Traveling through the vineyard vistas and rolling hills of gorgeous Napa Valley.
Driving north up Highway 29 in Napa Valley in mid-February is like driving through a sea of gold as both sides of the valley are blanketed with golden mustard flowers. These beautiful yellow flowers aren’t just for looks. They are mustard planted as crop cover to prevent soil erosion, recharge the soil with nitrogen, and help sup-press the population of nematodes. Pesky microscopic worms that cause damage to the roots of the vines, nematodes lead to vine decline. If you’re thinking about planning a trip to Napa, you might automatically think you want to visit in the fall when harvest kicks off . The scent of fermenting grapes can be smelled throughout the valley, and the vines are full of lush green leaves that are just turning red and orange. It’s a magical time to visit. However, as a former “napkin” (that’s slang for Napa residents), I have to say that there is nothing quite like the view of a valley full of mustard! There is really no wrong time to visit.
Napa is quite small when you consider it’s only about 30 miles long from north to south and sandwiched between the Mayacama and Vaca mountains. The rolling hills and the valley floor full of vineyards, palm trees, and of course, the wine make it a magical place with its near-perfect Mediterranean climate. It is a mecca for fine dining! Everywhere you turn there is an amazing restaurant with food unlike anything you’ve tasted before. But with more than 500 wineries in Napa Valley alone (not including their neighbors to the west in Sonoma), it can be overwhelming to narrow down where to visit when you go. Also, there is more to do than just drink wine and eat world-class food. You can enjoy the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville, farmer’s markets, live music on theNapa River, the Uptown Theatre, multitude of mineral bath providers, and more! If you’re looking for something more active to do in Napa, renting a bike and riding up the Vine Trail is a great way to take in the beauty of the valley and get some exercise. It can take you all the way from the Napa proper up to the adorable town of Calistoga.
When you go, dress in layers. Napa has a large diurnal shift, which is the difference between the daytime high and nighttime low. This temperature change allows the grapes to retain a good amount of acidity, but it means it could be quite chilly for your first tasting and sweltering hot for your last one.
Also, be advised to wear comfy shoes. In Napa, we call it “wine country casual.” Many of the wineries will include a vineyard or cave tour, and you do not want to be wearing unrealistic heels trying to navigate a vineyard. Choose something more practical like loafers, trendy sneakers, or booties.
If you prefer fewer crowds and less traffic, I’d advise against visiting in the fall because it is the most popular time to visit. With only two ways to get north to south (Hwy 29 and Silverado Trail), both of which are two-lane roads, the traffic can tend to get backed up. With this in mind, no matter what time of year you visit, make sure to plan plenty of time in between tasting appointments. Running late by a few minutes is OK, but most wineries have full schedules and other groups coming after you. If you are more than 20-30 minutes late, it might affect the rest of their day and they may or may not be able to honor your appointment.
With all of this in mind, know that whether you visit Napa Valley in the spring when the valley is covered in mustard or love the fall fermentation scents, you will likely be awe-struck by the beauty all around you. For me, it truly was like waking up in a dream every day I lived there. Just driving to work was like a therapeutic experience looking at the vineyards, the mountains, the palm trees, and the blue skies. The smell of eucalyptus trees will always bring me back to Napa!
Bistro Don Giovanni
Bistro Don Giovanni is by far our favorite go-to restaurant for lunch or dinner. The ambiance is unbeatable after they turned their gardens into additional seating outside. You can find simple, good quality Italian food with amazing service. It’s a can’t-miss for every Napa trip. And do not leave without ordering their butterscotch pudding for dessert!
Duckhorn is a noteworthy place to get the preeminent Napa Valley experience at an affordable point. Its portfolio tasting is just $50, and you will be tasting some excellent merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc.
French Laundry or Bouchon
The French Laundry is owned by Thomas Keller and truly a one-of-a-kind dining experience. But if you can’t get in, or it’s not within your budget, Bouchon is another wonderful Keller concept down the road. Their French fare is out-of-this-world delicious! And don’t forget to pop in next door to Bouchon Bakery and grab some of its famous macaroons.
For a more elevated experience, I love HallRutherford (make sure you specify Rutherford as they also have a winery in St. Helena).The crystal chandelier in their cave has more than 1,500 Swarovski crystals on it and is worth a trip just for the atmosphere. The wines are amazing, and you can also add a food pairing experience.
If you like bubbles and history, you must see Schramsberg Vineyards! Schramsberg is Napa’s oldest cave and stores more than three million bottles of wine. I recommend starting the day here. Call well in advance as they book up fast.
Rutherford Grill is simple, casual, convenient, and has delicious food. You can’t go wrong with popping in for a quick bite and a drink. I give it a 10/10 and recommend a visit.
Wine Tasting Etiquette
• Avoid wearing fragrances or perfumes. Wine tasting is all about our senses (how the wine looks, smells, and tastes). If you are wearing a strong fragrance, it interferes with your experience and those around you. Itcan also alter the taste of the wine itself, so it’s best to avoid any fragrance.
• Don’t drink too fast or too much. It catches up fast—especially if you aren’t used to drinking wine. I know it’s hard to choose just a few wineries, but avoid scheduling too many wineries in one day. This results in no time to eat and likely not remembering your experience at all. Rowdy drunk guests can detract from the experience of others. It’s best to drink responsibly and make plenty of time for lunch in between tastings.
• Tip your host/wine educator. While it is not required or even expected, tipping your host is a nice gesture that is greatly appreciated. If you enjoyed their knowledge, were served more wine than expected, or had your tasting fees waived, definitely feel free to tip them for their time and expertise. Budget this into each tasting as part of the cost.