Help getting started with a visit to Napa
Hope this is the correct board... my husband and I are contemplating a visit to Napa for my 40th birthday in the spring. Trouble is, I have no idea where to begin! Is there a comprehensive website that we can look at? Are there any companies that offer packages that are worth looking into? We are completely in the dark so any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Depending on a number of factors we will have anywhere from 3 to 5 days to spend in CA. Thanks!!
Since I live in Napa Valley near the Sonoma border, the discussions that pit one county against another strike me as silly and divisive, like arguing about the differences between Methodists and Lutherans. The two areas have so much in common: Both are Northern California wine country, agricultural-based, and loaded with vineyards. Moreover, they're next door to one another.
But there are distinctions, of course. The effect of the Pacific ocean and mountains create slightly different climates, and thus each area specializes in different grapes/wines. Napa Valley is much smaller than Sonoma County in size. It's a long sliver of land between two parallel mountain ranges, about 4 miles wide and 30 miles long. Sonoma County is very large indeed -- 52 miles wide and 47 miles long -- with the small town of Sonoma itself near the southern end of the county.
Sonoma has some very impressive wine areas: Westside Road, Russian River Valley and Alexander Valley, among them. Those three areas are known for Pinot and Chardonnay, and to a lesser degree, Cabernet and other Bordeaux-grape wines. The Dry Creek Valley is one of my favorites, and known for Zinfandel. Great restaurants, especially near or in the northern town of Healdsburg. Cyrus is one of my favorites.
On the Napa side, Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay dominate. The Spring Mountain District, Rutherford, and Howell Mountain are some of the distinct wine-growing areas. I'm rather fond of the first two for high-quality wines, especially Cabernet. There are many wonderful restaurants the length of the valley, but most are concentrated in the towns of Yountville and St, Helena. The best known is The French Laundry, of course, but there are many less elaborate and less expensive choices: Terra, Martini House, Redd, Boonfly, Rutherford Grill and so forth.
Both Napa Valley and Sonoma County are stunningly beautiful and dripping with charm. The Napa terrain is a bit more manicured than Sonoma; Sonoma is more rustic.
You can't go wrong with either one, and since they're next door to one another, it's easy to visit both.
Would agree with teejaymoore that part of the Napa versus Sonoma decision is your price point. If you're ok with Per Se prices and want really fine dining and great wines to celebrate your 40th I would go with Napa.
If you're serious on trying specific Napa wines, check out the wineries you're interested and make appointments for tastings when necessary to taste the better wines. For wines you can't taste at the winery - check out restaurant wine lists on line and visit a few wine stores. Calwine has a nice selection 1215 Silverado Trail Napa
I would clarify between Sonoma "the town" and Healdsburg. I personally don't love Sonoma "the town" that much. It's charming and there are great houses. It is less commercial, which also means the restaurants are not as good as Napa if you're a true foodie and also I like the wines better in Napa (I just did the Sonoma wine charity event and while nice, was underwhelmed). If you do Napa, I recommend staying in Yountville (personal bias as we have a weekend house there), Calistoga (quirky but some great resorts up there such as Solage and Calistoga Ranch. Favorite restaurants include: Ad Hoc, Bouchon, Bistro Don Giovanni, Terra, Martini House, Solbar and Redd (don't miss Taylor's for the burgers).
If you want to try something different, Healdsburg (town in northern Sonoma county) is a super charming town with some exceptional restaurants. Cyrus is great (think Gramercy but you choose your tasting menu) and Ravenous (if still open, haven't been up there in awhile). The town is great and the region has amazing zinfandels and pinot noirs.
Have a great time.
I should have elaborated, but it was late.
Do consider Sonoma County instead. As has already been noted, it's more beautiful and less commercial than Napa. You can find a great B&B just about anywhere for your home base, and go exploring. Don't do a tour - do some research online and ask locals.
One thing I would highly recommend is taking a self-guided bicycle tour. You can rent bicycles in Healdsburg (for example - Geyserville would work too) and ride on relatively flat roads with little traffic, out among the beautiful vinyards, to several local wineries. Afterwards tour the town square.
Other places not to miss in Sonoma County:
The Russian River. Start in Guerneville and drive Hwy 116 to the coast along the river in the redwoods. Then turn north to Jenner or south along the coast to Bodega Bay. Go back inland through Sebastopol - if you're there in late April the apple orchards will be in bloom and the blooming mustard in the orchards will carpet the ground in gold. In Sebastopol have ice cream at Screamin' Mimi's. Have a family-style Italian dinner in Sebastopol or Occidental.
There are dozens of picturesque communities to visit - Occidental, Nicasio, Casadero, Valley Ford, Olema, Mark West. All the roads are scenic - take a good map and explore, you'll find wineries everywhere. Go to Glen Ellen and the Jack London historic park and musem; have dinner at the French Laundry. South of Glen Ellen are several hot springs.
The redwoods. You can't avoid them, but driving through them is nothing like walking under them. Armstrong State Reserve is a great place for a picnic.
Drive down to Inverness, on Point Reyes. Take the Earthquake trail at the visitor's center on Point Reyes. Take the Chimney Rock hike and see the wildflowers. It's unforgettable. While you're in the area, have some oysters. They don't get any fresher than ten minutes from the oyster farms there.
You're still close enough to take a day trip to Napa, if you like.
And when you return to San Francisco to fly home, don't take Hwy 101. Take Hwy 1 along the coast.
We just returned from six days in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. We had five dinners and all were at least good. Here are our rankings for the five -
1) Redd - Yountville - definitely the best meal of the trip
2) Santi - Geyserville - best Italian restaurant we've eaten at, though definitely not standard Italian fare
3) Bouchon - Yountville - a little crowded and noisy but excellent food and service
4) Charcuterie - Healdsburg - small bistro with good food that tasted a lot better than the menu made it appear
5) Angele's - Napa - Interesting, another place a little crowded and noisy. Best visited when you can sit on the patio along the river.
I took a look at your profile. Did you go to Per Se? Did you like it? You never did a follow up post. You might consider French Laundry depending on whether you liked that or not. Lots of people like Redd at a better price point and easier reservatons.
One little fact in that post that should be mentioned. You wrote ...
"Embarassed to say that my freaky food quirk is that I eat very few fruits and vegetables. Any thing else I'm pretty game for. When asked on the phone my husband let them know this and they said it would not be a problem... that they'd encountered it before. Not sure about that:)"
I guess that eliminates Ubuntu ... and California. Just joking (sort of). You might enjoy the porchetta sandwhich at Fatted Calf or Rotiserrio in Oxbow or Berbersq, an upscale BBQ place.
Here's one website to get you started
i would advise strongly agains a tour package. When I'm in Wine Country and come across those type of groups ... well, it's pitiful ... unless you want to visit ever mediocre tourist trap.
With a little reading, you should get a better feel. Stop by a bookstore to look at some tourbooks to get your feet wet.
I think Sonoma is far prettier and more what one imagines Wine Country to look like. Good towns are Sonoma itself and Healdsburg. Here's a Sonoma Valley website to get you started.
Here's Open Table's list of Wine Country restaurants
There are descriptions and links to websites for each
Thank you for all of the great information. As for Per Se... we actually wound up at Gramercy Tavern and loved it. We did the tasting menu and it was wonderful. I even got past some of my "freaky food quirks":) The first thing I think I'll do is what you suggest about grabbing a couple of books and checking out some websites. I'm sure I'll have lots of questions, so I'm sure you'll hear from me again! I'm also going to ask friends who have been and get some recommendations. Thanks again!
This board is a good place to start. But first, you need to be clearer about what you want out of your visit. Is the focus food? Wine? If wine, what's your level of experience? Are you a beginner who needs to start with the basics, or an expert looking for things that are rare, exotic and off the beaten track? What else do you want besides food and wine? Scenery? Culture? Beaches? Big trees? Shopping? Spas? High-end? Moderate? The Northern California wine region is extensive -- do you want to drive and explore some of the farther reaches, or stick close to a single base/area?
I'm not aware of any companies doing packages, and you definitely want to skip the Napa wine train. You might want to get out a map, familiarize yourself with some of the place names in the area and do a search. "Napa" and "Sonoma" are both the names of a county and a city, so you need to be specific when you use those terms.