There are so many reasons to visit Napa Valley. Napa’s terroir, a perfect combination of sunshine, rich soil, geography, topography, and climate is the secret behind the region’s exceptional wines. Beyond the Napa wineries experience, there’s also a vibrant foodie scene, the sheer beauty of the valley, tours, classes, concerts, picnics, festivals, auctions, and people-watching. Here, we share our curated guide to Napa’s classics, and the hidden gems insiders go. Cheers.
Visit Napa to show your support
Napa is an American beauty and now more than ever it needs our love. Plan a long weekend or week, to sip and collect wine, just like the good old days, and show your support for the winegrowers post wildfires. To understand the havoc climate change, including the Glass Fire, “smoke taint,” heat, and drought, has wreaked on Napa vines, check out this New York Times article.
The New Napa, worth traveling for
There’s a new vibe in Napa ripe for exploring, according to the experts. “There’s more diversity in the kinds of places that have opened, places that are catering to all kinds of people and different experiences,” says Cristina Salas-Porras Hudson who with her husband Lee Hudson, opened the winery at Hudson Ranch & Vineyards, a working ranch, and vineyard in Carneros, three years ago. In addition to the classic vineyards, some now owned by corporations or private equity companies, there are newer spots that reimagine what Napa Valley originally grew out of— a love of the land, farming, soil, and family. It’s also easier to explore and enjoy U.S. vineyards over European regions right now and experts will attest we produce better wine. A case in point is the 1976 blind tasting dubbed “Judgement of Paris”, where new Napa wines beat the French, both in Chardonnay (Chateau Montelena) and Cabernet Sauvignon (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars).
Among the Vineyards
So many vineyards, so little time. There are almost 400 vineyards that are open to the public in Napa Valley. Most require reservations for tastings and charge anywhere from $20 to well over $100. One way to decide where to visit is to simply go see where some of your favorite wines are made. Napa Valley’s terroir is especially ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. A loose but general rule is the farther north in the valley, the bigger (and pricier) the wines will be, for example, the stunning property and Cabernet of Lokoya Winery in St. Helena.
A couple of places where you don’t need a reservation and are definitely worth the trip. One is Robert Sinskey Vineyards, family-run by Robert and Maria Sinksey, who is in the kitchen making the extensive and delicious food menu from scratch to accompany their wines. You can also be impromptu at Frog’s Leap; go and sit on the lawn with your picnic while tasting their excellent Cabs and Chardonnay. They, along with many other wineries, offer private Zoom tastings too.
The property of the Hudson Ranch & Vineyards owned by Cristina Salas-Porras Hudson and her husband Lee is “magical and unusual,” she says, with a vegetable garden where they grow 2000-pound pumpkins. You can also hike the 3-mile loop on their property after tasting their wine. Their curated wine tasting starts at just $65 (by appointment).
Napa Wineries with Personality
Wineries have personalities, so go for a variety of experiences, in addition to wines. For modern architecture, visit Ashes & Diamonds Winery at the gateway to Napa Valley. The building is mid-century hip and they also have a great winemaker. Darioush “is like an Iranian dreamscape,” says Salas-Porras Hudson; they offer estate dinners in a luxurious garden setting with excellent service. Promontory is a new winery in a secluded canyon in Oakville run by Will Harlan, son of the famed Bill Harlan whose Harlan Estate makes some of the most highly regarded Cabernets in the world. For classic old-school wines and property, visit Mayacamas, where they age their wine in neutral oak for a fresher Cabernet. Whetstone Wine Cellars is family-owned and operated by a young couple and has a Southern charm, a casual vibe, live music, and great wine. Alpha Omega in St. Helena is welcoming for the young party scene (dogs on leashes are welcome too). Also in St. Helena, El Molino is traditional and still family-owned and operated, making excellent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The Napa Classics
Inglenook (formerly Rubicon) by Francis Ford Coppola has a museum and actual cars from The Godfather; people visit for a more grandiose experience (and the wine!). Their recently renovated Pennino tasting room features works of art by Robert De Niro and by film director Akira Kurosawa. Caymus, Duckhorn, Pride are classic vineyards with tastings by appointment. Cakebread and Grgich Hills make excellent Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Add smaller more accessible wineries including Hall and organically farmed Cade to your list because, as one local suggests, “you can usually get in.”
Napa, the Town
The town of Napa itself now offers more casual dining options to what has become a wine-and-food-a-palooza in the Valley, known for classics like The French Laundry and Auberge de Soleil. In Napa, the Oxbow Market is open, where local winemakers get an egg sandwich at Model Bakery before heading into Hudson Greens & Goods, a grab-and-go juice bar, grocery and gift shop that’s part of Hudson Ranch & Vineyard, for honey, olive oil, chocolates, and other products from California artisans. Zuzu is a Spanish tapas bar in downtown Napa beloved by visitors and locals alike. Contimo is a small sandwich shop that makes everything from scratch, including their pastrami, where you can pick up breakfast, lunch, or dinner before hitting the wineries. The famed SF butcher Fatted Calf offers cooking classes (with meat!) which are $225 per person and limited to 10 students.
Wine bars are opening up faster than some wines; Cadet is run by two women who spin vinyl and feature local winemakers and beer; Compline Restaurant and Wine Shop offer snacks, lunch, or dinner (try the squid ink capellini) while tasting local Napa wines.
The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Copia is in Napa; walk across from the Oxbow Market to see a cool exhibit at the Chuck Williams Culinary Arts Museum of his private personal collection of kitchen items (Chuck Williams is the founder of Williams Sonoma). It’s free and it takes about 10 minutes to see.
The rise of Napa’s culinary scene by a chef
“Phoenix always rises from the ashes,” says chef and food editor Lora Zarubin, who grew up in San Francisco and whose family had a summer home in Calistoga. She’s seen the change in Napa Valley since her childhood, and still loves going. Some of her favorite wines and wineries include Spring Mountain, Scarecrow, and the Bryant Family Vineyard. As for food, she recalls writing a story for House & Garden about a young Thomas Keller when he opened The French Laundry in 1994. Now, for a more casual option, grab a pizza to go at Ciccio and sit in the garden of The French Laundry, it’s open to the public. Keller also has Napa classics like Bouchon Bistro and Bouchon Bakery, with lines around the block for a flaky croissant. He recently opened La Calenda in Yountville for Mexican food with indoor, outdoor, and takeout. Keller also has a pop-up champagne and caviar bar in Yountville, Regiis Ova Lounge, open Thursday- Sunday with live jazz music from Bay Area musicians.
Other favorites include Ad Hoc (also by Thomas Keller) for family dining at night (fried chicken and braised short ribs are standouts but they will substitute if you are vegetarian) and Gott’s Roadside during the day. Don Giovanni, an old-school Italian restaurant with homemade pasta, is having a huge comeback. Acacia House, part of the Alila Napa Valley hotel in St. Helena, offers a margarita with salt foam on the top that alone is worth the trip. The Charter Oak, also in St. Helena at the fully renovated Tra Vigne site, has the team from Meadowood (Christopher Kostow and Nathaniel Dorn) creating a more casual family-style menu. The morning, after all, that wine tasting, try Kelly’s Coffee at Kelly’s Filling Station, an actual gas station with hot dogs on brioche buns and soft-serve ice cream. “Napa is already going strong,” one summer resident told us. “All the restaurants are packed.”
Where to Stay in Napa
Napa Valley is not all about indulgence, by the way. People love the organic, farm-to-fork, healthy aspect as well as the spectacular natural scenery. Hiking, biking, walking help burn off the Cabs. Food blogger Kara Ackerman (aka Secrets and Sauces) first went to Napa to find wineries to order wine directly from but fell in love with the healthy environment and organic food. She knows where they will create vegetarian and pescatarian meals like the Bistro at Auberge de Soleil which she says is ideal for dining outside with stunning views at sunset. Ackerman bikes to vineyards near where she stays at the Bardessono in Yountville. “The rooms are like 2000 square feet,” she says, with outdoor showers and jacuzzi. The inside bathrooms “are like huge spas.” The Alila Napa Valley has daily yoga classes and a spa. The Clif Family Winery (yes, from the creators of Clif Bar) offers biking experiences, with routes designed by avid cyclists who happen to be local chefs, including Chef Philip Tessier of PRESS, Chef Chris Kollar of Kollar Chocolates, and John McConnell, the Clif Family chef. The bike routes depart from the St. Helena winery and end at the tasting room’s outdoor patio for a glass of wine and bruschetta.
Salas-Porras Hudson advises choosing your hotel location based on the type of wine you like to drink. “If you’re into Cab drinking, stay in Yountville and North, that’s where those wineries are.” She recommends Carneros Resort, Auberge du Soleil, and Solage if you are into hanging out poolside. The Four Seasons Resort and Residences has just opened in Calistoga. Ackerman is planning her next trip to taste California Rosé made from pinot noir, and she’ll stay at the Bardessono again (and again). The new Auberge resort in Carneros, Stanly Ranch with 135 open-air cottages, is set to open this year with an emphasis on wellness. Meadowood is a once-in-a-lifetime-but-will-go-back-whenever-I-can place to stay; the cottages are open and the grounds and hotel are set to reopen after its devastating fire of 2020.
Phoenix is well on his way up and Napa is ready for you to return.