Experts weigh in on how to explore the famous California wine region.
Northern California’s Napa Valley has achieved near-mythical status, not only as the top wine region in North America but as one of the most outstanding wine destinations in the entire world. It’s hard to have a conversation about wine — and maybe even impossible if you're talking cabernet sauvignon — without mentioning the prodigious wine country, which is located just 50 miles north of San Francisco.
While Napa Valley is rolling with flourishing vineyards and has its fair share of world-class restaurants, too, the region also offers an Eden-like escape into nature in a multitude of ways. With input from Julie Johnson, winemaker and owner of organic winery Tres Sabores; Jay Jeffers, longtime St. Helena resident and co-owner and designer of Sonoma’s The Madrona; and Vincent Morrow, wine director at Press Napa Valley, we've compiled a list of the most wonderful things to do when visiting Napa Valley.
Go wine tasting.
With more than 400 vineyards and almost 100 separate tasting rooms, Napa is like an adult Disneyland when it comes to wine tasting — it’s that magical. Note that many wineries require advance bookings, and that tastings can be quite expensive. A few treasured ones to kick off your research include Faust Haus, Cliff Lede Vineyards, Duckhorn, and Darioush.
Experience Christopher Kostow’s cooking.
Illustrious and oft-awarded chef Christopher Kostow helmed the kitchen at three-Michelin-star restaurant Meadowood until it burned to the ground in 2020. The good news is that you can still sample Kostow's fare at The Charter Oak in St. Helena. Jeffers recommends the “broccoli salad, the wings that change monthly, and the best burger ever.” Another option? “Don’t miss Ciccio," says Jeffers. "It's a local favorite that doesn’t take reservations and is home to some of the best pizzas and pasta in the valley.”
Ride the Napa Valley Wine Train.
You don't need a designated driver if you climb aboard the historic Pullman rail cars of the Napa Valley Wine Train. The cars have been fabulously restored and riders get a taste of slow travel–meets–culinary tourism. Easily accessible in downtown Napa, this is luxurious way to savor renowned wines alongside fine multi-course lunches and dinners with gracious, vintage-inspired service to match.
Visit di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art.
Though many wineries boast impressive art collections, Johnson especially loves Napa Valley's di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, calling the 217-acre art park “especially stimulating.” Set in Napa, the center is home to galleries, gardens, and a 35-acre lake. “Works by modern Northern California artists are provocative and varied,” says Johnson. “I’m a sculpture person, so my first stops are always the Wine Bottle House (gorgeous in the light at any point in the day) and the Chartres Bleu installation by Paul Kos.”
Join a grape stomp.
If winemaking makes you think of that famous scene from I Love Lucy, it’s imperative that you visit Napa during the fall harvest and attend a grape stomp — antics not guaranteed. Grgich Hills Estate is a beloved option, as it puts on several stomps throughout the season, while V. Sattui Winery practices the old-fashioned tradition during its October Crush Party. Other wineries, including Conn Creek Winery, host them select years.
Uncrowded and gorgeous, the Napa River is a well-kept secret for water sports like kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding. “Half and full-day kayak rentals are available off the dock downtown,” says Morrow. “It’s a great way to be active and take a break from wine tasting.”
Visit Oxbow Public Market.
“Oxbow Public Market is filled with fantastic fresh food, wine, and a little bit of everything,” says Jeffers. The vibrant gathering spot has crowd-pleasing dining options for the whole family or friend group. “My favorite is — wait for it —Kostow’s amazing Loveski Deli. The Ruben sandwich will change your life.”
Take a hot air balloon ride.
Multiple operators offer awe-inspiring hot air balloon rides over the verdant valley. Morrow recommends it as “a great (early) way to start the day and get a much better perspective of Napa Valley topography.”
Experience regenerative agriculture and grape-growing.
With so many exceptional wines being produced in Napa, it only makes sense that the farming practices are extraordinary, too. Plenty of growers practice regenerative agriculture with their grapes and other produce. “A number of my colleagues’ fabulous gardens yield not only an array of delectable products but expand the healthy diversity of their farms by creating beneficial conservation habitats,” says Johnson, who recommends celebrating these progressive operations in her “front yard” at Tres Sabores, as well as Matthiasson Winery, Hudson Ranch, Frog’s Leap, and Long Meadow Ranch.
Book a special wine tasting.
For a particularly happy occasion, go all in on an exclusive tasting experience; it may cost a pretty penny, but it will surely leave you with more than tingling tastebuds. Jeffers’ picks are “Promontory Winery, an architectural marvel and such a special spot,” and “Rudd Estate, a beautiful, woodsy spot that’s full of soul and wonder.”
Take a hike.
After indulging in many glasses of cabernet sauvignon, it’s a good idea to balance them with ample time outside, and there are plenty of beautiful hiking trails to trek in Napa. Jeffers recommends the five-mile Lake Hennessey Shoreline Trail, which he says “might be challenging to find, but even the drive to it is beautiful.” For her part, Johnson says, “When I need a true pause, a respite from the cellar, I head to Bothe-Napa Valley State Park and the peaceful presence of its towering coastal redwoods, including ‘fairy circles.’” The park is home to 10 miles of seasonal trails, as well the historic Bale Grist Mill and camping opportunities, too.
Listen to live music.
In addition to its exciting food and drink scene, Napa is a great destination for music lovers, and not only during the annual BottleRock Napa Valley festival. Johnson loves to listen to jazz at Blue Note in downtown Napa, and gathering alongside other locals for “world-class classical in an intimate setting with exquisite acoustics” at Chamber Music Napa Valley, where performers might include pianists Garrick Ohlsson and Emanuel Ax, or the Takács Quartet.
Go shopping in St. Helena.
“Be sure to walk all of short Main Street in St. Helena — a lovely town of 5,000 people — as there are many charming, locally owned shops to see,” says Jeffers. His favorites include Erin Martin’s avant-garde atelier M, Dione Carston’s shop Trick Pony, and Elyse Walker’s clothing boutique. “You won’t find a chain store anywhere near St. Helena,” he adds.
Take a mud bath in Calistoga.
Since the mid-1900s, mud bath treatments have been a thing in Calistoga, a Napa destination with a rich history when it comes to mineral springs and healing mud. Dr. Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort & Mineral Springs offers a spa garden for al fresco treatments, plus four indoor mud baths, even more mineral baths, and a geothermal mineral pool. Indian Springs Calistoga — an ancient healing destination for the indigenous Wappo tribe — features a spa, volcanic mud baths, a water plunge, and rolling gardens.
Picnic at a waterfall.
Linda Falls is one of Napa’s few waterfalls, and it only requires a 1.6-mile hike (roundtrip). It's especially enjoyable to visit the falls with a picnic in the summer, says Morrow. Pack foods and beverages from local purveyors and independent producers by stocking up on to-go items at Johnson’s favorite stops, including Fatted Calf, Crisp, Cal Mart, and Contimo Provisions.
Splurge on a Michelin-starred meal.
Auberge du Soleil, Kenzo, La Toque, and The French Laundry all have Michelin stars, though none but the latter, chef Thomas Keller’s icon, has three. Reservations are near impossible to get (so plan way ahead to try to score one), but dining at any of these diverse standouts will surely be a lasting and multi-sensory memory of your Napa Valley trip.
Take a scenic drive or detour.
“It’s one thing to visit wineries on the valley floor," says Johnson, "but one of my true pleasures is taking in the vistas that this stunning valley has to offer.” Johnson is particularly fond of drives from the north after a hike at Robert Lewis Stevenson Park on Mt. St. Helena (one of the few places with snow in winter), or “Anywhere on the Howell Mountain road on the eastern slopes of the Vaca Range. Stop at Vader to catch some really special scenery.” Take one of these “grand, picturesque ascents and descents from over 1,800 feet and you may find yourself above the cloud line.”
Strap in for a spin class.
When a bike ride, run, or hike isn’t in the cards, Jeffers heads to state-of-the-art FitNV in St. Helena. “Casey Miller’s gym has a mean spin class, among other personal training and classes,” he says. “A little sweat is always welcome before wine and lunch the following day.”
Dine where the locals do.
The French Laundry, acclaimed as it is, isn’t exactly a go-to dinner destination for locals. Morrow adores Il Posto Trattoria for Italian comfort food, Kitchen Door for American-Vietnamese fusion and ZuZu for Spanish tapas. At the latter, Johnson regularly orders the boquerones, while she heads to Bouchon (also a Keller restaurant) for the raw bar, and Bistro Jeanty for a butter lettuce salad, a cone of spicy aoili smelt, and a glass of bubbly. Jeffers visits the famous Gott’s Roadside for tuna poke tacos.
Plan a day on a lake.
The natural wonders of Napa Valley never cease. Lake Berryessa — one of California’s largest freshwater lakes — is a half-hour drive from Napa proper in the Vaca Mountains. “It has plenty of things to do: swim, kayak, paddle board, or enjoy other water activities,” Morrow says.
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