If you’re a wine enthusiast, California is a must see destination to expand your understanding of one of the most well known wine regions in the “New World” (not Europe). It can also be a bit overwhelming to visit if you’re like most travellers who have only so much time and money. How do you choose what you’re going to enjoy the most, and what’s worth every hard-earned dollar? My husband and I visited several California wine regions in the summer of 2017; hopefully our experience can help you make the most out of your trip.
Napa Valley is world renowned for producing some of the best wine, and most expensive wine, in the world. I won’t get into specific wine details in this article, but instead, will focus on the travel aspects of a trip to Napa Valley. So get your palates prepped, pack some chic, warm weather clothes and shoes, and get your wallets ready for Napa Valley exploring!
We drove from Canada, with our travel trailer, down the Oregon coast, and through the Northern Part of California. It took us two days to reach our first destination, the Napa Valley Expo RV Park. The RV Park is located right in the town of Napa, which is a great town to be based out of to explore this region. If you enjoy RV-ing, I would recommend this park. The staff was friendly and helpful, and even gave us a coupon for some 2-for-1 Tastings and winery recommendations. It was clean, and had full hook-up sites for a reasonable price. It was also within easy biking distance of Napa’s downtown, and close enough walking proximity as well. If you’ll be staying in a hotel, there are many to choose from near Napa’s downtown.
I would highly recommend staying in Napa; we felt we were central to so many different areas. Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley run parallel to each other, divided by a mountain range, and Napa is at the bottom, so it’s a great starting point to go up either valley from bottom to top. San Francisco can also be reached by car in less than an hour and a half, as another sight seeing option. Napa itself has much to offer, with a beautiful and quaint downtown alongside a river. There are several restaurants and shops, and so many tasting rooms! The town offers a tasting card that can be picked up at one of its two Tourism offices, that allows you to taste at a discount in several tasting rooms, all within walking distance of each other. It can also be ordered online at donapa.com. This is a great way to cover more ground in a shorter time if you’re curious to expand your palate, and you need a break from driving. We only had the later half of an evening to spend doing tasting rooms, so we chose not to purchase the card, but if we had more time, it would have been worth it to buy. More information on the tasting card and the town of Napa can be found at donapa.com.
If you’re flying in, there are a few different airports you can choose from, with different shuttle or car rental options. Information on airports can be found at napavalley.com. Depending on your budget and comfort level behind the wheel, having a car is great when you’re touring wine regions. That being said, you will want to think about how much wine you’re planning to be consuming. As I’ll discuss in greater depth later, they’re not exactly under-pouring in Napa and Sonoma, and you could easily be over the legal driving limit after your first winery stop if you’re consuming everything you’re poured. If the spittoon is your friend, you’ll find you get to taste a lot of great wine without over-indulging. If you’re thinking, “what’s a spittoon?” then you’ll want to explore other options than driving yourself.
If you have someone in your group that’s okay being a designated driver, then a car rental is the most budget friendly way to see Napa and Sonoma. You have so much more freedom when you’re in your own vehicle to enjoy the days at your desired pace, rather than waiting on the rest of a tour group, or facing the opposite problem of being rushed away from a place when you’re not done there. If you’ve got no DD, there are a few options you can use to explore the Valley. There are multiple tour options, depending on the wineries you want to see, how long you want to be out, how many people you’d like to share a ride with, and what your budget is. You can choose to hire a driver for the day, and still enjoy your privacy, or you can choose to go with the tour group route. A Google search for “Napa Valley Wine Tours” will lead you to several companies to choose from, with customer reviews. The same options are offered for Sonoma Valley as well.
When I first glanced at the Napa Valley tourism map we picked up at our RV Park, I remember feeling overwhelmed. There are over four hundred wineries in Napa Valley alone. Highway 29 runs from the top of the Valley, down to the town of Napa. There are wineries the entire distance on both sides, and then there are more behind those, with access by side roads. We only had three days to spend in Napa Valley, and had no idea how long to expect to be at each place, or which ones were going to be good. I had purchased a Priority Wine Pass at prioritywinepass.com that allowed us 2-for-1 Tastings at several wineries, so we highlighted several of those on the map as a start. We then looked into the opening and closing hours of each of them, and planned to start at the bottom-most one we wanted to see, and work our way up the valley. We had the benefit of driving through the Valley on our way into town, so we had been able to get a feel for how long it actually is from top to bottom, and the whereabouts of certain wineries we wanted to visit. It took roughly 30 minutes, dependant on traffic, to drive the entire length of the Valley.
We had heard from people that you can’t do more than three wineries in one day. We did six on our first day in Napa. We’re probably more on the extreme end of the spectrum; I don’t think most people would do that many in one day, but we started right at 10am, and went till 6pm, with a quick stop for lunch in the middle. We also didn’t do winery tours on that day; if you’re doing a tour, you can expect to spend an additional hour at each place.
Most wineries open at 10am, and close at either 4pm or 5pm, but some are open later. We had looked into this ahead of time to plan accordingly. We also spent more time at the wineries we really enjoyed, and made a couple of quicker stops at the ones we felt we had seen enough of. Your start time, end time, and pace is really going to determine the amount of wineries you can see. We are also extreme wine enthusiasts/wanna-be sommeliers, so we have a high stamina for tasting wine and visiting wineries, and we’re accustomed to using the spittoon. It may not be enjoyable for you to see more than three in a day, so take your personal and group interests into consideration when planning. Some wineries do tasting by appointment only, so you need to look into this if you want to visit any of those. My advice is to choose a few that look interesting to you, and visit their websites. Napa Valley wineries are in the business of tourism; they expect visitors on a regular basis, and are set up for visits and tours, so they have great websites with all of the information you need to know to help you plan your visit. Investing some time to explore individual wineries online will prepare you for when you arrive.
Budget is another consideration when planning your winery visits. Take a look at websites to see what their tastings are offered for. If you have the Priority Wine Pass, the 2-for-1 Tasting option can save you a lot of money. If not, you can expect to pay anywhere from $20 per person up to $50 per person for a tasting, or more depending on the level of prestige of the winery you select. Tours, of course, come at an extra cost, but many tours will come with a tasting at the end. What do you get for that price? Each winery does it a little bit differently, but basically, you can expect a flight of 3 – 6 wines, at roughly a 2 oz pour each. If you do that math, you’re getting 6 to 12 oz of wine for the price you’re paying. I found that the prices we paid were similar in comparison to what we’d pay in a restaurant for a serving of that quality of wine. In addition, you’ll receive the experience of knowledgeable sommeliers to guide you through your flight. They will teach you about the history of the winery, the region, the specific grapes you have in your glass, the process used to make the wine, what you might notice about it, and they can answer a variety of other questions you might have. They also don’t rush you! You can choose to stand at the bar if you wish, or you can choose to take your wine out onto the patio, where you can relax at a table in the sun or shade, and take in the view of the vines that grew the drink you’re currently enjoying, and the multi-million dollar estate (I recommend this option)! I also recommend taking pictures of the wines you’re trying as a catalogue. The wine estates are so beautiful, that you may want to take photos of the buildings, which could be considered art, the landscaping, scenery, and some of yourselves while you’re there too! Once you’re done, there’s no pressure to purchase wine, as you’ve already paid for your tasting. If you like it, buy it; if you don’t, don’t! Before you leave, take a swing through the gift shop to look at the souvenirs and wine swag, and then you’re off to the next one.
Wineries I would highly recommend visiting:
• If you want well known places, visit Robert Mondavi and Beringer. They have wine in stores all over the world, but this is not the stuff you taste at the wineries; when you’re on site, they’ll pour you award winning wine that’s made in smaller quantities, specifically from Napa Valley vineyards. Expect it to cost a lot more (and taste a lot more complex) than the “Woodbridge” by Mondavi and Beringer wines you find in your local liquor store. No appointment necessary for tastings; tours are offered. Check out their websites for details.
• For a more affordable winery, visit V.Sattui. They only sell from the winery, and this allows them to have smaller price tags than many of the others.
• For a piece of history, visit Grgich Hills Estate. This is a smaller place, that isn’t as flashy as some of them, but it’s a great one to visit because of whose winery it is! Mike Grgich was the winemaker for Robert Mondavi when his Chardonnay won the Paris Tasting in 1976, putting Napa Valley officially on the map as a reputable wine producing region. It’s thanks to those two men that Napa Valley was finally given some credit by the European winemakers of the “Old World.” Oh, and their wines are fantastic! No appointment necessary here.
• For a luxury experience, visit Opus One! This one was out of our budget. Make sure you look into making an appointment here.
• Hall Wines and Alpha Omega also gave us great wines, and great experiences! They both have beautiful grounds that you can sit and enjoy while you taste. They served us a variety of wines, and let us choose the types we wanted to try. We got to taste some of their highly awarded, prestigious bottles, included with our tasting fee, regardless of bottle price. Having only done tasting in Canada before this trip (where tastings are free, but they never let you try the really good stuff) we were pleasantly surprised to get to try the best of the best.
On a final note, a great highlight of our trip was our lunch on the Napa Valley Wine Train. The company offers a variety of services for a range of budgets and occasions, including dining journeys, special events, and day trips, where it will stop at several wineries for the patrons to have a visit and taste before getting back on the train. As promoted on their website, the train is “part distinctive Napa Valley fine dining restaurant. Part museum, it’s made up on exquisitely and faithfully restored vintage early 20th century Pullman cars… You get to sit back, relax, and savor every delicious bite, every bit of extraordinary scenery, every taste and tour” (winetrain.com, July 23/18). Having ridden the train ourselves, we would agree fully with these statements. The food was delicious, and they were excellent with catering to my food allergy. The cars were beautiful and comfortable. The service was top-notch; not only were they attentive and timely, but they were friendly and very knowledgeable about the Valley, offering interesting information about significant landmarks as we passed by.
The staff of the Napa Valley Wine Train have this experience fine-tuned to give their guests a memorable and smooth ride, pun intended! The train station is in downtown Napa, and was easy to bike to from our RV Park. We arrived early to present our tickets, and then were invited to wait in the large, comfortable lounge, with the option to purchase pre-boarding drinks. Once it was time to board, we were assisted in finding the right car and table. Every table is a window seat. Wine is offered by the glass, or the bottle, and they have several selections if you’re going with the bottle option. We were served our dinner courses while riding up the Valley for the first hour and a half, at a comfortable pace. The train stops at the top for the engine to move from the front to the back, something we went to the back to watch! On the return trip, we were seated in a different car, on the opposite side of the train, in order to see the scenery on the other side of the Valley. We had dessert and after dinner drinks and coffee on this side. There was plenty of time in between dinner and dessert for us to explore the train. They have open air cars where you can get some fresh air and have an even better photo opportunity of the wineries and vineyards. As I mentioned before, this was a highlight of our trip, and as they have so many options to choose from, I would try another type of journey if we were to return to Napa. Expect to give a couple hundred dollars for your ticket, but in return, you’ll get over three hours of fine dining, grand service, a museum experience, a guided tour of the Valley, breathtaking views – oh, and of course, you’ll drink Napa Valley wine. You’re not driving either; no spittoons here!
No matter how much time you spend in Napa, there is never enough time to see and do it all. It’s a warm weather and wine-lover’s paradise, and I would be thrilled to go back.