The Best Wine, Eats and Stays on a Napa Valley Tour
Beyond its stunning wines, the Napa Valley offers great shopping, farmer’s markets, pubs and distilleries, taco stands, cocktail bars and outstanding accommodations. Photo: Courtesy of Richard Snyder
The Napa Valley is full of surprises — and you don’t have to be a wine snob to appreciate them. Though it helps.
I’ve visited the valley several times, the first about 20 years ago as a “civilian” — that is, a wine lover drawn by the promise of endless California sunshine, farm-to-table restaurants and that alluring west coast vibe. I vowed to go back, which turned out to be many years later, once I had become an accredited wine geek (a.k.a. wine journalist, writer, critic, etc.).
But even though I can spend endless hours with a wine maker tasting from barrels and talking about pH levels, the Napa Valley offers so much more in terms of great shopping, farmers markets, pubs and distilleries, taco stands, cocktail bars and outstanding accommodations. And the wine … well, if you think you know Napa wines, it pays to pay a visit and discover that, in fact, trying to define such a vast offering of stunning wines is impossible. There’s a lot going on … so here’s a roundup to get you inspired for a little trip to the valley of wine.
Need to Know: The Napa Valley runs north-south, starting just north of San Francisco Bay at American Canyon and extending north to Calistoga. Just remember that it’s colder in the south, due to the ocean influence and this can make the difference between shorts-and-T weather up north and sweater weather down south — even on the same day. You can drive the entire valley in under two hours, if you don’t stop. But you’ll want to stop …
Wineries to Visit
This is the hard part, deciding where to go for a taste, seeing as there are more than 400 wineries in the valley.
Raymond Vineyards is owned by Jean-Charles Boisset, whose family owns 28 wineries in California, France and Canada. The wines are excellent, mostly “big Napa red” in style, but very approachable. The winery experience is a bit crazy — from the boudoir-esque JCB Lounge, where you can book an intimate tasting, to the extensive cellar decorated with exotically appointed mannequins in various states of conviviality. (Which must make it hard for the winemakers to concentrate.)
If Pinot Noir is your favourite grape — and, really, it should be — a visit to Etude offers a delicious exploration of how vineyard parcels and clones of the grape can deliver very different characteristics. This is a tiny, sustainably focussed winery, located in Carneros, the most southerly region in the valley (and, so, bring a sweater).
One of the pioneering wineries in the valley, dating back to 1876, Beringer is the oldest continuously operating winery in California. There’s a lot of history here for you to take in along with the wine, and a variety of themed tastings that can be booked ahead, including the Beringer Backyard Social, which includes an hour on the private Bocce court.
Food, Shop, Relax
Food is almost as important as the wine in Napa, and there is no shortage of high-brow dining to be had, along with likes of the world-famous French Laundry in Yountville. But you might be just as happy, as I am, with Napa’s own burger joint, Gott’s Roadside. Gott’s was founded in the town of St. Helena in 1999 by brothers Joel and Duncan Gott. It’s fast food with a heart, and a focus on locally sourced ingredients. It’s been recognized as a James Beard America’s Classic.
In the city of Napa, the Oxbow Public Market is ground zero for the freshest local produce — in case you want to cook yourself — along with numerous snack shacks, an oyster bar, wine bar, cheese monger, etc. And yes, there’s a Gott’s here too. Surrounding the market are some outlets of local wineries, where you can pop in for a taste and a chat. There are fun little shops in here too, with gifts, souvenirs and crafts. This is no tourist trap, mind you — only the real deal. The Compline wine bar, in the centre of Main Street Napa, is the spot for a seat at the bar and a flight of wines — ask them what’s new and exciting, and you won’t be poured another Cabernet, that’s for sure. A compact bottle shop ensures you have something nice to take with you.
In St. Helena, the Model Bakery is the place to visit — you know, because Oprah said so. (She can’t get enough of the English muffins.) But it’s also revered by locals — and winemakers — and you can eat in for breakfast and lunch, or take the goodies to go. (There’s a location in Napa’s Oxbow market too.)
The very clearly named Napa Olive Oil Co., also in St. Helena, is a funky little Italian-style grocery located in an old farm building on a side street, with charcuterie and other delicious things adorning every nook and cranny. It’s old school, so remember to bring some cash. Then slide on over to Ana’s Cantina for beer (humans can’t live on wine alone) and some Thursday night karaoke.
If you make it north to Calistoga — and you should — you’ll find, in addition to more wineries, a cute little town with a ton of shops, cafes and a decidedly relaxed vibe that feels rather mid-20th century, all packed into about one-square mile of cuteness. This is self-described “spa heaven,” so plan to take a load off and relax — try the 20,000 square-foot Spa Solage and then grab a snack of tacos at the Pico Bar.
Where to Stay
The Archer in downtown Napa is where the action is — or rather, the rooftop bar. It’s hip, happening, loud and a lot of fun. Just across the main highway from Napa, just down the street from the Oxbow Market, is the Napa River Inn — “anchoring Main Street since 1884.” It’s a little quieter here, and you can pop over to the market in the morning for some of those English muffins. Head north to Calistoga for a night at the Indian Springs Calistoga, which sits on 17 acres of lush, rolling greenery and sports an Olympic-sized mineral pool built in 1910.
Napa Wines to Try
While California makes 81 per cent of American wine, the Napa Valley produces just four per cent of this output, and 95 per cent of the valley’s wine makers are small, family run businesses. Here are some wines currently widely available in Canada.
Hall Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, $99
A hefty and delicious wine from a certified sustainable vineyard, packing lots of plum and cassis, licorice and tobacco. A big wine for a big steak. Great place to visit too.
Louis M. Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, $44.95
From a storied producer, one of the originals, a classic Napa Cab with generous black fruit, chocolate and cedar. Big, but supple and easy to love. The food program at the winery is not to be missed, and changes seasonally.
S by Signorello Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, $99.99
Only 1,350 cases of this — a new wine from Signorello — were produced for the debut 2019 vintage. A dark, dense, richly concentrated and structured wine that will benefit from some bottle age — look to 2025 and beyond.
Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, $75
From a legendary estate, this is a voluptuous and elegant Napa Cab, drinking beautifully now, the tannins ripe and present, and the fruit evolving into layers both sweet and savoury. Wonderful.
Freemark Abbey Chardonnay, $50
There’s finesse in this elegant Chardonnay — it’s got some requisite “Napa heft,” but the fruit is so pure and honest it comes off more like a white Burgundy. Bright and refreshing.