It's pretty solidly that time of year again. The temperature is getting lower, the air a little drier, the days a little shorter, and the colors of fall are right around the corner. In addition to long sleeves, jeans, and all of the beautiful colors of the season, for the last five years this change of weather has marked our annual trip to Napa Valley...until this year.
Yep, you heard me, though we've made the trip to California's wine country in the Napa Valley and Sonoma area for the last five falls, we made our trip for 2011 back in April and probably won't be returning until next year...sniffle...sniffle.
Rather than make the 3000 mile treck from DC to the Bay Area on our beloved Virgin America (with personal entertainment at each seat, free drinks, on board wifi and power outlets, comfortable seats, and friendly flight staff - It's an airline I really love), we'll be remembering our vacations of years past in a virtual manner with a series of posts on our Napa Valley favorites.
We'll also double these posts as a bit of a vacation guide. We've had so many friends and family tap our knowledge and experiences in the California wine country for their adventures that we think we've become somewhat adept at putting together a good itinerary. Think of our fall 2011 wine country hiatus as your gain as we compile and share some of our favorite stops and places. Whether you're a Napa Valley noob or just looking for some new places, we hope you can use our favorites to make your Napa Valley trip enjoyable.
The fall is a beautiful time in the Napa Valley. The vines are at their peak with full leaves and fruit, the vineyards are in full swing harvest mode with pickers lining the meticulously arranged crops, and the weather is about as picture perfect as possible more often than not. My initiation to the west coast wine country came at this time of year back in 2007 and I've been hooked ever since. It is the peak season for visitors, so there are far more people than usual, but for everything I just said, there's a nice reason for that. As long as you schedule out your trip and make the appropriate reservations, you should be good to go and won't run into too many delays or closed doors.
Our little guide will assume you have about three nights to spend in Napa Valley, and that you'll be staying in or near the area. If your trip will be slightly shorter, you can just pick and choose from things that sound good to you.
Booking Your Stay
Even though you are going to Napa, if you're going for wine country you really aren't going to Napa, you are going to the Napa Valley, so don't stay in downtown Napa. Of course there are several hotels, motels, B&Bs, etc where you can stay downtown, but most of the best places you'll be enjoying are about a 15-20 minute drive from Napa, so it is much easier to stay elsewhere.
Though it is within the bounds of Napa (but on the northeast outskirts) we love to stay at the Silverado Resort & Spa. We stayed there years ago on our first trip and we've been back so often that it has almost become like a second home for us.
The rooms we enjoy are like small condos with bedroom, bathroom, living room, small dining area, and a full sized kitchen. In addition, the amenities on the property are very well appointed and the surrounding neighborhood area is great for morning runs and walks. It's really an awesome place that we love to go back to every year. Like I said, a home away from home.
If we weren't staying at Silverado, we'd absolutely stay in or near either St. Helena or Yountville. There are various places along the St. Helena Highway that look like really nice places and allow you easy access to great vineyards, wonderful restaurants, and the best shopping the area has to offer, all within an easy drive. We've heard wonderful things about a couple of places you can check out.
The first is the Inn at Southbridge. A small hotel within walking distance of the quaint St. Helena main street, great restaurants, shopping, and vineyards. Wendy and I love the nearby restaurants and always find ourselves sitting by the fountain of this hotel saying "Do you think we should ever stay here?" Maybe someday...
The other location, the Cottages of Napa Valley, sits two miles south of Yountville. Each cottage offers a spacious bedroom and living area with private areas for relaxing. We've had friends who recently stayed here and they really enjoyed it.
Day 1 - Driving and Arriving
We like to get an early start on all of our trips. Our cross country flight typically leaves between 7:00-8:00am, and with the time change we typically get into San Francisco and to our rental car by about 11:00am. We also make a point not to eat much at the airport or on the plane. Afterall, we're headed to wine country, no packaged sandwich can even come close to beating it.
Once we have our car we are one our way. By this time, be it on the weekend or during the day, traffic through and out of San Francisco isn't typically that bad. Though it is faster to take the Bay Bridge to get to Napa, Wendy and I love crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. It makes the trip slightly longer, but there is no toll to cross the Golden Gate when you are headed north, and like I said, we love it. Besides, if you're making good time, you can stop at the parking area as soon as you cross the bridge and take in a few of the spectacular sights of the San Francisco Bay.
If all goes well, you should get into Napa Valley by about lunch time. If you're like us and you are coming from the east coast, it's already way past your typical lunch and you're getting really hungry. There'e no better time to pick up an amazing meal, but you need one that is also fast. Don't pass go, don't collect $200 (because they take credit card at this place and it is very reasonably priced), and take the St. Helena highway to Gott's Roadside (used to be Taylor's Refresher) for some of the best fast food you will ever eat.
This has been our favorite "Welcome back to Napa Valley" for the last several years. The drive in takes you past many of the most recognizable vineyards and landmarks, including the area just prior to St. Helena where the smell of grapes fills the air. There is an unmistakable and enjoyable odor that goes along with wine country that you can pick out anywhere.
Gott's is one of those places that you walk up to thinking "this looks like it might be a good choice," and you walk away saying "Oh WOW! That place was amazing!" Whether you are looking for burgers and fries, fish tacos, ahi burgers, salads, soups, chilis, milkshakes, or any number of other items, they are all good from this roadside diner. Oh, and this is Napa Valley, so their wine selection is quite extensive. What, you've never had wine with your burger and fries from a roadside diner?
Once you're done enjoying your lunch your stomach should be full, so there's not much better of a time to hit your first vineyard. Since you've been travelling all day you probably don't want to go to a stuffy vineyard with a long tour, just a more casual place to break in your trip. One of our favorites for a good tasting with a fun and knowledgable staff and no need for a reservation is Peju.
We like Peju because they are a very cool, very relaxed vineyard that doesn't produce a huge number of cases. We feel this keeps the focus on the customer's experience rather than the distribution. We also like the idea that we can't just walk into any grocery store in our home town and pick up a bottle, it makes it a little more special.
A few years ago we were even wine club members at Peju. Some of our nicest bottles of wine are actually Peju bottles that we're patiently waiting for the drink window to open. In addition to our regular favorites at Peju, like the Provence and their signature Rutherford region big bold Cabernet, and if you have an opportunity to try their zinfandel port, it's very tasty.
After your stop at Peju, you should be pretty much ready to check into your hotel. Stop in, drop your bags, grab a snack, maybe some cheese or something, then head back out to your next vineyard stop of the day.
Cakebread Cellars, located between the Oakville and Rutherford regions on the St. Helena Highway is a fun place with beautiful grounds, great wines, and very knowledgeable staff. For this stop, you need to schedule a tour and tasting. You'll need to reserve a spot at least several days in advance, so it is best to call in well before your trip.
Actually, it's a good rule of thumb to call ahead before your trip to book all of your tours or special tastings.
Cakebread's tastings are reservation only but the amount of information you get and the number of wines you are able to taste make the reservation well worth it. If you are new to the wine tasting game, this is a great opportunity to ask lots of questions and gets lots of answers.
Cakebread is actually another of our favorites (ok, I think I'm going to be saying that all of the places we will write about are our favorites... so I'll stop that now). A friend turned us onto their wine and we make sure we stop in nearly every time we get back to wine country. The small walking tour takes you around their grounds and ends with a tasting in their beautifully kept yard and gardens.
Also, be sure to take a moment to walk through Mrs. Cakebread's garden. In addition to the various vegetables, herbs, and fruit, you'll get to see some of the largest sunflower heads you'll ever witness. Here is Wendy standing below one. (Be careful not to walk aimlessly into one with your head, yeah, I did that.)
Once you've finished up your vineyard tour and tasting at Cakebread, you may have enough time for your third vineyard stop of the day, and final before dinner. Like Peju, a nice relaxed tasting is a perfect way to round out the day, and we have a perfect and easy place to stop.
Very nearby Cakebread is another of our favorite (couldn't help myself) places, Sequoia Grove. Wendy and I visited this vineyard for the first time this past April. We liked it so much (and their pours were so generous) that we signed up for their wine club. They are aptly named for the grove of large sequoia that were planted on their property.
Sequoia Grove's atmosphere is absolutely great, and what we love about some of the vineyards in Napa. There are a lot of people who tell us that Napa Valley has gotten too snotty and pretentious, and they prefer Sonoma, but we feel like we've been able to find some really great places that still maintain what put Napa Valley on the map, and Sequoia Grove was one of them. I mean, look a this photo, a dog came in and they let him behind the bar so he could start serving people, you can't get more laid back than that.
Once you've completed your third tasting, it should pretty much be dinner time. Vineyards tend to close between 4:30 and 6:00 and everyone starts to prepare for dinner. If you are east coasters you may be getting a little tired, so there is no better way to wrap up the day than with your first amazing dinner of the trip on the earlier side of things.
For this first dinner event (because that's what it really is), we can very highly recommend Chef Micheal Chiarello's Bottega in Yountville. Michael Chiarello of Food Network and "Napa Style" famed opened this wonderful Italian eatery in 2009 as a way to get back to the kitchen. He also happens to be a television personality that Wendy has a tremendous crush on, and when we learned of his newly opened restaurant just before our 2009 trip, we immediately made reservations.
Now three years later, the need for reservations is even more necessary as Bottega continues to be featured in various publications that cover the culinary highlights Napa Valley has to offer. We've been three times now and have yet to experience anything less than an amazing meal. A few of our highlight dishes include the Burrata Caprese with balsamic vinegar caviar (this is where I got the idea for our post about making balsamic caviar), the gnocchi, and donut for dessert. But quite honestly, I don't think you can go wrong with anything you order.
If you arrive for dinner a little early, you have plenty to do. Situated within the historic Vintage Estates Property, there are several shops in the buildings surrounding the restaurant. Bottega itself features an indoor dining area and large covered outdoor dining patio with fireplaces. Chef Chiarello is 100% hands on in his venture, not a ghost chef running the operation from a far. We've seen him cooking, prepping, entertaining, and interacting every time we've eaten there. One time he even took our check from the table. Wendy swooned. I think you'd be hard pressed to find me another top notch television chef that will do the same.
After your meal is done you can stroll around Yountville and smell the amazing smells lingering in the air from all of the spectacular restaurants. Then head back to your hotel. The first day in Napa is always a big one, and one that can leave you quite tired. Afterall, you need your rest, day two tends to be just as much fun.
In the next of our series of Napa posts we'll cover a magnificent day two for your trip to wine country. Like I said, if you're headed out that way we highly recommend you call well ahead for any tours and some tastings. There's no worse feeling than getting shut out of trying a wine.
Napa Valley veterans, what do you think? Is this a decent first day to kick off a good Napa Valley visit? I've tried to provide a good warm up for what the following days of wine and food indulgence have to offer. Whether you are living vicariously through these posts, or actively planning your wine country trip, I hope you find this and the next several Napa posts quite useful.
Continue On to Part 2