With some 300 wineries, the fact is that you could tour Napa’s wineries for months. So don’t approach winery circuits the way you might the great museums of Paris or the rides at Disneyland. You can’t hit everything, so don’t even try. The key is to find places that deliver the experience you want, whether it’s a specific wine varietal, a style, dramatic architecture, or a killer view. No matter where you choose to go, you can trust that in this competitive, expensive region, you’re not going to be served swill, so relax about tasting. Still, there are more delicious experiences to be had here in Napa, so don’t hesitate to ask your well-traveled friends, hotel concierge, or people you meet along the way for wineries they might recommend.
To make planning an itinerary easy on yourself, get the downloadable maps from www.napavalley.org, the site run by the Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau. If you are unable to download maps before you arrive, don’t fret, because they’re distributed widely and for free, and there’s no doubt your hotel or B&B has more maps than you’ll know what to do with. Then check out the opening hours and tour times, scheduling advance tours if required, and chart a path that doesn’t require a lot of backtracking. Otherwise, you’ll spend more time in the car than the tasting room.
How to Wine Taste
It doesn’t really matter if you don’t know the difference between chardonnay and cabernet; trust me, no one cares. But if you want to learn about how to wine taste, California’s wine country is the perfect classroom, and provided the tasting room you’re visiting isn’t slammed with visitors, the hosts will certainly show you exactly how to taste. But if you’re left to your own devices, follow these tips:
Look: It may seem pompous to raise your glass in the air toward the light, but go ahead—then tip it to the side, and admire the wine’s color. You can actually tell a lot about the wine by its color, including the varietal, whether it’s a “young” or an “aged” wine. or how it was fermented. It takes time to understand exactly what to look for, but if you follow this practice for the wines you taste, you might just begin noticing distinctions between varietals and vintages.
Swirl: Gently swirl the contents of your wineglass. This process will aerate the wine and allow you to smell it better. It also creates an opportunity to learn more about the wine. It’s “legs” or drips down the side of the glass can indicate whether the wine is fuller (stronger in flavor) or lighter (more delicate).
Smell: Stick your nose in the tilted glass and take a good whiff. Make up words to describe what you smell: barnyard, strawberries, cotton candy, whatever. Wines have distinctive aromas, and with practice you can begin to identify, but I’ve found the power of suggestion plays an equal hand and no matter whether you smell pineapple and stone fruit or plain old wine, it’s still fun to play the guessing game.
Sip: This part is pretty straightforward, but do it like the pros: Take small sips and breathe a little air into your mouth while the wine’s in there to further aerate it and spread the flavor across your palate.
Spit: Your choice, of course, but wineries keep a little spittoon on the bar that’s for your use. I hate this part, even though I spit fairly often, because it requires some finessing to do it right. Otherwise, you’ll be like me with a little steam of wine dripping down your chin. Still, it’s another thing that’s fun to try.
Pace Yourself: Plenty of people saddle up to the bar and gulp down every last drop of every last wine—and you’re welcome to do the same (provided you’re not driving, of course). But know that even small sips at three or four wineries can add up to a sudden need to splay out on the back seat of your car for an impromptu siesta. So, if you want to have fun and make it to the dinner hour, slow it down.
If you have plenty of time and a penchant for Victorian architecture, seek out the Napa Valley Conference & Visitors Bureau, 1310 Napa Town Center, off First Street (tel. 707/226-7459, ext. 106; www.napavalley.com), which offers self-guided walking tours of the town's historic buildings.
Enjoying Art & Nature -- Anyone with an appreciation for art absolutely must visit di Rosa Preserve (5200 Carneros Hwy. [Hwy. 12/121], look for the gate; tel. 707/226-5991; www.dirosaart.org). Rene and Veronica di Rosa collected contemporary American art for more than 40 years and then converted their 215 acres of prime property into a monument to Northern California's regional art, including "Seated Woman with Vase," pictured, by Viola Frey. Veronica has passed on, but Rene still carries the torch through his world-renowned collection featuring nearly 2,300 works in all mediums, by more than 900 Greater Bay Area artists.
You're not likely to meet him, as the day-to-day operations are now run by a nonprofit staff, but you will be privy to his treasures, which are on display practically everywhere -- along the shores of the property's 35-acre lake and in each nook and cranny of their 125-year-old winery-turned-residence, adjoining building, two newer galleries, and gardens. With hundreds of surrounding acres of rolling hills (protected under the Napa County Land Trust), this place is a must-see for both art and nature lovers. Tours (Wed-Fri) range from a $10 1-hour overview at 11am and 12pm to the $15 2-hour extended home tour at 10am and 1pm. On Saturdays you may take a guided 2 1/2-hour tour for $15. Reservations recommended. Drop-ins are welcome at the Gatehouse Gallery Tuesday through Friday from 9:30am to 3pm; Saturday is by appointment. Suggested donation is $3. Check the website for times. Reservations recommended.
Sip Tip -- You can cheaply sip your way through downtown Napa without ever getting behind the wheel with the "Taste Napa Downtown" wine card, where you'll get tasting privileges at 10 local wine-centric watering holes and tasting rooms, all of which are within walking distance of each other. Plus you'll get 10% discounts at tasting rooms. Available at the Napa Valley Conference & Visitors Bureau (1310 Napa Town Center, off First St.; tel. 707/226-7459, ext. 106). Learn more at www.napadowntown.com.
A Marketplace -- The Oxbow Market, 610 and 644 First St. (tel. 707/226-6529; www.oxbowpublicmarket.com), is a gourmet co-op featuring a cornucopia of tasty tenants, including a number of organic produce vendors, an exceptional rotisserie chicken (try the potatoes too!), a wine bar and shop, yet another outpost of Gott's Roadside Tray Gourmet (a gourmet burger joint), an outstanding organic ice-cream vendor (try the strawberry or coconut flavors!), a food-related antiques shop, and many other reasons to loosen your belt and your grip on your wallet. Definitely drop by hungry! Open daily. Check the website for hours of operation for specific vendors.
Spa-ing It -- If the Wine Country's slow pace and tranquil vistas aren't soothing enough for you, the region's diverse selection of spas can massage, bathe, wrap, and steam you into an overly pampered pulp. Should you choose to indulge, do so toward the end of your stay -- when you've wined and dined to the point where you have only enough energy left to make it to and from the spa. Good choices include Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs, 1507 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga (tel. 707/942-4102; www.drwilkinson.com), and Meadowood, 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena (tel. 707/963-3646; www.meadowood.com).
Mud Baths -- In the 1800s, the big draw in this region wasn’t wine, but hot mud baths. The Quake of 1906 shifted the location of many of the springs, wiping out most of the wells that then existed in Sonoma County as well, so that today, the best place to participate in a geothermal treatment is in Calistoga in Napa County. Like bungee jumping or hot-air ballooning, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime vacation treat
Most places mix the mud and hot springs water (which is a little over 100 degrees) with clay, peat, and volcanic ash from nearby St. Helena volcano, which may stain some swimsuits, so don’t wear your best one, or, like most people, don’t wear anything at all. These treatments used to be touted as an excellent treatment for arthritis, but modern marketing laws being what they are, they’re now meant mostly as stress relievers (though supporting scientific studies show that arthritis suffers may, in fact, find some relief).
The following day spas all include mud baths—the most “local” of the treatment—and other treatments such as massage and hydrotherapy (check their websites for full menus). Some mud baths are thick, others soupy; some start as mineral-water baths before having ash mixed in (to prove it’s fresh, I suppose), and others offer a pre-mixed tub before you begin. The style doesn’t matter but make sure the spa you visit uses mineral water, which means it’s been drawn hot from the earth.
- Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort (1507 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; tel. 707/942-4102; www.drwilkinson.com), set in a delightfully 1950s motel complex, has been a player in Calistoga for generations and offers a range of treatments, but it’s basic in the classically medicinal sense that spas once had. The mud bath as described above is $89 and takes a little over an hour.
- Golden Haven (1713 Lake St., Calistoga; tel. 707/942-8000; www.goldenhaven.com), with its couples-sized tubs, is popular with honeymooners. A treatment costs $89 per person ($72 Mon–Thurs in winter).
- Lavender Hill Spa (1015 Foothill Blvd., Calistoga; tel. 707/942-4495; www.lavenderhillspa.com) does everything with Asian flair and extras (like a Thai Bath uses milk, the mud bath, kelp), and its mud is thinner than at other spas. One-hour treatments are $95 per person.
- Lincoln Avenue Spa (1339 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; tel. 707/942-2950; www.lincolnavenuespa.com) might be the choice for severe claustrophobes, since they won’t have to get into the thick, mucky baths that alarm some people. Instead, they apply mud onto themselves in a private room—with a loved one, if desired—followed by time in a less-constricting steam capsule. That’s $79 per person, or $149 for two.
Natural Wonders -- Old Faithful Geyser of California, 1299 Tubbs Lane (tel. 707/942-6463; www.oldfaithfulgeyser.com), is one of only three "old faithful" geysers in the world. It's been blowing off steam at regular intervals for as long as anyone can remember. On average, the 350°F (176°C) water spews at a height of about 40 to 60 feet every 40 minutes, day and night, and the performance lasts about 3 minutes. (Note: Height and length of time are weather-dependent.) You can bring a picnic lunch to munch on between spews. Check the website for discount coupons. The geyser is open daily from 9am to 6pm (to 5pm in winter). To get there, follow the signs from downtown Calistoga; it's between Hwy. 29 and Calif. 128.
You won't see thousands of trees turned into stone, but you'll still find many interesting petrified specimens at the Petrified Forest, 4100 Petrified Forest Rd. (tel. 707/942-6667; www.petrifiedforest.org). Volcanic ash blanketed this area after an eruption near Mount St. Helena 3 million years ago. You'll find redwoods that have turned to rock through the slow infiltration of silicas and other minerals, a .25-mile walking trail, a museum, a discovery shop, and picnic grounds. Heading north from Calistoga on Calif. 128, turn left onto Petrified Forest Road, just past Lincoln Street.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.