Did you know that the fall is a great time to visit Northern California wine country? Not only is the weather still great, but you can also witness the harvest and see wine-making work in progress. In this post Derek Mims, a Founding Ambassador at Boisset Wine Living, shares his tips and tricks for navigating the Napa Valley. Derek has spent the last 15 years cultivating his wine palette and exploring various wine regions around the world, and now he offers his expert guidance to Boisset customers, present and future.
First-timers to Napa Valley are often overwhelmed by the number of wineries that are open to visitors, not to mention the many wines available to sample. But don’t be embarrassed – Napa veterans and industry insiders are often equally overwhelmed by the many wine choices that Napa has to offer!
However there are also a lot of other amazing enticements that make Napa Valley (and its surrounding areas) a wonderful place to visit: from hot springs and famous geysers to fantastic scenery, dining and shopping.
And now, with Harvest Season well underway, the whole Valley is abuzz with activity, and the sweet aroma of wine is literally in the air!
Many visitors new to the area try to cram in as many wineries as they can into their day of tastings, but I would recommend planning to visit no more than four on any given day. This allows time for a tour, browsing the gift selections, or simply enjoying the views. It also provides time for a quick lunch, which is imperative (as is a decent breakfast before you begin).
It is important to remember that some wineries require appointments to taste their wine, so plan ahead and do some research – particularly if you have a favorite winery that you really want to visit. Having a tentative schedule in advance will allow you to see and sample everything you want and you can intersperse set appointments with tastings that do not require reservations, so that you don’t feel rushed.
One of the best overall guides in print is The Preiser Key to Napa Valley, which you can pick up for free in many wineries and shops around Napa. Sara and Monty Preiser are well-traveled wine and food writers, and their publications are thorough, helpful, and insightful.
But here are a few recommendations of my own:
- Inglenook (Rutherford): A historic winery for the valley, dating back to the 1880s and currently owned by film legend Francis Ford Coppola.
- St. Supery (Napa): Consistently good wines, both white and red, plus a fantastic self-guided tour explaining wine production, which includes an olfactory sensation experience (allowing you to smell some of the common aromas of wine).
- Robert Biale (Napa): Some of the best (yet reasonably-priced) red wine in the valley, particularly Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.
- Sterling Vineyards (Napa): A fun stop if you have kids or non-drinkers in your group; enjoy the fantastic view as you ride the cable car up to the mountain-top winery facility and another self-paced tour.
- Frenchie Winery (St. Helena): If you have your canine companions along for the day, please don’t leave them in the hot car! Pamper your pooches with shaded suites and beds made from wine barrels while you enjoy the delicious Frenchie wines inside. And don’t miss the other delicious selections at co-located Raymond Vineyards.
- Vintner’s Collective (Napa): Great place to taste a lot of small-production wines from Vintner’s that are too small to have their own tasting room; try the wines from Melka, Mi Sueño, Buoncristiani Family, and D Cubed Cellars.
Other Local Activities
Whether you have non-wine drinkers in your party, or are just looking to mix up wine tastings with other activities, there are plenty of things to see and do in the area. Some favorites include:
- Mud Baths: Calistoga is famous for its hot springs and mud baths, so check out one of the local spa resorts like Indian Springs or Solage Calistoga. For a slightly less expensive option, try the Golden Haven Spa. All of these also offer overnight accommodations.
- Petrified Forest and Old Faithful Geyser: Also in Calistoga, the Petrified Forest is definitely a must-see and its family friendly walking trails are quick and easy to navigate. The geyser is also quite an impressive natural attraction.
- Hot-air balloon rides: There are several balloon operators in the area but, whoever you choose, this is the perfect way to get a peaceful birds-eye view of the valley.
- Golf: Try the greens at the Silverado Country Club & Resort, which also boasts great accommodations and a luxurious spa.
- Shopping: Whether you are looking for boutiques, nick-knacks, antiques or galleries, you can find tons of great shopping choices. One of my favorite destinations is downtown St. Helena.
There are some fantastic (and quite pricey) hotels in and around Napa. For cheaper options, try places a little farther away, like American Canyon to the south or Calistoga to the north. American Canyon is closer to San Francisco, but Calistoga has more of the wine country feel.
Hotels (listed in approximate order of increasing expense):
- River Terrace Inn (Napa): Great views of the Napa River and walking distance from the Oxbow Public Market.
- Meritage Resort (Napa): Home to a wonderful spa, as well as the tasting room for Trinitas Cellars.
- Carneros Inn (Napa): Located between Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, this inn has two delicious restaurants on property; Boon Fly Café for casual dining, and the more formal FARM.
- Calistoga Ranch (Calistoga): This is a luxury resort near the northern end of the Valley.
- Auberge du Soleil (Rutherford): Definitely on the pricey side (Christina Aguilera got married here), but the hotel is worth a visit – even if only for the amazing restaurant and fantastic balcony view.
- Meadowood (St Helena): Offers fine dining at The Restaurant and The Grill.
Casual Lunch Spots
- V Sattui (St Helena): V Sattui has a fantastic gourmet deli for a picnic lunch and it also offers wine tastings (their reserve wines are particularly noteworthy).
- Oakville Grocery (Oakville): This gourmet deli only has a few picnic tables outside but offers some of the best lunch-time fare in the Valley.
- Gott’s Roadside (Napa and St Helena): Formerly Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, this is part of the quintessential Napa Valley experience; enjoy a delicious burger with a half-bottle of local wine for a fantastic lunch.
- Bistro Don Giovanni (Napa): Excellent Italian cuisine; definitely order their fried olives (even if they aren’t on the menu)
- Press (St Helena): Owned by Leslie Rudd, founder of Lone Star Steakhouse and owner of Dean & DeLuca and Rudd Winery (whose Proprietary Red Blend is consistently outstanding)
- Cole’s Chop House (Napa): One of the best steak houses I’ve ever been to, conveniently located in downtown Napa
- JoLe (Calistoga): “Farm-to-table” restaurant featuring small plates and tasting menus
- Bouchon Bistro (Yountville): Same chef/owner as the French Laundry, but more casual, less expensive, and much easier to get a table
- étoile (Yountville): French cuisine on the grounds of Domaine Chandon, which makes wonderful sparkling wines and some pretty good Pinot Noir, as well
To learn more about Derek and Boisset Wine Living, visit: www.BoissetWineLiving.com/derekmims