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8 mistakes to avoid when visiting Napa Valley

Dec. 10, 2019
11 min read
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It seems easy: You get in your car, drive to Napa Valley and taste some of the world’s most respected wines where they're made. And you can do that, at least in the off-season. Still, as a local, I see way too many people rushing from place to place -- or worse, stuck in traffic -- and only scratching the surface of what the Napa Valley has to offer.

Here are the most common mistakes visitors make in California's premier wine country.

Skipping the city of Napa

The working heart of the valley, Napa was once overlooked by visitors. Today, those in the know head for the city’s revitalized riverfront, where brick warehouses house nightclubs, cafes, wine bars and the elegant Napa River Inn along a walkable promenade. The Victorian downtown buzzes with new shops and restaurants and the historic Uptown Theater, often played by big-name musicians en route from San Francisco to Portland.

The Culinary Institute of America has an outpost, CIA Copia, with a restaurant, cooking classes and events such as book signings. And no trip to the valley would be complete without a stop at Oxbow Public Market, the ultimate artisanal food hall, where I stock up on bread from Model Bakery and fresh fish from Eiko's -- and maybe down a few kumamotos at Hog Island Oyster Bar.

Napa is the county seat of Napa County, California. Photo by Getty Images
Napa is the county seat of Napa County, California. (Photo by DenisTangneyJr/Getty Images)

Following the crowds

Napa has some stunning wineries: Medieval castles, Tuscan manors and Downton Abbey-style estates. But these are also the wineries that are most likely to be included on wine bus and limousine tours and thronged by visitors who've read the latest 10-best list. For a more individual experience, try visiting wineries that are off the beaten path, have an unusual back story or require prior appointments, which tends to cut down on numbers.

For example, Far Niente, slightly off the typical route east of Oakville, offers 13 acres of landscaped gardens and enormous wine caves. The winery itself, built in 1885 by a '49er who moved to the valley after the gold rush, earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places for owner Gil Nickel’s painstaking restoration of the building.

Long Meadow Ranch invites guests up to its rural Mayacamas Estate high above the valley in the mountains of the same name, where tasting extends to their estate olive oil, pressed from their groves of 150-year-old trees.

Not going far enough north

Strung along the valley floor from south to north, the villages of Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga all have quaint, walkable main streets lined with historic buildings, yet each has its own particular draw. Put on the map by famed chef Thomas Keller when he established The French Laundry and Bouchon, Yountville is foodie central. St. Helena is popular with shoppers for its shady main street lined with trendy boutiques, artisanal purveyors, cafes and wine bars.

My favorite is Calistoga at the valley’s north end, a historic spa town founded as a retreat for those coming to “take the waters” in its healing hot springs. I go regularly to soak in the mineral pools at the numerous resorts and send friends to stay at Brannan Cottage Inn, which occupies an Italianate Victorian that’s all that remains of Calistoga founder Sam Brannan’s 1860s spa resort.

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Doing Napa as a day trip

This is easily the most common mistake made by travelers from out of town. Napa is only a 50-minute drive from San Francisco but to see both Napa proper and the valley's northern end, you need more than one day. And with Napa so rich in world-renowned restaurants, why miss out on some of the most memorable dinners you can have anywhere. Even more important, staying at a Napa hotel is essential to wine-country immersion, with many offering catered tasting experiences and even wine-infused spa treatments.

Bonvoy members have hit the jackpot in Napa, with the Napa Valley Marriott Hotel & Spa and SpringHill Suites Napa Valley, both bookable with points (60,000 and 35,000 a night, respectively on standard dates) and The Westin Verasa Napa (60k points per night on standard dates), with its spacious grounds, pool and multiple restaurants. The Westin offers several member discount options and for “Cabernet Season” (November through April), the Verasa Napa is offering discounts of up to 15 percent off the best available room rates for all guests, Bonvoy members or not.

Napa Valley Marriott Hotel & Spa (Photo courtesy of the hotel)
Napa Valley Marriott Hotel & Spa (Photo courtesy of Marriott)

One of the anchors of downtown Napa's transformation, über-hip Andaz Napa (from 25k points per night) is a clear winner for members of the World of Hyatt. Hilton loyalists have the Hilton Garden Inn Napa (37k–60k Hilton Honors points per night).

Four Seasons fans will soon have a home away from home in Napa as the valley’s first Four Seasons Resort & Residences begins accepting reservations in January. Located in Calistoga, the resort will nod to the area's history as a wellness retreat with an eight-room spa featuring steam pods in which hammocks swing above geothermal pools.

Napa Valley (Photo by Melanie Haiken)

Neglecting the Napa Valley’s natural beauty

With vineyards blanketing the valley floor, beautiful vistas are all around you in the Napa Valley, but it’s easy to get caught up in wine-tasting and dining. One of my secrets for getting out into nature is to include in my tasting itinerary wineries that are secluded in stunning locations, such as family-owned Stony Hill Vineyard, perched on the steep slopes of Spring Mountain west of St. Helena. You can see the entire sweep of the valley from west to east from the outdoor tasting area and the 90-minute tasting experience includes a walk up through the terraced vineyards. Another plus for Stony Hill is that they are one of the rare chardonnay and riesling producers in the valley, a good thing to know for us white wine buffs.

The gardens at Larkmead, founded in 1895 and one of the oldest wineries in the valley, are not only lush and lovely, but planted for sustainability with flowers chosen to support pollination by bees. I learned this on the winery's 90-minute estate tour, which allowed me to wander the extensive property, learn about its long and colorful history and get out into the vineyards, where Larkmead's winemaker, Dan Petroski, is among a group of vintners experimenting with new varieties of grapes less susceptible to climate change.

To get even farther out into wild, take a hike through Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, which surrounds Stony Hill on both sides, or follow the two-mile, multi-use trail through Alston Park just northwest of the City of Napa.

The gardens at Larkmead Vineyard (Photo by Melanie Haiken)

Thinking that Napa’s not for kids -- or dogs

Not only do many Napa wineries welcome kids, some even have attractions that seem tailor-made to keep them entertained. Top among Napa's most kid-friendly wineries is Sterling Vineyards, which has an aerial cable tram up the mountain. Chateau Montelena has a Chinese garden complete with lake, swans, ducks, arched bridges and a pavilion.

Napa is equally dog-friendly, with many wineries allowing dogs on the grounds and several inviting four-legged wine fans into the tasting room, at least at certain times, such as Clos du Val's Wag Wednesdays. If your pooch can’t be relied on to behave, dog-themed Frenchie Winery at Raymond Vineyards offers on-site kennels where you can leave him in comfort while you're inside.

And Harvest Inn in St. Helena greets canine guests with their own plush beds, drinking bowls and handmade dog treats baked by Fideaux in Healdsburg. The spacious rooms open directly onto the vineyards so you can take your Fido for a walk among the vines.

The Napa Wine Train makes it easy to taste car-free and without a designated driver. (Photo courtesy of Wine Train/Glodow-Nead)

Getting stuck in cars

The Napa Valley is long and narrow, with just two main roads running north to south. This means that traffic can get congested, particularly on weekends. In addition, wine tasting by car means someone has to be the designated driver -- and who wants that job?

One of the most popular alternatives is the Napa Valley Wine Train, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary this fall and offers five different full-day tours and two half-day tours.

Another -- and increasingly popular -- option is to tour the valley by bike, either individually or as part of a bike and wine tour. This is my favorite way to explore Napa because I see the valley very differently, zipping along shady lanes and traversing the vineyards on farm roads.

For an airborne view of the valley, luxury helicopter company Butterfly Aviation offers curated “flightseeing” tours over Napa and nearby areas including the Russian River and Sonoma Coast. There are savings here as well, with a 15-percent discount through the holidays with a portion of the proceeds going to local charities.

Napa Valley (Photo by Melanie Haiken)

Assuming the standbys stay the same

When Louis M. Martini Winery opened the doors to its new tasting rooms in the spring of 2019, the transformation wowed even longtime Napa Valley-watchers. A key player in the valley since the winery opened in 1935 -- one of the first to do so after Prohibition -- the Martini winery was a Napa mainstay but not exactly exciting. The new complex, however, has been transformed into a full-on destination, with a dizzying variety of tasting and dining experiences and an expansive outdoor area with table service and areas that can be reserved for groups. The new heritage tasting experience, featuring a seasonal menu of small bites, provides a stellar introduction to the art and science of wine pairing. On the menu the day I visited: Crispy squash blossoms and apricot-glazed pork belly paired with a cabernet sauvignon rosé. It worked beautifully.

Also new is 1881 in Oakville, the valley's first wine history museum and tasting salon, which opened this summer in a Victorian farmhouse built in that year. I spent longer there then I intended, exploring Napa’s history through the photos and stories of the pioneering families who first settled the valleys. Other exhibits include 18th- and 19th-century decanters, vineyard tools and labels, all under a 240-square-foot map of the Napa Valley that covers the ceiling. I savored the chance to see the valley's early days through the eyes of those who made it happen.

Featured image by Tasting at Stony Hill Winery. Photo: Melanie Haiken