The Insider's Guide to Napa Valley
One of the perks of living in San Francisco is its close proximity to wine country. Drive out of the City by the Bay in virtually any direction and you’ll hit a wine-growing region, the most well known of which is Napa Valley. Located an hour and ten minutes northeast of San Francisco by car, Napa is a foodie mecca that’s both rustic and glamorous. With hundreds of wineries and just as many restaurants, the valley consists of five smaller cities: Napa proper, Yountville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga, all of which are easily accessible by one highway, the 29.
When planning a visit to the area, it’s a good idea to select wineries that are a short distance from one another. It’s also worth pointing out that while Sonoma (including the regions that it encompasses, such as Healdsburg) is nearby, it warrants a separate trip. There’s simply too much to see—and taste!—in Napa that you won’t want to waste hours driving through the countryside to get from tasting room to tasting room. Additionally, planning your visit is crucial, as many restaurants and wineries require reservations. Wondering where you should go? Here’s the ultimate insider’s guide to Napa.
Courtesy of Meadowood Napa Valley
Meadwood Napa Valley is the most luxurious resort in all of wine country. The property sits on 250 acres in St. Helena and is home to a three-Michelin-star restaurant, a croquet lawn, tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course, two pools, biking and hiking trails, a fitness center, and a brand-new state-of-the-art spa. Guest rooms are actually private cottages with wood-burning stoves, high ceilings, balconies, and country-chic furnishings in a natural color palette that evokes the serenity of the surrounding landscape. Everything about a stay at Meadowood, from the attractive bellmen who transport you around the hotel to the afternoon wine tasting in the lobby to the revitalizing steam showers that start all spa treatments, is absolutely perfect. Rumor has it that when celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Drew Barrymore visit Napa, this is their preferred place to stay.
Meadowood Napa Valley | 900 Meadowood Lane, St Helena
If lounging by the pool is on your agenda, you’ve got to stay at Solage, a stunning and inviting property in Calistoga. With palm trees swaying in the wind, plenty of sleek lounge chairs, and a cabana bar serving a frozen beer that stays perfectly cold from first sip to last drawl, the pool at Solage is one of the best around. Other things to love about Solage: the wildly chic all-white spa with local springwater–filled pools, the fact that the guest rooms are actually cabanas with secluded outdoor spaces, the bikes that guests are invited to ride around the property and to nearby wineries, and Solbar, Solage’s restaurant with one Michelin star, a sleek setting, and scrumptious eats.
Solage Calistoga | 755 Silverado Trail North, Calistoga
In the mood for pizza? Head to Redd Wood in Yountville. Chef Richard Reddington is known for his high-end Napa restaurant, Redd, but diners can enjoy his cuisine for a more affordable price point at this Italian-inspired eatery. The space is bustling and warm, with tufted leather seating, a massive copper chandelier, and an outdoor patio nestled into a pretty little patio. Redd Wood is open all day, so you can stop by before or after a long day of wine tasting. With housemade Italian sausage, smoked mozzarella cheese, roasted red peppers, red onions, and crimini mushrooms, the sausage pizza is a personal favorite.
Redd Wood | 6755 Washington Street, Yountville
From hospitality and design group AvroKO and two-Michelin-star chef Matt Lightner, Ninebark is Napa’s newest destination restaurant and unlike any other place you’ve ever dined. Why? It’s three restaurant concepts in one, taking up an entire three-story building on Main Street in downtown Napa. The first floor is a bar with an elegant casual vibe and menu of fashionable bar snacks, like house-cured smoked salmon and a pickle plate with gorgeous and colorful pickled vegetables. The second floor is the formal dining room, although there is nothing formal about the spectacularly designed space. Framed by classic subway tiles, the centerpiece is an open kitchen that feels like a theater. A group of handsome bearded men and stylish women work with precision to turn out melt-in-your-mouth smoked foie gras, buttery and flaky fish, and tender charcoal-roasted duck. The third floor is a sexy rooftop cocktail lounge with innovative drinks and stellar views.
Ninebark | 813 Main Street, Napa
While Ninebark is a destination that foodies will travel to visit, Atlas Social is a standby where locals love to dine over and over again. Chef Nick Ritchie is a Napa native who grew up working for local luminary and former Food Network star Michael Chiarello, and now he’s making a name for himself at Atlas Social. The vibe is carefree and communal, and the food is gourmet gastropub fare. Think smoked trout rillettes on caraway-rye crostini; spicy shrimp cocktail with basil, chilies, and oranges; and perfectly seared scallops with white gazpacho and grapes—yum! The extensive wine list is also worth mentioning: It’s filled with some of California’s most sought-after and interesting bottles.
Atlas Social | 1124 1st Street, Napa
With his four culinary institutions, The French Laundry, Ad Hoc + Addendum, Bouchon Bistro, and Bouchon Bakery, chef Thomas Keller practically made Napa Valley what it is today. To experience Keller’s cuisine without throwing down a fortune on one meal, head to Bouchon, his classic French bistro in Yountville. Keller takes the best of Northern California’s local ingredients to make traditional French food. There are steaming crocks filled with caramelized onions and fragrant beef broth topped with a heaping mound of crisp Comte cheese in soupe à l’oignon; pan-seared flat-iron steak with addictive crisp French fries in steak frites; and finger-licking-good snails served in individual pools of parsley-garlic butter in escargots a la Bourguignonne. As it’s a French bistro, there are also plenty of decadent culinary options on the menu: foie gras, caviar, oysters, paté, and cheese. After your meal, pop into Bouchon Bakery, which is just next door. If there’s a line, wait. The soft and flavorful seasonal scones, perfect pistachio macarons, and flaky croissants are worth it. Trust me: You’ll want to order extra for tomorrow!
Bouchon | 6534 Washington Street, Yountville
Harvest Table is another restaurant from an esteemed chef—Charlie Palmer. Located at his hotel, Havest Inn in St. Helena, the eatery is his newest venture, and it’s wine country at its finest. There’s a long bar, lounge area, dining room, and bucolic outdoor patio that looks on rows and rows of vineyards. If it’s a nice day and still light out when you arrive, ask for a quick tour of the culinary gardens. Farm-to-table cookery is taken quite seriously around these parts, and Palmer’s earthy cuisine is at once rustic and refined. Lightly fried potato croquettes are served with a goat cheese fondue, and the roast chicken for two comes slathered in truffle butter atop a bed of creamy risotto.
Harvest Table | 1 Main Street, St. Helena
I love to start any day of wine tasting at one of Napa’s champagne houses. The most iconic? Domaine Carneros. The tasting room, a butter- and apricot-colored château that sits atop of a hill on the border of Napa and Sonoma, is a wine country landmark. There’s a grand staircase, bubbling fountain, formal gardens, expansive patio, and cozy marble-floored salon with a large fireplace. Reservations are required at this bachelorette party hot spot, so call in advance to book your tasting. Sip a flight of its excellent bubbly—the must-try Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs is a celebration in a glass.
Domaine Carneros | 1240 Duhig Road, Napa
Want a wine tasting experience that coincides with lunch? Franciscan Estate Winery offers an amazing three-course, wine-paired lunch on Fridays. The meal starts with a tour of the facility, highlighting the history of the 42-year-old winery. Then you’ll be escorted to a private dining room, where you’ll indulge in a leisurely meal from the estate’s chef, Brett Young. A recent menu included pillowy potato gnocchi and gianduja truffle bar with vanilla bean cream. Each course is served with a different wine, and if you get the chance to sip the barrel-fermented Cuvée Sauvage Chardonnay, try it. It’s excellent.
Franciscan Estate Winery | 1178 Galleron Road, St Helena
Art and design lovers have to book a tasting at Hall Winery in St. Helena. You can’t miss the turnoff from Highway 29, because there’s an oversize silver rabbit sculpture at the winery entrance. Husband and wife Kathryn and Craig Hall have created a gallery-like tasting room housed in an architectural jewel box of a building with expansive windows. Walk up the stairs to the tasting room, and the patchwork sequin medallion that hangs from the wall will take your breath away. Hall’s vineyards produce Bordeaux varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc, the latter of which is a delightfully refreshing white with a dry mouthfeel and floral finish. This is a great bottle to take home with you!
Hall Wines | 401 St. Helena Highway, St. Helena
Located at the bottom of a vineyard-lined hill on the Silverado Trail in the Stag’s Leap District of Napa, Odette Estate looks like a modern farmhouse. Book an estate tour and tasting to experience a walking tour of the grounds and hang out in the sleek lounge while sipping a flight focused on the appellations of Odette’s sister wineries. Note that winemaker Jeff Owens’s first release of Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve (the 2012 bottling) was awarded a perfect 100-point score from Robert Parker. Not too many new wines can claim such an honor.
Odette Estate | 5998 Silverado Trail, Napa
In the mood for a drink that’s not wine? Farmstead is a restaurant and bar that’s housed in an old nursery barn at Long Meadow Ranch. Weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m., Farmstead hosts a Growers Happy Hour that features specially priced cocktails and an enticing menu of scrumptious bar snacks. Order a French 76, Farmstead’s twist on the classic French 75 cocktail, using vodka instead of gin and a Mumm Napa float instead of champagne.
Farmstead | 738 Main Street, St. Helena
The locals’ watering hole of choice is Goose and Gander, an underground speakeasy that serves up seasonally driven artisanal cocktails. The space is moody and dark but welcoming and warm, and a garden of fresh herbs and local flowers sits on the bar. Order a Bali-spice old-fashioned with bourbon, clove, cinnamon, star anise, orange, and bitters or a rosemary–pear shrub cocktail with gin, lemon, ginger, seltzer, and rosemary–pear shrub syrup. If you’re in the mood for an ordinary cocktail—say, a martini or margarita—you can get one of those here too. It will probably be one of the best and most perfectly balanced martinis or margaritas you’ve ever tasted.
Goose and Gander | 1245 Spring Street, St. Helena
Some of the spas at the resorts in Napa are not open to the public, and the only way that you can experience a treatment is if you are also staying at the hotel. That’s not so at the spa at Bardessono. This eco-luxe resort’s motto is “wellness through the seasons.” Arrive early to start your Bardessono spa journey by detoxifying in the infrared sauna, and choose from a wide range of massages and skin clinics. Nail care, waxing, and couple services are also available.
The Spa at Bardessono | 6526 Yount Street, Yountville
With outposts in downtown San Francisco and St. Helena, the Caldwell Snyder Gallery is one of the most acclaimed contemporary art galleries in the region. The gallery represents over 50 American, European, and Latin American artists, with an emphasis on innovative sculpture and painting. Featured artists include David Bromley, Bobbie Burgers, Matt Rogers, and Marta Penter.
Caldwell Snyder Gallery | 1328 Main Street, St. Helena
No food- and wine-centric adventure is complete without a trip to the local market, and Oxbow is the grocery epicenter of Napa. Fill your farmers market tote bag with the best that the region has to offer. Think small-batch charcuterie made from pasture-raised meats, a bottle of wine from the winery you wanted to check out but didn’t have time to, and locally grown milled olive oil. If you’re hungry, there are plenty of satisfying options: Slurp a bowl of clam chowder at Hog Island Oyster Company, devour a porcini and white truffle pizza at Ca’Moni, or indulge in a scoop of lemon cookie ice cream at Three Twins.
Oxbow Market | 610 & 644 1st Street, Napa
I can’t leave St. Helena without stopping by Model Bakery to pick up a bag of its English muffins. Although I wouldn’t normally use the term mind-blowing’ to describe a food item as humble as the English muffin, Model Bakery’s are mind-blowingly good. Toasted with a heavy slather of European butter and a few flaky salt crystals, they are absolutely to die for! The bakery has been around since the ’20s and also sells delectable cookies, granola, breads, cakes, and pies.
Model Bakery | 1357 Main Street, St. Helena
Below, you’ll find books inspired by and about the Napa Valley.
Have you been to Napa? What are your favorite spots to visit?