Although my mom took me along with her to Napa when I was in middle school, I’ve been wanting to experience it as a lady of legal drinking age for as long as I can remember. So, when my friends, Kelley and Ryan, had their wedding in Los Angeles, I figured an extended trip including Napa would an amazing way to make it happen. And, that it was! While I didn’t know this prior, September ended up being an incredible time to go. It wasn’t overly crowded and the weather was absolute perfection – 80s and sunny every single day.
For the most part, I love planning trips. With that being said, I will be the first to admit that planning a trip to Napa was a bit overwhelming. I now laugh at my naivety to think that squeezing both Napa and Sonoma into a short trip was possible. While I’ve heard varying numbers, Napa Valley is home to at least 400 wineries that are open the public for tastings. Couple that with the fact that Napa spans only 30 miles, yet is broken into various sub-regions with notable differences in terroir, I had no idea where to start! All I knew was that sticking to boutique, family-operated wineries was of utmost importance to me. So, like any true millennial, I utilized the question box on my Instagram story to seek out recommendations from friends. I looked into each and every one, plotted my favorites on a Google map, and ultimately narrowed it down by selecting a handful that were in close proximity to each other. Wine Folly and the winery map on Napa Valley’s tourism website were also invaluable resources.
From what I read, people tend to book anywhere from 3-5 wineries per day. Anything more than three seemed like overkill to me, so three is the number we went with. In retrospect, even three was too much. Those “tasting” pours are husky, which lead to the demise of my entire palate by the time we reached winery number three. That said, I’d recommend keeping the number of wineries per day at two. “Quality over quantity,” ya feel me? On the topic of quality, the cost of each tasting varies considerably. The lower end is around $40, whereas the higher end can get into the $300 or so range if you’re at a more exclusive winery that offers private tours, food pairings, etc. The range we stuck to was $45-125, and I can now confidently say that you get what you pay for. Between the stunning grounds and high quality wine that we drank, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our favorite wineries were at the upper end of our price range. In my opinion, that’s another reason to stick to two wineries per day; it allows you to justify splurging on all experiences, not just a handful. Lastly, when it comes to booking tastings, I highly recommend doing so in advance. I booked everything about a month out, yet many time slots were already snatched up at that time. I booked every tasting via Tock and it was a pretty seamless process.
Deciding where to stay wasn’t nearly as difficult as deciding which wineries to visit. Accommodations tend to be on the extreme end of the spectrum: run-of-the-mill hotels or luxury resorts. While there were very few options somewhere in the middle, we found one that we absolutely adored: R Inn Napa. It’s reasonably priced, impeccably clean, and conveniently located in Downtown Napa. We loved its tastefully modern decor.
I think it’s important to note that Napa is also home to several Michelin-rated restaurants, the most notable being The French Laundry. While I would have been thrilled to dine at literally any of them, none were close to where we were staying and driving anywhere after long days of wine tasting didn’t seem like a wise idea. As such, we agreed to let wine, rather than food, be the focus of our trip. Luckily, there were plenty of great restaurants within walking distance of where we were staying.
At this point, you may be wondering how we safely got from winery to winery. While driving yourself is not recommended for obvious reasons, there are also a staggering number of DUIs in Napa each year. Thus, your best options are to take a tour or hire a driver. Going on a tour wasn’t an option we entertained since we wanted to have control over which wineries we visited. And, as you can imagine, hiring a driver can cost a pretty penny. Fortunately, there are services that allow you to hire someone who drives your rental car, thereby significantly keeping the cost down. We booked with Gino from We Drive Your Car Napa Valley. Being that he grew up in Napa, he offered a lot of interesting insights, not to mention he was very punctual and did a great job of keeping us on schedule.
Since our flight arrived in San Francisco relatively early in the day, we decided to make the most of being in the area. Brett has never been, and it had been over a decade since I had visited. After picking up our rental car, we drove across the infamous Golden Gate Bridge to Battery Spencer Overlook for striking views of the bridge itself.
Afterward, we headed to Muir Woods National Monument for up-close-and-personal views of the redwoods. If you’re unfamiliar with redwoods, they’re majestic trees that grow hundreds of feet tall, some living to over 1000 years old! They are truly a sight to see; I viewed them with the same child-like wonder as I did when I saw them for the first time back in middle school.
By this point, we were ravenous. Before making the hour drive to Napa, we headed to nearby Sausalito for some grub. Sausalito is a charming town known for its bay-front eateries. Since we were in hiking clothes, we opted for the laidback atmosphere at Fish., which offers a menu featuring sustainably-caught seafood. While they don’t take reservations, we didn’t have to wait long at all and snagged a table just in time for sunset. The food was phenomenal and totally hit the spot.
Far Niente, located in Oakville, was the first winery we visited and it set the bar very high. We opted for the $125 tasting as it included a tour of its vintage car collection, sprawling gardens, and historic wine caves. Our host enthusiastically answered all of our questions. The tasting was overall exquisite, but – most notably – included a sample of Dolce, a late-harvest dessert wine, which blew our minds. I’m typically not a fan of dessert wine, but aptly nicknamed “liquid gold,” Dolce is something special. Do yourself a favor and make Far Niente a must-see while you’re in Napa.
Next, we headed to Cakebread in Rutherford. Unfortunately, while it touts itself as being a family-owned winery, we felt like herded cattle as we moved through the tour, tasting various wines in a rushed manner along the way. Although the architecture is stunning, the wine was just meh. I think it goes without saying that I wouldn’t recommend stopping here.
As we headed to our final winery of the day, Turnbull, we devoured delicious sandwiches that Gino was kind enough to grab us from Oakville Grocery. I must say, I absolutely adored our experience at Turnbull, which is located in Oakville. It had a true boutique feel, our host was lovely, and the wine was fantastic – particularly for the $60 price point of the tasting. We enjoyed our tasting at a charming outdoor seating area. I’d definitely recommend giving Turnbull a visit.
We ended our day with dinner at AVOW in Downtown Napa. The restaurant’s funky decor and New American menu were right up my alley. And, we were lucky enough to be there on a Monday, which is when they have live music. If you’re up to enjoying some after-dinner drinks, it’s a tri-level restaurant with a rooftop bar. While that was our plan going into dinner, we were beat by the time our meal was over and decided to head back to the hotel.
Yet again, our first winery of the day knocked our socks off and set the bar incredibly high. Our tasting at Joseph Phelps, located in St. Helena, took place on a gorgeous terrace overlooking the vineyard. The property – both inside and outside – is strikingly beautiful. Our host was a retired wine salesman whose passion for the industry was palpable. The tasting at large was impressive, but their signature blend, Insignia, was next level and most certainly lived up to the hype. Joseph Phelps is another winery that you should undoubtedly add to your must-see list. For the quality of the experience and the wine, their $90 price point per tasting is incredibly fair.
Our next stop was Louis M. Martini, also located in St. Helena. The premises was recently renovated and the inside is very cool. However, our tasting took place at an outdoor seating area and the grounds were just okay. The tasting felt very impersonal and the wine didn’t quite do it for me. The silver lining is that it included a cheese plate. All that said, I’d skip this one.
Last, but certainly not least, was Frog’s Leap in Rutherford. I absolutely loved this quaint winery. We enjoyed our tasting on a wraparound porch overlooking the gardens. While the wine was by no means the best we tasted, it was excellent for the price point. While we didn’t plan it this way, I was so happy that it was our last stop of the day; after our tasting, they invited us to freely walk around the property and we had plenty of time to do so. It’s a working farm, so I really enjoyed taking in the scenery. At only $45 per tasting, I couldn’t get over the overall experience for the price point. I’d definitely add this one to your list.
Our time in Napa came to a close as we enjoyed one last dinner in Downtown Napa. This time, we opted for TORC, which offers a carefully curated farm-to-table menu paired with a high-energy atmosphere. We clinked glasses to an incredible trip to Napa Valley before we called it a night and headed to Los Angeles the following morning.
Since most of our time in LA revolved around wedding festivities, I won’t be detailing our itinerary. However, I will happily include some bonus shots from our visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter inside Universal Studios Hollywood. After years of wanting to visit, the Harry Potter nerd inside of me loved every second of it.
Sounds like an amazing experience and no doubt different than when you were a teen. Great photos as always and a lot of good tips. I gave The French Laundry cookbook to my employer years ago.