Since the first vine was planted back in 1838, Napa Valley has grown to become one of California’s most popular tourist destinations, not bad for a place that actually produces just 4% of the state’s grape harvest and is one of the world’s smallest winegrowing regions. It’s the low yield and high quality that make this area so special, along with its scenic beauty, amazing restaurants and laidback pace of life.
Today, there are approximately 475 wineries here, around 400 of which have tasting rooms open to the public and 95% of which are family-owned and operated. These are scattered throughout the 30-mile long and valley in 16 subregions known as American Viticultural Areas (AVA), which together make up the overall Napa Valley AVA. As you make your way along Highway 29 (also known as the St. Helena Highway), you’ll pass through quaint towns and villages and rolling vineyards dotted with a seemingly infinite number of wineries, all while enjoying views of the Mayacamas and Vaca mountain ranges. Keep an eye out for world-renowned brands or discover a hidden gem and pop in for a tasting of the region’s famous Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Zinfandel varieties.
When visiting from San Francisco, the first port of call is the city of Napa itself. Situated at the southern end of the valley on the banks of the river of the same name, Downtown Napa is a bustling urban centre. Foodies will appreciate the Oxbow Public Market, where you can stock up on artisanal and organic produce and enjoy a riverside picnic on the outdoor deck. Evenings can be equally as delicious, with a wide selection of restaurants and cuisines to choose from. For active types, the calm waters of the river are great for kayaking and stand-up paddle-boarding.
Nine miles north of Napa in the heart of the valley is Yountville, which is something of a culinary giant and home to one of the best-known restaurants in the country – Thomas Keller and David Breeden’s The French Laundry. Aside from its restaurants, Yountville, which was named for the first man who established a vineyard in the region, has a real small-town charm. It’s surrounded by a growing number of fantastic wineries, including Domaine Chandon, the très chic Ma(i)sonry and the boutique Bell Wine Cellars.
If you’re looking to visit a few of the most famous wineries, base yourself in either of the two small towns of Oakville or Rutherford. You’ll be a stone’s throw from the must-visit Opus One and Robert Mondavi Wineries, especially if you’re partial to a glass or two of Cabernet Sauvignon; alternatively, if sparkling wine is more your thing, head east to MUMM Napa. On a sun-kissed summer’s day, buy a bottle from a local winery and some fine food from the historic Oakville Grocery and enjoy a quintessential wine region picnic.
Dubbed the Main Street of Napa Valley, the characterful town of St Helena is full of galleries, cafés, restaurants and shops located in beautiful Victorian buildings. Nearby, you’ll find Napa Valley’s oldest commercial winery, Charles Krug; an unmissable spot if you have an interest in the history of Californian wine production. The town is also the end of the line for the Napa Valley Wine Train, a tourist train which begins its journey in Downtown Napa. If you’re short on time or want to experience the romance and elegance of early 20th-century rail travel, this is a great way to see the entire region while enjoying delectable cuisine and fine wines.
Not everyone travels as far as the town of Calistoga, which sits at the northern end of the valley at the foot of Mount Saint Helena; however, it’s well worth spending a little time up here to enjoy its natural beauty. Hikers can follow the 9.3-mile trail to the peak of the mountain and enjoy views over the valley before returning to a local vineyard for a well-deserved glass of Zinfandel, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc or Cab Sauv. Those seeking relaxation can soak in one of the local hot springs or retreat to a nearby spa. We also recommend heading to Chateau Montelena, the winery that helped put Napa Valley’s premium wine varieties on the map by producing a variety that beat the best French tipples at the 1976 Judgement of Paris competition.
It should come as no surprise that a premier wine region is home to some of the finest hotels, resorts and inns in the state. The chance to surround yourself with rolling vineyards is one that’s not to be missed and we highly recommend splashing out on a room or suite in one of the many luxury resorts and grand house hotels.
The nearest airport is Napa County Airport, which is located at the southern end of the valley and it takes approximately 45 minutes to reach the northern-most town of Calistoga. Simply contact our team and we’ll arrange everything you need to charter a private jet to Napa Valley.