A fellow wine writer posted a blog entry earlier this summer entitled “10 Warnings for Visitors to Napa Valley” which caught my eye because I had been meaning to pen an entry on advice for wine country visitors myself. Although Tom Wark’s blog entry sounds negative, the headline is really for dramatic effect. We all want people to visit us up here, but Tom wanted to make sure people know what they are getting into when they make the journey. Tom’s points are all valid, and help visitors set expectations before they arrive. I have a few additional suggestions to help prepare folks for their visits to this amazing place. Taken together, these two lists give you a great idea of what to expect, and offer helpful tips that can enhance your experience in the Napa Valley, whether you are here for a day or a week.
Plan ahead. So many of my friends from the Bay Area email me and say “Hey, we will be in the Napa Valley this coming weekend; where should we go?” While it is always easy to just visit Napa on a whim, the lack of advance planning really has a bearing on where you can go to taste, not to mention where you can get a dinner reservation. People from all over the world visit Napa Valley, and they plan their trips FAR in advance. When it is busy here (as it has been for the past three months), tasting appointments at the good wineries get booked up months in advance for weekends, and weeks in advance for weekdays. There are 75 wineries here which are open to the public, meaning no reservation is necessary, but there will usually be throngs and busloads of tourists there with you, which makes a tasting quite impersonal. The best wineries, or at least the more exclusive ones, do tastings by appointment only. So do yourselves a favor and book as far in advance as possible. The same goes for restaurants. Recent publicity about the Napa Valley dining scene has made it harder than ever to get a primetime table at the many great restaurants here. Book way ahead. Or, be willing to dine early or late. Better yet, have lunch at one of the good restaurants and try one of the many very-good, lesser-known restaurants for dinner. Shoot me an email and I can make some suggestions.
Get up off the floor. Although I have uttered this phrase to friends who have been over-served, what I really mean is this: there are quite a few outstanding wineries in the Napa Valley which are in the hills, up off the valley floor. They are, for the most part, private, meaning you must have a reservation to visit. And they are not always easy to find. But intrepid travelers who do their homework will be well-rewarded with great wines, hospitable owners and tasting room staffs, scintillating views, and less traffic. Pritchard Hill, a region (which should be its own AVA, but isn’t) on the east side of the valley, features a number of outstanding by-appointment wineries, including David Arthur Vineyards, Chappellet, OVID, Continuum, Montagne, Brand, and a few others who you can’t visit, no matter what. These experiences are far different from forcing your way to the tasting room counter at a place like, say, Chimney Rock. There are also outstanding wineries up Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain, Mount Veeder, and up the Oakville Grade, to name a few. Do your homework, make some phone calls, and visit these hidden gems. It will change your entire opinion of the Napa Valley.
Buy some wine. It’s no secret that wineries charge for tastings today, unlike 30 years ago when people could taste for free. Those days are long gone. Some tastings up here are ridiculously expensive. In large part, the prices are intended to eliminate the riff-raff. And usually (but not always) the tasting fee will be waived for folks who buy at least a couple of bottles of wine, or join the wine club. (I went to a well-known winery last year, on the Trail, and the tasting was $65 per person, or $130 for the two of us. The wine is $145 a bottle. All told, we were probably served a half-bottle of wine during our tasting, and a tiny bit of cheese. I did not buy any wine, and felt totally ripped-off at the end of the tasting.) Anyway, my admonition is this: at the end of your tasting, find the wines you liked the most, and at least buy a few bottles of it. The staff has just spent 60-90 minutes with you, and they only have so many selling opportunities per day. If you don’t intend to buy any wine, then visit the public wineries on Highway 29 where they cater more to tasters rather than buyers. But be prepared to pay the tasting fee.
Map your trip. All too often I hear about visitors who end up traversing the length of the valley multiple times during the course of their visit, whether it’s a single day or over several days. Driving in the Napa Valley, especially on weekends, can really take the fun out of an otherwise great visit. Traffic is heavy, the roads are single-lane, people are lost, and getting around can be a pain. Plan your trip so that you visit wineries in an order that makes sense. Don’t think you can have a tasting in Calistoga at 10am and make it to a tasting in Yountville at 11:30. Yes, you should be able to do it, but trust me when I say you won’t. And nothing is worse than being 20 minutes late for a tasting, because wineries book appointments on tight schedules with little room for tardy customers. If you are coming for the day, start at the northernmost venue on your itinerary and work your way back down as the day progresses. Traffic getting out of the valley starts getting really bad at about 4pm, so plan accordingly. In addition:
Know your roads. There are two main north-south roads traversing the valley: Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. A series of cross-roads connects the two. Highway 29, on the west, is the most popular thoroughfare and has the biggest-name wineries and restaurants on it. Silverado Trail, to the east, is not as straight a shot, but is far less congested and traffic moves much faster. Savvy visitors know to use the Trail for quick access to the appellation/town where they have an appointment, then cross over to 29 (if necessary) on one of the cross-roads in order to minimize the amount of driving on 29. An important note about the cross-roads: Turning left from a cross-road to 29 South can be very difficult, because there aren’t stoplights to control traffic at most of those intersections. Zinfandel Lane, Rutherford Cross, and Oakville Cross are great ways to access 29 from the Trail, but none of these intersections at 29 have stoplights and it can be extremely difficult to turn left (south) on 29 here. Traffic is so heavy that you can wait ten minutes to turn. It is always easier to turn right on 29 and go north than it is to go south. However, the cross-roads at Oak Knoll Avenue, Yountville and Pope St. in St. Helena have stoplights at 29, so those are better places to cross and turn south. The cross-roads further north of the town of St. Helena are much easier to turn from, as traffic is much lighter north of St. Helena. No matter which parts of the valley you visit, just allow more travel time than you think you need.
Ask Questions. When you attend a by-appointment tasting, engage the host or hostess in conversation. Their knowledge is amazing, and not just of the wines they are pouring. The Napa Valley has a rich and colorful history, and they can tell you about it. I always ask the host “What is a great wine in the Napa Valley I have never heard of,” and I keep a list of the answers. Those names become my bucket-list for future visits, and I have tried some outstanding wines that way. Also, often times when you engage the hosts, they will open up a bottle of something that they wouldn’t normally pour and treat you to something special. These are the moments that make the Valley so unique, and it’s why people come back every year to their favorite spots (and why you have such a hard time getting an appointment!)
Finally, don’t overdo it. So many people come up here and try to cram five tastings into a day, and then go to dinner. By the end of the day they act like idiots, can’t remember what they drank and liked, and many of the revelers get sick. Don’t be an amateur. When we have friends up for a day or weekend, we limit ourselves to two tastings a day: one before lunch, and one after. Each tasting is about 90 minutes, and usually includes a tour and a number of wines. We have lunch in between, and usually go very light on the wine with lunch. Once you have had three hours of tastings, another 90 minutes for lunch, and driving time, that’s a pretty full day, and there is still dinner to go. We then head home for a nap, a change of clothes, and then go out for dinner or, more common, cook an amazing dinner at home, and serve the great wines we bought earlier in the day. (With the proliferation of DUI checkpoints at night and the dearth of cabs in this town, dining in is a better way to go.) Now, I do often suggest to my friends that they might want to hit one of the sparkling wine houses (Mumm, Domaine Chandon, or Domaine Carneros) at the end of the day on their way out of the valley, just to cap off a nice day. Since no appointments are necessary, it is easy to drop in and enjoy a glass or two of bubbles before heading to dinner or driving back to the Bay Area.
I am always free to answer questions, so please don’t hesitate to ask. Just drop me a note and I will reply as soon as I am able. Enjoy the Napa Valley!