With more than 400 wineries scattered throughout the valley, you could tour Napa’s wineries for months and still not try them all. 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. Relax about tasting—no matter where you choose to go, you can trust that in this competitive region, you won’t be served swill. (Frankly, I’ve always found that during the course of a fun adventure, almost any wine tastes amazing.) Rather than provide a laundry list of Napa’s offerings, I’ll highlight wineries that have a little something extra—a terrific view, a rich history, an outstanding art collection, or a particularly noteworthy tour. Still, there are other delicious experiences to be found in Napa, so don’t hesitate to ask your well-traveled friends, hotel concierge, or people you meet along the way for wineries they recommend.
To make planning your itinerary easier, get the downloadable maps from visitnapavalley.com, the website run by the Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau. (It’s kind of buried, so if you want a quicker link go to visitnapavalley.com/wineries/winery-map.) If you can’t download maps beforehand, don’t fret; they’re distributed widely and for free, and your hotel or B&B will have more maps than you’ll know what to do with. Check out opening hours and tour times, schedule 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.
Don’t bother with the touristy wine train that traverses Napa County; it’s a trap on which you’re required to eat their mediocre food, and you can’t get off and on as you wish (though they do have the opportunity to visit a few wineries en route).
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.
Sip Tip -- You can cheaply sip your way through downtown Napa without ever getting behind the wheel with the "Taste Napa Downtown" wine card, with which you'll get half off tasting privileges at 10 local wine-centric watering holes and tasting rooms, all of which are within walking distance of each other. Available at the Napa Welcome Center (600 Main St.) or the Napa Tourist Information Center (1331 First St.). Learn more at donapa.com/wine-tasting-card.
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).
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.