The Local's Guide to Napa Valley

The Napa Valley and the rest of Wine Country has become a top national tourist destination. The sprawling vineyards over rolling hills in close proximity to the California coastline are unparalleled. It’s no wonder the popularity in both wine and wine tasting has grown dramatically. From Arkansas and Oregon to the nearby Central Valley, there seems to be more growth in the wine agri-tourism industry than any other. Still Napa Valley and St. Helena particularly, reign king as the most recognizable wine destination.
As the industry grows, so does the vast menu of options trip planners see when they consider a trip to the region. Savvy travelers often seek out helpful locals and frequent guests for the must-see attractions with the help of a local’s perspective. Whitehall Lane’s Leonardini family has called the region home for decades. Frequent visits from family and friends have given them the opportunity to explore time and again. Some of their Wine Country recommendations may be surprising, but everyone loves to play tourist in their own town once in a while.
Getting around:
Bikes are a frequent favor of those in need of a more ground-level, active wine tasting experience. Although locals say cycling from vineyard to vineyard is great, planning makes all the difference.
Insider tips for the cyclist:

  1. Pick one area, like St. Helena, for example. Start at the south end, Whitehall Lane Winery is actually a great starting point for a St. Helena bike tour, situated at the south end.
  2. Plan the route ahead of time.
  3. Be realistic, only plan on two to four stops at the most
  4. Drink plenty of water
  5. Take breaks, pick a spot for a late lunch ahead of time
  6. Plan for heat, pack sunscreen
  7. Plan to finish your ride after lunch to rest, giving yourself plenty of time to freshen up for dinner

If biking doesn’t work for your party, get a chauffeur or driving service. Wine tasting is your time to indulge. Indulge responsibly, and the experience is even more enjoyable. Hiring professionals who know their way around can double as tour guides and add to the overall relaxation of a getaway. Beau Wine Tours is reasonably priced and a great way to be driven around the valley with friends.
Proper Noshing
Wine Country is not only known for its incredible wine blends. Cheese shops, bakeries and regional fresh produce are in abundance. Foodies delight in the pioneering spirit that Napa Valley chefs have become known for and for the gourmet fare available, even at the most unassuming highway stores.
Some wineries offer picnic spaces, with reservations. Whitehall Lane offers a picnic area in its beautiful garden for its wine club members. Pick up a lunch at Sunshine Grocers in St. Helena or Bouchon Bistro in Yountville, along with some GoVino glasses for picnicking. Select a bottle or two during your tasting experience, and then picnic at a winery or many of the parks around the valley.
If you prefer a restaurant, Goose and Gander has a wonderful garden area for outdoor dining. For indoor dining, Market Restaurant is a local favorite. If you are tired of wine and want a cocktail at the end of the day, Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch has a nice outdoor space in the summer months and a lively bar.
Building a Tasting Itinerary
Visitors can be overwhelmed by the options when confronted with prioritizing wineries to taste in one trip. Some use price or proximity as a guide. Locals recommend selecting a variety of wineries when you plan your day trip, and prioritizing according to reputation, hour and expertise.

  1. To start the adventure, select a place known for its sparkling wine, like Domaine Chandon, to start the day.
  2. Build some time for one large, well-known winery where you can have a nice tour like Mondavi, to learn about the history of the valley. One long tour per day is plenty.
  3. Stop at a winery representative of the best the valley has to offer. You’ll want to enjoy this one. Whitehall Lane, a family-owned winery is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley’s most famous varietal, and other varietals that are only offered at the winery.
  4. Finally, visit a small winery that has a small case production that you may not see in your hometown, like Salvestrin Winery.

Some critical advice from long-time tasters: Don’t be too ambitious when planning your days. Three wineries a day, maybe four, are plenty. Be sure to schedule lunch in between. Drink plenty of water along the way. If you overcommit, you will retire before the sun goes down and miss the world-class restaurant at which you likely have a much-anticipated reservation.
If you’re with a group of more than four, make appointments wherever you go. Many places may not accommodate walk-ins for larger parties, and it’s best to err on the safe side. If you’ve made reservations, be sure to be punctual. Unlike other tourist destinations, wineries function on strict schedules around tastings, tours, and harvesting. If you’re late, your experience will be cut short or cancelled. Chauffeurs can be a tremendous help when it comes to time management, especially for big groups.
Beyond the Vineyards
Wine tasting takes center stage as the tourist activity but one can only drink so much in one weekend. For a unique perspective of the valley, a few companies offer hot air balloon rides at sunrise. The view is breathtaking and should find its way onto the bucket list of wine country lovers.
Visitors are often taken aback by the breathtaking landscape surrounding the vineyards and tasting rooms. There are many beautiful hiking trails throughout the valley. Add some exercise in to your visit and hike in the mid-morning before you start wine tasting. Stay hydrated so you don’t negatively affect your wine tasting that afternoon.
A great resource for hiking trails is this page on the Chamber of Commerce website.
Golfers might think they have a hidden gem in Napa, since tourism usually centers on other activities but world-class golf and tennis abounds nearby. A full listing can be found here.
Finally, an afternoon of drinking excellent wine and tasting unworldly cheese begs for an afternoon lying in the grass or kicking back in the air conditioning. Endless listings prove live music in the evenings is in high demand. Indoor shows can be found at the City Winery and Uptown Theater in Napa.
No matter how someone wants to experience wine country, be sure to ask questions and make conversation along the way. Locals say, whatever you do, don’t be afraid to ask. It’s fun to learn about the history of the valley and the history of each winery. Find out how each winery started, ask for recommendations, and dive into the present as each winery has a special time and place in the wine arena.
Also, let the wine experts you meet know what you like to drink at home, then allow them to help direct you to the varietal or library wine they think would suit your tastes.
Don’t be afraid to ask!!