It’s no secret that California’s Napa Valley is a world-class destination, attracting visitors from far-reaching corners of the globe to sip, swirl and savor the outstanding wines for which the area is known. Pair the wines with stunning scenery, an abundance of excellent dining options, and a vibrant arts and cultural scene, it’s no wonder that Napa Valley is one of the state’s most-visited locales (second only to Disneyland).
Although a year-round destination, it is during the fall when the grape harvest gets underway that Napa Valley really shines. The lush vineyards are ablaze with autumn colors, hot air balloons dot the morning skies, and trundling harvest tractors share the roads. It’s a picturesque and activity-filled time to visit.
"The Napa Valley comes alive during harvest season,” said Julie Dalrymple, marketing and communications director of the Napa Chamber of Commerce. “Vineyards are buzzing with anticipation, restaurants and shops are busy with celebrations of the year's bounty, and the air is sweet with the scent of great wines in progress. It's the perfect time to enjoy all the valley has to offer."
At a mere 30 miles long and five miles wide, the Napa Valley is a relatively small geographic area. In fact, Napa Valley accounts for only four percent of California’s entire wine production. However, with its myriad microclimates and fertile soil, this swath of land is what put California vineyards and winemaking on the map. Napa Valley was named California’s first official American Viticulture Area (or AVA) in 1981; today, it is home to 16 distinct sub-AVAs, or wine growing regions, each unique in its soils, climate and terrain.
The diverse wine growing regions reflect the diversity of the wines as well, given that certain grape varietals grow better in specific conditions. Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc grapes favor the cooler temperatures of the Carneros AVA in the southern part of the valley closest to the cooling breezes off the San Pablo Bay, whereas Merlot and Zinfandel varietals can thrive in the heat of the valley floor. Regardless, if you prefer white wines like Chardonnay, or red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, there is something for everyone.
“There are no right or wrong answers in wine tasting,” said Joan Boyd, proprietor of Boyd Family Vineyards. “We just want guests to come and enjoy the experience, maybe learn something new, and discover what makes Napa Valley such a special place.”Boyd offers a few tips for a successful visit to the wineries of Napa Valley:
•Have a plan of attack.
There are more than 300 wineries in Napa Valley – and you don’t have to visit them all in one day. “Visiting three to four wineries a day is plenty,” she said.
Know that the majority of Napa Valley wineries charge for tastings, and many require appointments due to use permit restrictions. “A little advance planning will save you the disappointment of being turned away, or any surprises to your pocketbook,” Boyd said. “Also, offerings vary greatly between wineries. You can find everything from stand-up bar tastings, to private guided tastings, barrel sampling, cave tours, food pairings and more.”
“Harvest is the busiest time of year in the Napa Valley – it will take you longer to get from place to place than you expect,” Boyd said. “It’s important to be on time for your tasting appointments, otherwise you may miss out on key parts of your visit.” If you’d rather leave the driving to someone else, consider hiring a private driver. “They will know the small, boutique wineries that will be out of the way and you’ll receive personal attention,” she said.
“Avoid wearing perfumes, colognes and scented cosmetics that would interfere with the ability of you and those around you to enjoy the aroma of the wines,” Boyd said. “Likewise, gum and breath mints will ruin your palate for some time. You’ll also want to hydrate with water between visits, rather than while you are tasting, as that may dilute your palate too.”
Finally, Boyd’s most important words of advice: “Just have fun!”
Learn more about Boyd Family Vineyards at www.boydwine.com. For more information and resources to help you plan your Napa Valley adventure, visit the Napa Valley Welcome Center (600 Main Street, Napa, CA 94559), or online atwww.visitnapavalley.com
.Things to See and Do in Napa Valley
Wine aside, the allure of visiting Napa Valley goes beyond the bottle. The city of Napa boasts a growing nightlife and entertainment scene, and Yountville is known for its fine dining options. St. Helena offers boutique shopping along its charming Main Street, and Calistoga is famous for its hot springs resorts and mud baths.
•Heritage Wine Trail.
What makes this self-driven, eight-hour tour unique is that it allows participants the opportunity to see the entire length of the Napa Valley from the Carneros region in the south to Calistoga in the north, and have different and distinct experiences and wines at four acclaimed wineries along the way - Acacia, Beaulieu, Provenance and Sterling Vineyards. A steal at $99, the tour also includes a picnic lunch from the iconic Oakville Grocery. Advance reservations required. www.heritagewinetrail.com
Want to see where it all started? Visit these founding Napa Valley wineries for a historical perspective: Robert Mondavi Winery (7801 St. Helena Highway, Napa, CA 94574;www.robertmondaviwinery.com
); Charles Krug (2800 Main Street, St. Helena, CA 94574;www.charleskrug.com
); Beringer Vineyards (2000 Main Street, St. Helena, CA 94574;www.beringer.com
•Round Pond Olive Mill.
What else grows with abundance in Napa Valley? Olives. At Round Pond Estate winery, they offer an olive mill experience where visitors can see how they make their handcrafted olive oils, and be treated to a comprehensive tasting of the oils complete with a spread of bread, cheese and fruit and vegetables from the estate garden. 886 Rutherford Road, Rutherford, CA 94573; www.roundpond.com/olive-mill.
•Oxbow Public Market.
A must-visit for food lovers, or anyone who is simply hungry. The market hall and surrounding block are filled with gourmet shops and restaurants, offering everything from fresh-from-the-oven bacon bread at The Model Bakery and house-cured charcuterie at The Fatted Calf, to oysters on the half shell at Hog Island Oyster Company and distilled spirits like vodka made from Sauvignon Blanc wine grapes at Napa Valley Distillery. 644 1st Street, Napa, CA 94559;www.oxbowpublicmarket.com
•The Culinary Institute of America.
This institute of higher learning is where trained chefs come to hone their skills, but the campus offers an array of programs for food enthusiasts as well, including cooking demonstrations, wine education and food courses. 2555 Main Street, St. Helena, CA 94574;www.ciachef.edu/california
You almost can’t go wrong with the dining options in Napa Valley. With everything from outstanding burger joints to Michelin-starred restaurants, the food is generally every bit as good as the wine. Chef Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry is consistently touted as one of the top restaurants in the world (with prices and a reservations wait list to match), but give his more accessible family style restaurant, Ad Hoc, a try (it’s a locals favorite, to be sure). 6476 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599;www.adhocrestaurant.com
There are three spectacular live music venues in the city of Napa: the Uptown Theater (www.uptowntheaternapa.com
), City Winery (www.citywinery.com/napa
) and Silo’s (www.silosnapa.com
). Each venue brings a wide range of acclaimed performers to their stages almost nightly.
•Art and Nature at di Rosa.
This art and nature preserve houses an impressive and extensive collection of Northern California modern art. Several different guided tours are offered Wednesday through Sunday; advanced reservations recommended. 5200 Carneros Highway, Napa, CA 94559;www.dirosaart.org
•Hiking and Biking.
Excellent hiking spots in Napa Valley include Skyline Wilderness Park in Napa (2201 Imola Ave, Napa, CA 94559;www.skylinepark.org
), and Bothe State Park in Calistoga (search www.parks.ca.gov
). For bike rentals or guided tours on bicycle, check out Napa Valley Bike Tours,www.napavalleybiketours.com
Check out the Indian Springs Resort & Spa for massage, mud baths, spa treatments and a soak in their mineral pool. 1712 Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga, CA 94515;www.indianspringscalistoga.com