Paces West Travels: Guide to Napa Valley
Napa Valley has been on my travel to-do list for some time. Despite the obvious appeal of this food and wine haven, there always seemed to be some reason not to go. True story – Max and I have had no less than THREE planned trips to Napa that had to be cancelled or moved for one reason or another. A few weeks ago, we finally made it to wine country and wasted exactly zero minutes before diving in to all the valley has to offer. It was a short trip, but we certainly made the most of it!
When researching where to eat, stay, and get my vino on, I noticed there is A LOT of information about Napa on the world wide web. Seemingly everyone has been there, and everyone has differing opinions on where to go and what to do. On one hand, the overwhelming sentiment was that Napa is awesome and basically an adult Disney Land. On the other hand, it was super difficult to determine which vineyards or restaurants to choose because for every one person plugging restaurant A, there was another plugging restaurant B, and so forth. The other issue I ran into with planning was how to structure my days so that I could visit a large variety of wineries, but still be able to walk into the dinner restaurant under my own steam.
With these issues in mind, I’m going to structure this guide a little bit differently than my other travel guides. Instead of sharing a list of where we ate, what we did, where we stayed, etc.; this guide will be “itinerary-style”, meaning I will still share what wineries and restaurants we visited, but it will be in a day-by-day view instead of one complete list. I will also caveat this guide by saying it is by no means exhaustive. There are a TON of places we simply did not have the time to visit, and I anticipate returning to Napa many more times in the future and updating this guide as I go!
Scroll down for the guide and also read my post on What I Wore in Napa for clothing links!
Since this was our first trip to Napa, we did not have any strong opinions on what neighborhood/area we wanted to stay in. We knew we wanted to visit a variety of different vineyards and wineries spread across all areas of the valley, thus we would be doing a fair amount of commuting no matter where we stayed. We opted to stay in downtown Napa due to its somewhat-central location to our points of interest. We knew we wanted to visit spots in Yountville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga to the North, and several places in Carneros to the South, so downtown seemed to be the closest compromise.
We stayed at the Archer Hotel, a new luxury boutique hotel in the area. We could not have been more pleased with our stay! Even though we arrived on a Tuesday, the hotel was always bustling with activity. The lobby restaurant and bar were always packed, and the rooftop offered great views and an even better cocktail hour! The hotel is modern, clean, and offers great amenities. We stayed in the Archer’s Den with Balcony and Fireplace, which featured a separate living area with a fully stocked wet bar as well as a large balcony and outdoor fireplace. The bedroom area was very spacious and had a large four poster bed and floor to ceiling windows spanning most of the room. The bathroom area was massive and had ample counter space on the double sink vanity as well as a walk-in shower and separate tub.
To probably no one’s surprise, I am NOT a light traveler. Although I do my best to plan out my outfits according to our itinerary in advance, I still end up needing several pairs of shoes, purses, hats, and more makeup and toiletries than a Sephora. I am also one of those people who fully unpacks when I’m staying in a hotel. I hang all of my clothes, organize my accessories, put my socks in the drawers, the whole nine yards. I literally call in advance and request that my room be stocked with 847934857 hangers so that I can make sure nothing needs to be left in the suitcase. Needless to say, space is important to me. This suite at the Archer Hotel was amazing because it had two closets, multiple drawer chests, shelving underneath the sink vanity, and they were very accommodating with my hanger needs.
In addition to the suite and overall hotel amenities being everything I could ask, the service was also friendly, helpful, professional, and prompt, which I always appreciate when I travel because it cuts out so much unnecessary stress. Housekeeping also came in for turn down service while we were at dinner and left us fresh towels, extra Fiji water bottles (hydration is important in Napa so this was HUGE to me), and sweets. Overall, we can’t say enough nice things about this hotel and our experience elevated our trip as a whole!
There are a variety of transportation options between vineyards and wineries in Napa. There are several private car and limo services, group tour buses, a wine train, you name it. We opted to keep it simple and just use Uber and Lyft to transport us between vineyards and to restaurants. They were readily available in all the areas we visited and significantly less expensive than a car service, but still allowed us to be flexible in our schedule and itinerary. The key thing to note is Napa Valley is not walkable. There are transportation types to fit every budget and taste, but it is not something you can neglect in planning your trip. Even vineyards in the same area can be 10-15 minutes apart from each other, so having a transportation game plan is essential to enjoying your trip!
Since we flew in from the East Coast, our Day 1 was really just Night 1. We arrived at our hotel around 4PM, which gave us just enough time to unpack, settle in, and get ready for dinner. For our first dinner in Napa, we ventured to Redd in Yountville. Consistently reviewed as one of the best restaurants in Napa Valley, Redd has been on our radar for some time and the experience did not disappoint. Though it was a Tuesday night, there were hardly any empty tables inside or out. The flavorful dishes stand in stark contrast to the minimally decorated, no frills dining room, which, you have to assume, is kind of the point. The roasted corn soup was so delicious that Max has been begging me to try to recreate it ever since (I’m sure Richard Reddington would be only too thrilled to share his recipe with me). The scallops, I quickly learned, are the stuff of Napa legend. Whenever I was asked throughout the rest of our trip where we had dined thus far, everyone’s response was “I hope you got the scallops” when I mentioned we’d been to Redd. Thankfully, I had gotten the scallops and they were, in fact, amazing. This was a great place to start our trip and left us feeling excited at all the food and wine to come over the next few days!
We started our first official day in Napa by
eating breakfast carb-loading at our hotel before setting out to our first vineyard tour at Del Dotto Vineyards. Del Dotto has a few locations in Napa Valley offering various experiences – we chose to visit the Del Dotto Estate Winery and Caves in St. Helena and took part in their cave experience and barrel tasting. They describe this tasting as one where you taste around 8 wines directly from the barrel in their estate caves and they provide light snacks after. This already sounded pretty robust compared to other tastings we’d experienced before as well as others we’d booked for our trip, so we were pretty excited going in to the tasting. After experiencing it, I can confirm that their description is a serious under-sell. Our guide greeted us with a welcome glass of wine and walked us through a history of the winemaker and vineyard. He then guided us to the wine cave where we would learn about all of the wines they produce and taste various types directly from the barrel. With its cobbled floors, curved ceiling, sparkling chandeliers, and barrel lined walls as far as the eye can see, the cave provided the perfect setting for a wine tasting. We also tasted no less than 10 generously poured wines of various ages, price points, and varietals. After the tasting we were treated to cheese and charcuterie as well as an entire pizza made in house with ingredients sourced from the estate – and, of course, another glass of wine! The whole experience lasted about and hour and half, which is much longer than some other tastings but well worth budgeting the time for. While we knew we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves at the time, we did not know that this would remain our favorite tasting of the trip! On our next trip, I would love to visit one of their other locations and take in the experience there!
After Del Dotto, we headed to Domaine Carneros, which specializes in sparkling wine. We did not have a formal lunch on this day since we knew we would have snacks at Del Dotto as well as Domaine Carneros. We also opted to do a seated tasting on the terrace at Domaine Carneros, rather than a full tour, since we knew we would be coming from a long tour at Del Dotto. I intentionally mixed up our experiences at different vineyards throughout the trip so that we could get a feel for what we liked best. We realized that we most enjoy a full tour because it offers us the chance to taste a greater variety of wines and learn more about them as we do so. Thus, next time we visit Napa I would return to Domaine Carneros for a full tour, but we still very much enjoyed our terrace tasting!
Domaine Carneros was established in 1987 by the Taittinger family, the French wine makers behind the famous Champagne Taittinger. The estate is anchored by a large Château, meant to reflect the elegance and grandeur of French wine country. The Château is surrounded by formal gardens and vines, and offers spectacular views of the hills beyond. At our terrace table we tasted flights of sparkling wines paired with local and international cheeses. We also indulged in some caviar because is there really any better way to sample sparkling wine than with cheese and caviar? Max would argue that there are, in fact, several other more wallet-friendly ways to enjoy sparkling wine but hey I’m on vacation so treat yo self right?
As I said previously, Domaine Carneros does offer a full tour as well as other elevated experiences such as tastings on a private balcony of the Château, but I have to admit that the terrace tasting was not a bad way to spend an afternoon!
After Domaine Carneros, we went back to our hotel to freshen up before dinner. We intentionally only visited two vineyards on this day because we knew we had a large dinner ahead of us at The Auberge du Soleil. Chances are if you’ve been to Napa or ever thought about going to Napa, you’ve heard of the Auberge du Soleil restaurant. Located in the famous resort of the same name, the restaurant boasts a Michelin star and awe inspiring views of the valley. It is one of the most famous restaurants in the area, and after dining there we fully understand why. Our 4-course meal was thoughtfully prepared, with each course containing more flavors and unique ingredients than the last. Though they do not offer specific wine pairings unless you opt for the 6-course tasting menu (which we could not because we have dietary restrictions that did not work well with the tasting menu that evening), our waiter helped us pair wines with each of our chosen courses so that we had a truly unique experience. The only thing I would change next time would be to dine there for lunch rather than dinner so that we could fully appreciate the amazing views in the daylight!
On our second full day I packed our schedule much more tightly than the previous day in an attempt to again mix up our experiences so we could determine what we like best for future visits. We visited three vineyards and had a formal lunch and dinner on this day, which was not as intense as I thought it would be but definitely required a bit of restraint during the tastings.
We started bright and early at Alpha Omega Winery in St. Helena. We were the first to arrive for the day, so we had our pick of table. It was a breezy and crisp morning, so we chose to sit outside in front of the fountains. Even without the wine, the setting was delightful. We opted for the signature selections tasting and got to taste 5 of their wines over the course of an hour while also learning about their winemaking process and the history of their winery. What I loved about this tasting was that each wine was brought out individually (and generously poured) and as our guide poured each taste he would teach us about that specific wine. After, he would leave us to enjoy the remainder of the wine on our own while we took in the surroundings before he brought out the next selection. I was also surprised at how much I enjoyed the Chardonnay at Alpha Omega. I am typically not a Chardonnay person but their particular blend was so fantastic we even ordered a few bottles for later!
The winery is also green certified and dog-friendly, both of which I love!
After Alpha Omega we had lunch nearby at Archetype. I am not exaggerating when I say this is one of the cutest restaurants I have ever been to. The rustic chic dining room is quintessential Napa, and the menu is one where you literally can’t decide what to eat because everything looks so good. I can’t wait to go back just so I can taste everything I didn’t get to order!
Our lunch at Archetype perfectly prepared us for our next stop, Rutherford Hill Winery. Located at the tippity top of, well, Rutherford Hill, the winery boasts some serious views. We took part in the 90 minute cave tour and barrel tasting, which became our second favorite tasting behind Del Dotto (you could say we have a type). The tasting included a tour of the grounds along with a history of the winery before entering the cave to learn about their winemaking process and varietals. Written up as one of the most unique wine tours in Napa Valley, the tasting did not disappoint. They also offer other tastings and experiences, and I would love to return on our next trip to experience a different side of the winery.
Feeling the effects of the first two wineries and our (ill-advised) mimosas at lunch, we headed to our last stop of the day, Mumm Napa. Chances are you’ve heard of Mumm before as their sparkling wines are sold throughout the U.S. and are very popular. Their sparkling rosé is one of my personal favorites and I drink it frequently at home. Since we already knew we liked the wine and have already sampled most of their offerings, we chose to enjoy a flight on the patio before heading back to our hotel to get ready for dinner.
For dinner we returned to Carneros for what would be our last (and favorite!) dinner of the trip. FARM at Carneros is chic and modern with an elegant farmhouse vibe that is nothing short of swoon-worthy. From the moment we arrived, I knew this would be a place we would want to return to on our next trip to Napa. My only regret is that we arrived after sunset, so I could not take any pictures of the setting! The photos on their website do capture it well however, and definitely do not exaggerate how beautiful it is. Not only was the setting amazing, they had various outdoor casual seating areas with fire pits and live music, I found myself wishing we’d come earlier and left later!
I’m a complete sucker for a good restaurant atmosphere, so the food could’ve been total crap and I would have still loved it at this point. Thankfully, it was AHHHMAZING. They also offer brunch on Sundays, which I will be 100% building in to my next Napa itinerary!
This was our last day in Napa (we had a night flight back to the East Coast), so we chose to sleep in (read: sleep OFF the previous day) and spend the morning packing. After storing our luggage at the hotel, we headed to a late lunch at SolBar in Calistoga. Located in the Solage Calistoga Resort, SolBar features a picturesque patio and a seasonal, local menu. We were a little wined-out at this point, so we sipped on some of their imaginative cocktails while we enjoyed our lunch. The service here was also exceptional and warm. The only downside was that we had to move inside halfway through the meal due to ash falling from the nearby wildfires. Despite the slightly apocalyptic vibes of ash raining from the sky, it was a highly pleasant lunch and a positive note to leave the trip on.
Calistoga has so many vineyards, including the famous Château Montelena, but due to its distance from the other Napa Valley areas, we did not get to explore it as much as we would have liked. After lunch, we had time for one more vineyard before heading to the airport, and we chose to visit Rombauer which had been strongly recommended to us by friends. Their classic tasting is quick – you will taste 5 wines in a matter of 30 minutes – but what I loved about Rombauer was that you can order any of their wines by the glass and explore their grounds after your tasting. They even offer picnic tables and allow you to bring in picnic food! Had we had more time, I would have loved to hangout and snack on a picnic lunch while enjoying the views, but alas it was time to depart.
Napa is every bit as magical as people say – it truly is an adult playground! I love any place that has amazing food and wine culture, and Napa basically invented the concept. Max and I have already starting planning our next trip back, and I’ve included links below of all of the places we did not yet get to try but are on our list for next time!
I also love how there is really no single correct way to “do” Napa. Everyone has their own tastes and experiences (and alcohol tolerances) and I love how all of the wineries put their unique spin on what a wine tasting means to them. I would love to hear about your experiences in Napa, as well as recommendations for next time!