A first-timer’s guide to the Napa Valley
We’re spoilt for choice in Australia with amazing wine regions. BUT there’s still something very enticing about visiting one of the world’s most renowned wine destinations, the Napa Valley.
The popular Californian region experienced devastating fires in October – just before my trip – that have reportedly kept some visitors away, but I can report from firsthand experience, Napa is very much open for business and there’s never been a better time to support this popular spot.
Here are five things to know about visiting the Napa Valley:
1. Wine, wine, wine
With around 500 wineries to choose from in Napa alone (and hundreds more in nearby Sonoma), the choice of cellar doors is almost overwhelming.
One great option is to hire a driver so you and your travelling companion/s can both soak it all up. Literally, because spitting out these wines would be sacrilege 😉
We do a private experience with Noble Wine Tours, and from the first glass of sparkling rosé – which we enjoy at 9.30am, when we’re picked up by a sleek Mercedes (the classiest roadie you’ll ever have) – to assistance the next day with arranging shipping back home, we are in very good hands.
Apart from handing over designated-driver responsibilities for the day, the benefits of a private driver include: local knowledge and insight (very important when there are so many wineries to choose from!); someone to keep you on schedule and who knows the lay of the land; and, in our case, someone to take photos along the way, capturing every moment. Thanks, Nick, for a great day out!
If you’re used to the Aussie cellar-door scene, it’s worth understanding that things work a little bit differently in the Napa. Here’s what you should know before you go:
1. Tastings are more expensive than in Oz… Some of our wine tastings were US$65 per person. And they don’t necessarily waive that cost on purchase (“Eeek!” I hear you say). BUT the best tastings offer a very rich experience with generous pours, tours of the grounds, and sometimes even food, all of which make the cost worth while. Don’t be afraid to ask to share a tasting with your partner, especially if one of you is driving, to make the cost a little more palatable!
2. Many of the best wineries and wine experiences are appointment-only… and they book out during busy times, so it really pays to do your research before your trip and make at least a few bookings. Just make sure you allow enough time to get from one to the next. Most experiences will designate an estimated time for the tasting experience you select, but if in doubt, just drop them an email and ask.
3. Wines here can be a little on the expensive side… even before you factor in the AU$ to US$ conversion. This is a premium wine destination. While nearly 89% of US wine is produced in California, only about 4% of California wine is produced in Napa. Come with that knowledge and, if you’re sensible, a budget – and consider splashing out on a special bottle or two.
4. Shipping back to Australia also isn’t cheap… You’re looking at around US$300 for a dozen bottles, plus taxes. Make sure you also check if you’ll have to pay any import costs or taxes for bringing back some liquid memories.
Some of my favourite wineries include:
- Stags’ Leap – Not to be confused with nearby Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. The Manor House sits on beautiful grounds, where you can take a guided tour and hear about its fascinating and colourful history that goes back to the 1880s. Despite some interruptions to wine production over the years (Prohibition, war – all part of the colourful history), wine grapes have grown here continuously since the winery’s founding. These old vines are producing some of the finest wines I’ve ever tasted. The 2014 Stags’ Leap Winery Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirahis something special. “Ne Cede Malis” (pronounced Ne KAY Day Mah LEES) comes from the Latin phrase “Don’t give in to misfortune.” It’s the family motto of Stags’ Leap founder, Horace Chase.
- Rombauer – The winemakers here are Aussie, but that’s not why they made the list. Rombauer are known for their chardonnay, which has won many accolades over the years. It’s a richer, butterier style, but still has a sharp finish – and if you’re into that kind of thing, it won’t disappoint. Then there’s their zinfandel, which is a deep purplish-black, with heaps of rich dark berry flavours – all it needs is a good meaty dish to keep it company. Rombauer also has a nice little veranda with a great view, where you can sit and order wines by the glass if you don’t have a tasting pre-booked.
- Failla Wines– Cutest cottage ever. Sit down in a small group setting in a 1930s farmhouse and spend an hour drinking some fantastic, small-production, cool-climate wines made with grapes sourced from the Russian River region. Their pinot noirs are the highlight, with vibrant red fruit and soft tannins. They’re a little too easy to drink.
2. Great places to stay
Every good wine weekend needs a great home base, and the very central Marriott Napa Valley and Spa is an excellent choice.
Featuring 275 guestrooms, and expansive grounds and facilities,which include a pool, spa, fitness centre, and some great function spaces. I know where I’ll be angling for our next team work trip 😉
I love that our room features its own private courtyard, perfect for enjoying a (nother!) glass of wine after a tough day in the Valley.
Be sure to take advantage of all the Marriott Napa Valley Destination Amenity Fee ($20) has to offer, including:
- A culinary garden tour with sparkling wine
- Morning yoga classes
- Access to the Preserve Spa Eucalyptus Steam Room every morning, from 8.30am to midday
- Bike access
- Bottled spring water replenished in your room every day
- Wine tastings in the lobby between 5-6pm
Despite the size of the hotel, and people coming and going, the room is super quiet, and I sleep extremely soundly (I’m sure it was the bed, not the wine).
VINeleven restaurant is where it’s at for breakfast (and until midnight daily, for that matter, for all your in-house dining needs). Fresh fruit and delicious omelettes will set you in good stead for a big day in wine country.
Free parking and a friendly team seal the deal, making the Marriott Napa Valley Resort and Spa an easy choice.
3. Amazing restaurants
Food and wine go hand-in-hand and the Napa doesn’t disappoint. If you’re planning well ahead and are in the market for something fancy, be sure to try and nab a table at Thomas Keller’s famous French Laundry.
Lunch at Auberge Du Soleil overlooking the Valley is a must. Settle in and peruse the iPad menu, which thoughtfully includes half-pours. This certainly makes trying a variety of local drops an easier task! I have been known to judge a long lunch on the standard of the bread and butter, and the sourdough here does not disappoint. Neither do the cabernet-braised short rib and apple tart 😉
Slightly more casual, but no less delicious, Long Meadow Ranch is a great lunch option too. The place is buzzing when we visit on a Saturday afternoon and sample a variety of share-style dishes. Brussel sprouts with bacon and onion, grilled trout, and caramelised beets are perfect wine-country comfort food.
Others to add to your list:
- Acacia House – Chips and dip are a little bit fancy here, coming with caviar! And they do a mean cheese sandwich that hubby raves about.
- Bouchon Bakery– go early. Lines can run out the door.
- Bouchon– the restaurant, not the bakery, also comes highly recommended for something a little bit fancy.
- Bottega – it’s definitely in the rich-food category, but when in wine country, why not? The short-rib meatballs are a must.
- Dean and DeLuca – when you can’t possibly face another indulgent long lunch (#firstworldproblems), grab deli-style delights at this popular spot (think crab cakes, cold baked salmon, and slices of meat) to enjoy outside with views of the vineyards.
4. Magical scenery
You’ll probably find yourself having a few pinch-me moments. I definitely did when I was running past wineries on a crisp (hello, two degrees!) autumn morning, with the vineyards, clear blue skies, hot air balloons, and amazingly fresh air. The superior oxygen levels will also make your run feel easier, even after a full day of drinking – I promise.
5. The people
Okay, okay, this is a bit of a corny one, but the people you meet really do help make a holiday, and Napa locals and visitors alike are some of the most fun, friendly, and interesting people I’ve had the chance to get to know through my travels.
Now is the time to support the region. I promise you’ll be the one who gets the most reward out of it.