“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
There are places in this world that hold special meaning to us. Places where moments are forever etched in our memories, written in indelible ink and frozen in time. Places that mark rites of passage or celebrations or experiences so precious that our views might be just a little bit skewed, painted with a brush dipped in a swirling mix of possibility and perfection.
And so it is with Napa Valley, California, where our daughter Emily was married on the last day of June. As an added serendipity, it happened to be my sixty-fifth birthday.
Our family had visited Napa Valley a handful of times when we lived in the Bay Area back in the late 1980s through the late ’90s. These were easy day trips, about an hour’s drive, often with out-of-town visitors in tow. I remember always enjoying our visits, yet never really giving the area much deeper thought.
As I was helping Emily and her fiancé research San Francisco wedding venues, the word Napa kept appearing on my computer screen, like a speech bubble from a chatty cartoon character. But it was an online photo of Auberge du Soleil that stopped me in my tracks and resonated in a very deep place – an outdoor terrace hanging over the valley, wrapped in extraordinary views of vineyards, evergreen trees and distant mountains. When Emily called from their visit to this intimate setting, she had only three words: “This is it!”
In January, the four of us headed to Napa Valley to check out the photo-inspired venue we had booked. Even in winter, with moody skies and bare vineyard branches lining the Silverado Trail, the Valley looked beautiful. It was easy to imagine the barren landscape ripening and blossoming as the seasons flowed into spring and summer. Verdant was the word that kept playing in my mind. Suddenly this place called Napa Valley was starting to take hold of my heart. It was like seeing a place for the first time and falling instantly in love.
I think I floated through most of Emily’s wedding, wanting to hang on to every second of every moment. The view from the terrace was layered in endless shades of green, bathed in sunlight in the late afternoon and cast in deep shadows as dusk folded into evening. Summer had come through, rich and bountiful, keeping its promise of the season on an occasion when keeping promises was the order of the day.
Herb and I stayed on for a couple of days after the wedding, wanting more time to better get to know this place that was now part of our family’s story. We moved down the road to the Rancho Caymus Inn, and in between reliving the joys of the past few days, we explored. I had a rough itinerary of places to stop, but mostly we wandered, driving from one town to the next on idyllic country roads.
I’ve put together the following guide from our time in Napa Valley, organized by the towns we visited, traveling from the south end of the Valley to the north. With more than 400 wineries and dozens of interesting restaurants, cafés and outdoor activities, it’s fairly certain that I’ve covered just a small portion of the what the area offers! I hope this little guide will provide a few ideas and a bit of inspiration if you find yourself traveling this way or are simply curious about this quintessential place in California called the Napa Valley.
A Guide to Napa Valley
Table of Contents
- A Little Napa Valley Geography Lesson
- Napa – The City
- Oakdale & Rutherford
- St. Helena
- A Note About Wine Tastings
- About That Traffic
- Post Script
A Little Napa Valley Geography Lesson
Although Napa and Napa Valley are often used interchangeably, they represent three distinct places. Napa Valley is an American Viticultural Area (AVA) – a grape-growing area with unique geographic and cultural features – and is made up of 16 sub-AVAs. Napa County is the area’s county name, created in 1840 when California became a state. The town of Napa is the county seat and largest city in Napa County.
The Valley is flanked by two parallel roads – Highway 29 on the west and the Silverado Trail (also called Highway 121) on the east. Small country roads connect the two at various spots along the way, like railroad ties strung between a set of tracks. It’s an easy place to get around by car, and even spending a couple of days roaming the area wraps you in that wonderfully well-traveled feeling of being away much longer than the calendar would suggest.
Napa – The City
Sitting at the southern end of Napa Valley, the city of Napa has a rich history that dates to the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. Victorian houses with trees spilling over sidewalks like canopies offer the feeling of a peaceful, gentle place. The downtown district seems both vibrant and a little old-fashioned, a vision of contemporary shops and restaurants mixing with historical ambiance. The Napa River winds through the city’s downtown waterfront, and the Napa Valley Wine Train – offering scenic tours to wineries in the Valley – begins its journey at the station on McKinstry Street.
Napa Valley Welcome Center – 600 Main Street, Napa
If you’re visiting Napa Valley for the first time, this is a terrific place to get your bearings. Friendly volunteers offer maps, touring recommendations and general information about the area. A nicely-designed gift shop features locally-handcrafted items and souvenirs, and a parking garage across the street provides easy access to the Welcome Center and downtown area.
Oxbow Public Market – 610 & 644 First Street, Napa
Oxbow Public Market impressed me as a must do destination. Perched along the Napa River and Napa River Trail, the 40,000-square-foot marketplace is filled with local food vendors, artisan cafés and organic produce stands as well as coffee and wine shops. Our family enjoyed a wonderful lunch here and found the outdoor terrace an especially appealing spot for relaxing over food and conversation.
The Grape Crusher – Vista Point Drive, Napa
Although Napa’s landmark Grape Crusher statue is immediately visible looming over the vineyards off Highway 29, it’s a little tricky to find. Sitting atop Vista Point Park past a complex of office buildings on Napa Valley Corporate Drive, the 15-foot-high bronze statue depicts a vineyard worker wearing a wide-brimmed hat and operating a grape crusher. Unveiled in 1988, the statue was created by Santa Fe artist Gino Miles. We walked the short curved pathway to the top of the monument and were rewarded with beautiful views of the Valley as well an up-close look at the stunning work of art.
You might say that the tiny town of Yountville – population about 3,000 – has one Michelin star for every 1,000 people. The place is a gourmet-lover’s dream destination, most notably for the chance to dine at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, where it can take months to book a reservation. It’s a fun town to spend time simply wandering, abundantly charming and laid-back, even amid all the prestigious culinary acclaim.
Bottega Napa Valley – 6525 Washington Street, Yountville
Our son-in-law discovered this restaurant and was so taken with it that he booked one of the private dining rooms for the wedding’s rehearsal dinner. Created by chef Michael Chiarello, Bottega showcases micro-regional Italian cuisine in a warm, inviting atmosphere. We had lunch here in January as well as the rehearsal dinner and a wine and cheese reception in June, and I can confidently say that all three were outstanding – from the meals to the service to the lovely ambiance of the dining rooms.
Bouchon Bakery – 6528 Washington Street, Yountville
A never-ending line of customers wove out the door and snaked along the mint green and yellow-awninged storefront of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery. It was Saturday night – which may possibly explain the crowds – and it wasn’t until Herb and I returned to Yountville on Monday morning that we were able to step inside without a wait. It’s a tiny, charming (there’s that word again) space lined with glass display cases of tempting breads, pastries and desserts. We ordered coffees and a lemon tart and headed back outside to enjoy them on the adjacent patio.
Napa Valley Railway Inn – 6523 Washington Street, Yountville
I literally laughed out loud when we happened upon the Napa Valley Railway Inn. Bright red train cars – more than 100 years old – have been repurposed into hotel rooms with private baths, creating a unique opportunity to spend a night along Yountville’s original 19th century train tracks. Two parallel rows of suites line a wooden walkway that resembles a front porch, complete with wooden rocking chairs. There’s even a coffee bar in a vintage caboose car.
Oakville & Rutherford
With populations of 71 and 164, respectively, Oakville and Rutherford are officially known as census-designated places. But when it comes to vineyards, they claim boasting rights to having their own appellations within the Napa Valley AVA. Oakville was founded in the 1860s as a water stop for the Napa Valley Railroad Company’s steam train. Rutherford began life as vineyard farm land beginning in 1864. With its central location between the northern and southern ends of Napa Valley, Rutherford proved to be a terrific home base during our stay in Napa Valley.
Oakville Grocery – 7856 St. Helena Highway, Oakville
Oakville Grocery lays claim to being the oldest continually operating grocery store in California. Founded in 1881, the store has changed ownership several times, most recently in the past year. Wooden shelves displaying bottles of olive oils, vinegars, mustards and wines line the periphery of the store. A deli counter offers sandwiches and salads for picnics or eating at the Grocery. Herb and I browsed around the store while our sandwiches were being prepared and ate outside on the patio.
Auberge du Soleil – 180 Rutherford Hill Road, Rutherford
The beautiful wedding terrace I discovered online turned out to belong to Auberge du Soleil, an intimate Rutherford resort and one of the loveliest places I’ve ever stayed. From the casita-like hotel rooms to the Michelin-star restaurant to the casual dining terrace, it’s understated yet elegant and unbelievably wonderful for a special occasion. The grounds are also fun to explore, with modern sculptures nestled among olive groves and oak trees. I highly recommend stopping by for a coffee or a glass of wine and taking in the serene setting.
Rancho Caymus Inn – 1140 Rutherford Road, Rutherford
After the wedding, Herb and I moved a few miles down the road to Rancho Caymus Inn, a boutique hotel that has been completely restored to reflect the style of early California. The exterior design reminded me of California’s Missions, with guest rooms surrounding a central courtyard – which in this case is a swimming pool! Wood beamed ceilings, decorative tiles and in-room fireplaces create a delightful ambiance. The location is especially great, within walking distance to several wineries and the terrific Rutherford Grill.
Inglenook Winery – 1991 St. Helena Highway, Rutherford
It was about an hour before closing when we arrived at Inglenook Winery on our last day in Napa Valley. We were hoping to do a tasting there – Rancho Caymus Inn was offering a 2-for-1 tasting for its guests – and we were also curious to check out the grounds. The concierge at the gate told us that the tastings were completely booked, but we were welcome to drive to the chateau to see if there were any cancellations.
Inglenook dates to 1879 and has been owned by renowned film director Francis Ford Coppola and his wife Eleanor since 1975. It’s a grand property with a long tree-lined entry, vine-draped pergola, Italian cypress trees and stunning vineyard views. A museum on the chateau’s second floor houses Coppola’s engaging collection of magic lanterns, the earliest form of slide projectors. Downstairs are a café, tasting room and private dining rooms.
We walked through the museum and waited for a while near the main desk until the last guest had registered. Our perseverance paid off. We were able to secure a spot in the final tasting of the day!
It seemed to me that the vineyard views became even more picturesque as we headed north along the St. Helena Highway. Several times, Herb pulled off the road for a chance to take in the scenery and for me to grab a few photos. Three distinct layers framed the setting: A foreground of soft green, summer-rich vines; a middle ground filled with voluminous leafy trees and deeper-toned evergreens; and a background of distant mountains defining the limits of the landscape.
And then there was Bunny Foo Foo. We had to laugh when the area’s famous sculpture suddenly leaped into view – 35 feet of shiny stainless steel prancing over the Hall Wines vineyards.
Culinary Institute of America at Greystone – 2555 Main Street, St. Helena
Our main focus in St. Helena was seeking out the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, a campus of the private culinary college, Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Napa Valley is also home to the CIA at Copia in downtown Napa. The St. Helena school features a majestic 1889 stone mansion called Greystone Cellars that once served as the Christian Brothers Winery. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and was transformed into the CIA campus in 1993.
We timed our visit to have lunch at Greystone’s The Bakery Café by illy. CIA baking and pastry arts students and faculty prepare the food – soups, salads, sandwiches, pastries and lighter fare – which we found to be delicious, nicely presented and incredibly priced. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that The Bakery Café may be the best bargain in all of Napa Valley! I ordered two “pinwheels” – turkey, spinach, walnuts, pomegranate and cream cheese wrapped in lavash – for a whopping $3 each, and Herb chose the “favacado” toast for $8.
Greystone also runs the Gatehouse Restaurant, where three- and four-course lunches and dinners are prepared by CIA student-chefs. The building houses the Spice Islands Marketplace culinary shop, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Discovery Center and a museum-like space filled with cooking- and culinary-related displays.
Driving down Calistoga’s Lincoln Avenue feels like passing through a town from the days of the Old West. Napa Valley’s northernmost city evokes a rustic vibe, different from the other towns we visited. Known for its hot springs, regular-erupting geyser, hot air balloons and – of course – its food and wineries, Calistoga is home to about 5,000 people.
Castello di Amorosa – 4045 Saint Helena Highway, Calistoga
Our Calistoga destination was Castello di Amorosa, a medieval-inspired Tuscan castle and winery created by Dario Sattui. Honoring his Italian homeland, Sattui used one million European hand-made antique bricks, 8,000 tons of local stone and building methods that would have been available more than 700 years ago to create his 121,000-square-foot masterpiece. It’s a stunning work of architecture that blends surprisingly well in its Napa Valley surroundings. Driving up the Italian cypress tree-lined road, it’s easy to forget that you’re in 21st-century California.
The Visitor Center was humming when Castello di Amorosa opened its doors at 10 a.m. Herb and I opted for a self-guided tour and reserve wine tasting. The more in-depth guided tours typically require a reservation. We purchased our tickets and headed back outside to the tower before exploring some of the castle rooms.
Our final stop was the tasting room, a moody, warmly lit cellar with an archway-filled brick ceiling. We took a spot at the wine bar and were greeted by sommelier Carly, who couldn’t have been more knowledgable and accommodating. We made selections from the tasting list, but once Carly had an idea of what we liked, she offered small pours of several outstanding wines not on the list. Like a wonderful tour guide, a really great sommelier can make the difference between an interesting and a not-so-memorable wine tasting experience.
When we learned that Castello di Amorosa wines are not available in retail shops, my mind raced across the Pacific to our wine tour on New Zealand’s Waihiki Island. Waihiki Island-produced wines can only be found on the island, and we were happy we had decided to ship some of our favorites home. This time, we did the same thing with some of the Castello di Amorosa wines, a nod to a wise travel decision made on-the-spot when we were far from home.
A Note About Wine Tastings
Unless you’re on a guided tour, you’ll have free rein to select from more than 400 Napa Valley wineries. It can be a bit overwhelming to narrow down the options. If you are interested in seeing wine-making facilities, barrel rooms and vineyards, take a guided tour. If the tasting itself is your main focus, choose one of the winery’s tasting options. Consider how much time you have and whether you will be driving or will have transportation. And if there’s a Napa wine you really like, check out the winery to see if tours or tastings are offered.
I look for wineries where I think we’ll enjoy the wines and places that offer interesting, unusual or beautiful settings. As I was doing research for this trip, both Inglenook and Castello di Amorosa stood out, and they did not disappoint. I knew that post-wedding, we wouldn’t have the energy or desire for long guided tours, so I made a small list of places we could visit without a reservation. And I always remember to tell myself that even when I have a fairly good idea of what to expect, I will be surprised by what I find once I’ve arrived.
About That Traffic
Although Napa Valley is an idyllic rural destination, it does have traffic. Quite a lot, in fact. Four-lane roads become two-laned in some places, and stop lights along those roads can result in back-ups. Allow enough time to get from one place to the next. Check Google Maps or whatever traffic indicator you rely on. And if you’re heading to San Francisco International Airport – even in the early morning hours – give yourself the gift of not rushing to make your flight.
As Herb and I toured Napa Valley, we were still riding on the adrenalin cloud that carries you through a major life event, trying to steer it to a safe landing back on planet Earth. I was extremely happy we had built in a couple of days to unwind here and focus on what we were experiencing. It was a spectacular place for a wedding that we will carry forever in our hearts and a wonderful part of California for spending a little vacation time.
*A special thank you to our daughter Emily for allowing me to share her lovely wedding illustrations.