Napa Valley. Few names are so revered in the realm of New World wine as this California enclave, which is home to some of the industry's most renowned and historically important wineries.It took nearly a century and a half for the wild landscape of the unsettled American west to turn into the rows of lovingly nurtured crops that signify the valley’s success today, and that long, tumultuous journey is every bit as captivating as one might expect.
Grapes already grew wild across Napa Valley when settler George Calvert Yount rode into the area in 1839 and built his homestead, sowing the land with the first recorded instance of cultivated grapes. Like a true pioneer, his efforts inspired others, notably Hamilton Walker Crabb and John Patchett, who brought vitis vinifera, the species of grapes now responsible for about 99 percent of the world’s wine production.
The credit for Napa Valley’s first commercial winery goes to the legendary Charles Krug, whose name and business continue to flourish some 150 years later. Other entrepreneurs soon followed in Krug’s wake, and several of those early startups — namely Beringer, Inglenook, and Schramsberg — are not only still currently in business but enjoy large commercial and critical success.
The path to international acclaim was not without its hiccups. For a while, the region expanded too quickly, flooding the market with grapes and wine that far outweighed the public’s rate of consumption. The plummeting prices were soon followed by the introduction of phylloxera, a tiny pest of an insect that enjoys snacking on the roots of vines, leaving devastation in its wake. More than 80 percent of the developed land in Napa in the early 1900s was decimated, and there was barely time to bounce back before the one-two punch of Prohibition and the Great Depression slowed recovery even further.
Still, as with its sister American Viticulture Area, Sonoma County, time began to heal Napa Valley’s many wounds. Wineries that had long lain lifeless were resurrected, new luminaries emerged, and the edges of both tradition and imagination were stretched. These days, Napa Valley is nothing short of iconic, with the numerous wineries, restaurants, and lodging options to prove it. There is an intriguing blend of innovation and preservation of heritage, assuring there is something here for every person — and every palate.
Napa Valley Travel Guide
Napa’s Top Wineries
- At Quintessa, the incredible flavors of Bordeaux are brought to life with an infusion of New World vigor. The result is a wine as breathtaking as the sweeping grounds where each bottle is conceived. [vimeo url=”http://vimeo.com/967258″]More than 170 of Quintessa’s 280 acres are planting with the classic Bordeaux varietals, but that’s not all that’s on offer; in addition to the vineyard, there is an entire network of natural wonders, including a lake, a river, five hills, and a rich tapestry of lush underbrush and flowering gardens that give the place a magical feel. From a technical standpoint, the vineyard’s four microclimates add diversity to the winemaking process, something Quintessa’s owners believe contributes to their wines’ unique flavor and continued popularity.
- Storybook Mountain Vineyards may not be the biggest name in Napa Valley, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in lore. The vineyard was launched in 1883 by the Grimm brothers, the very same duo who are responsible for some of the most beloved children’s books every written. The winery is currently owned by Jerry Seps, a retired professor of history whose tours are just as much about the vineyard’s past as they are concerned with the business of the present. Steep in Storybook’s history, then toast to the future in the tasting rooms, which are located in caves excavated at the hands of Chinese laborers in the late 1800s.
- One of the oldest vineyards in Napa Valley, Beaulieu, came to be when Georges de Latour sold his successful cream of tartar business in order to please his wife, who had spotted and fallen in love with the land. It was Latour who imported phylloxera-resistant rootstock from Europe, following that feat by selling wine to the Catholic church. These two moves were enough to establish him as a leader in the budding Napa Valley scene. Today, Beaulieu’s Heritage Room serves as a sort of mini museum, with displays that honor the area’s history. Sneak in a little education, and then head to the tasting room to indulge in barrel samples of wines before they’re released en masse to the public.
- One of Napa Valley’s leaders in nature-driven winemaking, Robert Sinskey Vineyards, has 200 acres of vines that are certified 100-percent organic and biodynamic — no easy feat. Husband-and-wife team Robert and Maria Sinskey view wine as a holistic experience, and tastings are often teamed with incredible edibles, courtesy of Maria, who graduated from the California Culinary Academy. Much of the bounty used in the kitchen is grown on the grounds, and exploring the gardens is almost as much fun as camping out in the tasting room.
- You can’t get much more legendary than Schramsberg Vineyards. In fact, the vineyard is a registered historic landmark, reflecting the winery’s importance in both Napa Valley and to international winemaking as well. No visit is complete without a taste of the house bubbly, the first American sparkling wine to be made in the traditional French method of méthode champenoise. There is no shortage of bottles to choose from; two miles of tunnels underneath the winery hold 3 million bottles of sparkling wine, all hand-turned and guarded under a watchful eye.
- Up on Pritchard Hill sits Chappellet, home to some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon in all of Napa Valley. The elevation provides some stunning views of the valley down below, and guests can sip their wine while gazing at the rolling hills and mist-shrouded waters. Chappellet offers a lengthy tour of the vineyard that culminates in a tasting of new releases.
Napa’s Top Lodging
- Guests looking to immerse themselves in vintage charm need look no further than 1801 First. The interestingly named inn is a somewhat-updated Victorian mansion built in 1903. Many architectural details have been preserved, but have no fear, luxury seekers — modern amenities abound. From breakfasts featuring fresh-baked bread to happy hour on the shaded patio to dinner complemented by wine from some of the region’s very best vineyards, First 1801 is a haven for hungry gourmands. Stay in the main house, or opt for added privacy in the adjoining cottages or beautiful carriage house.
- There are only four LEED Platinum-certified hotels in the United States, and the Bardessono Hotel, Restaurant & Spa is
one of them. Each of the 62 rooms is made using salvaged and reclaimed materials, all assembled into a clean, streamlined look that adds a more modern counterpoint to the many Old World-style inns nearby. Relax nestled in Coyuchi bed linens, snack on seasonal and organic menu offerings, and if your stress levels are in need of some serious attention, book yourself into one of the Steam Spa Suites, where massage tables and soaking tubs will slowly lull you into well-deserved bliss.
- In the olden days, ailing settlers used to “take the waters” in hopes of curing various aches and nagging pains, a tradition that continues for guests of Indian Springs Resort & Spa. The property itself is almost 150 years old, and the retro rooms may not exactly be up to date, but there is an undeniable allure to both the property and the area. If rustic charm isn’t your bag, you may still appreciate the geyser-heated pool and mud baths — all the charm of a five-star spa at a small fraction of the price.
- Big hotels have a lot going for them, but nothing sets up a weekend away quite like a room in a cozy B&B. Lavender only has eight rooms, but that just means that the gracious owners have more time to chat with guests on the lovely wraparound porch or whip up fruity French toast and hearty quiches. The property doesn’t have much in the way of extras, but guests can get their pool and spa fix at the nearby Maison Fleurie; you can even get there using the B&B’s free fleet of bicycles. How’s that for country hospitality?
- “Modern boutique” is the kind of marketing term that can spell trouble, but in the case of Auberge du Soleil, [youtube url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKnWICeZGRY”] the description is remarkably apt. Not so much a hotel as a collection of villas, Auberge made waves when it opened back in 1985, introducing guests to a unique option for Napa accommodations. Amongst the olive groves lie a number of villas, all decked out with recycled Balinese wood floors, rattan ceiling fans, and Mediterranean-themed décor that should seem a bit out of place but quite simply doesn’t. There is a large spa that creates treatments based on local herbs and oils and a restaurant with a seasonal menu that features locally sourced produce.
Napa’s Top Restaurants
- Everybody wants to be the first person to discover the next big food or wine star, and there’s no better place to source new talent than at Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America. Dishes such as maple-roasted butternut squash soup with duck confit, cinnamon crème fraiche, and pine nuts, Five Dot Ranch beef sugo with egg noodles and chanterelles, and almond and olive oil cake with slow-roasted Santa Rosa plums and thyme oil are made by student chefs using produce and livestock raised and harvested from the CIA’s own farms. Pair your meal with selections from the award-winning wine list or opt for the “Lessons in Wine” tasting flight and snag a bit of education as you revel in the expertly cooked grub, courtesy of the next wave of master chefs.
- Not every meal in Napa needs to be four courses and fancy. Gott’s Roadside is all about accessible eats that feature incredible ingredients in dishes everyone recognizes. What sets Gott’s apart is the care and quality that goes into every creation. A lemon-Dijon vinaigrette, Point Reyes blue cheese, locally grown avocado, and organic, cage-free hard-boiled eggs make the Cobb salad sing. As for burgers, when you can choose between patty proteins like Diestel Ranch turkey, sushi-grade ahi tuna, or vegetarian-fed and hormone- and antibiotic-free beef from Niman Ranch and then top them with simple yet flavor-packed ingredients, you end up with a hefty sandwich that will beat any drive-thru burger coast to coast.
- Brix Restaurant and Garden occupies 16 acres of prime Napa Valley real estate, a verdant stretch of land with a stunning view of the Mayacamas mountains. Executive Chef Chris Jones uses produce harvested from the estate’s gardens prominently in his French-meets-California cuisine. The slate walls and wooden beams crisscrossing the ceiling make the restaurant seem almost like an extension of the area’s stunning beauty, an ideal place for enjoying chili-rubbed brick chicken with roasted spaghetti squash, pancetta, broccolini, and a pine nut agro-dolce, crispy fried green beans with spicy mustard sauce, or forest mushroom risotto with mascarpone and the essence of white and black truffle as a luxurious finishing touch.
- It just wouldn’t be right to offer up a list of top Napa restaurants without including the legendary French Laundry. The concept is deceptively simple: Chef Thomas Keller masterfully crafts two tasting menus per day: one a nine-course chef’s choice, the other a nine-course vegetable tasting. Featured dishes change with the seasons and at Keller’s whim, but the focus is always on innovation, quality, and flavor, with a hint of whimsy. At $270+ per person with wine pairings that can more than double your bill, this is no casual dining experience, but as a bucket-list adventure, there is no better spot. A word to the wise: Reservations are snapped up months beforehand, but the restaurant often frees up a seat or two per day, so call early on the day you want to go and be nice — you may just get lucky.
- Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto is known for his precision, and the dishes on offer at his eponymous Morimoto Napa are no exception. Forget mayonnaise-laden crunchy rolls or cheap imitation crab; everything here is colorful, bold, and the epitome of quality. Morimoto takes advantage of the restaurant’s wine country locale, using local ingredients to give his Japanese flavors a New World spin. Try the lamb carpaccio with scallion-ginger dressing and chive oil, the tempura calamari salad with quinoa two ways and white miso dressing, or giggle as you grub out with the playfully named Duck Duck Goose, a duck meatball soup with duck confit rice and gooseberry compote. Also of note: sea urchin carbonara. Run, don’t walk!
Napa’s Top Tours and Activities
- There is no shortage of great restaurants in Napa Valley, but if you’re in more of a do-it-yourself mood or hope to stock up on portable potables in anticipation of a day spent picnicking in the heart of wine country, there’s no better place to fill your basket than Oxbow Public Market. The market is a place where tourists and valley residents alike go for locally grown and sourced artisanal goods. Shop for basic ingredients such as fresh-caught fish or organically raised, free-pasture meat, cheese, charcuterie, fruits and veggies, and, of course, lots of wine and olive oil. No kitchen? Let the on-scene cooks treat you to a wide range of culinary delights and enjoy your repast al fresco with a view of the Napa River. The market also plays host to all kinds of musical acts, beer and wine tastings, and interesting demonstrations by some of the leading lights in the food and beverage industry.
- Up your culture quotient at the Napa Valley Opera House, a historic venue that first opened around 1880. The performances are plentiful and varied, and depending on the time of year and schedule, you may have the opportunity to enjoy anything from mariachi to the Napa Valley Youth Symphony to retro movie nights that give old black-and-white classics a second chance at big-screen greatness.
- Change your perspective and view Napa from the wild blue yonder thanks to the experienced hot air balloon operators at Napa Valley Drifters. Former Federal Aviation Authority pilots ensure that each guest has a safe, worry-free experience soaring high above Napa’s vineyard-covered landscape. The balloon trips are often billed as being ideal for proposals or wedding celebrations, but they are also just an incredibly memorable way to spend an afternoon. Each flight concludes with a complimentary glass of champagne — the perfect end to a life-changing adventure.
- Choo choo! Retro meets luxury and childhood dreams come true once you board the Napa Valley Wine Train. Book a ride and enjoy a unique view of the Napa countryside, [youtube url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ma25cQsqDmU#t=16″]or take part in one of the specialty trips, such as Murder on the Wine Train Express, a murder mystery dinner, or the Moonlight Escape, a mid-winter excursion that takes place on the longest day of the year, giving guests in the Vista Dome car a 180-degree view of Napa bathed in the silvery glow of moonlight. Foodies will love dining in the 1952 Pullman rail car, where each meal starts with a complimentary glass of California bubbly followed by a multi-course meal every bit as memorable as the scenery whizzing by the vintage-style window.
- History buffs should make sure a trip to the Napa Valley Museum makes it onto their itineraries. The historical, geological, and cultural history of Napa Valley is well represented here, giving visitors a phenomenal look into how one of wine’s most revered regions came to be.
Calling all Napa fans: Did we miss a must-see attraction off your personal list of favorites? Help us build a collective bucket list by adding your recommendations below.