By Mike Jackman
Do you need to scratch that travel itch? After weeks of Stay at Home requirements, many are anxious to get away. The Coronavirus has altered our way of life in many profound ways. Travel is no exception. Many destinations in the world are slowly reopening borders to accept tourism. You don’t have to travel internationally with so many wonderful destinations right here in America. One of my favorite places is Napa Valley, California.
Located an easy one hour and 10 minute drive from San Francisco International Airport is the wine lover’s ideal destination. California is home to over 3,600 wineries. It represents about 47% of all wineries in the United States. Napa County is home to 1,700 wineries while Napa Valley itself has over 400 wineries, with 95% of them family owned. The wineries range in size from small boutique wineries to internationally recognized names such as Robert Mondavi, Beringer, Opus One and many more that you would recognize. Towns in Napa Valley include, St. Helena (ha-LEE-nah), Yountville, Napa, Rutherford, Calistoga and Oakville.
Napa is most famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon and the various iterations of the red wine plus Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and a host of others. If you prefer drinking white wine you will not be disappointed as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Chenin Blanc can be readily found. I have several personal favorite wines and wineries in Napa. In no order of preference they include David Arthur Vineyards, Joseph Phelps and Merryvale all located in St. Helena, Caymus & Cliff Lede near Yountville. Actually there is something to love about all of them! I am or have been a wine club member of each.
Accommodations are many and varied to fit most tastes and budgets. Choose from resort spas, Inns, Lodges, Hotels, Boutique and Wineries for your Napa headquarters. Many of the large chain properties are located in Napa including Westin (a short walk to the Oxbow Market), Courtyard, Hampton, Doubletree, Hilton and Embassy Suites. My personal favorite is located in Yountville, the Villagio.
Napa is also home to a great collection of fabulous dining opportunities. As you would expect, with so many world class wineries, gourmet dining with wine pairings are commonplace. It goes well beyond just fine dining as many bistros, delis, grills and even a dining car on the Napa Valley Wine Train offer unforgettable experiences! It can also be very casual with a visit to the Oakville Grocery as you are entering the Valley. It is perfect for creating your own picnic with their selection of deli products, wines, cheeses, meats and treats. With your supplies loaded, it is off to visit a winery. I always make it a point to stop in the Grocery. Love the old fashioned feel! I also love staying in Yountville because of the restaurants within walking distance. It is home to several French cuisines including the very famous (and difficult to get into) French Laundry. However, I can get my French fix at Bistro Jeanty or Bouchon just across the street from the Villagio. Just north of Yountville is another favorite, Mustards Grill (American/California) and Bistro Don Giovanni (Italian) to the south. St. Helena is also a wonderful location for restaurants (and wineries, of course).
Wine tastings are the heart and soul of the Napa experience. Not all wineries offer public tours or tastings (thankfully, it is hard enough to choose from those that do!). I suggest maybe 3 wineries per day. Take the time to learn about the making of the wine, tour the facilities and of course taste the product. If you are not a big red wine person, if you give it a chance, my money is on the side of you being converted. Quick story, years ago while having dinner with friends at Redd’s in Yountville we were enjoying several bottles of an excellent wine, Paradigm Cabernet Sauvignon. As we were finishing our meal, a gentleman approached our table. He noticed the wine we were drinking and asked what we thought of it. At the time, it was a bit strange for a fellow diner to come over but, heck we were several bottles in and welcomed his question. We all said it was excellent and would easily recommend it. Well, it turns out he was the owner of the Paradigm winery and proceeded to pick up our wine tab for the evening! The charm and beauty of Napa and the family owned wineries, you never know who you might run into!
If you need a break from winery visits or you just aren’t into wine that much, there is much to do in Napa Valley. The aforementioned Napa Valley Wine Train will take you through the valley giving a unique view of the wineries and serve you a meal. If seeing it from the train isn’t enough how about from a hot air balloon! It is breath taking. You can also ride horses, river kayak, explore art galleries & museums, golf or simply enjoy the beauty of the Valley.
I could spend a week exploring Napa wineries. Many go for a long weekend and bookend it with a stay in San Francisco. I’m guessing Napa would be your favorite part of the trip!