A Beginner's Guide to Napa

I apologize for the lack of tasting notes recently. We have been out of our house and have not had the opportunity to taste new wines. I have, however, been asked several times over the past few weeks about advice for someone traveling to Napa. 

Disclaimer: I have only been there once and LOVED it. However, because I've only been there once, I certainly am not an expert, but there were things here and there that I picked up on and would love to share with anyone considering going to Napa.

When should I go to Napa?

There isn't a bad time to go to Napa really. Sure, there's peak seasons and low seasons, but given the weather is fairly mild and wineries are open year round, you can make the trip whenever your heart desires. I found a great post that describes the different types of experiences you will have based on what time of the year you go.

What wineries should I go to?

There are a gazillion wineries to choose from and it can be very overwhelming to decide which ones to go to. Anyone who has been to Napa has their idea of which winery is the best, so I would recommend you rely on recommendations of people whose opinions you respect. If you're the first to venture out to wine country, then I would definitely check out this map. It lists all the wineries, and which, most importantly, require an appointment vs public tasting room.

Wait, what's the difference?

My initial perception of Napa is that every winery had a tasting room you could go to. WRONG. There are some wineries that require you to make an appointment for a tour and tasting. I found that it was best to experience both types. Our schedule had one tour by appointment and then we filled the rest of the day with wineries with public tasting rooms. I wish I had found that map prior to our trip to Napa because it would have planning a lot easier! Tours are typically pricier ($40-$100) and public tasting rooms can vary based on the winery and the type of tasting you get.

Important Note: One great tip to keep travel costs low if you want is to split a tasting. I have never heard of this being an option on a tour or when you go to a by appointment place, but you can definitely do this in a public tasting room! I was nervous to do it as first because I was afraid it was frowned upon, but not a single person gave any thought to it when my husband and I asked for a single tasting between the two of us.

Okay, I have some wineries in mind but am not sure how to plan out the day. What would you suggest?

The first thing I would do is plot your desired wineries on the map I linked above. You will want to plan your wineries by geographical location. After a tasting or two, you definitely don't want to be driving all over the place, so I would make sure you plot out a good route (or hire a driver if you can afford it!). I simply used GoogleMaps when I was planning it out to figure out the easiest path, but the map I linked above would be a huge help too. 

Also, in my opinion, I thought three a day was plenty. I usually had a tour first on our schedule in the late morning, a tasting room for after lunch, and another before we headed back to the hotel. One day we threw a fourth public tasting room for the heck of it, and it's doable, but I liked the relaxed pace of doing three a day.

You mentioned lunch. What do people do for breakfast and lunch while out and about?

Napa is another food-centric city so the options are bountiful! This is where I found TripAdvisor and recommendations to be very helpful. We chose to eat a light breakfast since we knew we'd be drinking and eating a lot throughout the day. We just picked up some bagels and cream cheese from the local Walmart to have in our hotel room. 

For lunch, picnics seem to be very popular! We picnicked once at Clos du Val and it was great. There are plenty of cute markets around where you can pick up some meat, cheese, and other snacks to have on the go. If that's not your style, there are plenty of restaurants to choose from, from fast food (In-And-Out!) to sit down affairs. Once you have picked out your wineries, I would look online for popular restaurants in that area, or if you're not as type A as I am and like to go with the flow, ask someone at one of the wineries what they would recommend.  We stopped at a local legend, Gott's Roadside, on whim, and it was tasty! 

Do I need to dress up for tours and tastings?

Napa is a very casual and laid back place, so you should feel free to wear whatever makes you comfortable! When I was there I saw people dressed on both ends of the spectrum, so you can't go wrong. I would suggest bringing some layers if you go in the fall as we found the mornings to be chilly, but it would warm up quite a bit during the day. Also, if you choose a winery with a cave, it can be a little chilly down there, so pack a sweater! The only time you need to really think about dress is for dinner options -- there a couple of restaurants in the area that have a dress code.

Do you have any last bits of advice?

This is totally a personal thing, but I highly recommend throwing in a sparkling wine options, or something to mix up all of the big, bold reds you will have. Napa is the king of Cabs, and while they are delicious, it can be a little daunting, especially in the morning! We added a maker of sparkling wine to the agenda, and I was SO glad that we did. It was interesting to compare the process of making sparkling wine to the traditional wine, and it was fun to have some bubbles in the morning!

Also, shipping back from Napa is easy! If you are going into the vacation thinking you'll buy some bottles, don't fret. Shipping bottles back is second nature to them. If you don't know if you plan to, I recommend setting a budget. It's easy to get caught up in the glory of Napa and buy more you intended, so think about it before heading in!

This may seem old school, but if you're headed to the outskirts of the Napa region, I would print out a set of directions just in case! Because I am type A, I had printed out our path and directions from Google Maps, but we actually went to a winery where neither of our phones got service, so my hardcopy directions came in handy.

Last question... if you could suggest only one winery from your first trip, which would it be?

Palmaz. The tour was great, the wine was delicious, and the winery has a cool, science-y story. It only does by appointment, but I thought it was well worth it! I'm going to cheat and give another, but Schramsberg was a close #2.

If you make the trip out there, I hope you enjoy it! It's a fun and relaxing place to drink some spectacular wine and eat some great food. Have any other questions or tips of your own? Leave a comment below!