Napa ain’t what it used to be. Over the past few years, this idyllic small town – adorned with rolling vineyards and world-class wines – transformed into the Las Vegas strip for oenophiles …
But fortunately, this hustle-and-bustle covers up some real gems. As a native Californian with several years in the wine business, I’m revealing (for the first time ever) how I manage to hack Napa. And after reading this, if Napa still seems crazy, there’s always the more laid-back Sonoma just down the road.
But before we talk wines, let’s talk about …
Special Under-the-Radar Discounts
There are a number of ways to save on costly tastings. These are three I’ve used successfully:
Go with a local. If you have friends in the area, be sure to go together; in many wineries, locals drink (er, taste) for free. If you’re lucky they pass the savings on to you, too.
Free passes. Stop at the Napa Valley visitor center for free advice; helpful staff usually have a few free passes tucked away, so ask nice!
Industry discounts. If you (or someone in your party) works in a restaurant, wine bar or anything food/beverage related, be sure to grab a few business cards before you go; nearly every winery will offer free tastings for two per card.
If you really want to do it up (and I suggest you do) schedule winery tours several days before arriving. The staff will show you the grounds, offer premium tastings and (sometimes) food pairings… for free.
No matter which wineries you choose, it’s important to plan a route beforehand. Justin Bennett – a local wine expert and former Marine – follows this with military precision.
“Planning your day in Napa is easy” says Bennett. “Most vineyards follow two main roads (Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail)… so you can literally drive north up one, then turn around and head south on the other”.
Below are a list of wineries which fall close to either main road.
These wines routinely sell for $120 – $250 in restaurants, but you can grab a taste of both (and keep the glass) for only $5. The tasting room is average by Napa standards, but the view from the recently constructed porch is a nice bonus. Silver Oak is located in between Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail.
Paraduxx / Duckhorn
Both run by the same winemaker, you can visit one or both in a day. I recommend Duckhorn for serious wine-drinkers, and Paraduxx for those looking for good wines in a beautiful setting. Unlike many wineries, Paraduxx’s offers tables for each party (inside or out), so you can easily spend an hour here tasting and chatting.
NOTE: Visit Sterling for the experience, not the wine. For $15, take a tram to the top of the hill, and wander around the perimeter of the building, sampling wines as you go. Serious oenophiles may want to skip this one, but it’s a unique experience in Napa.
Far Niente Tour
At $45, it’s by far the most expensive option listed … but you get what you pay for (and then some). Not just a tasting, Far Niente offers a full tour of the grounds (including their wine caves, garden and collection of muscle cars in the garage) followed by wine and cheese pairings. In addition to the best tour I’ve ever taken, Far Niente offers truly world-class Cabernets.
Seventy Five Wine Company
Founded in 1975, the Seventy Five Wine Company has been a winery for those “in the know”. This winery uses the same grapes as Opus One, but it’s better and about 1/4 the cost.
In other words, Seventy Five is well worth a visit!
First things first: Champagne is a region in France specializing in sparkling wine. Therefore, any sparkling wine in California should be called “sparkling wine” not Champagne.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, here are a few options for bubbly…
Domaine Carneros and Domaine Chandon are both outside central Napa, but well worth it. The wines are equally good; Carneros has better views, and Chandon offers food. For sparkling wine closer to central Napa, hit up the crowded but enjoyable Mumm.
Now Let’s Talk Food!
Wine and food go hand-in-hand, and Napa does both equally well. For lunch, you MUST grab a sandwich (and beer?) at Oakville Grocery. The pesto turkey sandwich on foccacia is my favorite.
For dinner, you’ve nearly unlimited options. From pizza to paneer, bok choy to BBQ, you’ll find plenty of restaurants to choose from. A few personal favorites are Gott’s Roadside (delicious, old fashioned burgers), and the Rutherford Grill.
Of course, if you really want the “best of the best”, take a ride out to Yountville, the culinary capital of California. Eat at Bouchon Bistro or – for an unforgettable meal – visit the Michelin restaurant French Laundry. Be prepared for the bill; tasting menus start at $270 per person, not including wine.