En español | It's easy to spend big bucks on a fabulous trip to California's Napa Valley, known for its pricey restaurants, luxury boutique hotels and high-end wineries. But, with a little planning, travelers on a stricter budget can have just as much fun visiting one of the globe's most wonderful wine destinations.
First, a few basics about the region:
Where and what it is. The valley, an area about 30 miles long and 5 miles wide, is home to more than 400 wineries, ranging from havens for wine connoisseurs to casual spots that are approachable for folks who don't know chardonnay from cabernet.
The town of Napa, only about 90 minutes north of San Francisco by car, is the largest city, with a vibrant downtown that's home to lovely shops and several wineries. But you'll also find charming villages with fabulous shopping up and down the valley, especially in St. Helena, Yountville and Calistoga, which is famous for its mud baths and a hot water geyser called “Old Faithful,” and has a bit of a wine-country-meets-cowboy feel.
When to go. It can be hot in summer, especially late summer, when the fog tends to disappear in Northern California. September and October are probably the best months for weather, but early November is also usually clear and comfortable, with temperatures in the mid-60s and fewer visitors crowding around the tasting tables. You'll find the best deals in the winter, which is the low season here.
Where to taste wine, dine and sleep. Choosing among the huge range of wineries, restaurants and hotels in Napa can feel overwhelming. Here are some suggestions for three different budgets.
Where to sip
High-end: Newton Vineyard is a private winery that sits at the top of a steep, winding road on the west side of the valley. You'll find formal English gardens and a bright red phone booth. (Peter Newton, who founded the winery back in 1977, was an Englishman.) It's known for its elegant, not overly oaky chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, as well as its magnificent setting. The cheapest tour and tasting, Newton Discovery, is $75. The Single Vineyard Immersion tour and tasting costs $125, while the Newton Vineyard Exploration (May to October) includes a ride to the top of a 1,600-foot hill in a deluxe utility vehicle for a private tasting ($250 per person).
Moderate: Joseph Phelps is a serene and restful spot in St. Helena. You can sip wine on its terrace under a thick canopy of trees while a “wine educator” guides you through a series of selections. Most tastings, limited to six people at a time, last around 75 minutes, so this isn't a “hurry up and move on the next wine” kind of experience ($85 per person). You also can try a wine blending with a master winemaker for $125.
Budget: Rutherford Hill is a beautiful winery on a hill, with a lovely picnic area under the trees. You can taste for $30 and up, but for $50 they'll give you a tasting as well as a tour of the property and their wine caves, including a sample of some wine that's still aging in a barrel. They make excellent chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, and also some of the valley's best merlot.
Note that one way to save money on wine tasting is with a Downtown Napa Wine Tasting Card. For $15, you get half-price tastings at eight of the 17 participating wineries with downtown showrooms. The Napa General Store, for instance, rotates a selection of carefully selected vintages from the region.
Where to eat
High-end: La Toque, located at the Westin Verasa Napa, is a Michelin-starred restaurant with outstanding, beautifully presented cuisine and perfect wine pairings. Food includes John Dory, a lovely white fish, with roasted cauliflower, broccoli and German spätzle; and a New York strip steak with a luscious Mexican mole made of 26 ingredients. A four-course meal that includes dessert is $110, and it's another $70 if you want a wine pairing with your three main courses and dessert.
Moderate: Ciccio is a fun, vibrant spot in Yountville that offers, for example, delicious spicy salami pizza with red onion and Calabrian chili honey for $26, and pan-seared scallops with honeynut squash for $32. They make seven varieties of negronis, plus a refreshing mojito with gin, lemonade and muddled basil.
Budget: The valley has plenty of options for delicious, affordable food. Oxbow Public Market is a fabulous 40,000-square foot marketplace in downtown Napa, where you can buy fresh veggies, locally made bitters for your cocktails, as well as other goods. It's also home to some very good eats, including lamb tacos, pizza and sandwiches, such as a porchetta with apple chutney on fresh sourdough for $11 at Fatted Calf. Oprah Winfrey swears by the freshly made English muffins at Model Bakery, which are unlike anything you'll find at the grocery store. The market has a fine craft beer spot called Fieldwork Brewing, and a patio that overlooks the winding Napa River.
Gott's Roadside (there are two: one's in St. Helena and the other's at Oxbow Market) is a casual and super popular joint with picnic tables that offers up everything from classic burgers and fries to wonderful, ahi poke crispy tacos ($14.99). The shakes are thick and delicious and, this being Napa, there's also wine by the glass. Or beer. Burgers (all made with beef from California's Niman Ranch) start at $7.99.
Monday Bakery is a relatively new place in downtown Napa that has fine, filling breakfast sandwiches in the $6 to $7 range and excellent coffee. La Luna Taqueria and Market in Rutherford offers up tacos from just $2.65.
Beyond the Wine
Visit Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park, which has a lovely old windmill under the thick canopy of old trees. There's no charge to visit the mill and its museum display, but it costs $5 for a tour. Bike riding is also immensely popular in the Napa area. You can rent bicycles in a number of places, including Napa Valley Bike Tours and Rentals in Yountville.
Where to stay
High-end: Auberge du Soleil is a five-star resort next to Rutherford Hill Winery that has a yoga pavilion and sits in a 33-acre grove of olive and oak trees. Rooms go for around $1,100 a night and up.
Moderate: The Best Western Plus Inn at the Vines offers up nice, clean rooms in the south end of the Napa Valley, which makes it an easy commute from the Bay Area. Staff members are friendly, and there's a continental breakfast in the morning. Some of their rooms are loft-style, which is great for families. Rooms start at $150 a night in the low season.
Budget: Napa also is home to a variety of inexpensive chain hotels, including SpringHill Suites by Marriott Napa Valley, which lists room from $141. The Calistoga Wine Way Inn is a three-star property in Calistog. Rooms start around $165 in the winter low season; $200 and up during busier times of year.