We take it for granted that California produces some of the world’s best wines, with top critics ranking them alongside the finest vintages from Bordeaux, Burgundy, and beyond. But the situation was very different in the mid-1970s. Back then, even Napa Valley was considered second rate by wine aficionados—if it was considered at all.
All that changed on June 7, 1976, when Time magazine published a four paragraph article that would become the most important story ever written about American wine. Tucked away on page 58 of the magazine’s Modern Living section, it chronicled the results of a blind tasting in Paris, organised by English wine merchant Steven Spurrier and his American colleague Patricia Gallagher.
The California wines beat the French in both the red and white categories, shattering the notion that only France could produce top-caliber wines.
The event brought together a group of esteemed French judges to pit the finest French wines against the best of California. Wines from the Golden State were virtually unknown in France, beyond a few jug wines sold in Paris, and nobody expected them to win.
If it hadn’t been a slow news day on May 24, 1976, when the event was held, the world might never have known about the now-famous Judgment of Paris tasting, widely regarded today as a watershed moment in California’s wine history.
“Steven invited all the American, British, and French press to attend, and everybody turned it down, myself included,” says George M. Taber, who was a reporter in Paris at the time. But then he received a phone call from Gallagher, urging him to reconsider.
“The tasting was on a Monday, which was the slowest day of the week,” Taber says. “So I went.” He was the only journalist to show up.
And then something incredible happened: The French judges couldn’t discern which wines were from France, and gave the highest scores to two vintages from Napa Valley producers: the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. To everyone’s astonishment, the California wines beat the French in both the red and white categories.
This not only stunned those involved in the tasting, it also sparked a revolution that changed the wine world’s perception about the quality and potential of California wines—and it inspired winemakers around the world to reach for the stars.
Still, it took a while for the news to sink in. Warren Winiarski, who made the winning Stag’s Leap Cabernet, didn’t get particularly excited when he first heard the news. “I vaguely remembered that there was going to be a tasting of some kind to show what we were doing in the Napa Valley,” he says, “but I didn’t know who the tasters were and I didn’t know that there would be French wines.”
When he learned that his wine took first place among the reds, his response was lukewarm. “I said, ‘Well, that’s nice,’ because it’s nice to win a tasting when you’re starting out with a new winery.”
After Taber’s article was published, however, and word got out about California’s victory, everything changed. In particular, demand for the winning wines surged.
“The scope of my aspirations was lifted up,” Winiarski says. “I made the most beautiful wine I could, but now I had a duty to think about everything, to make the best of every possible vintage and every variety that I was making, because now the ceiling was open.”
"The scope of my aspirations was lifted up. I now had a duty to make the best of every possible vintage, because now the ceiling was open.” — winemaker Warren Winiarski
Certainly, the Paris tasting has also affected vintners far beyond the Napa Valley. “It gave encouragement and expanded aspirations for those who thought that their efforts could only lead to standard wines,” Winiarski says. “It gave them renewed responsibilities toward the fruit that they had, which they now could perceive as having potential to reach heights they had not allowed themselves to imagine before.”
It wasn’t until 20 years after the tasting, while researching a book on the subject, that Taber fully understood the scope of the event’s impact.
“I went around the world talking to winemakers,” he says, “and I asked them, ‘Do you know about the Paris tasting? Did it have any impact on you?’ And I got this uniform response, whether I was in Australia or New Zealand or South Africa. They all said, ‘Oh yeah, that was really important, because it inspired us to think that if the Californians can do it, we can do the same thing here in our country.’ That’s when I realised that not only had it been a turning point for Napa, it had an impact on the world,” concludes Taber.
“Forty years later we’re still talking about” the Judgment of Paris, Winiarski adds. “And it keeps growing.”
Both Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Chateau Montelena, located in Napa and Calistoga respectively, are still regarded as two of the region’s finest producers.
Stag’s Leap, along the Silverado Trail, dates back to the 1970s and offers beautiful views of the surrounding vineyards; take the Estate Wine Tasting and Cave Tour to taste the winery's famed Cabernet Sauvignon while exploring the underground cellar.
At Chateau Montelena, you can do current-release tastings, guided walks around the vineyard, and a 90-minute “Estate Experience” tour, which includes a tasting of the historic Chardonnay.
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.
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 southerly 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 capitalises 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, such as 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.
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 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 realise 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.
Set on 28 acres of rolling vineyards between the towns of Napa and Sonoma, Carneros Resort and Spa features a relaxed sophistication that takes full advantage of its perfect location. Airy views stretch out over the vines to the mountains beyond, while a cottage-focused design imbues the resort with an agri-chic feel.
These cottages make up most of the resort’s 100 accommodations, all of which offer plenty of privacy and outdoor space. Interiors are decorated in muted tones, with vaulted ceilings and luxury-farmhouse decor. But you might just spend more time outside anyway, enjoying the front porch (complete with rocking chairs), patio, garden and attached al fresco shower. Some cottages come with extra features, like a two-person outdoor hot tub and fire pit—and your fireside butler can help spark some romance while you’re off dining or exploring. (Of course, this all adds up to the ideal setting for a wedding and Carneros offers several package options.) For more space, opt for a cottage suite or one of the six 223-square-metre private homes that feature wood-burning fireplaces and a first-floor deck with outstanding views.
The hotel’s dining options also soak up the wine-country flavour: ingredients mostly originate from the resort’s own garden or within a 150-mile radius; even Executive Chef Aaron Meneghelli is a local. A highlight of the upmarket FARM restaurant is the ever-evolving five-course tasting menu which incorporates one specific, seasonal ingredient in each course. But you’ll probably want to start your day with sugar-dusted doughnuts from the resort’s Boon Fly Café, or eat at the guests-only Hilltop Dining Room while enjoying its sweeping views of Napa Valley.
Panoramic views also abound at the adults-only pool (there’s a separate one for families). Lounge there after borrowing one of the resort’s orange bikes and taking a relaxing cycle through wine country; there are mini-versions with stabilisers so the children can come along, too. For even more relaxation, head to the Spa at Carneros, renovated in mid-2018, which features (what else?) local ingredients in the same rustic, cottage-like setting that’s become your temporary wine country home.
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 around 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 1,300-square-metre 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 1,900-square-metre 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 specialised 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.
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 programme. 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.
Mark your calendar for festivals, fun and fanfare
Attending any one of a number of Napa Valley’s special 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 some of the area’s most outstanding small-scale producers.
The early spring, meanwhile, brings Yountville Live, when dozens of local vintners pour premium wines, paired with dishes from Michelin-rated chefs at gala dinners; the event also features chef demonstrations, 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 wineries that are normally closed to the public.
Even non-culinary gatherings have star appeal, such as BottleRock Napa Valley. Each May, more than 100,000 music lovers converge on the Napa Valley Expo in central Napa for three days of famous 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 event is the extraordinary Arts in April, an entire month dedicated to Napa Valley’s burgeoning arts scene. Explore studios, salons, galleries and private homes which host events including art installations, pop-up exhibitions, live performances and glass-crafting workshops.
Autumn’s harvest time brings its own kind of festivities. This is when you can witness the hustle and bustle of grape sorting, stemming and 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 autumn harvest camp. For deeper immersion, Grgich Hills Estate and Schweiger Vineyards offer old-fashioned grape stomping events: just roll up your trousers and jump in.
If you’re serious about wine tasting, consider visiting Napa Valley in the winter. Mid-autumn to spring is Cabernet season, and even at the height of winter temperatures are still mild. Wineries are less crowded and the overall pace is slower, which can mean more attention from the winemakers and more flexibility with appointments; often, walk-in tastings are possible. Accommodation is also less expensive during the off season, and plenty of wineries are open over the holidays and even on Christmas Day. From early December to early February, you can purchase a Winter in the Wineries Passport which allows you to enjoy complimentary tastings at more than a dozen Calistoga wineries.
But there’s more to Napa than wine. November brings the Napa Valley Film Festival, which features screenings of up to 100 independent films, plus conversations with more than 300 writers, directors, actors and producers. In December, seasonal events such as fairs, carolling, tree lightings and Santa appearances are in full swing in St Helena, Yountville and Calistoga, among other towns, and January brings the four-day Napa Truffle Festival. January visitors will also be able to witness blooming mustard fields ablaze with bright yellow flowers all over the valley.
The bustling city of Napa, on the banks of the Napa River, is celebrating a glamorous reinvention. There was a time not so long ago when the town was a sleepy residential area with just small shopping parades. Yet an influx of celebrity-chef restaurants, upmarket accommodation, manicured parks and river walks, and dozens of tasting rooms have redefined the area as a luxury destination.
Highlights include Oxbow Public Market, a lively food hall where you can slurp fresh oysters at Hog Island, savour artisanal charcuterie from Fatted Calf, or indulge in truffles and toffees from Anette’s Chocolates. If wine tasting has you in the mood for a good pizza, pick up an organic wood-fired one from the market’s Ca’ Momi, which has been certified by both the VPN (Vera Pizza Napoletana) and APN (Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani). The restaurant also contributes mightily to Napa’s nightlife with its performance venue, which hosts live bands regularly.
For more edible pleasures, treat yourself to sushi at nearby Morimoto Napa, dine on chef Ken Frank’s elegant offerings at the Michelin-starred La Toque or discover some of wine country’s most spectacular local-ingredient-driven cuisine on the Napa riverfront at Celadon. Then, take in a show along the street at an outpost of New York City’s famed Blue Note, inside one of the region’s social and cultural hubs, the Napa Valley Opera House.
One of the area’s best new developments unites many joys as well. St. Clair Brown is a boutique winery and restaurant framed by a 420-square-metre organic garden, which overlooks the path of the Napa Valley Wine Train (diners tend to wave as the locomotive chugs by).
For overnight stays, there's rest and relaxation aplenty at options such as the big-city-chic Andaz Napa hotel and the impossibly romantic 1889 Churchill Manor B&B mansion, with its remarkable old-growth redwood mouldings and crystal chandeliers. Overnight stays at the historic Napa River Inn include a decadent breakfast from the Sweetie Pies bakery downstairs. Family-run Cedar Gables Inn offers a full series of cooking classes, and guests share a communal dinner that they helped to cook, paired with a featured local vintner’s choice of wine.
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’, this popular wine-country town has a bumper crop of shops, art galleries and cute cafes. Join an olive oil tasting at Olivier and satisfy your sweet tooth at Woodhouse Chocolate. Merryvale Vineyards (the first winery in the valley to be built after the repeal of Prohibition) holds daily tasting seminars in its historic cask room—it’s a great way to educate your palette before you head out to area wineries. That said, there are plenty of in-town tasting rooms—nice if you don’t want to drive. A local Passport St. Helena gives you access to eight stroll-to wineries, where you’ll get exclusive tastes of top vintages paired with nibbles.
'You’ll get exclusive tastes of top vintages paired with nibbles.'
Though St. Helena is undeniably appealing, try to drag yourself away long enough to check out Hall Vineyard, where top-notch wines and edgy art go hand-in-hand. The property is dotted with sculptures and installations and wow-worthy views from the second-floor ‘glass house’ tasting room.
Back in town, relax with a Harvest Signature Mud Wrap & Massage treatment in the garden at Health Spa Napa Valley, then dress up for dinner cooked by budding chefs at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in the magnificent Greystone estate.