to combine the best of French and American winemaking, the best of old and new. The winemaking process they use is founded on old-fashioned principles – gravity rather than pumping, as little machinery as possible – but augmented where technology really helps make better wine. The decor, too, is a blend of old and new, combining modern furniture with Louis XIV pieces. And maybe most visually interesting is the building itself, which many say looks like a flying saucer atop an ancient pyramid, again combining old and “new”. The tour is pretty spectacular, as you can imagine. They do a “double vintage” tour in the morning that gives you the full tour plus tastings of two of their library vintages. It’s very pricy…$125 per person. The so-called regular tasting is the tour plus the currently poured vintage for $75 per person. The tasting bar will pour you a full glass of anything they are serving that day for varying prices, but the bottle prices are $115 for their second label, Overture, and about $300 per bottle for the Opus One.
    Opus One
  • Jarvis Estate
    This winery is famous for its Cabernet and Chardonnay, and has a fabulous tour. It has a huge cave that is a sight to be seen, with an underground stream and waterfall. The tour shows several alcoves and rooms that feature a massive collection of large geodes. The tour is great, the tasting even better…it’s a bit more formal than some with a sit-down tasting of reserve wines that takes about an hour.
  • Pride Mountain Winery
    Pride Mountain is unusual in that it’s lands straddle both Napa and Sonoma County borders. The border is actually marked with a line of bricks, and there are differences in how they handle grapes from either side (labeling, taxes, etc.). The views are amazing as it sits on the top of a hill, the wines are great and the people very friendly. A great place to visit and do a picnic.
  • Silver Oak Winery
    This is another favorite of ours because their wines are so outstanding. Silver Oak is famous for making some of the best Cabernets in the valley and beyond. They only make two Cabernet wines each year (one from Alexander Valley grapes and one from Napa Valley grapes), and each is a gem. They also own Twomey Cellars (see below), which makes some of our favorite Pinot Noir.

Additional Wineries to Visit & Taste

  • Palmaz Vineyards
    A very interesting winery in the south end of the valley, this place has an architectural wonder on site in addition to great red wines. They’ve built the largest underground reinforced structure (the height is equal to an 18-story building!). They’re known for their Cabernet, but also make a couple of white wines that are quite good. Tastings and tours are not cheap, but worth it.
  • Paraduxx and/or Duckhorn Tasting Rooms
    Both of these wineries have gorgeous tasting rooms that feature a bit more formal tasting – you sit down and are served the wines you’d like to taste with tasting notes and small nibbles. The atmosphere at both places is stunning, and definitely worth doing one or both of these great makers of wine. Both specialize in blends, with Paraduxx specializing in Zin and Cab blends, while Duckhorn are more Merlot and Cab blends.
  • Twomey Cellars
    As mentioned earlier, Twomey is owned by the same owners as Silver Oak, but serves very different wines. While Silver Oak specializes in Cab, Twomey does an oustanding Pinot Noir. They also make white wine, and everything they make is worth tasting. Gorgeous properties in both Calistoga and in the Healdsburg area (in Sonoma wine country) mean we visit often. 
  • Miner Family Winery
    This one has a special place in my heart…my first ever boss in technology, Bob Miner who co-founded Oracle with Larry Ellison, got the family started in the wine business way back when he bought Oakville Ranch Winery. Many years (and a long story) later, his nephew, Dave Miner, started Miner Family Winery. They make a wine called the Oracle in fact, which is oustanding, but then all their wines are very good. Great tasting room with Napa Valley views, friendly staff, and good wine is the perfect combo for a visit.
  • Frank Family Vineyards
    In my opinion, this winery has done nothing but improve over the years. They make one of our favorite Chardonnays, their Cabernets are awesome. We also love their sparkling wines. The staff here are amazingly friendly, passionate and eager to share their wine knowledge. With no appointment required (other than for a tour), this is the perfect place to stop and enjoy an all-around great experience.
  • Domaine Carneros Winery
    This chateau-like estate at the south end of the valley is often a great start to your tasting tour. Because they specialize in sparkling wines, it’s a perfect palate cleanswer to start your day or to refresh when you think you’ve had about as much red wine tasting as you can handle in one 24-hour period. They do also make good Pinot Noir, but sparkling wine is definitely the standout.
  • Regusci
    This winery makes a wide variety of wines, from Chardonnay to Syrah to Cabernet and a few in between. But each one is well-made and relatively small production. The cave is quite beautiful if it’s open, and there are some very nice picnic tables on site as well.
  • Ladera Vineyards
    Truth be told, we have not yet been to this winery, but not for lack of trying. We’ve made several attempts and either their availability didn’t match our timing or vice versa. The reputation for Ladera is excellent and their wines are rated highly. They also give what is reputed to a great tour. Maybe you’ll get there before I will.
  • Kuleto Estate
    While a long drive to get there, this winery is very good. Great wines, gorgeous property that famed restaurant designer Pat Kuleto has decorated himself, and perfect picnic grounds, this is a great visit. Plan ahead though since the drive is quite long. It might be worth visiting nearby Merryvale if you make the journey.

Now with all this drinking, you are going to need some food as well! Fortunately, some of the world’s best restaurants are in the Napa Valley. In fact, eight restaurants have at least one Michelin star in the region. Here are some of our favorites: 

  • Redd and Redd Wood
    Redd is in Yountville and has a Michelin star for its great Asian-influenced food. The decor is pretty spectacular, and if you can sit ouside (weather permitting), so it…the fountain and shaded tables are perfect for lunch or dinner. Its sister restaurant is the newer Redd Wood, also in Yountville, which makes great pizzas in their wood burning oven.
  • French Laundry
    Need I even explain this incredible restaurant from Thomas Keller? The 3-Michelin starred destination serves some of the most inventive food in the world, and is quite an experience. The 10(ish) course tasting menu is $270 per person without wine, so be prepared for that, and reservations are extremely hard to come by, but it is certainly worth a once-in-a-lifetime visit.
    French Laundry
  • Bouchon Bistro
    Traditional French bistro food is the fare here, also owned by Thomas keller. Great, solid French food is the order of the day and well worth a visit. The bistro (which also has a bakery attached that attracts a long line for fresh pastries in the mornings) is also in Yountville. It, too, has a Michelin star. Are you getting that Yountville is a bit of a food mecca in Napa Valley?
  • Ad Hoc and Addendum
    Yet another restaurant in Thomas Keller’s culinary empire is Ad Hoc. It’s a family-style restaurant with a fixed menu daily (as in, no choices…you get what’s on the menu) inspired by the family meal. The 4-course menu changes daily and is all served to share with the members of your table. Fresh ingredients that are well prepared are the way of this place, and the cookbook is one of my favorites. One of the fave dishes here is Keller’s Buttermilk Fried Chicken…so popular that they now serve that for lunch only out of the “Addendum” food stand in the back with picnic tables. Trust me, the best fried chicken anywhere near the area. And yes, it’s in Yountville.
  • Bottega
    Celebrity chef Michael Chiarello cooks some of the best Italian food available at Bottega, also in the heart of Yountville. It’s a big restaurant, perfect for groups, with very nice patio seating too. Personally, I can’t get enough of the grilled octopus appetizer and the ‘polenta under glass’ dish. Wines are great too.
  • SolBar at Solage
    Finally leaving the Yountville area for other parts of Napa, let’s talk about SolBar at the Solage resort in Calistoga. You’ll note I mention this as a great place to stay too. Fabulous pation (and indoor) seating, with food that is both comforting and delicious. The Michelin-starred restaurant calls their food “California soul food” made with the freshest ingredients around. Don’t miss the Lucky Pig dish!
  • Mustard’s Grill
    This place has been around a very long time, owned by celebrity chef Cindy Pawlcyn focuses on good ‘ole American food but made with very fresh ingredients. This is a go-to haven for people visiting Napa Valley, particularly since it’s in the south end of the valley and can be a start to your day, fortifying you for the wines ahead.
  • Auberge du Soleil
    This is one of the most beautiful locations in the valley, and is both a great place to stay (see below) and to dine. The restaurant has stunning views and the food is absolutely outstanding, made from the freshest local ingredients with a Mediterranean flair. The Michelin star is very well deserved.
  • The Restaurant at Meadowood
    This place has three Michelin stars like the French Laundry and has been on a steady rise for years. There is also a casual grill at the resort which is well worth a stop for lunch. Food here is all about freshness, and is billed as a modern approach to Napa Valley cuisine. The resort itself also mentioned below as a great place to stay, is gorgeous, set in a wooded area nestled in the heart of Napa Valley, St. Helena.

You’ve eaten and tasted your way through the valley, and you’re undoubtedly now ready for a nap. There are some spectacular places to stay throughout the valley, and some highly expensive ones too. I’ve listed here our personal favorites, but there are a ton of Bed & Breakfast inns and even motels scattered throughout the valley.

  • Calistoga Ranch
    My personal favorite, but expensive enough that it’s for special occasions only. The rooms are stunning, hidden away in the woods of Calistoga, and have outdoor showers, separate living rooms, fireplaces and kitchenettes. The restaurant here is wonderful and I would’ve mentioned it above, but it’s reserved for guests of the ranch only.
    Calistoga Ranch
  • Solage
    Mentioned above for its fine food and Michelin starred restaurant, the resort is quite amazing too. The ‘rooms’ are really small cottages with a deck, bedroom, bathroom and are quite private. The amenities on the resort are great too (the pool is gorgeous) and the location in Calistoga is close to many great wineries.
  • Carneros Inn
    Very close to the Domaine Carneros Winery mentioned above, this place is a lot of fun. Lodgings are light and airy with modern furnishings. The spa is reputed to be excellent here, and the two restaurants (Farm and the Boon Fly Cafe) are also both very good.
  • Auberge du Soleil
    We’ve already talked about how great the restaurant is at this small resort, which is owned by the same people that own the Calistoga Ranch. It’s a stunning resort, with luxurious, private rooms, a beautiful pool and a sculpture garden that’s worth a visit on its own.
  • Chateau de Vie Bed & Breakfast
    I see this place as a luxury B&B, with great decor, outstanding food, and a comfortable, French-influenced ambiance. Rooms are generous and nicely decorated, and the pool is pretty nice too.
  • Bardessono
    This is one of my favorite places to stay – the whole resort is very eco-conscious, the restaurant, Lucy, is excellent and the decor is the best for my tastes (modern) in the entire valley. Simply beautiful architecture and decor everywhere you look. And it’s walking distance to the various Yountville restaurants I’ve mentioned above.
  • Hotel Yountville
    This is a relatively new hotel in the valley, also walking distance to the Yountville restaurants.  While I haven’t personally stayed here, it’s been winning awards and accolades right and left. The style appears to be European, with a large property for all its amenities.
  • The Inn at Meadowood
    nd last, but certainly not least, is the Inn at Meadowood. Mentioned above for its 3 Michelin star restaurant and the grill as well, this property is stunning. Not only can you play tennis, play golf on their course, and even play croquet on their perfectly manicured courts. You can even hire a pro to help teach you how to win at the game of wickets.

If this post doesn’t give you a wealth of ideas as to what to do, see, eat and drink throughout Napa Valley, then I don’t know what will! I hope this helps you to enjoy the bounty of deliciousness that the valley has to offer. Let me know if you have additional questions or suggestions!

Bon appetit!





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