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Napa Valley Travel Guide

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My husband and I love spending time in Napa Valley! We first ended up visiting as part of celebrating the closing of a business deal with one of my husband’s clients (I got to tag along!!) and we immediately fell in love with the area. As a result, we do our best to make an annual pilgrimage around my birthday in mid-August, which often happens to coincide with the start of the grape harvest season (which means that it’s usually pretty busy; August is also in the middle of prime wedding season, so hotels are often more expensive during this time if we don’t book far enough in advance!).

Most people recognize Napa Valley, but not Sonoma County — both have a lot to offer and are so close together that we often end up visiting wineries in both areas during our trips; it’s all “Wine Country”, after all!

Tip #1: It’s definitely the most convenient to fly in and out of the airport in Santa Rosa, but if you’re trying to maximize your trip to California, it’s definitely not difficult to fly in to San Francisco and then drive up to Napa after sightseeing in SF (it’s only a couple hours’ drive away and a fairly fun road trip!). We love to fly with Alaska Airlines, if you’re looking for a recommendation.

Tip #2: Plan out your tastings! The majority of wineries want you to make reservations for tastings ahead of time (but occasionally you can get away with a walk-in; it can’t hurt to try!). I also recommend keeping location logistics in mind… you don’t want to be driving all over the Valley if you can pop around between wineries that are located in the same area, therefore saving yourself time and gas (or Uber fees).

Tip #3: Wineries typically close around 4pm, which usually leaves a few hours’ gap between tastings and dinner! We love to stay in Yountville (nestled centrally in the Valley) where there are both incredible restaurants and a whole community of tasting rooms that are open later than wineries typically are (so that you can squeeze in another tasting or two in a day to maximize your Napa visit!). If you enjoy sparkling wine, we recommend going to JCB Atelier for a tasting! The decor is a bit… eccentric, but their sparkling wine selection is great!

Tip #4: Make as many meal reservations ahead of time as possible… especially if you are interested in going to one of the popular restaurants such as Bouchon, Ad Hoc, or French Laundry (all in Yountville). Those particular spots will definitely be booked solid for weeks out, but it’s a general best practice to save your seats ahead of time at any restaurant when traveling if you’re really interested in eating there (whether it’s popular or not).

Tip #5: Share your tasting flights with your friends or significant other whenever you can! This will cut down on both cost and the potential of getting drunk (read: you can taste more wine with fewer repercussions!). *Note: this was a pre-COVID tip… please be safe and use your best judgment on this.

Tip #6: Drink water! This seems obvious, but it’s actually pretty easy to forget to do. Every restaurant and tasting experience will offer you water and I encourage you to take advantage of the free water! I also recommend either bringing your own refillable bottle with you or buying some bottled waters from a gas station to stay hydrated! The climate is very warm / dry and drinking wine will dehydrate you, so make sure you consistently drink a lots of water throughout the day!

Our Favorite Wineries:

Schramsberg – This is our favorite tour and tasting experience in Napa (as well as our favorite sparkling wine — even over Dom Perignion and Veuve Cliquot!) and the only wine club that we are members of.

Joseph Phelps – Such a gorgeous tasting experience — reserve a spot on the terrace! The building is impressive and beautiful, but the view is absolutely stunning (go early for a view of the morning mist over the vineyards and watch as it disappears with the sunshine during your tasting).

Turnbull – This spot offers our favorite red wines in Napa. You can either stay inside the tasting room which doubles as an art gallery that you can wander around while sipping your wine, or enjoy tasting those bold reds in their outdoor space!

Domaine Carneros – Another beautiful tasting experience, complete with a grandiose terrace. This is a great sparkling wine tasting location (get the cheese pairing option!).

Saintsbury – Adorable outdoor tasting with a charming garden ambiance. Opt for a morning tasting, before it gets too hot! I also love their chardonnay (it’s not too buttery or oaky — yuck!).

Grgich Hills Estate – This winery helped put Napa Valley on the map with their Chardonnay in the blind “Paris Tasting” of 1976, so it’s definitely worth a visit.

Our Favorite Restaurants: **(fair warning, most of these are located in Yountville, where we always stay for our visits to Napa)

Gott’s Roadside – This place is ALWAYS gangbusters busy during the day… but it’s our favorite spot for late night dining if we don’t care about having a sit-down dinner somewhere (or even just want the treat of a milkshake after a meal elsewhere). If you go during the day, just be prepared to wait!

Ad Hoc/Addendum – We have enjoyed a few dinners at Ad Hoc and wanted to try grabbing lunch at Addendum on our most recent visit, but they were hosting a private event that day. Ad Hoc is super yummy and a little bit more approachable than the famed French Laundry; Addendum offers casual takeaway lunch that would be perfect for a picnic!

Bouchon – Napa’s take on classic French bistro dining with an impressive wine list from both local and international wine vintners. We have been for both brunch and dinner on multiple occasions and it’s always one of our favorite meals.

Bouchon Bakery –  Definitely the best coffee option in Yountville, and the pastries are amazing (there’s always a long line outside, so be prepared to wait if you don’t get there early!).

Bistro Jeanty – Another French bistro option in Yountville, but less popular than Bouchon so it’s a little easier to get a reservation (it’s honestly one of Yountville’s best kept secrets because it’s just as delicious as Bouchon, but more affordable and feels even more authentic!).

La Calenda – Our newest discovery and instant favorite in Yountville (if you’ve been with me for a while, you know that I’m basically obsessed with Mexican food). Definitely start with the house margarita and guacamole / salsa… you’ll thank me.

RH Yountville – This interactive showroom project has been YEARS in the making and now that it’s [finally] complete, it’s an absolutely stunning place to spend your time. We didn’t have a meal here, but enjoyed some wine out in the courtyard area before heading to the airport, and it was delightful! Definitely want to make a point to do a full wine tasting or even eat at the restaurant during our next visit.

Charter Oak – We just visited this location for the first time in 2020 and I absolutely loved our meal here. Being mostly vegetarian, the menu really suited my lifestyle having more veggie-forward dishes than not and everything we had was incredibly flavorful! Easily my new favorite restaurant in the Napa area. *Please note that the Chef’s Tasting Meal portions are NO JOKE so if you plan to go that route, be sure you are a party of three or four because the plates contain way too much food for just two people.

Press – This meal was so elegant and the wine list was spectacular. Our server was so knowledgeable and provided us with so many excellent recommendations. We loved this meal – highly recommend!

Auberge Soleil –  The most decadent brunch (with four courses!) in an absolutely gorgeous setting. The view is breathtaking and definitely a “must” for first-time visitors!

Sam’s Social Club – Approachable, delicious place to get brunch or lunch! We love to sit outside on their patio while enjoying our meal. (Random, but they have the cutest bathrooms!)

Things To Do:

Tours: There are a lot of awesome tour options sprinkled throughout Wine Country. One of our absolute favorites is the Cave Tour at Schramsberg (yes, also our favorite sparkling winery… you’ll see why we love it so much when you visit!). We have also taken the gondola (“aerial tram”) up to the property at Sterling Vineyards (cool experience, but we didn’t care for the wine much… maybe we need to give it another try?). The property at Castillo di Amorosa looks amazing so their tasting / castle tour is on our list of places-to-try. If you’re a brave soul that is interested in participating in biking between wineries, there is a tour for you! We’ve never been, but it seems like a charming way to experience the Valley.

Shop: Shopping in Downtown Napa; there are also a ton of little boutique shops worth visiting in neighboring towns like Calistoga and St. Helena.

Picnic: A few select wineries encourage or even offer a picnic at their property! We were interested in trying that this year, but it just didn’t work out with our schedule, but we’re looking forward to trying it someday! You can bring your own nibbles at select wineries and others have a prix fixe picnic and wine option that you can reserve (often easier than gathering your own supplies). You can find a list of these picnic-friendly wineries here. *COVID-friendly!

Hot Air Balloon Ride: (Balloons Above the Valley + Aloft) this was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience for us! It was so magical and serene to be quietly floating over the gorgeous Napa Valley landscape. I can’t recommend this adventure enough! We went with Balloons Above the Valley, but on our last visit noticed that the Aloft company actually picks up IN Yountville, so if we ever decide to go again we’ll definitely give them a try.

Grape Stomping: I have wanted to experience grape stomping ever since I was a kid and watched Disney’s “Fantasia” (remember during “The Pastoral Symphony” all of the wine making? maybe it’s just me… lol); it just looked like so much fun! Grgich Hills offers frequent grape stomp events throughout the harvest season, but you can find a full list of other grape stomping opportunities here. I’m absolutely adding this experience to my list of things to do on a future trip!

Where To Stay:

The Westin Verasa Napa + La Toque: This is where we stayed for our first visit to Napa and it suited our needs perfectly, but was also a “forgettable” experience (which I suppose is good for a hotel; better than a memorable, but poor experience!). We had dinner at La Toque and that was delicious – I absolutely encourage you to have a meal there!

Auberge du Soleil: Admittedly, we have only enjoyed brunch here, but have heard from multiple reputable sources that the resort is wonderful and was an awesome experience for a Girls’ Trip (birthday party or bachelorette). We’ve also heard that their spa is stellar!

The North Block Hotel: This is the only hotel we will stay at when we travel to Napa nowadays – we’re ruined for all other hotels! The North Block very recently received an award for being the Number One Resort Hotel in California and I can’t say that I am even remotely surprised. It’s the best hotel that I think I have ever stayed at, if I’m being completely honest. It perfectly balances the intimacy and romance of a small hotel while offering the luxury feel of a large resort; I absolutely love it. If it’s within your budget, I highly recommend it!

Two other Yountville lodging honorable mentions are: Vintage House and Napa Valley Lodge.

What to Pack:

I wrote a whole post here about what to pack for your visit to Napa and some things to consider when planning your travel wardrobe.

Let me know in the comment section below if you have any favorite Napa wineries that we should add to our list of “Must Try’s” or if you have any questions!

Cheers and enjoy your Wine Country adventure!

xx, Natalie

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