Napa wines are famous the wold over—and for good reason. Napa valley consists of a string of tiny towns located along Hwy 29, with Napa, California at the southern end and Calistoga towards the northern end. This glamorous stretch of farmland just an hour from San Francisco is famous for cabernet sauvignon, star chefs, and volcanic mud baths. Compared to California’s other wine regions, Napa Valley embraces an almost disneyland-like commercialism, catering to tourism on a grand scale. This means more wineries and more fantastic eateries, but it also means more people. Most wineries also require reservations (due to strict zoning laws that prohibit drop-in visitors), so the best way to go about wine tasting is to book one wine tasting and plan your entire day around it, keeping your winery count to 3 or less per day. Those seeking a quieter experience will also want to check out neighboring Sonoma Valley, or Southern California’s wine jewels: Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez Valley wine country.
A Slice of Paradise
Although Napa Valley can be done as a day trip from San Francisco, it’s so much better as a weekend getaway. This will give you enough time to slow down and truly relax—isn’t this what wine is all about anyway? With a little time you can really enjoy the variety of wines and the unbeatably fresh produce of the region, get in a little light shopping, and have a couple exceptional meals in local restaurants while enjoying a luxurious hotel retreat.
Top 5 Napa Valley Wine Towns
#1: St. Helena, a Shopper’s Paradise
Located mid-valley, downtown St. Helena consists of a long strip of boutique shops filled with beautiful gifts, home decor, art galleries, and eateries. This is by far the best shopping in the valley and you can easily spend a couple hours browsing through the stores here before grabbing a bite to eat at one of many cute eateries along the main drag. One unique shop to check out is interior designer Erin Martin’s eclectic design shop M, filled with crowned golden skulls, neon nooses, and steampunk sculptures.
#2: Gourmet Yountville
This tiny town is home to big name chefs, and foodies flock here accordingly. If you get the chance, dine at Chef Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, inspired by French countryside cuisine (you’ll need to book 2 months ahead). Otherwise, head for Keller’s nearby French brasserie Bouchon, which also has an adjacent bakery filled with tempting French-style pastry delights like the "Cream Cheese Danish," filled with pumpkin puree and tasting like a burst of pumpkin pie. There’s also a nearby marketplace with more restaurants and upscale touristy shops.
#3: Historic Napa with its High Cuisine
Downtown Napa has been rejuvenated and is home to an upscale riverfront walk lined with great restaurants and shops. Iron Chef Masuharu Morimoto’s restaurant is perfect for dessert. Morimoto Napa has tempting tiny sweets that range from cotton candy to mini carrot cupcakes, which can be enjoyed among modern Japanese decor.
For a “high country cuisine” dinner, head to Restaurant Cuvée, where Chef Brendan Mica creates unique farm fresh courses that are refreshingly light and emphasize seasonal flavors. The courses are paired with wine and served in a modern setting featuring an open courtyard with a giant fire pit under the stars. Modern design permeates the indoor dining room which is accented with softly-glowing lamps that project moving video on their surfaces. Standout starters include the “Grilled Calamari” with paprika, garlic, parsley, olive oil, and lemon and the “Roasted Baby Beet Salad” with crispy garlic, frise, maple mustard vinaigrette, and smoked bacon.
The “Grilled Flat Iron” is savory and tender, cooked to perfection and drizzled with a peppery, herb-infused sauce that compliments the meat’s natural flavors. All this is served with a side of thin parmesan fries and spicy chimichurri sauce. Another signature course is the “Striped Bass,” stewed in a bath of tomato chickpea ragout, accompanied by fava beans, roasted red bell peppers, spinach, basil, and coriander cucumber salad. Cuvée has an extensive dessert menu too, with tempting selections like “Strawberry Shortcake” piled high with triple cream and fresh strawberries marinated in a strawberry champagne geleè and drizzled with wild honey. Another knockout dessert is the “Wine Country Hot Fudge Sundae,” with generous scoops of local cabernet-infused ice cream, stacked on wine-soaked cake and drenched in fudge.
Finally foodies will adore Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, an indoor market packed with food stalls and shops selling accompaniments to food, like spices, olive oil, and dish-ware. You can get Hog Island oysters, wine and cheese, gourmet coffee, and sweet treats or dine at a handful of locally-sourced gourmet eateries. Oxbow market is a great place to food graze at meal time.
#4: Folksy Calistoga
Calistoga has a new-age charm and is filled with mud-bath spas and funky shops. The collection of shops inside train cars are interesting, located along the old train platforms at one end of town. Hot springs and geysers abound in Calistoga, where you can get buried in hot mud made from volcanic ash from nearby Mount St. Helena.
#5: Picturesque Rutherford
There’s not much to the town of Rutherford, but there are a handful of great wineries here, and fantastic vineyard views all around.
Winery Spotlight: Sequoia Grove Winery
One of the most down-to-earth and incredibly picturesque wineries in the region is Sequoia Grove Winery, with a tasting room located beside a sequoia grove. The adjoining flower-filled garden is perfect for picnicking beneath the sequoias and the tasting room is housed in a renovated 150-year-old barn. Sequoia Grove specializes in exclusive bordeaux-style wines, many of which are produced just for the winery and its wine club, rather than the general market.
Where to Stay
Napa is the most convenient town to use as a base to explore the valley, and the River Terrace Inn is the perfect place to stay if you’re on a budget and seeking a clean, stylish, and centrally located boutique hotel. Rooms are comfortable and quiet and the best rooms are the river side ones, with jacuzzi tubs and balconies overlooking the river.
Further Afield: Sonoma
Sonoma valley is host to quiet wine towns and beautiful vineyards. (One of my favorite spots is Forestville.) The city of Sonoma itself is close to Napa and centered around a giant square plaza filled with gardens and surrounded by historical buildings that have a bit of an old west flare to them. There’s plenty of shopping and eateries all around the plaza, and just off the main square is tiny Mission San Francisco Solano.
Getting There & Getting Around
From San Francisco
Napa is roughly an hour’s drive from San Francisco. Usually the least congested route to take is the 101 via the Golden Gate Bridge, connecting to Hwy 37, Hwy 121, and finally Hwy 29.
Hwy 29 links Napa Valley’s wine towns, as does the parallel Silverado Trail, which cuts through picturesque vineyards. Your best bet is to take Hwy 29 one way and the Silverado Trail back.
There’s also a wine train that links up 5 wine towns in Napa Valley: Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, and St. Helena. Starting in Napa and running north to St. Helena and back, the ride takes 3 hours and spans 36 miles. Aboard the train guests dine in historic train cars (a fully restored 1915-1917 Pullman Dining Car or a 1952 Vista Dome Car) as the wineries glide by outside the picture windows. Guests can get on and off also to do wine tours.
Detour to Sonoma
A quick trip to neighboring Sonoma, California is well worth the 20-30 minute detour from the town of Napa via a series of rural wine roads or mid-sized highways (Hwy 12 & Hwy 121 are the biggest).
San Francisco is surrounded by great weekend getaway spots, but for foodies and wine lovers, nothing beats the gourmet paradise of Napa Valley.