If you are a wine lover and are visiting the Bay Area for the first time, you will be spoiled rotten for choices because this is veritable wine country. Napa and Sonoma counties are the “it” destinations for new world wines. So a Napa valley weekend trip is a no-brainer for you who even mildly curious about wine or enjoy a glass or two of a delicious red or frosty white. No matter your poison of choice, you will be greeted by beautiful towns with vineyards all around once you step in this part of the world, a la Provence, France. If you are visiting for the first time and are overwhelmed about how to explore wine country, may I suggest starting with the beautiful St. Helena in Napa Valley? Let this Napa Valley itinerary guide you into finding the best dining and wine tasting venues in and around this picturesque town. Being a newbie wine lover myself, there are also some handy tips for first time visitors to wine country at the very end of this post.
Napa Valley weekend trip: Where to stay in St. Helena?
St. Helena is world famous for its beautiful wineries, rolling hills and bold red cabernets. Being close to Napa and Yountville, it is also very expensive town to stay at and so it may be difficult to find a reasonably priced accommodation if you are planning a Napa Valley weekend trip. We chose Shady Oaks Country Inn, right on Zinfandel lane (yes the lanes are named after wines in this part of the world) bordered by beautiful wineries and loved our stay there. This inn has a wine and cheese reception in the evening in their beautiful patio and a champagne breakfast in the morning in the parlor (you have to notify in advance if you want to opt out). We stayed at the “winery retreat room”, adjacent to the main building and loved the classic decor inside with a high bed and a beautiful bathroom where we found guest books with previous guests’s experiences and recommendations scribbled on them. Breakfast included poached apples, Belgian waffles with walnuts, syrup and butter along with chicken sausage. Shady Oaks also has helpful brochures and provides coupons for several events in and around St. Helena for those of you eager to explore your surroundings.
Napa Valley itinerary: The best of dining spots in and around St. Helena
No Napa valley itinerary can be complete without food recommendations. This area is a food lovers paradise because of the culinary heavyweights like Thomas Keller and Michael Chiarello calling the towns of Napa, St. Helena and Yountville their home. Thomas Keller practically owns Yountville with his legendary French Laundry, Ad-Hoc, Bouchon Bakery and Cafe (go to the bakery before 8 AM to get your breakfast fill or prepare to wait in a line later which is also worth it). Michael Chiarello’s Bottega, serving Californian-Italian fare, is right across from Bouchon. Even otherwise, the elegance of the wine industry has beckoned several famous eateries in this area, notably Farmstead and Gott’s Roadside and everyone’s perennial favorite Archetype, which should be a must visit on your Napa Valley weekend trip. Archetype, with a very inviting enclosed outdoor space and a spacious interior, bowled us over with its Californian-American fare and service. The menu has several vegetarian options, such as the avocado smeared toast with salad and fruits. Their fish and chips are yummy too! I highly recommend this spot for at least one meal while in St. Helena and if possible, do have it in the well lit outside patio.
Our dinner was the highlight of our Napa valley weekend trip and was definitely was one of the best meals that I’ve ever had in St. Helena. This was due to the amazingly creative dishes fused with Japanese flavors (California inspired Yakitori dishes) at Two Birds One Stone, the restaurant in St. Helena that has taken Napa by storm. Portions are small and so its best to share 4-5 dishes between two people and there are several vegetarian and vegan options on the menu. We chose mostly vegetarian dishes, such as spicy Japanese forbidden rice, Japanese pan cakes, silken tofu immersed in a rich miso broth and a side of chicken meat balls. Dinner ended with the sweetness of black sesame soft serve. The interior was spacious and adorned with dark toned wood for that rich, regal feeling with light reflecting off the glass lamps hanging off the ceiling. Service was friendly and swift as well. Reservation are recommended to guarantee a table. Verdict: Another great place to include in a foodie’s Napa valley itinerary!
You cannot leave Napa valley without savoring at least something at one of Thomas Keller’s dining spots. His celebrated 3 Michelin starred restaurant “French Laundry” at Healdsburg might still elude many, but definitely stop by Bouchon Bakery in Yountville for some baked treats. Be prepared to stand in a line (I am a San Franciscan who is not deterred by a mile long line because I’ve had enough practice) but at the end you will be rewarded with baked goodies of all kind. We had our lunch shortly after at Bottega but wolfed down our eclair haul in the picnic lawn of the nearby Napa cellars.
Bottega, Michael Chiarello’s long standing restaurant in Yountville, and one where had accidentally dined before when I had no idea of anything in wine country, continues to be my favorite via its subtle California kissed Italian fare. No lathering of cheese or tomato sauce thank you, this cuisine is light on the stomach and amazing on the taste buds thanks to fusion of myriad flavors in the pasta, salads and the sinful dessert. The service is impeccable here as well and they have an outdoor dining area for those wanting to enjoy their food in the sun. The lunch menu is a good mix of vegetarian and meaty offerings and we went for the an vegetarian meal. If Napa is not on your cards, then definitely visit Chiarello’s Coquetta, his nod to Spain, in San Francisco along the Embarcadero.
Note: I have not talked about the wine selections at each of these restaurants because frankly that is a redundant point to make. Napa valley’s restaurants pride themselves on their wine list, so be morning noon or night, you are sure to find an envious selection of libations to go with your meal and taste. Barring lunch at Archetype, where I had the pomegranate punch, all other meals were paired with a delicious Pinot Noir for me.
Napa Valley weekend trip: Wine tasting
Here is a synopsis of my wine tasting experience in St. Helena on our Napa valley weekend trip. This was a learning experience because when it comes to scouting wineries and plucking out the good ones from the touristy places, I am still a novice. Typically, most wineries have one or more tasting rooms surrounded by vineyards and sometimes beautiful gardens. The wineries we visited were as follows:
A) Beringer winery: Beringer is California’s longest continually operated winery and was established in 1876 by brothers Jacob and Frederick Beringer to rival the vineyards in Europe. Beringer now has 1600 acres of land for their grapes in Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles and is known for their bold, red cabernets. There are two separate tasting rooms, one for the light and medium bodied and the other for the their full bodied reds. Tasting is three wines of your choice/per person with $25 per head. They are open to the public as a result of which the tasting rooms are extremely crowded. The property is vast and you can stroll along their lawn, stop by to listen to some live music and admire the centrally located manor. They also have a part of their other tasting room (where the full bodied cabs are served) reserved for their wine club members and patrons.
B) Frog’s Leap Winery: This winery requires a reservation for tasting but should definitely be included in your Napa valley itinerary. A darling small batch winery in Rutherford, this is known for its charming red barn, beautiful gardens and their novel dry irrigation vineyards where the grapes have to dig deep in their roots to tap the ground water. We lucked out by getting a spot at 11 AM the day before, but I recommend making a prior reservation just to be safe. The tasting comprises of four wines, mainly reds which are cabernets fused with some petit Syrah, merlots and chardonnay ($ 20/person). Being a reservation only place, you will not be jostling with others for a space at the pouring table and can get to know quite a bit about each wine as they are being poured. The friendly ladies doing so where very knowledgable about each pour and the grapes and best of all, we could stroll around in leisure to soak in the beauty of the space. The towering red barn, a beautiful vegetable garden, a koi pond with lotus flowers and surrounding flowering bushes made the scenery very beautiful. Highly recommended for your Napa Valley weekend trip for a relaxing, one of a kind experience.
C) Artesa winery: Our final stop for our Napa Valley weekend trip was wine tasting at Artesa winery. This winery is blessed with an incredible view since it is perched at an elevation. Wine tasting is$27/person that comes with 4-5 pours, again mainly cabernets. The wine was OK, simply because I am not a big fan of bold red Cabernets, but the view was fantastic.There is an enclosed space for patrons but the general tasting room is open to all. Artesa is easy to get into because there are no reservations needed. If you are not big into planning your Napa valley itinerary to the Y, I say go for this winery to enjoy the sweeping views with a glass of wine in hand.
Finally here are the much promised tips to navigate wine country with some flair, and without seeming like a bumbling bee or a clueless tourist. They will definitely help you to have a fun filled Napa valley weekend trip without any nasty surprises.
1) This may seem obvious, but a trip to wine country needs some planning and definitely will affect your purse strings because a) accommodation is expensive and b) tasting does come at a price and is not free, specially in Napa. The best time to plan a Napa valley weekend trip is early fall, i.e. August-late September when it is harvest time and you will still see the grapes hanging off the vines. At many wineries, you might witness grape crushing as well and some places even have fun grape stomping exercises for visitors. Finally, take some time to figure out the kind of wine you have an appetite for. I love the light Pinot Noirs and French Gamays, so bold reds are not for me. Anderson Valley and Sonoma have the best Pinot Noirs while St. Helena is definitely for cabernet lovers.
2) Always visit wine country with a designated driver. DUI is a huge offense in USA, plus it is dangerous and reckless. So please rent a limo if everyone in your party plans to imbibe and have a good time. Buzzed driving is drunk driving and the penalties are severe. For your peace of mind and to enjoy a Napa valley weekend trip unsullied by bad memories, book one of the many wine country trips from San Francisco. There are several packages and custom tasting tours, so try one that suits your taste and budget. Finally, you have to be of legal drinking age to participate, which is 21 in USA.
3) Beringer and V. Sattui are big, impersonal wineries where you will be going elbow to elbow for wine tasting. To avoid crowds and to get a more exclusive experience, do some research and make appointments before hand for small batch wineries to lend a personalized touch to your Napa Valley itinerary. You will love the quiet, leisurely experience of sipping wine much more than being stuck in a crowd of rambunctious people. Newton vineyards is one such place that has fantastic views and has tastings by appointment only, so is Frog’s leap.
4) Wine country has sunny, mediterranean climate and gets pretty hot in Aug-Sep. Check the weather and dress accordingly, specially if you are visiting from cooler, foggier San Francisco. I lived in cotton/linen dresses while at St. Helena, which is a rarity because of SF’s weather.
5) Napa valley is one the busiest tourist destinations from spring-fall. Unless you are planning a day trip, its best to plan way ahead to book accommodations for a Napa Valley weekend trip or overnight stay to get a relatively more economic rate. Most places are boutique hotels or inns, so prices go up drastically during peak season.
6) Grab some food at Dean& Deluca or the Oxbow Market in Napa or get some goodies in a basket to have a picnic in the acres of lush greenery in some of the wineries that allow meals on their lawn. Napa cellars is definitely one of them.
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