Napa Valley, California is a place I have been hearing about for over 5 years now since moving to San Diego. Everyone talks about the incredible wineries and fantastic views, and I finally was able to see it for myself this past weekend!
WOW! I can truly say this stretch of Northern California is one not to miss! Here is a big list of different wine tours you can take in Napa. Especially if you live in San Diego, you can drive or fly to Napa for a weekend to enjoy a bottle or two and be back in town before anyone knows your gone! (If you’d like, there is even a wine TRAIN!! See details here> https://www.winetrain.com/our-tours/) After spending a week in Napa with a great group of wine-enthusiast friends, I definitely learned a few things about how to create a Napa trip that is unforgettable! Here are my top 8 tips:
1. Plan Everything You Possibly Can Ahead of Time!!
Planning is essential when it comes to Napa! Some of the wineries are open and available, but many are not, and the more planning you do ahead of time the better. Plan your travel, where you’ll sleep, when and where you’ll eat, and exactly what wineries you want to see when! Try hard to get appointments ahead of time so you know for sure they will be waiting for you upon arrival instead of you having to wait for them!
2. Invite the Right Group of People On Your Trip
Do you have friends who enjoy good conversation over a nice glass (or bottle) of wine? THOSE are the friends you want to bring with you to Napa!! Make sure you have a good group with you who are all willing to take on new adventures, help plan, and hey, if they have some connections to a winery or two, even better! Even though going alone or as a couple is still a worthwhile trip, finding the right people to go with in a larger group makes for the best trip in my opinion!!
3. Travel Conveniently and Quickly No Matter Which Way You Choose
Traveling to Napa is super easy! There are so many ways to do it! We planned our trip with 5 other couples, and we all got there a different way. Patrick and I drove up, stopping for one night along the way and way back. One couple flew into Sacramento Airport, another couple flew into San Fransisco airport and then drove over, and yet another flew into Santa Rosa. We had all looked into a charter plane before deciding against it (mostly due to my motion sickness when traveling) but it’s not s bad option for a bigger group!
4. If You Drive, Take an Extra Day or Two For Adventures
Along the way up north we stopped in Santa Barbara, and stayed at the Santa Barbara Inn which was close to restaurants and shops and was right by the ocean!! On the way back home after the trip, we stopped at 17mile drive, and Morro Bay. If you do decide to pack up your car and drive up to Napa Valley, make sure to take Highway 1 and stop along the way! We stayed at The Inn at Morro Bay on our way back from Napa and it was well worth it! The views of “The Rock” from the Inn at Morro Bay in the morning were amazing, and watching the boats float docked in the bay, it was a peaceful ending to a wonderful trip! We also stopped at Nepenthe, a restaurant right on the edge of the ocean! (See their live weather cam here!!) Even if you’re not hungry, stop just to walk up the steps to see the view!! It is well worth it!!
5. Stay Close to St. Helena if Possible To Maximize Your Time
St. Helena is a great little area, and if you can rent a house right in town, you will have plenty of things to do within walking distance! We rented the St. Helena Inn, a bed and breakfast right on Main Street, that fit all 5 couples in our group! (One couple stayed nearby only for part of the trip.) Our house included a hot tub and was walking distance to the best restaurants and bars in town. (Ok, well, there is really only two options for good late night activity, Ana’s Cantina the local bar, and Goose & Gander, a late-night restaurant.) Our housekeeper made us breakfast each morning, which was needed before a big day out at the wineries! If you can rent a house with a group I think it’s the most fun, so that you can all spend time with each other for breakfast and later at night before bed.
6. Plan Your Meals, Or Have Snacks Planned/Scheduled Between Activities
There is a grocery store in town (Sunshine Market) that has all of the cheese and bread you can handle for in between wineries, but make sure to also pack some snacks with you for more heavy eating. You never know when you will need it, and if you can plan out your meals and snacks, even better. Your entire group will love if you schedule a picnic or have a cheese plate with you on a wine tasting!
We went to Goose and Gander for a fantastic dinner one night, and Market another night. Both had delicious menus and great ambiance! There are SO many great restaurants in Napa, really something for everyone!
7. Make Sure You Hire a Driver, It is Worth It
Uber is only $8-15 to each winery from town, so it’s well worth ordering one so that you can enjoy the wineries without worrying about the police. I made one U-turn in town on Main St. and got told by a local that even a U-turn isn’t allowed on that road and that the cops here were very strict. So I cannot imagine what a DUI would get you. You will want to taste a LOT of wine trust me, it’s just NOT worth the ticket, or the trouble.
8. Reserve Winery Tours and Tastings In Advance
So here is what you came for, the wineries. (Here is a FULL list of the wineries in Napa!) They are spectacular and well worth spending an hour or so at each one. Story has it that Napa was originally a town called Kellogg, and started with a miner who was looking for gold. He struck out, but built this town instead and decided to stay. Now wineries are everywhere around the town and they are SO much fun to visit!
If you’re tasting, and especially if it is a larger property, plan to spend a few hours there! If you’re a member, you usually can bring your food and purchase a bottle to have a picnic and enjoy your wine on the premise. Some wineries are more private and only offer tours, but each one is different and unique. Here are the wineries we went to, what I loved/didn’t love about each, and other wineries that I’ve heard are similar or worth visiting, that I have not yet visited:
Peter Michael Winery
The Peter Michael Winery is 630 acres (130 of which are actually planted) of gorgeous hillside in Napa Valley. Make sure to watch this video on how the vineyard got started from Sir Peter Michael himself.
(Yes, he really is “Sir” as he was knighted by the Queen of England in 1989. The winery was purchased in 1982, (it used to be a cattle ranch!) and now produces around 20,000 cases of wine a year. The first grapes were planted in 1983, and the first wine was produced in 1988. When Peter Michael’s wife walked around the property she really loved the orange poppies, so that is why the orange poppy is their logo. His vision and biggest goal was to make a fantastic Bordeaux blend from his property. Now wine maker Nick Morley, who has been making wine for over 15 seasons, is making a variety here at Peter Michael, but each is unique and impressive in my opinion.
We had the opportunity to take a private tour around the property where we saw a reservoir that is original original to the property and is now used for private “lakeside” parties. The vineyards take a full team of 40 people (only two women workers, although they wish they had more!) and they see wildlife of all sorts when they are out in the vineyards, including black bears, mountain lions and bobcats. Javier, the head of the team, says that every vine is touched over 60 times a year by hand. Our tour even included a stop at a beautiful terrace overlooking the hillside, complete with the world’s largest free-standing umbrella for shade. We then went back down the hill to the tasting room where we tasted a series of wines. It was truly a phenomenal experience, especially for my very first sit-down wine-tasting!!
Storybook Mountain Vineyards/Winery
Our second stop was Storybook Mountain Winery, hidden in the older caves of Napa Valley. These caves are over 100 years old!! It was really unique because the natural humidity comes from the spring nearby, so it allows them to bottle the wine underground in the caves. The caves were dug originally connected to other caves, but now there is just the round room (which still has an original ceiling that we could see the rain dripping through) and two larger cave areas, one in which we tasted a few great wines! These caves are different because they gave a natural black mold growing in them. (Not the bad kind that you find in your home, this is completely safe to touch/eat, although not recommended.)
In 1964, the Hanley Fire burned everything to the ground, and when people came to clean out the caves, they found a small red fox that had hid in the cave for refuge. It came running out of the cave, and inspired their logo.
Jerry (who is 81 and still very active) is the wine maker, manager, just about every aspect of the business is handled by Jerry, along with 9 other employees. The winery makes around 4,000 cases a year, and tastings here are available by appointment only, so make sure to call ahead.
Amici was our third stop on our first day of wine tasting. This winery produces around 6,000 cases of wine per year, and includes 3 labels. You can read more about all of their wines on their fantastic interactive website here.
From their website: “Our family-owned winery is nestled in the foothills of the Palisades, just outside Calistoga, Napa Valley, where we are dedicated to producing true-to-varietal wines from exceptional vineyard sources.
Working alongside our talented winemaking team led by Tony Biagi and Jesse Fox, together we bring decades of relationships with outstanding growers that, combined with their craftsmanship, result in elegant, balanced, expressive wines made to be enjoyed among friends.”
The first winery we went to on the second day was Corison, a smaller more private winery, where Cathy Corison takes part in the entire wine process. She bought the land that is the current winery in pieces starting in 1995 and she owns nearby properties as well, that she is able to use to blend with her own grapes from her 6 acre backyard (which produces about a ton and a quarter of grapes alone).
The total land included adds up to over 25 acres. Cathy always loved French wines that are food flexible, and really set out to make a great white wine. She never wanted to go with the “typical style of wine making” and instead stays involved in every part of the process, making it an intimate winery with a very personal feel. Visiting Corison was very peaceful and quiet and the tasting was so fun! Learn more about how you can request a tour here.
Getting to taste Myriad wines was truly a treat on our Napa trip! Mike and Lea Smith, owners of Myriad, came to Napa years ago with two young kids to work for just $12/hour while they setup their dream of the winery. They currently grow their grapes at multiple different wineries including Beckstoffer Winery and Round Pond Estate. You can learn more about each winery and vineyard on their website here.
Along with the Myriad label, winemaker Mike Smith also has two other labels Quivet and Ancillary. He has earned himself 17+ 100 point scores on wine, which is almost impossible to achieve. He is truly remarkable, and our group got to sit down with him and his wife one on one and listen to stories while we taste. What an amazing experience!! His winery produces about 2500 cases between the labels.
Hall Winery in St. Helena is definitely a must-see in Napa, as it is a great place to spend a few hours! There is tons of great artwork all around the property, and the tasting area is very large. There is a big patio and multiple tasting rooms and bar areas to mingle. You can take a self-guided tour around the grounds and see the vineyards and the original wine storage barn.
The artwork on the wine labels are from artwork that the Halls have. They buy art from artists directly, and one of their labels is based on a painting that their own son painted when he was just a baby! It is very unique, but be prepared to buy some wine here. They make 17 different cabernets, and overall, the winery is an expansive fun activity for anyone visiting Napa! Make sure to watch the video of how fun it is here and learn more about this great winery.
Wow Chateau Montelena was the perfect ending to our wine tasting trip in Napa! In 1973, a Montelena vintage won the 1976 French tasting, which really put Chateau Montelena on the map. We had a private tasting in their castle-like tasting building which was incredible.
Learn more about tastings here and definitely plan a visit!! They showed us an original door that slides open to see the mountain view in the background. On our visit you could actually see the snow on the mountain tops! This vineyard produces 50,000 cases a year, and most of this goes to their “Futures” program of people who basically pre-order the wine a year or so ahead of time. Half of these cases are estate wines, meaning they were grown on property and not mixed with grapes from other vineyards. They have a membership and with your membership you can come anytime to the winery and reserve a picnic area, grab a bottle of wine and sit outside with your group for lunch.
This is what our group did on our last afternoon together and it was the perfect spot for a final goodbye! We tasted a delicious 2000 Estate Zinfandel which was truly spectacular. One couple in our group mentioned we should watch the movie Bottleshock, which is all about Chateau Montelena and the family and story behind it! I definitely want to watch it. I highly recommend this winery, as the property is amazing, and the wines are so good!!
Wineries I Plan to Visit in the Future
There are so many wineries in Napa, you really could be there for weeks and not get to them all. Next time I go back I really want to visit these places:
If you’re looking for an adventure away from San Diego and you have not visited Napa yet, make sure you do!! It is completely worth the drive or flight, and the time away from America’s Finest City. Have you been to Napa in the summer? How was it different than my winter trip? I would LOVE to know which wineries you liked most!