Napa. It's a big name but a very small place. Outside of Europe there is no more recognisable wine region, and outside of Disneyland there is no more visited destination in California, with some 3.5 million visitors per year.
In the past decade its become almost completely synonymous with top quality Cabernet Sauvignon, the quality of which really rivals the best of Bordeaux albeit in a richer, rounder style. And while Cabernet now represents more than half of all plantings, there are a whole range of wines to find there from more than 500 producing wineries. Keep an eye out for Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, and even things like Riesling and Charbono.
Otherwise there is not much development in Napa thanks to the 1968 Agricultural Preserve, which is one of the reasons its so pretty to visit. The AP is a law that protects the valley from overdevelopment. Land can only be sold in 40 acre parcels and any development must be linked to agriculture - hence why there are no strip malls, car parks, petrol stations or gauche encroachments on what is a both a beautiful, natural and manicured landscape.
Famous tower at Silver Oak at sunset
Despite its high profile and cache, Napa only produces around 4% of California's wine, and the valley itself can be driven from one end to the other in about an hour (on a good day), and en route you can see everything from east to west in your field of vision. As the epicentre of fine wine in North America, you can rest assured that the quality of accommodation and food in Napa more than matches the greatness of the wines. It's not a cheap destination to visit, but for the charm, quality and hospitality that's on display it can be surprisingly good value. Here are some of our favourite places to stay, taste and eat in wonderful Napa.
Most of the accommodation is in the town of Napa itself, at the southern end of the valley, only around 45 minutes from San Francisco. There is also some accommodation at the top around St Helena and Calistoga, but less of it. And the beautiful little town of Yountville, near the middle, has some good hotels. We have stayed in the Andaz in downtown Napa, and its perfectly decent. I've also stayed by the river in the slightly more expansive Napa River Inn. There are plenty of dining options in Napa but we recently really enjoyed Miminashi for completely original food with a Japanese/Californian theme, including great salads and phenomenal ice-cream. There are a bunch of wine bars in Napa to choose from, but we like Cadet and look forward to the about-to-open Compline, a venture by top US Sommelier Matt Stamp MS. If you would rather hang out with the locals and play some stick then there is plenty of space and atmosphere at the down-to-earth Bilco's, and the list of craft beers is extensive.
In the morning skip the hotel coffee and enjoy walking to the Oxbrow market and grab a flattie from Ritual Coffee Roasters. Or try the iconic Hog Island Oyster bar later in the day for pristine oysters brought in daily from the nearby Sonoma Coast.
The Napa Valley Lodge is our pick in Yountville, getting you a little deeper into the valley. If you fancied a splash out you have the world famous The French Laundry just a short walk from there, or for something less ambitious but still very good there is the Bouchon Bistro (another Thomas Keller kitchen) a little further downtown.
For the best wine list in Napa you would love eating at Press in Rutherford (take an Uber to get there and home). The food is good solid, high quality home-style food but the wine list is deep on Napa history.
View from Ovid, Prichard Hill, Eastern Napa Valley (Vaca Mountains)
A great option for lunch is the iconically casual Gott's Roadside, in St Helena, for terrific burgers or tacos in an old-school style American outdoor diner. I've never stayed in St Helena but we had a fun evening tasting wine and eating a home-cooked meal with the guys at the Long Meadow Ranch Farmstead.
Bear in mind that Summer, and August in particular, in Napa is peak tourist season so expect a lot of traffic getting up there from San Francisco (unless you can go late at night or early morning) and especially on Highway 29 (the main road in Napa) during the day. If you're going to visit wineries then the Silverado Trail is often a better road for getting up and down the valley.
Winery visits - too many to list! There are more than 500 wineries/producers in Napa. The iconic places are Opus One and Inglenook (both on the Oakville/Rutherford border), Chateau Montelena (Calistoga, right up in the north), Silver Oak and Dominus (Yountville). Some of these require advance bookings to taste. We've been hosted well and enjoyed visiting at Trefethen, Black Stallion (both in the south near Napa and both make great value wines), Groth (near Opus One in Oakville, making more opulent wines), Raymond vineyards (its like no winery you've ever seen or will ever visit again!), Frog's Leap (classical elegance at work and a really beautiful, peaceful place with its own biodynamic farm), Corison (right on the Rutherford Bench and making some of the most highly regarded, polished wines in the valley), Schramsberg (for some of California's finest sparkling wines), and Larkmead (up near Calistoga, who make some seriously gravelly Cabernet that's well priced). At most places expect to pay to taste, unless you can drop our names and blag your way in! Often times a tasting fee will be credited against a purchase of wine.
Off the valley floor you have the more secretive, mountains wineries like Diamond Creek (Cabernet only and appointment only, but prodigiously long-lived wines), Smith Madrone (powerful Cabernet and the valley's finest Riesling) and Mayacamas (who make spectacularly rich Chardonnay). The wines up in the mountains are more aloof, structured and evolve with deeper complexities.
A trip of 2 or 3 nights is generally enough to see everything you want to see in Napa the first time round, leaving plenty to return to in future. From May to October Napa is famously hot and dry, with temperatures in the high 20s and into the mid 30s, followed by very cool nights and foggy mornings that burn off by 10-11am. Always pack a jumper regardless how warm the day time temperatures. It makes wonderful sleeping weather after a big day of tasting and eating California's finest.
Next month we will publish Part 2 of our Travel Guide to Napa and Sonoma, featuring the wild and beautiful valley of Sonoma.