Napa Valley is exactly what you expect when you think of Wine Country: hillside chateau wineries, bold cabernets, vast expanses of perfectly ordered grape vines, grassy slopes speckled by the tungsten sun, restaurant dinners that go on for hours, and some of the finest and most luxurious small-scale boutique hotels anywhere in California.
Beyond the typical, Napa has some great hiking in the hillsides, exhilarating mud baths up north in the more working-class town of Calistoga, and plenty of small shops, wineries and classy bistros in the tony village settings of St Helena and Yountville.
Most journeys here start and end in the city of Napa proper. In the town center there are tasting rooms, live jazz and plenty of fine-dining options, plus the option to party late into the night at down-home pubs and eateries that draw a young local crowd.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Napa Valley.
At the valley’s westernmost edge, where sloping vineyards meet wooded hillsides, Tres Sabores is a portal to old Napa – no fancy tasting room, no snobbery, just great wine in a spectacular setting. Bucking the cabernet custom, Tres Sabores crafts elegantly structured, Burgundian-style zinfandel and spritely sauvignon blanc, which the New York Times dubbed a top 10 of its kind in California. Reservations are essential.
Giraffes in Wine Country? Whadya know. Safari West sprawls over 400 acres and hosts wildebeests, zebras, cheetahs and other exotic animals, which mostly roam free. See them on a guided 2½-hour safari in open-sided jeeps, which also includes a 30-minute hike; reservations required, no kids under four (unless you book a private wagon).
Napa’s second-oldest winery, Schramsberg makes some of California’s best brut sparkling wines, and in 1972 was the first domestic wine served at the White House. Blanc de blancs is the signature. The appointment-only tasting and tour (book well ahead) is expensive, but you’ll sample all the tête de cuvées (best of each vintage), not just the low-end wines. Tours include a walk through the caves; bring a sweater. Bottles cost $24 to $150.
The fabulous hillside tasting room, constructed of stone, redwood and teak, resembles a small cathedral – fitting, given the sacred status here bestowed upon food and wine. It specializes in bright-acid organic pinot noir, plus exceptional aromatic white varietals, dry rosé and Bordeaux varietals such as merlot and cab franc, all crafted for the dinner table. Small bites accompany bar tastings, and seated food and wine experiences are curated by chef Maria Sinskey herself. Reserve ahead for sit-down tastings and culinary tours.
High atop Spring Mountain, cult-favorite Pride straddles the Napa–Sonoma border and bottles vintages under both appellations. The well-structured Cabernet and heavy-hitting Merlot are the best-known wines but there's also an elegant Viognier (perfect with oysters) and standout Cab Franc, available only here. Picnicking is spectacular: choose Viewpoint for drop-dead vistas, or Ghost Winery for shade and the historic ruins of a 19th-century winery, but you must first reserve a tasting. Bottles cost $45 to $145.
Art-lovers: don’t miss Hess Collection, whose galleries display mixed-media and large-canvas works, including pieces by Francis Bacon and Robert Motherwell. In the elegant stone-walled tasting room, find well-known cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, but also try the Viognier. There's garden service in the warmer months, which is lovely, as Hess overlooks the valley. Make reservations and be prepared to drive a winding road. Bottles are $30 to $100. A public tour runs at 10:30am.
Long Meadow stands out for olive-oil tastings ($10), plus good estate-grown cabernet, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir, served inside an 1874 farmhouse surrounded by lovely gardens. It also has a whiskey flight for $30; sells housemade products such as preserves, BBQ sauce and Bloody Mary mix; and hosts chef's tables (four- to five-course food-and-wine experiences) at lunch and dinner daily. Reservations for chef's table required. Bottles $20 to $50.
Ascend Mt Veeder for drop-dead vistas, 1800ft above the valley, at Napa’s oh-so-swank, first-ever organically farmed, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold-certified winery, partly owned by former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. Hawks ride thermals at eye level as you sample bright Sauvignon Blanc and luscious Cabernet Sauvignon that’s more Bordelaise in style than Californian. Reservations required. Bottles cost $44 to $80.
Meandering paths wind through magical gardens and fruit-bearing orchards surrounding an 1884 barn and farmstead with cats and chickens. The vibe is casual and down-to-earth, with a major emphasis on fun. Sauvignon blanc is its best-known wine but the merlot merits attention. There’s also a dry, restrained cabernet, atypical of Napa.