Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
In 1976, the foremost names in French gastronomy gathered for a blind taste test that pitted top-quality California and French wines against each other. It was assumed that the French wines would dominate. Instead, the top-rated vintages hailed from California’s Napa Valley.
The Judgment of Paris didn’t just revolutionize the wine industry in California, or even in the United States. It shattered the illusion that great wines could only be made in France, showing winemakers all over the globe that they too could go toe-to-toe with the world’s premier wine regions.
Whether you have the palate of a sommelier or a novice, a visit to Napa Valley is essential for any wine lover. Here you can spend your weekend tasting wine from the industry’s biggest names and its most exciting boutiques, sample food from some of the best chefs in the world, indulge in some world-class pampering, and generally enjoy the finer things in life against the stunning backdrop of miles and miles of rolling, vineyard-clad hills.
It’s about an hour and a half of driving from San Francisco. If you’re starting from the east side take the Bay Bridge for the I-80 East and follow that to CA-29 North. If you’re starting from the west side (or looking to optimize your scenery) take the Golden Gate Bridge and take the 101 North toward CA-37 East.
To ensure that you’re not tasting on an empty stomach, stop by Oxbow Public Market. Here, you’ll find a range of vendors serving up everything from Mexican food and pizza to oysters and charcuterie.
Once you’re sufficiently sated, make your way to Domaine Carneros to kick off your weekend with a sparkling wine tasting. You can head straight for the terrace and pair your tasting with some beautiful views of the vineyard below or arrange to take a tour of the estate and learn about the méthode traditionnelle—the magical process responsible for creating all those wonderful bubbles.
It’s time to leave behind the sundrenched grandeur of Domaine Carneros for the intimate, quintessentially Californian atmosphere at Sequoia Grove. The tasting room at this winery, acclaimed for their cabernet sauvignon, is located inside a renovated barn surrounded by the eponymous conifers.
Dinner is at Napa Valley Bistro in downtown Napa where the menu features a wide range of comfort food that’s made with high-quality ingredients and a slight twist. So when you order fried chicken here, it’s organic. When you settle on the burger it’s made with lamb instead of beef. Straightforward classics here are executed with careful consideration for a dining experience that’s in perfect, delicious harmony.
Start your day with breakfast at Boon Fly Café. Though the menu here could be described as “hearty” and “rustic,” make no mistake, this is no rusty spoon. Benedicts, chicken and waffles, and pancakes are prepared with a modern panache in a lively, airy setting. Even if you’re not a sweets-for-breakfast sort, you’d be remiss to not sample their donuts, which arrive in a small pail and are accompanied by a chocolate dipping sauce.
Head north up the valley to Calistoga for your appointment the MoonAcre Spa and Baths at the Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa. Guests relax with classic massages and mud soaks or go the only-in-California route and opt for a treatment where guests are exfoliated with a scrub made from crushed grape seeds or a CBD facial. For an additional fee, spa day guests can have extra time by their geothermal mineral pools.
Before diving back into wine tasting, stop for a quick nosh at the Oakville Grocery, a wine country institution dating back to the late 19th-century. Its shelves are stocked with gourmet groceries, prepared food, and—of course—wine. If you’re craving something more substantial, you can order up one of their artisan sandwiches or brick oven pizzas. Take your food on the road or grab a spot on their patio for a high-end picnic.
The influence of Robert Mondavi on Napa Valley is twofold: His focus on crafting fine wines helped California’s industry gain prominence on the world stage and consciously making his winery a destination in and of itself, something just about every winery now strives to do. So a visit to Napa truly isn’t complete without stopping at Robert Mondavi Winery. There are a couple of different tours and tasting options, including the Signature Tour (which takes you through the vineyards and cellars) and the Caviar and Fumé Blanc Pairing (if you’re looking for an especially luxe experience).
In an area full of impressive estates, Domaine Chandon manages to stand out with its sprawling, verdant grounds and the elegantly designed architecture that sits at the heart of the property. Chandon applies French winemaking techniques to the fruit produced by the region’s unique terroir. While they also produce still wines, the main draw here is their sparkling wine. You can experience your tasting in their indoor tasting room or take advantage of the outdoor parts of the property and sample your bubbly picnicking on the lawn or lounging in a cabana during the summer.
For dinner, you know exactly where you’re going because you did the work to secure your reservation months in advance. Rest assured, your due diligence is about to pay off, as Chef Thomas Keller’s legendary restaurant, The French Laundry, is a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience worthy of centering your visit to Napa around. Guests have their choice of two set, multi-course menus (the Chef’s Tasting Menu and the Tasting of Vegetables), both of which combine classic French cooking techniques, the freshest ingredients, and innovative dishes for a dining experience that’s rightfully reputed as one of the best in the entire world.
Grab a cup of coffee or a latte from Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company for a little morning pick me up before taking a scenic, winding drive to The Hess Collection. And while Hess is known for the cabernet sauvignons, but something that makes this property particularly special is its unparalleled art collection. What started as Donald Hess’ personal art collection has become a carefully selected showcase of 20 living artists. You can view the art at your own pace you can reserve a docent-led Museum Walk.
We’ve all had that moment of regret when our dining companion’s order arrives and we think, Dang, I should’ve ordered that! FARM at Carneros handily solves that problem with its family-style ordering during brunch, which allows you to order four menu items and share them amongst your party—which is perfect because you won’t want to miss out on the lobster roll or brioche French toast or crispy duck confit hash.
Cap off your weekend with one last wine tasting at Artesa Vineyards. Established by Spain’s oldest winemaking family in 1991, the design of the property is sophisticated yet minimalist to not take away from the beauty of the surrounding landscape. Enjoy tasting wine crafted with an artisan’s consideration while enjoying the incredible views of the valley.
WHERE TO STAY
If you can’t bear to ever be more than a few minutes’ walking distance from Michelin-starred dining, check in to Meadowood where the main onsite restaurant has received three coveted stars. For a still elegant but more relaxed experience, there’s Solage in Calistoga where you can also treat yourself to a mud treatment and some time enjoying their geothermal pools. For a more low-key base of operations, head to the Napa River Inn where you’ll be within easy walking distance of the various gems downtown Napa has to offer.
WHEN TO GO
There is truly never a bad time to visit Napa Valley. The weather is always fairly mild and the wineries stay open year-round. August through October is the all-important harvest season. Spring and summer bring particularly beautiful weather. Even winter is great timing for your getaway because you may luck out and find some lower rates plus wintertime means annual events like Napa Valley Restaurant Week and the Napa Truffle Festival.