You want overwhelming, maybe straight up intimidating? Try navigating Napa your first time. Four beautiful towns; Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga providing you with four hundred twenty five wineries, six breweries, and two distilleries. That’s just the libation end, then there’s the food which is some of the best in the San Francisco Bay Area led by the famous French Laundry and accompanied by thirty-four more Michelin-rated restaurants in the surrounding Valley. And, let’s not forget the world-famous spa’s, resorts, outdoor activities, and shopping.
Napa wasn’t built in a day and it won’t be experienced in a day but if you heed some local insight your first trip will lead you to a second visit sooner than you think. Let’s look at “first time” visit options/plans of attack that will leave you feeling like you tackled Napa properly for your first time. One preemptive caveat to all of these plans; if you’re not the reservations type, change that.
Plan: I JUST WANT WINE:
This is the common “Napa” plan and deservedly so, you only have 425 wineries to choose from. Even with an “I’ll take everything that comes my way” mindset, it helps to break it into some sort of organization; types of wines you favor, visiting historical wineries, visiting major wineries, visiting award winners, finding vegan friendly, etc. Even the Sideways duo had a plan: Pinot's.
With a small core list to start your day with you’ll waste precious little time getting going and I guarantee once the wheels get greased with a few tastings the wine becomes the wind in your sail for the rest of the day to explore off the beaten path or possibly hunker down at a newfound favorite. There’s no guilt in visiting just two wineries or any judgment in hitting up ten wineries in a day. Keep a list of optional wineries on hand but don’t punish yourself or your group for an achievement award. Napa will inevitably offer you wondrous distractions from the best-laid plans.
Winery homework is paramount no matter what season it is. Check the winery websites for operation times, tasting prices (i.e. Opus is $50 per glass), if they require reservations and to make sure there they’re not closed for a private/member-only event which is more common than you may anticipate.
Plan: FOODIES ON A JOURNEY:
If you’re of the mindset “wine will come with my food” then use our favorite resources below, make a list and get cracking on reservations. Foodies will wrap their day around their reservation times but if you’re casually accustomed to 7-7:30 pm being wide open on OpenTable you’ll be sorely mistaken in Napa’s world. Prime times are accessible, this isn’t a scare tactic, but booking earlier the better is a prime habit, even for lunch.
Like any awesome town, there’s plenty of walk right in options from Hog Island Oysters to amazing burgers and shakes at Gotts Roadside any time of day. Want to experience the French Laundry? Plan 3-6 months out, this goes for a good handful of the top-rated spots.
There’s an eclectic mix of stop for a bite and prepare for an experience all throughout Napa and none will disappoint. All four major Napa County towns are spattered with wonderful Mom & Pop options for everything from organic ice cream to locally sourced charcuterie appetizer stops.
Let’s not skip mentioning the world-class Culinary Classes for even the most short-term visitor. Several wineries and restaurants host classes monthly and they are experiences you’ll post on Instagram.
Plan: A LITTLE OF THIS, A LITTLE OF THAT
Let’s take a minor mix of the first two plans and mesh in cool things to do between all the eating and drinking. Like other towns there’s plenty to do but a few “Napa” exclusives you should consider, even if it’s outside your comfort zone:
- A majestic hot air balloon flight will give you a true perspective of the valley’s beauty
- Oxbow Public Market - you can miss it, don’t miss it.
- Wine Train - it’s not touristy, it’s awesome!
- Napa Valley Bike Tours takes you along 12.5 miles of the Napa Valley’s Vine Trail
- Stand up paddleboard down the Napa River
- Get in a round of golf at the seven local courses. We’d suggest Silverado (may require a stay depending on the time of year) but Chardonnay and Eagle Vines are beautiful public California golf course winding throughout the vines.
- Breweries - There’s a famous saying in Napa among the winemakers “it takes a lot of good beer to make great wine.” Within Napa proper, there are a handful of notables like Fieldwork Brewing Company, even an official Beer Trail. Right outside Napa Valley in Sonoma County, you have famous breweries Russian River (with an amazing new location), Lagunitas, Bear Republic as well as several other highly respectable breweries.
- Wine stomping - if you’re in town during crush (Aug - Nov) season this is must do event
Other plans might include Kid Friendly, Pet Friendly, Nightlife Driven, etc. Definitely head to https://www.visitnapavalley.com/plan/ and check out the resources there to get you going on the right path. Their blog is a must to scour through which will help you with almost everything like Top 5 Nightlife Spots.
Cellar Pass - One very helpful website/app that puts some action into your planning. They also pump out a great newsletter with a lot of insider insight into the wine region.
Visit Napa Valley - duh
Global visit considerations:
Weather - Weather is almost a non-factor, it’s great weather 365 days a year in the Valley. Even when it’s raining it’s very pleasant in Napa Valley, even romantic. Of course, there are more popular times to visit for the fans of sunny summer days but these popular times come with popular crowds. If you’re a fan of smaller tasting rooms, more personal service opportunities then don’t be afraid of a Fall or Winter trip.
Staying - Napa knows it’s valued but whether you’re going the hotel/spa & resort route or online home share route I always suggest staying in the heart of one of the four major Napa Valley towns for your first time. Total submersion sets the right tone for your trip and given the premise of the trip (drinking, eating, and drinking) proximity becomes your best friend. The majority of Napa Valley hotels/resorts employ a mandatory two night stay policy.
If I had to pick the best option for your first time - Spa / Resort. A simple hot springs pool soak can elevate you to a whole new you, not to mention a mud bath or massage treatment. These accoutrements are to Napa like hot chocolate is to a cold day. If you’re in for a penny, be in for a pound, when in Rome, all that.
Travel - If you can, fly into OAK (Oakland) first and SFO (San Francisco) second. This all depends on where you’re coming from. Try to land between 10 am and 1 pm during the week. Traffic from either airport is gnarly outside of this window. There is a tiny airport in Santa Rosa, the Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport (STS) is reminiscent of an airport from the 1960s, which if possible, is a great alternative to both Bay Area international options.
Getting Around - Even if you drive to Napa via rental car, leaving it a the hotel and taking advantage of rideshare, tour bus or private transportation is easy and well advised. Now if you got the convertible on a sunny day then that’s another story. Several limo company operators focus on Winery Tour specials that are very affordable and take you places you’d never know about otherwise.