Napa Valley is less than an hour from San Francisco. It is the finest wine producing region in the world with that kind of proximity to a major metropolitan area. As such, it gets more than seven million visitors a year. It is also the smallest of California’s major wine producing regions in terms of square miles, but has the most wineries. There are over 600 wineries in Napa Valley, and only 75 of them have public tasting rooms. Other Napa wineries will see you by appointment, but you have to plan ahead.
It’s a crying shame, but it is a fact, you can not take the ferry from San Francisco up the Napa River. Buses take forever; limos are $600 a day. With a car you can visit wineries in the mountains, carry bottles you may purchase, and keep your own schedule.
There is just too much to do and see in Napa Valley. You have to focus your attention. Select a topic such as history, or ‘green’ wineries, or women winemakers. Perhaps choose moderately priced Cabs that would be $40 to $65 per bottle. Thumb through a guide-book, or chat with someone in a wine bar to select five to ten wineries you want to target. Know a little something about them when you arrive.
First of all, one of you is driving. Second, you can consume an enormous amount of wine by visiting three wineries a day. It’s one thing to get a little bit lit at a four-hour party, then go home and go to bed. It’s another thing altogether to get lit up at 11:00 A.M., then try to maintain yourself in that condition all day long.
You will get all the taste benefit you need by smelling a wine sample, then running it around in your mouth, before spitting it out. If it is not obvious, ask the tasting room staff for a spittoon. They will gain respect for you if you do.
Swim at the hotel. Walk around a shopping district for an hour. Sex is good exercise, I’ve read.
Take a couple 8-oz. wine glasses, a cork screw, a small paring knife, and a dish towel. Throw them in your glove compartment. Stop at Oakville Grocery, or Dean & DeLuca, or my first choice—Napa Valley Olive Oil Mfg. Co. for some bread, and cheese, and a little salami. Be sure to grab some bottled water. You’ll find lots of lovely places to relax for an hour and smell the roses. When you look back on the trip, these will be among your favorite memories.
Ask your local retail wine store, or a fine restaurant you frequent in a big city if they can make an introduction on your behalf. For wineries that are large enough to distribute, relationships with retailers and restaurants are the coin of their realm. Arriving at a big place with an introduced appointment can spare you many indignities visited upon drop-in consumers. Probably save you some money too.
Traffic can be an issue. You’ll probably get lost. So leave yourself room for serendipity. Let the good times come to you. Don’t be forced to turn down a romantic adventure because your itinerary is too tight. Three wineries a day maximum, plus picnic, exercise, dinner, cultural opportunities, short nap in the shade. This is vacation; it shouldn’t feel like work.
You are going to be in the sun in dusty vineyards. Then you are going to be in 55ºF wine cellars with wet floors. Plan on being comfortable. Everyone will enjoy you much more if you do.
Too hot, too much traffic, wineries too busy, hills are all brown and parched. Everybody is charging extortionate rates. Go in the Spring: more comfortable, more affordable, prettier, and the wineries are much more hospitable.
Employees doing presentations at wineries have a dog in the fight. They may be very knowledgeable, but they are not objective. Listen to everyone, compare their opinions, then arrive at your own conclusion. There are lots of controversies in the wine biz.
A lot of wines are expensive because they are rare. Others are expensive because the winery owners are captains of industry used to drinking expensive wine (you’d be amazed how much of your own wine you end up drinking for promotional purposes when the winery belongs to you).
By contrast, some brilliant wine is modestly priced because the property has been owned for three generations by local folks who think of themselves as farmers. Or it may have been produced by some young winemaker as a project on the side while he works for a big-name brand.
Every one who comes to Napa Valley goes home thinking, “I could live here." The countryside is gorgeous. The art and architecture is unique. And of course the wine is some of the best in the world. Plan your trip using the above advice, and you'll experience some of the best Napa Valley has to offer.
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Photo Credits: Biodynamic vineyards at Quintessa Winery in Napa Valley; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com