One of my favorite places to visit is California’s Napa Valley, and I’ve received a veritable crap-ton of queries from family, friends and friends-of-friends for trip recommendations. Given that it seems like everyone I know is making a trip there, I figured I’d go ahead and pass along a few tips. Enjoy – and should you need to pass these along, note the handy email function at the bottom of the post.
There’s no getting around a rental car, unless you don’t want to experience all the gloriousness that Napa has to offer. Napa is filled with farms, which take up space, so to get to them (and all the fab shiz in between), you’re gonna need wheels. You could hire a limo to drive you around, though I highly recommend against that because wineries hate limos and some just flat out don’t allow them, and plus, it’s super pricey. On my most recent trip to Napa, we hired a service called Napa Bee Driven
and they drove us around in our rental car, which was great. It’s $45/hour, which is pretty cheap for Napa, and as an added bonus, they gave us recommendations, made appointments, etc. Pretty awesome.
I am pretty sure it is hard to have a bad meal in Napa. There are about a zillion places to eat there, and every place I’ve eaten there I’ve loved, but here are a few of my favorites.
: In Yountville, this Napa Valley gem is the creation of Richard Reddington (of Auberge du Soleil
fame). One of the best meals I’ve ever had, including some kind of awesome fried doughnut deliciousness for dessert. Make a reservation way in advance. Seriously – just do it.
: This place has a burger that was so amazing that it still serves as conversation fodder for my group of friends (picture in-house ground beef, grated white cheddar and arugula tossed in lemon). We went here for a boozy lunch mid wine-tasting, but I bet it’s awesome for dinner too. It’s got a big open farmhouse vibe, and they source from their own ranch and winery. It’s in St. Helena.
: Mustard’s has got a super open vibe, not stuffy at all, and as I recall had a deservedly famous pork chop. Seems like the sort of place locals would meet up for dinner on a Friday night. Lots of use of mustard, of course. It’s in Yountville.
: This place has a tapas-style menu, which is my favorite kind of eating so I may be a bit biased, but it was delicious. It was our last meal of the weekend on my most recent trip to Napa, so we all felt like we needed to be rolled away at that point, but finished every last bite anyway. It’s on the main drag in Calistoga (at the northern end of the valley), which was great for us cause our hotel was about two doors down.
• Tra Vigne Pizzeria
: So this place has a fancier restaurant and a more casual pizzeria – I’ve had lunch at the pizzeria, and it was delicious, with pizza of the perfectly-crisped wood-fired crust variety. In St. Helena, it’s perfect for a mid-wine tasting stop. Lovely patio.
• You may have already heard about Gott’s Roadside
(formerly Taylor’s Refresher) and the Oakville Grocery
for lunch – both are good, but both get super crowded, so be prepared. Gott’s has delicious burgers and shakes (and wine, obvs) served out of a window, to be enjoyed on roadside picnic tables, and the Oakville Grocery is a great spot to pick up stuff for a picnic lunch at a winery.
There are obviously a gazillion wineries to choose from in the Napa Valley and it can be pretty overwhelming. I recommend not trying to do more than four in a day (I’ve done five but was a little sloshed) and mapping it out so that you get closer to home toward the end of the day, cause you’re gonna be tipsy. Here are a few of my favorites.
• Frank Family
: I like this Calistoga winery so much I joined their wine club. They have really delicious red wines, as well as a super unpretentious atmosphere (their tasting room only recently upgraded from a trailer). No appointment needed.
: I have been here, no joke, four times. It’s a nice stop in Rutherford – while you do the tasting, they take you on a short tour of the winery and the grounds and do a little winemaking education. Also super unpretentious. Ask about their Rubaiyat. Appointments needed – be sure to call ahead.
: This one in St. Helena is tiny and busy, but the tasting is free and no appointment is needed – bonus!
• Domaine Chandon
: I went here a few years ago for some bubbly – it’s a huge champagne house, and has a sort of modern thing going on. I hear the cafe is really good. A cool place to walk around with a fun vibe.
: I honestly don’t remember that much about the wines here, but I do recall that the tasting was so nice because the spot is so beautiful – it’s on the southern part of the Silverado trail, and we sat outside (they do it waiter style) where there’s a gorgeous view of the valley.
Given that we used to live in the Bay Area (and that we have relatives in St. Helena), I haven’t needed hotels on most of my trips to the valley, so I’ve only stayed two places overnight – both are budget options (relatively speaking, anyway).
• El Bonita Motel
: El Bonita is truly a motel, but has the added bonus of a pool and sauna. I have some fond memories of lounging in the pool at the end of the day of wine-tasting. It’s more centrally located, in St. Helena, right on the main Napa highway, and definitely suited our needs.
• Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort
: Dr. Wilkinson’s is a funky old place started in the ’50s by a couple into alternative medicine and hoping to take advantage of Calistoga’s volcanic ash and mineralized hot springs water. The hotel has all these pools of various temperatures, which was interesting, as well as a full spa with mud baths (Calistoga is known for its mud baths).