Navigating the Napa Valley Wine Route

First-time visitors to the Napa Valley are often bewildered or overwhelmed. When should we go, where should we stay and dine, and most often which wineries are the best ones to visit? Let’s tackle these dilemmas one at a time.

Napa Valley Wine Route Planning

Navigating the Napa Valley Wine Route

Navigating the Napa Valley Wine Route

When should you visit the Napa Valley?

In my book, anytime is a good time to visit the Napa Valley. No matter what time of the year, the Napa Valley has something special to offer the wine country traveler. In winter it is the mustard, the cover crops, and the bare rows of vines that delight. Spring brings bud break and wildflowers. Summer brings the warm weather and full growth to the vines. Fall means harvest of the grapes followed by the fantastic autumn colors in the vineyards. Yes indeed, any time of the year in the Napa Valley is a good time to visit.

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Lincoln Avenue in Calistoga

Where should you stay and dine?

The main towns for lodging are Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga. We like each town; they all offer something different in lodging and dining. We recommend you lodge within walking distance of dining. When you can walk to restaurants there are no worries about drinking and driving. In Calistoga, there is a free shuttle that runs most of the year. It will bring visitors to restaurants, wineries, and shopping and then pick you up when you are done. There are three cab companies in the Napa Valley, so taking a cab is a great option if you cannot walk to a restaurant. Yountville has the most-noted restaurant scene with five Michelin star restaurants, all within a few blocks of one another. Check our list of recommended restaurants for Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga.

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One of Yountville’s many fine restaurants

Which are the best wineries to visit?

We recommend that visitors to the Napa Valley Wine Trails visit between 3 to 5 wineries in one full day. More than that and you will miss something and mostly likely imbibe too much of the good life. There are over 400 wineries to visit in the Napa Valley and, if you are visiting the max of ten wineries in a two-day excursion, how does one seriously decide on which of these 400 wineries are the most enjoyable to visit?

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Clos Pegase

You can visit the best wineries in two different ways. One way is to follow one of our ready-made wine trails. Or you can mix-or-match the wineries within our Napa Valley wine trails. A second way is to head over to our Winery Finder and search for tasting rooms and wineries according to your likes and dislikes. The winery finder will enable you to select the best wineries to visit by various criteria. If you want boutique wineries that are family owned and have a picnic area, the winery finder narrows down the choices for you. It is a very handy tool for the first-time visitor or ones who visit the Napa Valley every few years.

Lastly we encourage you to watch this informative short video on Napa Valley Travel Tips.

Charter Oak Winery – something different in St. Helena

There are said to be over 400 “brick and mortar” wineries in the Napa Valley. The typical Napa Valley winery has a lavish tasting room, along with merchandise for sale. It can almost be said, once you have seen a few tasting rooms in the Napa Valley, you have seen them all. We are always on the lookout when we travel to the Napa Valley for something much different than the normal tasting room experience. We certainly found that at the Charter Oak Winery in St. Helena. Proprietors Robert and Layla Fanucci have an interesting combination of skills. In the tasting room in an old Victorian bungalow in St. Helena, Robert showcases his wines while Layla creates a unique style of painting on canvas.

Charter Oak tasting room and art gallery

Charter Oak tasting room and art gallery

Robert learned how to appreciate and make wine from his grandfather, Guido Ragghianti. When his grandfather died in 1986, Robert inherited the home and all the winemaking equipment, including a 100-year-old basket press. That press is still used today along with many old fashioned and artisan winemaking techniques, the same that Robert learned from his grandfather. In the Charter Oak wines, natural yeast is always used and the wines are unfiltered and unfined. Most of the grapes are sourced from the Napa Valley and some from the famous Louis Martini Monte Rosso Vineyards. Robert’s grandfather always made between 400 and 600 cases of wine per year, and today 600 to 800 cases are made at the Charter Oak Winery.

basket press charter oak

Basket press used today in making Charter Oak wines

The tasting consists of four to five wines and a tour of the small and cozy winemaking facility. Since this is also Layla’s art studio, you also get a tour and look at her latest works of art. A tour and tasting is $20 per person, by appointment only.

The wines are all excellent and very well made, balanced with complex flavors. These wines are big and bold. Those who like a lighter style wine may not enjoy these wines, but those who love a full-flavored wine will thoroughly enjoy these. The Old World Field Blend was our favorite and priced at $58 a bottle.

Both Bob and Layla are graduates of San Francisco State University. Robert is an attorney and Layla taught music for years until her career took an unexpected turn. While searching for an original painting for her living room, she gave up looking and decided to paint one herself. Her friends who saw it were very impressed and encouraged her to paint more. She decided to quit teaching and paint full time. Earlier this year Layla and her art were featured on the cover of our alumni magazine. As fellow SFSU Grads, the article peaked our interest. And as you can see in the photo, her internationally renowned artwork is something that is quite different. The daughter of an architect, Layla paints layers of famous cities over one another.

Layla's artwork

Layla’s artwork

Layla’s beautiful book, “Layla Fanucci: City of Dreams Unabridged” by Valerie Gladstone, is available at the Winery and online.

There are several wineries in the Valley that do combine wine and art, but this winery is quite different from any others that we have visited.

Napa Valley Late August

We are spending the last week of August in the beautiful Napa Valley. The vines are looking spectacular throughout the Valley from Napa all the way to Calistoga. We are renting a house with family in the Oak Knoll AVA. Five acres of Cabernet Sauvignon surround the house. The owner sells these grapes to a winery he would not name. He says it is the last year of the contract. From my knowledge, Cabernet Sauvignon does not do well in the Oak Knoll area. Too much of a loamy soil along with clay. Perhaps I am wrong on this, but rarely do I see a bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet listed as Oak Knoll.

The temperatures are in the low 80’s, but in the afternoon the winds kick in off San Pablo Bay. It’s nature’s way of cooling down the vines. In the late evening the temps drop into the 50’s. This is another factor in what makes the Napa Valley a great place for making wine.

Luna Vineyards

On our first day here we visited the nearby Luna Vineyards. It is one of the first wineries you come to as you head north on the Silverado Trail. The tasting fee is $15 for four wines. I guess by today’s standards that is not too much for a tasting fee in the Napa Valley. Tasting fees continue to increase here, but by all accounts visitors seem willing to cough up the dollars needed to taste in the Napa Valley. We enjoyed a quick visit at Luna. The view from their tower is spectacular and should not be missed if you visit. The best wine at Luna was the least expensive, the Pinot Grigio. It is delicious and priced at $18 a bottle. Luna also has a very nice picnic area but it must be reserved. Call ahead and enjoy a lunch and tasting at Luna.

View from the Luna tower

View from the Luna tower

Monticello Vineyards

We stopped here with our deli lunch and since no wine club members were using the picnic facilities we were able to enjoy our lunch at one of the large picnic tables. The best wine here was the Sauvignon Blanc, but at $30 a pop we thought it was way too pricey. By the way, you can purchase wine by the glass here. I will skip this winery next time around. I cannot give you a specific reason why; it was just a general feeling that something here was off kilter.

Monticello Vineyards

Monticello Vineyards

Mystery Winery

Sorry, but I cannot mention the name of this winery. Why? Because the owner does not have a license to sell wine or take in visitors at his property. Word of mouth is what brings visitors to his home, mostly by limousine companies and through family and friend references. The owner lives on the property and sells most of his grapes. Syrah is his best grape. He makes about 1000 cases of wine per year. The best wine by far was the Rosé Syrah. The owner told us he is not the only one in this type of under-the-radar operation. He told us that there are a few others who operate as he does.

Napa Valley Taste of Victory

americascup wine

Official wine bottle of America’s Cup

Napa Valley is official wine region of the 34th America’s Cup

The 34th America’s Cup is currently underway in San Francisco until September 7th. You’ve probably heard that the Napa Valley was declared the official wine country region of the America’s Cup. I’m not sure why an official wine region is needed, but nonetheless that is how it is. The benefit for the Napa Valley wineries and related industries is plenty of PR, and the only wines poured at all the official venues for America’s Cup are from the Napa Valley.

Napa Valley “Taste of Victory” aboard the SS Jeremiah O’Brien

On Thursday we were invited to an America’s Cup and Napa Valley event, a trade and media tasting, “Taste of Victory,” aboard the SS Jeremiah O’Brien. This World War II Liberty ship is docked permanently at Pier 45 in San Francisco. The deck of the ship served as the tasting area and provided spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay and a chance to see a couple of the America’s Cup racing yachts in action.

Expensive yachts mean expensive tastes, including wine. At the “Taste of Victory” there were many expensive wines to try. For us it was a chance to try wines we normally would not purchase, being too high in price for our budget. It was also a chance to meet and chat with winery owners and winemakers and discover some new wineries, as well as reacquaint ourselves with some old favorites.

Round Pond 2010 Cabernet from the Rutherford AVA is quite is a delicious wine, and I see it in my local wine shop for $40. I think that is a steal when you compare this wine to others selling well above $60. Round Pond is on my list of wineries to visit soon. They offer a variety of tours and tastings, as well as food pairing experiences. I have not seen a winery in the Napa Valley that offers as many choices for the wine country visitor to experience.

Perry Cellars

Sue Parry, Parry Cellars

Another impressive Cabernet came from Parry Cellars. Owner Sue Parry poured her two Cabernets, 2008 and 2009, with enthusiasm. She and her husband Stephen make only 200 cases of wine, all Cabernet, from their estate vineyards and they sell for $60. Too bad it is out of my price range. Celia Welch is the winemaker, and I always seem to like her wines.

Jonathan and Susan Pey, veterans in the wine world, were on hand to pour their Textbook wines. I like their Textbook Napa Valley Cabernet. I think it is very nicely priced and I have seen it for about $22 a bottle.

Another winery serving up some delicious wines was Keever Vineyards. They poured a wonderful Sauvignon Blanc ($32) and an outstanding Cabernet ($95). We liked both of these wines and guess who the winemaker is. Celia Welch!

Two old standbys we also enjoyed. The mother and daughter team of Herta and Lisa Peju were pouring Peju wines. They seem to be having a lot of fun with with the tasters. The Tess wine is a blend and is served chilled. It is very much a refreshing and tasty summer wine. Grgich Hills Estate was also present and was pouring their tasty Cabernet, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay wines.

Peju ladies

Lisa and Herta Peju

It certainly was one of the more enjoyable tastings we have been to. The Fisherman’s Wharf area was bustling with activity, including tourists, party fishing boats, and many others. They say that America’s Cup has been very disappointing in bringing folks to San Francisco. You could not tell that by the crowds and activities on the Wharf. A very memorable day, indeed!

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Catch Napa Valley Harvest 2013

The Napa Valley harvest 2013 is underway, and now is the time for every wine country buff to plan to watch all the activities that take place during the harvest. The Napa Valley is one of the best spots for viewing the “crush” because of the number of vineyards and wineries in such a concentrated area. If you spend a few days in the Napa Valley from mid-September through October, you are likely to see all the harvest activities: the grape picking, the sorting, the crushing and fermentation. It is the Napa Valley at its best for the tourist. Start making your plans now to watch the most exciting show in the world of wine.

The Napa Valley harvest 2013 has already started as of August 1 with Mumm Napa picking Pinot Noir grapes for its sparkling wine. In late June and early July the Napa Valley and Northern California experienced a heat wave that hastened the vines to grow ahead of the norm. By all indications the growing season is ahead by 10 to 14 days.

harvest-2010

Napa Valley Harvest 2013 Travel Tips

We have some tips for getting the most out of harvest in the Napa Valley. One of the most educational activities you can do is to take a tour. The best one by far that we have done is the Harvest Tour at Hendry. We have taken this tour three times with none other than the legendary George Hendry, guiding us through his vineyards and winery. On the vineyard walk, we love watching George select some grapes and chew them; pondering for a moment, and then announcing these grapes have about a week to go before harvest. Check the Hendry Website and call to schedule your tour and tasting. Fee is $40 per person.

If you want to watch the actual harvesting of the grapes, you’ll need to get up just before sunrise. Picking of the grapes is done early before the heat of the day. Drive the Valley and look for signs of the harvest. Look for several cars parked on the side of the road, half-ton bins ready to be filled, or small harvest baskets at the ready, as well as tractor trucks. More than likely harvest will be taking place in deep in the vineyards. Bring you camera and walk into the vineyards; when you spot the workers, ask the foreman if it is okay to take pictures.

harvest-2010bDuring the day, stop in at any tasting room and ask about the crush activities. The staff usually knows what harvest activities are taking place at their winery and what is in store for the following couple of days. Our strategy is to stop at a winery, initially bypass the tasting room and walk to the where the crush facilities are located to see what activities are taking place. No one really seems to care that you are there as long as you stand back far enough not to get in the way. Everyone is working so intensely that you will hardly be noticed.

This is a favorite time for tourists, so plan ahead. If you want to spend any length of time, be sure to book your accommodations early. But often, just going up for the day will be fun enough. Keep posted to the comments on this blog post for up-to-date information or check with the blog at the Napa Valley Vintners Association Website. Enjoy and don’t forget to pack that camera.

A look at our recommendations for lodging in the Napa Valley and for great restaurants in the Napa Valley.

Santa Barbara wine country will host wine bloggers in 2014

At the conclusion of the 2013 Wine Bloggers Conference in Penticton, British Columbia, on Saturday, June 8th, it was announced that Santa Barbara wine country has been selected to host the 7th annual North American Wine Bloggers Conference for 2014. The conference will be held at the Santa Ynez Marriott Hotel in Buellton from July 11 to 13th.

Bloggers a larger impact than the “Sideways” movie?

Until the movie “Sideways” came out in 2004, this area of Santa Barbara had been best known for the Anderson Split Pea Soup factory and for the Danish town of Solvang. How fitting that the Santa Barbara Wine Bloggers Conference will be held on the tenth anniversary of the movie. The movie featured the Santa Barbara wine country as the characters of Miles and Jack moved from winery to winery in search of Pinot Noir. The movie had such a following that it had an enormous effect on Pinot Noir. Because it was so esteemed in the movie, Pinot Noir sales were carried to new heights and higher prices followed. A negative mention of Merlot in the movie did just the opposite for that varietal, with popularity of the grape plummeting. When the movie was released there were five tasting rooms in Los Olivos, the center of this wine country. Today, there are 27 tasting rooms alone in the town. “Sideways” had a huge effect on the popularity of this area. Now comes perhaps an even greater influence, the 2014 North American Wine Bloggers Conference.

There are expected to be 350 attendees at this conference. Most of these attendees not only blog, but tweet copiously, post to Facebook, Google+ and Pinterest. They won’t be doing this just during the conference, but also for months before and long after the conference. As we write this post, the Tweeter feeds and Facebook posts are making their way throughout the digital wine community. This is an absolute bonanza for the Santa Barbara Wine Country Association. It will bring more attention to wine lovers around the globe to the many varietals and styles of wine that are produced in this area of the four separate AVA’s of Santa Barbara.

Watch this two-minute video to gain a perspective of the San Barbara wine country and what it has to offer to wine lovers around the globe.

Five Fun Things to Do in the Napa Valley in June

Don’t just have a great time in the Napa Valley, have a phenomenal time! We suggest these five fun things to do in the Napa Valley in June. Enjoy!

Do a different type of wine tasting
Wine tasting is of course the main tourist activity in the Napa Valley, so why not break from the norm and do a different type of wine tasting? For example, at Round Pond winery there is a selection of three different extended tour and tasting sessions. Try the Il Pranzo Lunch or the Barrel Tour and Tasting. Check the Round Pond Website for specifics of the event, including fees and reservations. Robert Sinskey Vineyards and Peju Winery also have special tastings along with tours and food pairings.

Watch the Geyser go off on Tubbs Lane in Calistoga
Why not combine wine tasting and one of nature’s amazing displays? The Old Faithful Geyser goes off every 30 minutes without a hitch. It is located on Tubbs Lane just north of Calistoga. Near Old Faithful and on Tubbs Lane are the tasting rooms of Chateau Montelena, Summers Estate Winery and Envy Wines. Old Faithful Geyser of California is open to visitors 7 days a week, including holidays. Hours are 9 AM – 5 PM in the winter and 9 AM – 6 PM in the summer.

Old Faithful entrance on Tubbs Lane

Old Faithful entrance on Tubbs Lane

Morning walk in Yountville
Start your morning in the Napa Valley with a little exercise and some wonderful views of the mountains and vineyards. You can walk Washington Street in both directions. Going north on Washington takes you past the vegetable garden of the famous French Laundry Restaurant. Now that’s a vegetable garden! We love taking a morning walk or run along Yount Street and Yount Mill Road. This road is lined with vineyards and mountain views. Pick up the walk where Yount Street meets Washington Street in the center of Yountville. Yount Street will eventually become Yount Mill.

French Laundry Vegetable Gardon on Washington St.

French Laundry Vegetable Gardon on Washington St.

Visit a sparkling wine house
Sipping bubbly in June and the rest of the Summer is a delightful way to enjoy a day outdoors. Why not visit one of Napa Valley’s finest sparkling wine makers? Choose among Mumm Napa, Domaine Chandon or Schramsberg. Each of these sparkling houses has tours and tastings. Schramsberg requires reservations. The courtyard at Mumm Napa overlooks the Valley. Just sip and relax!

The Patio at Mumm Napa

The Patio at Mumm Napa


Mondavi Wine Concerts
June 29th is the first concert in the Robert Mondavi series of concerts at the Robert Mondavi Winery. Martina McBride is the featured artist for the first event in this amazing summer concert series that benefits the children of the Napa Valley.

Five Fun Things to Do in the Napa Valley in May

Don’t just have a great time in the Napa Valley, have a phenomenal time! We suggest these five fun things to do in the Napa Valley in May. Enjoy!

Five Fun Things to Do in the Napa Valley in May

Play a round of Bocce Ball
May is “Bocce Ball in Wine Country” Month. The game is easy to play and people of all ages can have an enjoyable game of Bocce. You don’t need to be a fabulous athlete to play this game. Here is a list of the wineries in the Napa Valley that have one or more Bocce courts. Pack a lunch and play Bocce at a winery in May. Simple rules of Bocce

Bocce is fun!

Bocce is fun!

Oxbow Market Public Market
The Oxbow market in downtown Napa is in full swing these days, bustling with locals and tourists as they shop and dine in this wonderful enclave of artisans and purveyors. For lunch or a snack, there are many choices including: Hog Island Oyster, Ca’ Momi, Pica Pica Maize Kitchen and our favorite, C Casa. We love shopping for spices at the Whole Spice Company.

image of hog island at oxbow

Hog Island at Oxbow

Wine Education
There are many ways to get a wine education in the Napa Valley. We like going to wineries that have an educational theme. Try the St. Supery winery, located on Highway 29 in between the towns of Oakville and Rutherford. The winery offers some exhibits and views of the winemaking process, as well as walks in the vineyards. You can also reserve a spot in one of their classes entitled “Vineyard to Glass” at St. Supéry. Check the St. Supery Website and call to reserve your spot.

Visit a 100-year-old winery
One way to get a perspective of the Napa Valley is to visit one of the several 100-year-old wineries. Here is a list of the wineries in the Napa Valley that are over 100 years old. Our favorite is the Inglenook Winery in Rutherford. Francis Ford Coppola has gone to great expense to bring the Chateau back to its former glory. The tour is wonderful here.

Inglenook Winery

Inglenook Winery

Wine Taste around Calistoga
At the north end of the Napa Valley, you will find the “road less traveled.” From our Calistoga Wine Trail, choose at least a couple of wineries to visit. At Summers Estate you can picnic and have a taste of Charbono, a wonderful red wine grape. Calistoga Wine Trail.

Five fun things to do in the Napa Valley in April

Don’t just have a great time in the Napa Valley, have a phenomenal time! We suggest these five fun things to do in the Napa Valley in April. Enjoy!

View bud break
Bud break is happening at this very moment in the Napa Valley and all of wine country. Vineyard managers and winemakers rejoice as another year of the grape begins. Bud break ranks just below harvest in importance in a vineyard year. The rows of vineyards look wonderful with the tiny bud leaves poking out towards the sky. It is a serene and lovely moment in wine country.

image of bud break Napa Valley

Bud Break in the Napa Valley

Combine art and wine
Robert Mondavi Winery recently introduced “Foodies in Exile,” a new art exhibit on display in the Vineyard Room at the winery. It is a collection of fifty pieces from artist Bryce Vinokurov. The “Foodies in Exile” exhibit aims to capture the local and national sustainable food movement through a series of large and small oil paintings, collages, linocuts and intaglio etchings. The exhibit will last through May 9th and the hours are 10 am to 4 pm for the viewing public. Robert Mondavi Winery is located in Oakville on Highway 29.

At Mumm Napa winery in Rutherford there is a wonderful exhibit by photographer Jeffrey A. Davis. The exhibit is “Serenity, Wonder, and Spirit.” Photographer Davis in this exhibit captures memorable moments from wilderness regions, sacred sites and diverse cultures all over the world. Visitor center and fine art photography gallery hours are 10:00 am to 5:00 pm daily. Mumm Napa is located at 8445 Silverado Trail, Rutherford, CA 94573.

image of art gallery at Mumm Napa

Art Gallery at Mumm Napa

Enjoy a picnic lunch among the vineyards
April is one of the prettiest months for a picnic in wine country. The climate is ideal and the vines are in a lovely state of growth. Pick up your picnic lunch on the way at one of these delightful delis in the Napa Valley and choose one of these Napa Valley wineries for a picnic in wine country.

Get a mud bath
In Calistoga, the mud bath is king among the spa treatments. At good old Dr. Wilkinson’s, they are celebrating 60 years of mud bath treatments. Dr. Wilkinson designed a recipe of Calistoga’s volcanic ash and mineral hot springs water to cleanse the skin and relax the body. It is the most popular mud bath in Calistoga.

Visit five fun Napa Valley wineries
Of course the main reason for traveling to the Napa Valley is wine tasting and touring. In this video see why these five wineries are fun and exciting and offer the tourist a special experience. Choose one or more for a great time in the Napa Valley.

Napa Valley Wine Train: To ride or not to ride

image of the Napa Valley Wine Train

Napa Valley Wine Train

Every now and then a WCG reader will shoot us an email asking us for advice on taking a ride on the Napa Valley Wine Train that runs through the Valley. I’m sorry to reply to these emails that I have never been on the Wine Train and therefore cannot make a recommendation. I have had friends who have taken the wine train, and for the most part we have heard a mixed bag of reviews. Some think it is an awesome time, while others thought the money would have been better spent on visiting wineries or buying wine. [Read more...]