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.”

~John Muir

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.

Our happy pair on the terrace of their future wedding spot at Auberge du Soleil.

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.

A glorious summer day and a beautiful wedding!

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

  1. A Little Napa Valley Geography Lesson
  2. Napa – The City
  3. Yountville
  4. Oakdale & Rutherford
  5. St. Helena
  6. Calistoga
  7. A Note About Wine Tastings
  8. About That Traffic
  9. 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

The McClelland-Priest Bed and Breakfast Inn on Randolph Street is one of the many beautiful Victorian homes just south of downtown Napa.

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.

The Napa Valley Welcome Center in the heart of the city’s downtown district.

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 outdoor terrace runs along the periphery of Oxbow Public Market.
C Casa, The Olive Press and Ritual Coffee…
…Hog Island Oyster Company…
…and Oxbow Cheese & Wine Merchant.

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.

Heading up to the statue.
A closer look.
The top of Vista Point reveals The Grape Crusher from another angle.
View from the top overlooking the Valley.

Yountville

The Yountville Train Depot, built by Southern Pacific in 1888, now houses commercial tenants.

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.

An artistic arch marks the entrance to V Marketplace, home of Bottega Napa Valley and Ottimo, Michael Chiarello’s casual eatery and food and kitchen shop.
The entrance to Bottega Napa Valley.

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.

The welcoming exterior of Bouchon Bakery.
My cappuccino and a lemon tart to share…packaged in a box that makes it seem like a present!

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.

The Napa Valley Railway Inn and Mini Model bakery next door.
Bright red walls with shiny black trim and accessories set the mood of the Railway Inn.
The cozy”front porch” and home-like windows.

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.

Napa Valley’s iconic Oakville Grocery.
Warm-toned walls and displays create an inviting ambiance.
Tasting stations for vinegar and olive oil…
…and mustard!
An original hand-dug well from the 1800s is displayed under protective glass at the back of the store.
I loved this sweet window display at the front of Oakville Grocery.

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.

The warm and light-filled courtyard at Auberge du Soleil.
This whimsical sculpture of three dancing sheep struck me as a purposeful message that despite its elegance, Auberge du Soleil doesn’t take itself too seriously.
I loved having breakfast on the terrace and taking in the beauty of morning in the Valley.
Walking among olive and oak trees.
Contemporary sculptures dotting the landscape create a delightful ambiance along the pathways.

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.

Rancho Caymus Inn entry.
Rancho Caymus Inn pool and surrounding guest rooms.
The cozy terrace and fireplace.
Mid-morning light dances through the trees on the road from Auberge du Soleil to the Rancho Caymus Inn.

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.

The gated tree-lined road leading to Inglenook.
The gorgeous vine-draped pergola…
…with its dreamy views of the vineyards.
Inglenook’s chateau with front terrace fountain.
Inside the chateau, a grand staircase leads to the Francis Ford Coppola museum.
Coppola’s collections of magic lanterns are a fascinating peek into the world of early moving pictures.
I loved this little Eiffel Tower-inspired magic lantern.

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!

Inglenook’s elegant tasting room.
We sampled four wines along with delicious bread and cheese slices that had been aged in vinegar and olive oil.
Selfie under the pergola before leaving…
…and one last view of the vineyards.

St. Helena

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.

A serene moment along the St. Helena Highway.
Bunny Foo Foo, created by artist Lawrence Argent, hoists an American flag in honor of the 4th of July.

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.

The 1889 Greystone Cellars building sits atop a terraced hillside.
This artistic stone marker near the front entrance reminded me of a welcome mat.
The CIA’s “favacado” toast – fava bean, avocado, labneh and sumac served on multigrain bread.
The Spice Islands Marketplace stocks a nice selection of kitchen items and culinary products.
Peeking through the window of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Discovery Center.
The CIA Greystone features displays of cakes, corkscrews…
…and cookbooks!
Vineyard views outside the Greystone mansion.

Calistoga

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 beautiful entrance to Castello di Amorosa.
View of the castle tower framed by cypress trees.
Castello di Amorosa, “Castle of Love.”
You can’t have a castle without a moat!

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.

This view from the tower of Castello di Amorosa is one of my favorites of the trip.
Another perspective from a higher perch.
The Castello di Amorosa Great Hall.
The chapel and bell tower.

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.

Wines and interesting decor fill the Castello di Amorosa tasting room.
Our lovely sommelier Carly.

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.

Post Script

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.

6 Comments

  • Firstly, congratulations to you and Herb and most of all to Emily and her husband on such a wonderful occasion

    I love the power of the Internet to share these kind of happy moments and events. Thank you for sharing the memory and the wonderful photos

    Now, down to business: this was an exceptionally great review of what the Napa Valley has to offer. I’m partial to Yountville, but there are so many gems to be experienced

    It’s been about 6 years since my wife and I have visited but we plan on being there in the coming year and will definitely make good use of all the work you put into this posting

    Thank you and congratulations again to everyone

    • George, Thank you so much for the good wishes and kind comments! I’m thrilled to know that this post will be helpful for planning your upcoming trip. I agree with you about the ever-charming Yountville, and I was truly surprised by the unique character of each town and the volume of things to see and experience. You’ll have a wonderful time, I’m sure! All the best with your travel plans 🙂

  • Mary,

    Wonderful write-up and photos! Auberge du Soleil is a world-class venue. And oh, the views! Emily and her fiancé scored. Congratulations again!

    We still scoot down to Napa for some R&R from the Sierra Foothills or Lake Tahoe. Fall is a special time too. One of our favorite wineries is Heitz Cellar in St, Helena. We’ve been going for decades and our parents before that. The ownership just changed — the founders sold — but their Grignolino rosé remains a perfect summer wine for outdoor dining or a picnic.

    The Silverado Trail is home to some of NorCal’s best wines (Stag’s Leap for Cab or Robert Sinskey for Pinot Noir).

    You described some great dining experiences. We enjoy Bistro Jeanty in Yountville for a lunch break. It has an amazing French tomato soup in puff pastry (pierce it with a spoon to get started!), homemade cassoulet and other authentic French dishes. And, of course, Thomas Keller’s French Laundry is there. The Oxbow Market is a great more recent addition to the scene; it has become a model for public markets elsewhere.

    You’ve captured the essence of the area in this post. You’re doing a great job with this blog.

    • Jeff, A huge thank you for the lovely words of support! I really appreciate your feedback about the blog. Thanks also for sharing a few of your favorite Napa Valley haunts here. The area is so rich with wineries, restaurants and places to explore, and it’s great to add some personal recommendations to the list. And I can truly imagine how beautiful the landscape is in the fall!

  • What a wonderful guide and so packed with tips and info! And how incredible to have so many great memories there, and then to return for your daughter’s wedding..

    I studied at Berkeley but unfortunately never made it out to Napa.. I really hope to return and visit there someday.

    • Thank you so much, Dee! I had a great time putting the guide together, and I love what you said about our memories there intertwining with our daughter’s special day. I hope you’ll have a chance to spend some time in Napa if you find yourself visiting the Bay Area again 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.