During the COVID-19 Pandemic our travels were put to a halt, we were fortunate enough to be able to plan a get-away to California in between multiple state lockdowns in November 2020 to spend some time in Napa Valley and San Francisco. A couple weeks after our trip the state shut down again, so our timing was perfect! We began planning our trip before the pandemic as a way to celebrate my birthday, two of my best friends since High School joined which made the entire experience exponentially more fun!
While planning your trip to Napa it is best to research the wineries prior to visiting. There are nearly 400 wineries to choose from, so this seems like an impossible task. We all had friends who made suggestions based on their favorite wineries in the area, and as you would guess, they all had different favorites! We pooled together a list of the wineries and looked into details. Based on a narrowed down list from various friends we came up with a list of our own. We made several reservations in advance which is typically required (some as early as 10am!) however during COVID it was especially important for us to be proactive.
Below I outline some activities and places to visit, some of which were closed during our visit, but should definitely be looked into for your trip, and we hope to visit on a future visit to the valley.
On our first day in Napa we traveled from San Francisco Airport by Private Car Transfer. It was the most affordable and quickest option for us to make it to Napa since there were four of us traveling. When we arrived we checked into the cutest Bed and Breakfast (more info below) and had lunch a short walk away at AROMA Indian Restaurant, and waited the arrival of our friends who were driving in from Reno, Nevada. On your first day in Napa Valley, here are a few places worth checking out:
- Napa Welcome Center
- Oxbow Public Market – several bars, shops and restaurants to choose from
- Domaine Carneros located in Downtown Napa. We has 4:00 pm reservations where we were sat alongside the Vineyards and were able to watch the sunset.
- This winery has beautiful grounds and I really enjoyed the wine since they specialize in sparkling wine which is one of my favorites. They have several wines to choose from, including various flights and snack options.
- St. Clair Brown Winery & Brewery (downtown Napa)
On our journey through the valley it was imperative we made a stop at the famous Napa Valley Sign! We spent most of the day in the northern part of the valley visiting Calistoga and Saint Helena Wineries . On our way to Chateau Montelena, we stopped in Yountville at Bouchon Bakery, which was by far the best bakery we visited on this particular trip and one of the best I have ever been to.
- Chateau Montelena – we had reservations at 10:00-10:45am (11 minutes from Castello di Amorosa, where we had our next scheduled tasting)
- This was one of our favorite experiences because the wine was great, they have beautiful grounds and walking path among gardens, and it was one of the more informative visits.
- Fun Fact: Their Chardonnay was they best (we collectively agreed) that we have all ever had. It even won a blind taste contest against France in the 1970’s at the “Judgement of Paris.” This ultimately put California wine on the map. There’s a pretty interesting movie about this competition called Bottle Shock, we watched it when we got home from our trip while sipping some wine.
- Charles Krug is the oldest winery in Napa Valley. It was not originally on the list but we drove past the sign on our way to Chateau Montelena and saw that it was the oldest winery in Napa and decided we should try to get in. After the Chateau Montelena Tasting, we called ahead to see if they could fit us in for a tasting. We were able go right after our reservations at Chateau Montelena.
- I think I can speak for the group when I say that this was probably our least favorite wine. It is without a doubt neat to visit the oldest winery, but the ambiance was pretty much as if we were at a park at a picnic table, nothing very special and they did not have good snacks.
- Castello di Amorosa reservations were for 12:16pm (yes, 12:16, not 12:15, very specific!) and you should plan for 90 minutes. This tasting came with a tour of the castle, where we got to see a couple main rooms, however it was not an extensive tour. I am not sure if this was due to COVID, or if that is just always the entire experience. We “splurged” for the chocolate and wine pairing, and boy was that disappointing. The host literally tossed a box of chocolates across the table to us. This definitely felt more like the tourist-trap version of a winery. Very quick moving – get you in and out mentality. They were also more aggressive and sales-pitchy than we saw at any other winery. Overall, it was worth a visit, because I think everything is worth seeing once! Would I go again? Nope.
- For lunch we stopped along the road at Gott’s Roadside, as seen on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives for great burgers, fries, and shakes. There is also one located in the Oxbow Market in downtown Napa.
- Our last Winery of the day was another impromptu pick in Rutherford: Inglenook. We had heard good things about this winery, but we honestly didn’t think we would have time to make it to as many wineries as we did (yay for us!). It is a bit off the road and has a closed gate and intercom that you have to request access through, again this may be just due to COVID, and may not be the “normal.” Again, we called ahead to see if they could fit us in.
- This winery was overall just super enjoyable and relaxing. We spent a significant amount of time simply enjoying the scenery. As a group we took turns walking the grounds, visiting the on-site museum and sipping coffee and wine. A was a really nice way to end our first full day of winery hopping.
Inglenook: A Scottish expression meaning “cozy corner,”Fun Fact!
After a long day we went back to rest at the Airbnb before having drinks and apps at La Calenda while waiting for our dinner reservation down the street. We had been trying to get reservations at the famous French Laundry but they sell out within minutes. Two of us were on the website as soon as the reservations opened for the week we were visiting and neither of us could get one. Just another reason we will have to visit Napa again! So the backup plan was the French Restaurant, Bistro Jeanty which was delicious.
Additional Places of Interest in the area that we cam across or were recommended
- Brasswood Bar and Kitchen, St. Helena
- Old Faithful Geyser of Napa, Calistoga
- Wineries we didn’t make it to, but are on the list for our next visit:
- Sterling Vineyards in Calistoga was closed during our visit, but looks super fun. They have an Aerial Tram that goes over the mountains that looks like a blast. This is definite must-do for me!
- Honig Vineyard and Winery and Mumm Napa are both in Rutherford, and Mumm is famous for their sparkling wines.
On our third day we explored Yountville / St. Helena / Oakville. Our first stop was the Model Bakery which has been made famous because of Oprah’s love of their English muffins. They were by far the best English muffins I have ever had. In this downtown area you can also visit some of the shops such as the Ottoman Art store, Erin Martin Showroom, wood house chocolates, and Olivier.
- The Robert Mondavi Winery was our first scheduled tour and tasting at 10-10:45am, and is only 8 minutes to V. Sattui where we had our second scheduled tasting later that afternoon. This was the only tour that walked us around the facility, while sipping wine in a couple locations. Here we also learned more about the history of how wine came to be a California staple, and how it is grown and processed. We also got to take our plastic souvenir wine glasses.
- Our next stop was not planned. The first place that caught our eye from the main street near Mondavi was Peju Winery. We decided to park and walk up to see if they could accommodate us, since we had some time to kill before our next tasting. While moving some tables and checking on other reservations, they gave us each a glass of Rosé to enjoy while we waited. They pulled a table outside for us and it was just perfect. The host was super fun and joked with us the entire time, and kept bringing out different wines for us to try despite not being part of the tasting. After a few glasses of wine, I came up with a great slogan, documented on camera: “Peju, it’s a great place to drink!” Very informative, yet to the point. This was our favorite experience by far, we had so much fun and really loved the wine. It was so great in fact, we signed up for the Wine Club. We have received several shipments, and are still enjoying their wine in Florida!
- We needed to soak up some of our liquids so we went to Clif Family Winery and food truck in the parking lot…all of the food was so fresh and well prepared
- Later we made our way to V. Sattui, in Rutherford, at 1:00pm which has a really pretty outdoor space, however the wines were not impressionable, I really cannot remember positives or negatives, it was just okay…that may have been due to the previous indulgences at the first few wineries!
- Our final stop of the day was Cakebread Cellars, in Rutherford, which was also not scheduled, we just popped in that morning and they said they would seat up later that same evening. This is a very modern and clean tasting are and has a very sleek outdoor patio.
St. Helena/Yountville Additional Options:
- Domaine Chandon is another place I plan to visit next time, it is 22 minutes from V. Sattui and serve many wines, including sparkling wines.
- Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch
- Auberge Du Soleil
How to Choose Wineries:
As I mentioned before, choosing the wineries to visit on your first is so difficult! In order to narrow down where we wanted to visit we compiled a list of wineries from various friends, as well as researched other blogs and articles to explore our options. Below are a few articles that I used when planning our trip:
- Overview for a first-time visit
- Most Beautiful Napa Wineries
- 10 Best Napa Wineries to Visit by California Winery Advisor
- 10 Best Napa Wineries to Visit by WineFolly
- 3-days in Sonoma by Travel and Leisure
- Map of all Napa Valley Wineries
- All Tasting Rooms
Depending on where you stay and where you want to visit, you could easily stay in one town and walk to the wineries. We had a car which was very convenient because we wanted to see all of the Valley. You can also look into the Public Transportation through Napa for $6.50 day pass. There are also numerous tour options with drivers if that is of interest.
There are so many beautiful places to stay in Napa Valley. For our first visit we decided to stay in downtown Napa Valley at the Main Street Farmhouse in Napa. This quaint farmhouse had three rooms and two baths and a living space for us to use, this was a great way for us all to spend the evenings together. On the property there is also an airstream and a little cottage you can rent.
- Additional Options that we considered:
Overall the weather was absolute perfection, the food was amazing and the wine was unbelievable. These amazing experiences were only sweetened by having some of my best friends join us for the adventure. I know there are so many other amazing things to do in the area! What did I miss? How do you like to spend your time in the beautiful wine region of America?