Planning your visit to the Napa Valley

Napa Valley
Napa Valley

“…the valley, in beauty of scenery, productiveness of soil, delightful drives, salubrity of climate, health-giving medicinal springs, accessibility to the metropolis [San Francisco], is unsurpassed… City people looking for country residences, either for permanency or a vacation, can nowhere else find so many inducements as are offered here.” This was reported in the Napa Register newspaper circa 1878, but is as accurate today as it was then – and more so. Napa Valley today is a world class food and wine destination that in 2006 drew over 3.5 million tourists from the U.S. and abroad, taking advantage of not only the food and wine culture, but the Valley’s rich history, beauty and outdoor lifestyle.

One of the compelling things about traveling to the Napa Valley is the relative ease of getting here and visiting wineries. It is only about 1 ½ hours from San Francisco or Oakland airports and the majority of wineries can be accessed on two major north-south roads, highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, and the crossroads in-between. The drive covers a span of 30 or so miles with few stoplights and the views are spectacular. The major towns going north are Napa, Yountville, Saint Helena and Calistoga, each having their own unique characters and conveniences to make them your base of travel.

Anytime of the year is a good time to visit the Valley. In the summer, it is lush and green, vibrant with tourists and activities in the vineyards. The vegetables and fruit that California is so famous for are at their peak of ripeness and are featured in their simple glory at our restaurants and several farmers markets. It is warm to hot during the day, but cool at night and through the foggy mornings, so bring your sweaters. In the autumn, excitement fills the air as harvest begins and the scent of fermenting must heightens the senses. The weather cools slightly but remains relatively dry through October. Winter is our rainiest season and it can be quite cold – but the vistas are still spectacular. The vines are bare of leaves but the vineyards are blanketed with the bright yellow color of mustard flowers. It is the best time to visit if you seek light traffic, off-season airfare and hotel rates and reservations at the “hard to get into” restaurants. If you want to spend quality time at your favorite wineries, winter is also the best opportunity to get personalized attention from hospitality staff or even winemakers. Some wineries only allow visitors by appointment, so check ahead at the Napa Valley Vintners Association which has a list of wineries, their hours of operation, facilities, tours and activities.

Napa Valley is not just a wine region but a world class food and wine destination, so take advantage of the great restaurants, cafes and wine bars here. It is a great way to pace your wine tasting activities and get the full Napa Valley experience at the same time. While it might be tempting to book a full day of winery visits, a good itinerary might include one in the morning, a great lunch with a glass of wine, and then another visit in the afternoon. This provides for one of those “happy accidents” when you end up having a longer and more intimate visit at a winery than expected. If not, there are many wineries you can visit that do not require appointments, or you can tour the local neighborhoods for a dose of history, architecture and shopping.

A good place to start your research for restaurants, hotels and things to do is at the Land of Wine and Food and in future articles here.