Think Napa Valley, and most wine lovers think Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Indeed, the Napa Valley is a single appellation, or AVA (American Viticultural Area). Yet within its borders reside 16 sub-appellations, each with its own distinctive microclimate, and often, its own signature grapes.
The St Helena AVA, for example, home to the Rutherford Wine Company and many others on the celebrated Silverado Trail, is a warm area with less fog or wind than many more southern areas, making it perfect for a rainbow of varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. Another estate that capitalizes on the variations of Napa Valley terroir is the Fleury Estate Winery, which has three vineyards in three appellations at three elevations.
Napa Valley is home to 16 sub-appellations, each with its own distinctive microclimate and often its own signature grapes, like Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel.
Many wineries here have deep roots as pioneer vineyards, showcasing Napa Valley’s longstanding commitment to premium grapes. Just a few examples: Mayacamas Vineyards is comprised of a stone building that was carved into the side of a dormant volcano crater on Mount Veeder in 1889 (happily, this historic building survived the 2017 wine-country wildfires). Sinegal Estate was once a St Helena Pony Express stop, then the historic Inglewood Estate, before being bought and completely renovated by new owners in 2015. Beaulieu Vineyards, founded in 1900 and housed in a building that dates to 1885, managed to flourish during Prohibition, when so many Napa vineyards were forced to close, due to their contract to provide sacramental wines to the Catholic Church. And some wineries have brought their own sense of history: Calistoga’s Castello di Amorosa, owned by Dario Sattui, makes Italian-inspired reds in a sprawling, 13th-century-style castle.
A new generation of wine growers is planting newer-to-the-area varieties as well. Summers Estate Wines in the Calistoga AVA bottles Charbono, a rare Italian grape found on less than 100 acres in all of California, plus a Greek Muscat Canelli, known in Europe as Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. Plush, plummy Merlot is back in the spotlight too, such as Duckhorn Vineyard’s prized bottling from the Atlas Peak AVA.
Napa Valley reigns as the land of grand estates, luxurious tasting rooms, quaint towns and elegant lodges, many of which line the celebrated Silverado Trail. Roughly an hour’s drive north of San Francisco and boasting more than 400 wineries, Napa Valley is a connoisseur’s paradise, inviting visitors to explore beyond the region’s signature Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Don’t miss, for instance, the rediscovered Merlot, whose plush texture and earthy cherry flavour are appealing to a new generation of red wine fans.
Long considered California’s most famous wine region, Napa Valley exploded into the global spotlight following the 1976 Judgment of Paris, when a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from Calistoga trounced nine other Chardonnays in a blind tasting in Paris, including extremely prestigious bottles from France. At the time, France was considered the world’s foremost wine region, but this triumph forever changed the international perception of Northern California’s wines.
Today, the region boasts some of the most coveted wine grapes anywhere, including To Kalon Vineyard, planted in the 1860s, as well as contemporary cult bottlings like Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate. Napa Valley cuisine has come into its own as well, with dozens of world-class restaurants offering meals on a par with the vintages served up alongside them.
When to visit Napa Valley? Each season has its charms. Spring’s emerging grape leaves turn hillsides a brilliant green, plumed with golden swathes of mustard blossoms. Summer warms up with events and festivals (and their attendant crowds), so plan on a packed schedule. Autumn brings the crush, as vineyards and wineries bustle with workers. Winter settles into a cool hush: insiders know this is the time to make a booking at the area’s galaxy of Michelin-starred restaurants, shop for Christmas gifts in gaily decorated but quieter towns, get a seat on the Napa Valley Wine Train and relax in greater intimacy at posh spas.
The artistry found at many Napa Valley wineries goes well beyond what’s poured into your glass. The Hess Collection, for instance, contains a virtual museum of important international works. Turnbull Wine Cellars in Oakville showcases one of the largest permanent photography exhibition spaces on the West Coast, including original works by Ansel Adams.
Quixote Winery’s former owner, meanwhile, commissioned Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser to design a stunning Silverado Trail palace, which evokes the work of Gaudi in Barcelona with its gold-leaf onion dome, melting architectural lines and extensive tile mosaics.
Even the central Napa streets abound with artwork, on display through the biennial Napa ARTwalk program. In the squares all around the town, you’ll see large marvels of imagination and craft created by artists from the Western US. Rotating works remain on view for two years, and are positioned near to one another and close to destinations such as the Oxbow Public Market, the Napa River Inn and Napa Mill, making for a leisurely walk that is pushchair- and wheelchair-accessible. Past pieces have included eye-popping creations such as a giant charging bull crafted from steel and polished locust wood, a monster-sized wine bottle made of woven grapevine cane, and an aurora borealis 'curtain of light' created from aluminium, Plexiglas and powder-coated steel.
In 2016, the historic 1880 Napa Valley Opera House was transformed into a hip place to hang out, as the Blue Note Napa club took over the bottom floor as a branch of the famous New York music venue. The upstairs showcases acts of all kinds, such as NapaShakes (an interpretive Shakespeare theatre company), Napa Valley Film Festival screenings and private arts programmes.
Jazz, films screenings and creative takes on Shakespeare reflect Napa Valley’s other forms of creativity.
The classics are well worth a visit too, for immersion into the rich character of the centuries-old Napa Valley settlements. Yountville’s Napa Valley Museum, for instance, inspires with its Land and People of Napa Valley permanent exhibition (did you know that wine country boasted an important Chinese culture in the 1800s?), and St Helena’s Robert Louis Stevenson Museum shares global treasures from the Treasure Island author and regular Napa visitor.
Another must-see is the Sharpsteen Museum in Calistoga, which is a treasure chest of Napa Valley history from its prehistory to after the First World War. Its stories are told through elaborate dioramas by Ben Sharpsteen, an Academy Award–winning animator, producer and Walt Disney Studios director.
While it's true that you'll go to Napa Valley for the wine tasting, in between pours, take some time to explore the many green spaces of the area that provide the perfect opportunity to picnic, walk, or just take in the history and lush landscape. Here’s a rundown of the Napa Valley state and city parks that beckon.
Most people don’t associate coastal redwoods with the warm climate of Napa Valley, but Bothe-Napa Valley State Park is home to rare, impressive clutches of these California giants of the plant world. Now spanning nearly 2,000 acres, the park has been a treasure since it was established in 1960, and offers year-round camping, picnicking, walking, BYOH (bring your own horse) riding and seasonal swimming in a spring-fed pool. For an overnight adventure, reserve a pitch or cosy yurt, offering you more time to explore the park’s historic features, such as a pioneer cemetery, the site of Napa Valley’s first Methodist church and a Native American plant garden.
You’re within walking distance of the Bale Grist Mill Historic Park, a fascinating example of 1846 ingenuity, where millers used, and still use, water-wheel-powered pulleys and grinding stones to craft organic flours, cornmeal and polenta which that you can buy at an on-site shop (open weekends year-round).
The city-run Alston Park is another secret gem, covering 157 acres in the remote rolling hills of north-west Napa. Three miles of meandering creek and wildflower-lined paths lead equestrians, mountain bikers, hikers and dog-walkers (lead required) to an upper area known as Canine Commons, a popular off-lead dog area.
For another scenic walk, set out on the Napa Valley Vine Trail, which, when finished, is planned to span 47 miles from the Vallejo ferry terminal to Calistoga; you can view a map showing how much of the trail is already open. Its picturesque route runs mostly parallel to Highway 29, and along a stretch of Highway 37 into Vallejo.
Central Napa is home to Fuller Park, a spacious and lush park with several playgrounds, BBQ spaces, picnic tables and toilet facilities.
Note: Kennedy Park, which runs along the river in the city of Napa, is closed 2019–2020.
This two-lane country road, trimmed with shady oaks and world-class vineyards, is quintessential Napa Valley. Its surrounding land is dotted with so many wineries that you could travel it for a week straight and still not visit all of them. Constructed in 1852 as the first permanent road linking the 30 or so miles between the towns of Napa and Calistoga, the Silverado Trail is the bucolic, parallel counterpart to the busier State Highway 29. Enjoy the drive along this scenic route (or rent a bike and pedal the whole way), snuggled up against the valley’s eastern hills.
Prestigious wineries with Silverado Trail addresses include Joseph Phelps, ZD Wines and Signorello Winery—plus the famous Stags Leap District collection of wineries that makes up Napa Valley’s famous mecca of Cabernet Sauvignon and other big-bodied reds. (Signorello, in the town of Napa, was one of the few wineries to sustain major damage in the 2017 wildfires. Its winery building was destroyed, but will be rebuilt next to the vineyards and barrel room, which were spared. Some parts of the Stags Leap District, meanwhile, experienced limited damage.) There’s sparkling wine here too, notably at Mumm Napa, where you can sip the fine bubbly on an elegant patio, in a grand tasting salon or while wandering around the elaborate art gallery.
Other turnings take you to lavish wine-country resorts, such as Relais & Châteaux’s Auberge du Soleil or the gracious Solage Calistoga. To see one of the most stunning retreats in the entire region, take the long, leafy drive into the manicured grounds of Meadowood Napa Valley for an al fresco lunch at its garden-sourced The Grill.
And if you’re feeling especially like splurging, dinner at the three-Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood delivers impeccable service, meticulous farm-to-table menus and—of course—exquisite Napa Valley wines. You might even stay the night and take advantage of the resort’s excellent spa and golf course.
As is the case with their wines, Napa Valley hotels and resorts do not disappoint. Whether you choose to book a stay at one of the more bucolic retreats or opt for a more lively urban setting, you’ll find the region’s uniquely Californian take on hospitality to be nothing short of enthralling. The indulgences present themselves as soon as you pull past the gatehouse at Meadowood Napa Valley. You can peek at the sunny swimming pools and tennis courts, and catch a glimpse of the 14,000-square-foot Architectural Digest–worthy spa tucked away on a wooded hillside. The reception valet greets you with complimentary wine and biscuits, and then whisks you via golf cart to your private cottage so that you can relax before you take in a game of croquet or a round of golf, or have a treatment in the luxurious spa, followed by an extraordinary dinner at the three-Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood.
Such is the resort life in Napa Valley, which offers a variety of indulgent accommodation options. Auberge du Soleil, for instance, provides all the world-class service and amenities demanded by its Relais & Châteaux designation, and the Solage Calistoga has a 20,000-square-foot geothermal spa (the mudslide treatment is a must), plus a new open-air Chef’s Atrium at the Michelin-rated Solbar. Central Napa, meanwhile, offers the Archer Hotel, with its destination rooftop that is known both for its lively soirées and high-end spa.
Resort life in Napa Valley means private cottages, geothermal spas and buttery Bouchon pastries brought to your room for breakfast.
Also in Calistoga is Indian Springs Resort, a luxurious getaway with deep roots going back to 1861, known for its spa fed by natural geothermal geysers. Nearby, European-chic The Bergson sports 21 lavish rooms and suites including fireplaces, opulent gilded furniture, private patios, Jacuzzi tubs and balconies for that sparkling-wine nightcap.
As an even more private retreat, Napa’s Poetry Inn welcomes rich and famous clientele to a 40-acre hillside hideaway that feels like a private home. Three miles away, in Yountville, is Bardessono, an exquisite hotel and spa with Japanese gardens and a focus on providing its guests with the ultimate digital detox. Another lovely spot, the Napa Vineyard Inn, was built in 1901 as a farmhouse but is now a five-room boutique inn. Furnished with Restoration Hardware furniture and linens, the inn also features a two-bedroomed private cottage and vineyard views. As if it couldn’t get any better, start your day with a blissfully buttery Bouchon Bakery breakfast delivered to your room.
There’s a lot to explore in Napa Valley, and it certainly helps to know your way around the winding country roads and steep mountain drives. So for an extra-relaxing experience (including a designated driver), why not venture out with a savvy local guide? You can book any number of private chauffeurs, or hop on board a bus tour as part of a group. Either way, your driver can offer insights about wineries and other points of interest—like, how you can be in Carneros, but also in both Napa and Sonoma, at the very same time.
There are other fascinating ways to explore the Napa Valley too—by bike, train or hot air balloon—where the journey becomes as joyful as the destination. Some of the region’s numerous cycling guides put special spins on their tours. The Velo ‘n’ Vino cycle tour, for instance, by Getaway Adventures, puts you on a specialized Crosstrail road bike for a 20- to 30-mile ride fuelled by a seasonal picnic lunch of charcuterie, artisan breads and cheeses (plus stops for sipping at as many wineries you choose), while Napa Valley Bike Tours invites warriors for off-road spins on sturdy mountain bikes, as well as road cruises.
Explore Napa Valley by bike, stopping for a picnic lunch of charcuterie and cheese, or tour wineries while riding in a turn-of-the-20th-century cable car.
The Napa Valley Wine Train is a classic, multi-hour excursion in vintage Pullman cars (dress up in period costume for extra flair). Among the wine train’s cool experiences, you can feast on a multiple-course gourmet meal—cooked onboard—as you gaze at wineries and vineyards through velvet-curtained windows. Take one of the three Quattro Vino trips to stop at wineries, too: each of the tours combines a four-course meal onboard the train with tastings at three wineries, including such bucket-list wineries as Robert Mondavi, Charles Krug and V. Sattui. Or, try the Napa Valley Wine Trolley, a converted, turn-of-the-20th-century, San Francisco–style cable car. Guided tours take you to four wineries and include a gourmet lunch.
Alternatively, enjoy the view from overhead: colourful hot air balloon voyages feel even loftier when capped with a post-flight breakfast and mimosas at Domaine Chandon Winery in Yountville, courtesy of Napa Valley Balloons, or a touchdown sparkling wine breakfast from Napa Valley Aloft.
Attending one of Napa Valley’s best annual events isn’t just a way to taste more wine and eat great food—it’s also a good way to experience Napa Valley like a bit of a VIP. Take Flavor! Napa Valley, for instance, the March festival that includes celebrity-chef cooking demonstrations, Rising Star winemaker dinners, grand gala tastings, and behind-the-scenes “Terroir to Table” tours of the area’s best boutique producers.
Early spring, meanwhile, brings Yountville Live, when dozens of local vintners pour premium wines, paired with bites from Michelin-rated chefs at gala dinners; the event also features chef demos, live music, and the Taste of Yountville walk-around feast. In April, the Stags Leap District Vineyard to Vintner celebration wows wine fans with exclusive tours, tastings, and live music at some wineries that are normally closed to the public.
Even non-culinary gatherings have star appeal, like BottleRock Napa Valley. Each May, more than 100,000 music lovers converge on the Napa Valley Expo in downtown Napa for three days of big-name musicians, a wine village, and a food stage area, where you can watch antics like Snoop Dogg rolling sushi with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.
Another don’t-miss is the extraordinary Arts in April, an entire month dedicated to Napa Valley’s burgeoning arts scene. Explore studios, salons, galleries, and private homes hosting events like art installations, pop-up exhibitions, live performances, and glass-crafting workshops.
Fall’s harvest time brings its own kind of festivities. This is when you can witness the hustle and bustle of grape sorting, stemming, crushing, and the beginning of fermentation. Some wineries (like Staglin Family Winery in Rutherford and Paraduxx in Napa) celebrate the season by hosting pre- or post-crush parties with wine tasting, food, and live music. V. Sattui hosts annual harvest balls and crush parties, while sparkling wine purveyor Schramsberg goes all-out, hosting a weekend-long fall harvest camp. For deeper immersion, Grgich Hills Estate and Schweiger Vineyards offer old-fashioned grape stomping events: Just roll up your pants and jump in.
Though there was a time when this town was often passed over in the rush to get deep into Napa Valley wine country, that’s not the way to go now. Savvy travelers know that this bustling town on the banks of the Napa River has undergone a major renaissance, with a major influx of celebrity-chef restaurants, appealing parks and river walks, and upscale lodgings. And tasting rooms—lots and lots of tasting rooms. Nearly 30 such locations, with settings ranging from coolly sophisticated to kickback relaxed, are all within walking distance in the downtown core. Streets are also dotted with a tempting array of shops, cafes, and chocolatiers, and leafy neighborhood streets are the place to find some of the classiest, lace-and-crystal B&Bs in the state.
Highlights around town include Oxbow Market, a lively food hall where you can slurp fresh oysters, sample housemade charcuterie, peruse chocolate truffles with names like “Tart Cherry Cabernet,” and find endless other ways to stuff yourself silly. Along the riverfront, step into the minimalist beauty of Morimoto Napa, enjoy ultra-fresh seafood at Celadon, or cross the river to sample Chef Ken Frank’s elegant offerings at La Toque. For overnight stays, consider big city chic options Andaz Napa, or one-of-a-kind B&B options such as ultra-elegant Churchill Manor or friendly Cedar Gables Inn.
For a truly unique (car-free) way to explore the region, settle into a cushy appointed vintage rail car to sightsee, dine, and sample wines aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train, departing from downtown Napa year-round.
The upmarket town of Yountville shimmers with an impressive number of Michelin-noted restaurants, thanks to perennial three-star The French Laundry, the one-star Bouchon bistro and the Bib Gourmand–rated Redd Wood.
While celebrity chef Thomas Keller put the town on the culinary map when he took over The French Laundry in 1994, it has since developed into a world-class destination for dining, shopping, accommodation, spas and wine tasting—sometimes all rolled into one. Consider the ultra-swanky, LEED Platinum–certified Bardessono resort, with its high-end farm-to-table Lucy Restaurant & Bar, a spa, and a lounge showcasing food and cocktails supplied by the on-site gardens. The resort is also within walking distance of notable tasting rooms such as Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley, which is housed in a historic stone building and features an art gallery where you can sample wines from more than 20 vintner partners.
Chef Thomas Keller put Yountville on the culinary map when he took over The French Laundry in 1994.
Indeed, the whole community of Yountville is walkable, with easy access to such covetable products as high-end chapeaux from Montecristi Panama Hats, wine bottles recycled into chic jewellery at Yount Street Glass, and home and culinary niceties from the Domain Home & Garden shop, opposite chef Michael Chiarello’s award-winning Bottega restaurant.
For a sign of how this tiny village of less than 3,000 souls has evolved into a true lifestyle destination, just look at luxury Silver Trident Winery. The Tuscan-style stone building sits in the heart of the town and features an elegantly appointed living room, dining room and library with decor (all for sale) from Ralph Lauren Home. Then there’s the glittery JCB Tasting Salon from global vintner Jean-Charles Boisset, resplendent with jewels and Baccarat crystal as well as wine.
Insider tip: those on a tighter budget can experience Keller’s culinary genius by booking a table at Ad Hoc, his more casual restaurant on Washington Street, or by ordering a packed lunch from his takeaway service Addendum, at the same address.
Nicknamed 'Napa Valley’s Main Street', the central area of the charming wine-country town of St Helena is brimming with lovely little shops, art galleries and precious cafés set in historical buildings. It’s all nicely walkable within its primary half-mile-long core, so you can browse gourmet shops, fashion boutiques and sweet shops (try the mendiants, tiny discs of chocolate studded with nuts and dried fruit, at Woodhouse Chocolate).
Central St Helena is ringed with wineries, such as the iconic Merryvale Vineyards, which was the first winery in the valley to open after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. The Clif Family Winery—owned by the energy bar company—offers tastings of small-production wines, as well as wine-and-food pairings and the more casual option of the Clif Family Bruschetteria Food Truck. Another good stop is Hall Wines, which showcases spectacular edgy art, sculptures and a 'glass house' tasting room. (Make sure you greet mascot Bunny Foo Foo, a 10-metre-tall stainless steel rabbit at the winery entrance.)
The compact city centre includes the Harvest Inn, of which the renowned contemporary Harvest Table restaurant is a part. At the north end of the town, at the magnificent Restaurant at Meadowood, you can indulge in a glamorous three-Michelin-star dinner, or check the student-run restaurant schedule of the Napa Valley Cooking School to enjoy a meal cooked by budding chefs at this small but illustrious institution.
One great stop between meals and wine tastings: the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, next to the local library. In 1880, the future author of Treasure Island was in the area on his honeymoon and found an abandoned shack in Silverado, then a remote mining ghost town on Mount Saint Helena. Penniless, he lived there with his bride for many weeks. In 1883, he published a memoir of his stay, The Silverado Squatters. Today, many of his possessions are on display at the museum. You can also work up a sweat while visiting Robert Louis Stevenson State Park; a five-mile trail through rough terrain to the summit of Mt St Helena will lead you to a vantage point from which much of the San Francisco Bay Area is visible.
If the Napa Valley were a kingdom (and some oenophiles might argue that it is), this storied property in the town of Rutherford would certainly make a worthy home base for the monarchy. Originally purchased in the late 1800s by Gustave Niebaum, a Finnish sea captain and wine connoisseur, the former farmland and orchards now hold some of the region’s most historic wine grapes, as well as a spectacular chateau—all restored to elegant perfection by the current owners, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and others in the Coppola clan.
When Coppola bought the winery and towering Niebaum mansion in 1975, celebrated Napa residents took note. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the filmmaker recalls when Robert Mondavi, patriarch of the legendary Mondavi wine empire, came for a visit: 'You realise you have bought the most beautiful, the most important winery property in the Napa Valley?' Coppola recalls Mondavi asking. 'You realize what this is?'
Inglenook boasts a history that spans the very creation of this hallowed wine region. Over the decades, Inglenook—and the Napa Valley—came into the international spotlight as a perfect place for growing wine grapes. Niebaum’s vines flourished, and for decades his family produced exceptional grapes and bottles. An economic hiccup forced the family to sell, and the new owners began producing jug wines that dulled the lustre of the winery’s celebrated name.
In stepped Coppola, who, with his wife Eleanor and others, spent 40 years restoring Inglenook’s illustrious heritage. That included bringing winemaking operations back to the chateau and adjacent winery, and hiring top winemakers to produce top wines.
Today, you can sample Coppola’s results in a fleet of luxurious experiences. For example, the Heritage Tasting lets you relax beneath a chandelier in the Pennino Salon, while you sip and learn about Inglenook’s Estate wines, including the flagship Rubicon Cabernet. Squint while you’re dining outside at the pretty on-site Bistro and you’ll swear you’re in Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens. Special events sprinkle the calendar, including a summertime lobster feast, a late-summer harvest party, elegant wine dinners and a Christmastime open house.
Located at the northern tip of Napa Valley at the base of Mount Saint Helena, Calistoga is the less travelled, laid-back sister to bustling central Napa. It’s ironic in a way, since the town of Calistoga helped put Napa Valley on the global wine map. In 1976, the town’s Chateau Montelena (and its 1973 Chardonnay) beat the best French wines at the legendary tasting known as the Judgment of Paris.
Today, Calistoga’s local wine scene still has attention-grabbing appeal—in part thanks to Castello di Amorosa, the medieval-style, multi-turreted castle on a hill built by Italian-style winemaker Dario Sattui. A tour of the 121,000-square-foot castle (built over 15 years with authentic materials) makes for a fascinating hour, with its five towers, courtyard and loggias, a Tuscan-style farmhouse, a frescoed great hall, stables, a prison and even a torture chamber (if you don’t like the wines?). Finish up with a 45-minute session of barrel tastings and sips of current releases.
Wine is not the only elixir that people love here. Calistoga is the valley’s spa and hot springs capital, and visitors have flocked here seeking rejuvenation in mineral-rich volcanic waters since the 1800s. Spas and resorts range from casual (and clothing optional) to upmarket, and most offer hot soaks, saunas and massages. Indian Springs Calistoga, Solage and Calistoga Ranch are just a few of the area’s upmarket properties which feature luxury spas. Visit Napa Valley has more listed on their site.
One can’t visit without experiencing the quintessential Calistoga experience: the mud bath. Make an appointment for 'The Works' at Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort, where you’ll be treated to a traditional mud bath with facial mask, aromatic mineral whirlpool bath, steam room, blanket wrap and massage.
Calistoga is also a key spot to enjoy another Napa Valley signature experience: a hot-air balloon ride. Floating above the morning mist, looking out across the still valley as the sun peeks over the surrounding hills—can you imagine anywhere you’d rather be? Cap it all off with a traditional glass of bubbly when you come back down to earth.