Northern California’s Napa Valley is one of the world’s premier wine-making regions, and perhaps to an even greater degree, one of the world’s premier wine tourism regions. Given time and money it’s of course possible fly to Europe to tour quaint chateaux in Bordeaux or sip chianti in a walled Tuscan hill town, but for most people in the States, Napa is the wine country. We spent a pleasant long weekend there over Thanksgiving.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are what Napa is most famous for, and any local will proudly recount the story of the 1976 Judgment of Paris (it’s also been the subject of books and movies). Two Napa Valley wines – a Cab in the red category and a Chardonnay in the white – beat top French wines in a blind tasting presided over by French judges. It was the first time that “new world” wines beat older, famed French producers and was the beginning of a (begrudging) acceptance that non-Europeans can produce wines at least as good as their traditional continental counterparts. Napa’s renown and popularity exploded, and nowadays it’s generally considered one of the best places in the world to grow Cabernet… the dark, earthy, tannic and (at its best) exceptionally complex wine that makes new drinkers cringe and enthusiasts salivate. Cabernet grapes in particular love Napa’s hot days, cool nights, and mineral-rich soil.
Even if you’re not into the boldness of Cabernet, Napa produces lots of other great wines. Tasty Merlot, Sangiovese, and red blends are easy to find. Nearby vineyards produce good Pinot Noir, and several wineries specialize in sparkling wines perfect for a morning refresher.
Being less than two hours’ drive from San Francisco, the area is busy with Bay Area visitors on weekends and holidays, but more relaxed during the week. There are literally hundreds of wineries, though, and even on busy days it’s possible to find a quiet spot for a picnic or a glass of the local livelihood.
A typical day in Napa goes something like this: a nice breakfast (most lodging options include it) and then a relaxed jaunt to visit wineries. At each stop you’ll have the option of doing a wine tasting, and some properties also offer interesting and educational tours. It’s also perfectly acceptable, especially at the larger wineries, to forego the drinking and simply walk around the grounds- which are invariably beautiful and well-manicured. It’s important to pace yourself. Stop at a cafe or store for a leisurely lunch, and visit more wineries in the afternoon. The wine tasting scene typically wraps up before dinner, and evenings are low-key (if you’re looking for late-night revelry you should stay behind in San Francisco).
The most impressive winery we visited was Castello di Amorosa. On paper it sounds like Las Vegas: a wealthy Italian transplant spent 13 years and millions of dollars building a medieval Italian castle surrounded by vineyards. After walking around, though, I was impressed. Unlike Disney or Vegas, the castle was constructed using entirely authentic materials and techniques (i.e. no concrete or construction cranes) with stone quarried nearby. It took 13 years to build, and if you didn’t know you were in California you could easily mistake this place for Italy. When touring historic buildings it’s common to hear the phrase “they don’t build ’em like this anymore.” Well, in this case, they did, and to pretty amazing effect.
The main drawback with Napa, of course, is the cost: it’s not exactly a budget travel destination. Although the valley is studded with a few small towns, it remains mostly rural… but this is easily one of the most upscale and urbane rural areas around. Nothing goes better with wine than food, of course, and Napa’s towns are full of great restaurants, artisan food producers, and stores to stock up on picnic items. Most of it doesn’t come cheap, but the quality is typical very high. It’s the same story for lodging, where your options are a mix of
B&Bs and small yet refined inns and hotels. A tasting at a winery, which could be had for free a couple decades ago, will now set you back $20-30 per person for 4-5 pours. You’ll need to rent a car, too.
But if you’re already an oenophile, or looking to appreciate wine a little more, Napa is a great destination. Adjacent Sonoma County is an easy add-on to your trip, and Sonoma sub-regions like Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley are gorgeous and definitely worthwhile. Wineries there tend to be more laid-back, less expensive, and feature different grapes that like cooler temperatures (it’s closer to the ocean).
You can view all of our pictures here.