Touring Napa

Planning A First Time Trip to Napa or Sonoma?

Archer Hotel Somm
Thinking about taking a trip to legendary wine country?  California is a quick hop on a plane to world class wines, Michelin star rated restaurants and experiences and events galore.  Whatever you can dream up you can pretty much find to do in Napa.  Add in Sonoma right next door, both are just 45 minutes to an hour from San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento airports, and there is no better wine playground than Napa and Sonoma.
When our three monkeys were offered a few days visit CO with their 2 aunties and uncles, Mr. M and I were faced with time on our hands to take a couples vacation.  As this NEVER happens, I immediately started researching “best couples vacations” in the US.  Top of the charts every time was Napa.. top experiences, top relaxation, top spas.  How could we resist?  We dropped the kids in CO and hopped a plane to San Francisco, landed and grabbed a car (a special thank you to Sixt for our upgrade to a Mercedes) and headed out to wine country.
Planning for this trip was no easy feat.  The research and articles written on the topic are extensive.  There are choices galore.  The friends who have traveled, lived and worked there are bound by their own experiences.  As I like to plan and book my own travel, I gathered as much information as I could on the subject and booked, knowing just like Disney, there was no way to see and do everything and that we would need to return again and again, if we truly wanted to do everything we wanted.  The results of my research are below:
When to go:  Most research says to go in the fall.  The weather is beautiful, the harvest is on and you can see many of the winery functions in action.  However the workers are often harvesting at night and then working in the tasting rooms and restaurants during the day.  If you can hit the end of the harvest, there are many parties and celebrations you can join in.  I enjoyed traveling there in the summer.  It wasn’t too packed and people were fairly laid back.  We toured winery productions, but it was theoretical as wineries are not making the wine in the summer.
Did the fires effect the region significantly?  The answer to this question is yes AND no.  Yes, the extensive fires significantly effected the people who live there.   Some lost close friends, many either lost homes or have friends who lost homes, however the vineyards were mostly unaffected.  If you didn’t know there had been major fires there, you probably wouldn’t notice.  Over any previously burned areas, yellow long grass has grown, so from a distance most everything looks to be natural growth.  When you do drive up close, you can find evidence of burned trees.  What used to be thick forest growth is now meadow.  Apparently vineyards form a natural fire break as their roots are deep and they are well watered.  Any effects left from smoke and heat on the vines is yet to be determined, but most of the grapes used in the wine from 2017 had already been bottled and stored.  Several wineries did lose some stock, like Jarvis, as their bottles had been stored in their caves but were near the metal doors and ultimately got too hot.
We also visited Darioush, which is next door to Signarello.  I was surprised to see the location of Signarello was so significantly affected, as their tasting room is on one of the two main roads down below the mountain in a very flat area.  It gave us an idea of just how much had burned.
Getting there:  I researched airports and found that the easiest to fly into is Santa Rosa, in Sonoma, and then rent a car. We would have had to connect and I wanted to fly direct.  Our other choices for direct flights were San Francisco, Sacramento and Oakland.  The prices to each were fairly comparable, but I the night I booked, they were lowest to San Fran, so I booked our direct flight from CO into SF and rented a car to drive the hour to Napa.
(Next time we book, we will fly into one of the other airports.  SF airport is so large it took us an additional hour and a half just to get to our rental car place and then an extra 30 minutes to fight through SF trafffic.  We had to take a tram from our arrival gate area to baggage claim, claim our baggage, hop another air tram to an escalator to a ground floor shuttle to the rental car place.  There were several rental car places at the end of the tram, but it was difficult in my research to tell who was in airport and who was off, so we headed off on the shuttle to Sixt.  Not a complete detractor, but did add 1.5 hours to our trip.)
Where to stay?  Again, many choices!  There are many, many places to stay in Napa and Sonoma.  Depending on your budget, you could stay at a spa, a bed and breakfast, a resort, a large hotel, small hotel, in the town, outside of the town, near the hot springs in Calistoga, at the top of a mountain… you get the picture.  This is a bit of a personal choice, so I would suggest doing your own research and reading some of the recent reviews.  Napa is central to visiting all of Napa Valley, but is the furthest south.  Calistoga is a cute town, as is Yountville and St. Helena.  The articles below highlight several of the spectacular areas of Napa.  There are ubers readily accessible to most of the towns and wineries.  https://www.visitnapavalley.com/plan/towns/
I used Trip Advisor for my research, and after networking a bit, I decided to stay near Napa for our first trip, as the drives to the various activities were not far and there is an extensive Uber network there.  We chose the Silverado Hotel, which is about 12 minutes from town.  The hotel is beautiful, and more of an event place.  Our room was a bit small and backed to the Silverado Trail, so it was fairly loud.  We ultimately moved to the brand new Archer Hotel in town in Napa and stayed in a huge king room with an exceptional view and gorgeous balcony with fireplace.
I do highly recommend visiting Napa for dinner and to walk around.  The town of Napa has been newly redone, with tasting rooms, shops, restaurants, hotels and breweries.  It is a nice little area to walk around at night.  The river walk is nicely lit up at night and the quaint bridges are make for a nice little walk.
What to do:  There is no way to capture the entire region in one trip.  This really depends on what you want to experience.  You do need to make reservations at many tasting rooms, but we made several as we were driving to the next place, since it was a bit slower season.
Do you want to do more of a tasting bar crawl?  Are you looking for experiences?  Do you want to see the whole region from the air?  Do you want to learn about wine and wine making processes?  We decided we would prefer to have educational experiences and to relax and not be too aggressive in our days, as we rarely get time on our own, without the children.
Planning our days with this in mind, I set two appointments a day and then filled in the winery visits around this using cellartracker.com.
Day 1:  Appointment at Caymus for a tasting and a blending class at Conn Creek (details in later blog).  Had time in the morning to stop at Miner for a tasting and were able to do side by side tastings, since they were not completely full yet.  Ubered home from Conn Creek after blending class.
Day 2:  Sonoma.  Drove up through Napa and stopped into Calistoga and Sabastapol.  Appointment at Flanagan, tour of winery production and tastings on picturesque terrace.  Drove up to Geyserville, tasted at Meeker, Zialiena and Robert Young.
Day 3:  Jarvis Cave tour in the morning, drove up to Cade and Angwin in the mountains, Darioush tasting and back to airport
Next time we will visit Jessup Cellars, do a cave tour and tasting at Failla and Cade.

About Author

After graduating from Brandeis University, Alison worked as a teacher at two of the top high schools in the country and spent her summers traveling the world. On one of her adventures, she visited Stellenbosch and Paarl in South Africa, which ignited a lifelong passion for learning about wine. In 2004, she worked as a Wine Consultant for the Traveling Vineyard and began to study wine more intensively. While working as a high tech recruiter, she completed her Advanced Certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust in the UK in 2018. Her wine travels have taken her to the wine growing regions of the US, Europe, Africa and Australia. Alison is a member of the Boston Sommelier Society, a member of the Guild of Master Sommeliers and is a Wine, Travel and Lifestyle Media Influencer. Currently, after leaving her recruiting career, Alison is running her business, Artisan Wine Group, teaching wine courses, running private and corporate wine events and organizing wine tours.

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