From San Francisco, cross the Golden Gate Bridge and continue north on U.S. 101. Turn east on California Hwy. 37; turn left onto the Hwy. 12/121 turnoff and follow it through the Carneros District to Hwy. 29, the main road through the Wine Country. Head north on Hwy. 29. Downtown Napa is a few minutes ahead, while Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga are farther along.
Hwy. 29 (the St. Helena Hwy.) runs the length of Napa Valley. You really can't get lost -- there's just one north-south road, on which most of the wineries, hotels, shops, and restaurants are located. The other main thoroughfare, which parallels Hwy. 29, is the Silverado Trail. You'll find lots of great wineries here, too.
Once you're in Napa Valley, you can stop at the Napa Valley Conference & Visitors Bureau, 1310 Napa Town Center, Napa, CA 94559 (tel. 707/226-7459, ext. 106; www.napavalley.com). You can call or write in for the Napa Valley Guidebook, which includes information on lodging, restaurants, wineries, and other things to do, along with a winery map. If you don't want to pay for the official publication, their website has lots of the same information for free.
Another good source is WineCountry.com, where you'll find tons of information on all of California's wine-producing regions as well as articles written by moi.
Touring the Napa Valley & Wineries
Napa Valley claims more than 45,000 acres of vineyards, making it the most densely planted winegrowing region in the United States. The venture from one end to the other is easy; you can drive it in around a half-hour (but expect it to take closer to 50 min. during high season, Apr-Nov). With more than 300 wineries tucked into the nooks and crannies surrounding Hwy. 29 and the Silverado Trail -- almost all of which offer tastings and sales -- it's worthwhile to research which wineries you'd like to visit before you hit the wine trails. If you'd like a map detailing the region's wineries, you can grab one from the visitor center -- or see Frommer's Portable California Wine Country.
Conveniently, most of the large wineries -- as well as most of the hotels, shops, and restaurants -- are along a single road, Hwy. 29. It starts at the mouth of the Napa River, near the north end of San Francisco Bay, and continues north to Calistoga and the northern limits of the grape-growing region. When planning your tour, keep in mind that most wineries are closed on major holidays.
Each of the Napa Valley establishments in this guide can be reached from the main thoroughfare of Hwy. 29.
Napa Valley Traffic -- Travel the Silverado Trail as often as possible to avoid California Hwy. 29's traffic. It runs parallel to and about 2 miles east of Hwy. 29. You get there from the city of Napa or by taking any of the "crossroads" from Hwy. 29. Crossroads are not well signposted, but they're clearly defined on most maps. If you take the Trail, keep us locals happy by driving at least the speed limit. Slow rubberneckers are no fun to follow when you're trying to get from one end of the valley to the other. Also, avoid passing through Main Street in St. Helena (on Hwy. 29) during high season. While a wintertime ride from Napa to Calistoga can take 30 minutes, in summer you can expect the trek to take closer to 50 minutes.
Reservations at Wineries -- Plenty of wineries' doors are open to everyone, without reservations. Most wineries that require reservations for visits do so because of local permit laws -- not because they're snobby -- while some do so to create a more intimate tasting experience (usually with lofty prices to match). It's always best to call ahead if you have your heart set on visiting a certain winery.
Paying to Taste -- It used to be unusual to have to pay for wine tasting, and when the tides first started to change, I wasn't really for it. But over the past decade, sipping through the region has become such a pastime that in the more popular -- and cheap or free -- tasting spots you'll often find yourself competing for room at the bar, never mind a refill or a little wine chatter with your host. As a result, I've changed my view on paying a premium to taste. With the flash of a 10- or 20-spot per person you not only avoid crowding in with the hundreds of tipsy souls who come merely for the fun and the buzz, but you also usually get a more intimate experience, complete with attention from staff and usually far more exclusive (and sometimes even seated) surroundings.
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.