Practical Travel Tips: Napa Valley, California

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Whenever we are in the Bay Area, we try to make a visit to Napa.

Jim, “The Travel Organizer,” who last wrote about Venice, Singapore, Bangkok, Sonoma County and Myrtle Beach, recently went and he shares his practical tips.

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My wife and I first visited California’s “Wine Country” in 1997. This descriptor is often used as a sort of geographic shorthand for the parallel valleys of Napa and Sonoma stretching north from San Francisco Bay when, in reality, California’s wine industry extends as far south as San Diego and as far east as the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. We eventually purchased a vacation home in 2009 and lived there full-time from mid-2014 through 2016. So I know a thing (or three) about this amazing destination. In January 2018, we decided to return to Napa Valley to better understand the impact of the horrific October 2017 fires and how tourism was recovering. The Tubbs Fire, the most destructive in California history, started in Napa Valley, just north of the town of Calistoga (see map below) but did most of its damage in Santa Rosa (Sonoma County) after spreading rapidly over the Mayacamas Mountains to the west. We saw very little evidence of this cataclysm in Napa Valley itself. Still, tasting rooms were relatively empty and everyone with whom we spoke emphasized the importance of getting the word out that Napa Valley is “open for business.”

Iconic “Welcome to Napa Valley” sign – Photo: (c) 2018 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

Geography

It’s only about 45 minutes, depending on traffic, along the “main drag” (highlighted in blue on the map above) from the town of Napa at the “bottom” of Napa Valley to Calistoga at the “top” where CA29 and CA128 split. This section of road is just 2 lanes from Yountville north and can get extremely congested on weekends and during peak tourism months. Tip: When driving any distance, smart travelers avoid 90% of this traffic by using Silverado Trail, which parallels the “main drag” and the numerous roads connecting the two. Although not labeled, it is colored yellow on the map above and is fairly easy to make out just to the east of Highway 29/128. The map above also shows that the shortest (in both time and distance) ways to get from Napa to Sonoma Valley is on winding narrow roads over the mountains separating them. Crossing from Oakville on the Trinity Grade takes you to Valley of the Moon; crossing from Calistoga to Santa Rosa on Porter Creek Road and Mark West Springs Road drops you near the town of Fulton on US101 (the multi-lane highway leading south to San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge). Note: Southbound tolls can be paid online; rental car company automatic payment charges are excessive; decline if at all possible.

Map of Napa (and Sonoma) Valleys – Photo: (c) 2018 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

Wine tasting

It’s safe to say that most visitors to Napa Valley plan on wine tasting. Napa Valley is known for its (pricey) Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine tasting here can be expensive; prices for no-frills tastings run from $5/person (very hard to find in Napa Valley) to $50/glass at Opus One. Unless one has very deep pockets, it is crucial to find ways to keep tasting room fees down or your day of wine tasting can easily end up costing you more than your dinner! WINEtineraries knows what wineries charge (and which don’t!), which restaurants offer complimentary corkage (saving $10-$25/meal) and can suggest itineraries based on your wine preferences, interests and price sensitivity. Tip: Your visit will be more meaningful if you can find a movie about the “blind” wine tasting held in Paris in 1976 (“Judgment of Paris” is more true to history; “Bottle Shock” is lighter fare), which put Napa Valley “on the map.”

Clos Pegase

Located just south of Calistoga, Clos Pegase is a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. In 1984, 96 architects submitted design proposals for the new winery. Michael Graves, architect for the iconic Denver Public Library and Disney’s Swan and Dolphin Resorts in Orlando, described his winning design as having “timeless sensibility.” The name of the winery comes from the founders’ fascination with Greek mythology (according to legend, a stroke from the hooves of the winged horse Pegasus – the winery’s logo — unleashed the sacred spring of the Muses, giving birth to both art and wine); “clos” means “enclosed courtyard.” Clos Pegase offers two tasting options: an “Estate Flight” of 5 wines for $30/person or a “Connoisseur Cave Tour & Tasting” for $60/person. The better value is the latter; it ends in the Cave Theater (pictured here), where your tasting includes an ample and delicious charcuterie platter. The bleu cheese on this platter was absolutely to die for; it is mild, creamy and embedded with salt crystals. Tip: Reservations can be made online and shipping is only a penny/case!

Connoisseur” tasting at Clos Pegase – Photo: (c) 2018 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

Swanson Vineyards

Swanson Vineyards is located in the heart of Napa Valley’s “high rent district;” Opus One and Silver Oak Cellars are some of its closest neighbors. Swanson Vineyards offers 2 tasting options at its property on Manley Road in Oakville. “The Sip Shoppe” always makes me think of a circus tent with its red and white vertical stripes. Here, one can enjoy a “Bon Vivant” tasting of 4 wines accompanied by chocolates for $40/person. Adjacent to “The Sip Shoppe” is the Salon, which I like to describe as “Disney’s Haunted Mansion meets New Orleans bordello.” As it turns out, my tongue in cheek description has some roots in the story of the family who started it. W. Clarke Swanson, Jr., son of one of the originators of the TV dinner, started Swanson Vineyards. His wife is a seventh generation New Orleanian with an irrepressible joie de vivre. Oenophile (wine lover) tastings” (pictured here) take place around an octagonal table in the Salon daily at 10:00am, 12:30pm and 2:30pm and pair 5 wines with savory bites. Although pricey, we chose the Oenophile tasting; the roasted mushroom nori cones, salted rosemary shortbread, duck roulade and gourmet chocolates that accompanied the wines were out of this world!

Oenophile’ tasting at Swanson Vineyards – Photo: (c) 2018 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

Dining

Like Sonoma County, there is no shortage of wonderful restaurants to be found; 7 Napa Valley restaurants can boast Michelin Stars. I won’t be writing about any of them although if that is your interest, you can find the list here. My wife and I gravitate toward restaurants that don’t charge a corkage fee because we like to know for certain we’re going to be thrilled by opening a bottle we found in the course of our wine tasting. Tip (literally): Remember to tip your server appropriately, especially if you bring your own bottle; s/he is still providing an additional service and should be compensated accordingly. Tip as if you had purchased the bottle you brought from the restaurant’s wine list; so, e.g., a 20% tip on a bottle costing $50 would be an additional $10.

Rutherford Grill

The first time we visited Wine Country, our B&B host recommended Rutherford Grill, which doesn’t charge for corkage. After more than 20 years, it still is at the top of our list…and the lists of many others as the line waiting for a table suggests. Their jalapeno cornbread has such a loyal following that a Google search returns more than 2 pages of copycat recipes! Served in the cast iron skillet in which it was baked, it is sweet and spicy and warm with a crunchy topping. Our normal “go to” entrées are the baby back ribs – the tender meat lathered in caramelized barbecue sauce just falls off the bones – and their bangers and mash served with mashed potatoes Colcannon and a spicy dipping mustard. On this visit, however, we took the suggestion of the host for our tasting at Clos Pegase and ordered the French dip sandwich. It was piled high with tender, thin slices of prime rib served on crunchy, warm French bread with au jus. Tip: Open for lunch and dinner daily, avoid long wait times by calling (707) 963-1792 to make a reservation. Located on Highway 29 at Rutherford Road.

Rutheford Grill’s delicious cornbread – Photo: (c) 2018 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

Market

Our latest find is TripAdvisor’s #1-ranked restaurant on the main drag in downtown St. Helena. Like Rutherford Grill, Market doesn’t charge for corkage. Market’s menu rotates with the seasons, emphasizing locally grown organic food to create its “flavor-forward, visually stunning” cuisine. When we went here with friends in October, we had their evening special – a delectable prime rib. On our return visit just a few weeks ago, my wife started with a cup of their ginger pumpkin soup and chose the Dungeness crab cake appetizer as her entrée, which is served with sautéed sweet corn, asparagus and English peas in a citrus-coriander butter sauce. I went for the pepper-crusted filet medallions, accompanied by truffle fries, garlic chips and grilled endive sprinkled with aged balsamic vinaigrette. Tip: Market is on the OpenTable reservation system so, depending on the time of your reservation, you can earn 1,000 OpenTable points (worth $10 on a future meal).

Market restaurant in St. Helena – Photo: (c) 2018 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

Lodging

Napa Valley has a disproportionately large number of boutique hotels and spas. Hyatt and Hilton both have very nice properties in the town of Napa if you’d like to burn (or earn) points for your stay. The advantage to this, of course, is that you are only an hour or so from SFO and even closer to OAK (depending on traffic, of course). We prefer B&Bs and can recommend two: Shady Oaks Country Inn is fairly centrally located just south of St. Helena (between Market and Rutherford Grill on one of the streets crossing between Napa Valley’s “main drag” and Silverado Trail). It offers free WiFi, complimentary evening wine and cheese and wine tasting passes to reduce tasting fees. The highly rated Brannon Cottage Inn in Calistoga is offering (until March 29, 2018) 50% off the cost of a 3 night stay which includes complimentary spa access.

Additional tip: Plan a stay of 4 to 7 days and split your time between Napa and Sonoma Valleys using the ideas in this destination report as well as my practical travel tips for Sonoma County to determine whether you have a preference for future trips. There’s more than enough to do in California’s Wine Country for many, many vacations!

About the Author:

I organize things; it’s what I do! I enjoy the natural adrenaline high of travel as much as the next person but I also try to limit the likelihood that the surprises I experience along the way will be unpleasant ones. To this end, I spend more hours than most preparing for each trip. Fortunately for me, I enjoy the anticipation of travel as much as the experience of it. The focus of my trip reports will be to help those who read them to enjoy high value experiences — maximizing enjoyment while minimizing cost. I’ve been a minister, nonprofit agency executive, professor and consultant; my “job” in retirement is planning our next trip. If you would like additional information and/or recommendations, please feel free to contact “The Travel Organizer” via email.

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