Napa Valley reigns as the land of grand estates, expansive tasting rooms, quaint towns, and elegant lodgings, many of which edge up to the celebrated Silverado Trail. Roughly an hour’s drive north of San Francisco and boasting more than 400 wineries, Napa Valley is a connoisseur’s paradise, inviting visitors to explore beyond the region’s signature Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Don’t miss, for instance, the rediscovered Merlot, whose plush texture and earthy cherry flavour is appealing to a new generation of red wine fans.
Long considered California’s most famous wine region, Napa Valley exploded into the global spotlight following the 1976 Judgment of Paris, when a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from Calistoga trounced nine other Chardonnays in a blind tasting in Paris, including extremely prestigious bottles from France. At the time, France was considered the world’s forerunning wine region, but this triumph forever changed the international perception of Northern California’s wines.
Spring’s grape leaves turn hillsides brilliant green, and in fall the vineyards bustle with workers.
Today, the region boasts some of the most coveted wine grapes anywhere, including To Kalon Vineyard, planted in the 1860s, plus contemporary cult bottlings like Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate.
When to visit? Each season has its charms. Spring’s emerging grape leaves turn hillsides brilliant green, plumed with golden swaths of mustard blossoms. Summer warms up with events and festivals (and their attendant crowds), so plan on packed schedules. Fall brings the crush, as vineyards and wineries bustle with workers. Winter settles into a cool hush: Insiders know this is a time to snag reservations at Napa Valley’s galaxy of Michelin-starred restaurants, shop for holiday gifts in gaily decorated but quieter towns and relax in greater intimacy at posh spas.
Think Napa Valley, and most wine lovers think Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Indeed, the Napa Valley is a single appellation, or AVA (American Viticultural Area). Yet within its borders reside 16 sub-appellations, each with its own distinctive microclimate, and often, its own signature grapes.
The St Helena AVA, for example, home to the Rutherford Wine Company and many others on the celebrated Silverado Trail, is a warm area with less fog or wind than many more southerly areas, making it perfect for a rainbow of varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. Another estate that capitalises on the variations of Napa Valley terroir is the Fleury Estate Winery, which has three vineyards in three appellations at three elevations.
Napa Valley is home to 16 sub-appellations, each with its own distinctive microclimate and often its own signature grapes, such as Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel.
Many wineries here have deep roots as pioneer vineyards, showcasing Napa Valley’s longstanding commitment to premium grapes. Just a few examples: Mayacamas Vineyards is comprised of a stone building that was carved into the side of a dormant volcano crater on Mount Veeder in 1889 (happily, this historic building survived the 2017 wine-country wildfires). Sinegal Estate was once a St Helena Pony Express stop, then the historic Inglewood Estate, before being bought and completely renovated by new owners in 2015. Beaulieu Vineyards, founded in 1900 and housed in a building that dates to 1885, managed to flourish during Prohibition, when so many Napa vineyards were forced to close, due to their contract to provide sacramental wines to the Catholic Church. And some wineries have brought their own sense of history: Calistoga’s Castello di Amorosa, owned by Dario Sattui, makes Italian-inspired reds in a sprawling, 13th-century-style castle.
A new generation of wine growers is planting newer-to-the-area varieties as well. Summers Estate Wines in the Calistoga AVA bottles Charbono, a rare Italian grape found on less than 100 acres in all of California, plus a Greek Muscat Canelli, known in Europe as Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. Plush, plummy Merlot is back in the spotlight too, such as Duckhorn Vineyard’s prized bottling from the Atlas Peak AVA.
As seen on MasterChef Australia.
If the Napa Valley were a kingdom (and some oenophiles might argue that it is), this storied property in the town of Rutherford would certainly make a dandy home base for the monarchy. Originally purchased in the late 1800s for less than $50,000 by Gustave Niebaum, a Finnish sea captain, entrepreneur, and wine connoisseur, the former farmland and orchards now holds some of the region’s most historic wine grapes, as well as a spectacular chateau—all restored to elegant perfection (and opened for fascinating tours and wine tasting) by the current owners, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and others in the Coppola clan.
When Coppola bought the winery and towering Niebaum mansion in 1975, celebrated Napa residents took note. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the filmmaker recalls when Robert Mondavi, patriarch of the legendary Mondavi wine empire, came for a visit from his home in nearby Oakville.
"You realise you have bought the most beautiful, the most important winery property in the Napa Valley?" Coppola recalls Mondavi asking. "You realise what this is?"
“That” is a history that spans the very creation of this hallowed wine region. Over the decades, Inglenook—and the Napa Valley—came into the international spotlight as a perfect place for growing wine grapes, and winemakers creating acclaimed vintages naturally followed. Niebaum’s vines flourished, and for decades his family produced exceptional grapes and bottles. An economic hiccup forced the family to sell, and the new owners began producing jug wines that dulled the lustre of the winery’s celebrated name.
In stepped Coppola, who, with his wife Eleanor and others, spent 40 years restoring Inglenook’s illustrious heritage. That included bringing winemaking operations back to the chateau and adjacent winery, and hiring top winemakers to produce top wines. (The highly respected Wine Spectator gives the 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon a respectable 88 points, defining a wine that is “very good; with special qualities.”)
Today, you can sample Coppola’s results in a fleet of luxurious experiences. For example, the Heritage Tasting lets you relax beneath a chandelier in the Pennino Salon, where you sip and learn about Inglenook’s Estate wines, including the flagship Rubicon Cabernet. Squint while you’re dining outside at the pretty onsite Bistro, your kids playing with wooden sailboats in the courtyard fountain, and you’ll swear you’re in Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens. Special events sprinkle the calendar, including a summertime lobster feast, a late-summer harvest party, elegant wine dinners and a holiday open house.
Set on 28 acres of rolling vineyards between the towns of Napa and Sonoma, Carneros Resort and Spa features a relaxed sophistication that takes full advantage of its perfect location. Airy views stretch out over the vineyard grapes to the mountains beyond, while a cottage-focused design imbues the resort with an agro-chic feel.
Those cottages make up most of the resort’s 100 accommodations, all of which offer plenty of privacy and outdoor space. Interiors are done in muted tones, with vaulted ceilings and luxury-farmhouse decor. But you might just spend more time outside anyway, enjoying the front porch (complete with rocking chairs), patio, garden and attached al fresco shower. Some cottages come with extra features, like a two-person outdoor soaking tub and fire pit—and your fireside butler can help spark some romance while you’re off dining or exploring. For more space, opt for a cottage suite or one of the six 2,400-square-foot private homes that feature wood-burning fireplaces and second-story decks with outstanding views.
The hotel’s dining also soaks up the wine country flavour: Ingredients mostly originate in the resort’s own garden or within a 150-mile radius; even Executive Chef Aaron Meneghelli is an area native. A highlight of the upscale FARM restaurant is an ever-evolving five-course tasting menu, which incorporates one specific, seasonal ingredient in each course. But you’ll want to start your day with sugar-dusted donuts from the resort’s Boon Fly Café or eat at the guests-only Hilltop Dining Room while enjoying its sweeping views of Napa Valley.
Panoramic views also abound at the adults-only pool (there’s a separate one for families). Lounge there after borrowing one of the resort’s orange bikes (available with training wheels for kids) and taking a relaxing pedal through wine country. For even more relaxation, head to the Spa at Carneros, renovated in mid-2018, which features (what else?) local ingredients in the same rustic, cottage-like setting that’s become your temporary wine country home.
This two-lane country road, trimmed with shady oaks and world-class vineyards, is quintessential Napa Valley. Its surrounding land is dotted with so many wineries that you could travel it for a week straight and still not visit all of them. Constructed in 1852 as the first permanent road linking the 30 or so miles between the towns of Napa and Calistoga, the Silverado Trail is the bucolic, parallel counterpart to busier State Highway 29. Enjoy the drive along this scenic route (or rent a bike and pedal the whole way), snuggled up against the valley’s eastern hills.
Prestigious wineries with Silverado Trail addresses include Joseph Phelps, ZD Wines, and Signorello Winery—plus the famous Stags Leap District collection of wineries, making up Napa Valley’s famous mecca of Cabernet Sauvignon and other big-bodied reds. (Signorello, in the town of Napa, was one of the few wineries to sustain major damage in the 2017 wildfires. Its winery building was destroyed but will be rebuilt next to the vineyards and barrel room, which were spared. Some parts of the Stags Leap District, meanwhile, experienced limited damage.) There’s sparkling wine here too, notably at Mumm Napa, where you can sip the fine bubbly on an elegant patio, in a grand tasting salon, or while wandering the elaborate art gallery.
Other turns take you to lavish wine-country resorts, such as Relais & Châteaux’s Auberge du Soleilor the gracious Solage Calistoga. To see one of the most stunning retreats in the entire region, take the long, leafy drive onto the manicured grounds of Meadowood Napa Valley for an alfresco lunch at its garden-sourced The Grill.
And if you’re feeling extra splurge-y, dinner at the three-Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood delivers impeccable service, meticulous farm-to-table menus, and—of course—exquisite Napa Valley wines. You might even stay the night and take advantage of the resort’s excellent spa and golf course.
The indulgences present themselves as soon as you pull past the guard gate at Meadowood Napa Valley. You peek at the sunny swimming pools and tennis courts, and catch a glimpse of the 14,000-square-foot, Architectural Digest–worthy spa tucked into a wooded hillside. The reception valet greets you with complimentary wine and cookies, then whisks you via cart to your private cottage so that you can relax before you take in a game of croquet or golf, or get a treatment in the luxurious spa, followed by an extraordinary dinner at the three-Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood.
Such is the resort life in Napa Valley, which offers a variety of indulgent accommodations. Auberge du Soleil, for instance, provides all the world-class service and amenities demanded by its Relais & Châteaux designation, and the Solage Calistoga has a 20,000-square-foot geothermal spa (the mudslide treatment is a must), plus a new open-air Chef’s Atrium at the Michelin-rated Solbar.
The resort life in Napa Valley means private cottages, geothermal spas, and buttery Bouchon baked goods brought to your room for breakfast.
In Calistoga, a $20 million expansion of Indian Springs Resort has gussied up the 1861 Mission Revival–style resort, known for its spa fed by natural geothermal geysers. Nearby, European-chic The Bergson sports 21 lavish rooms and suites including fireplaces, opulent gilded furniture, private patios, Jacuzzi tubs, and balconies for that sparkling-wine nightcap.
As an even more private retreat, Napa’s Poetry Inn welcomes rich and famous clientele to a 40-acre hillside hideaway that feels like a private home. Another lovely spot, the Napa Vineyard House, was built in 1901 as a farmhouse but is now a five-room boutique inn. Decked out with Restoration Hardware furniture and linens, the inn also features a two-bedroom private cottage and vineyard views. As if it couldn’t get any better, start your day with a blissfully buttery Bouchon Bakery breakfast delivered to your room.
There’s a lot to explore in this expansive region, and it certainly helps to know your way around the winding country roads and steep mountain drives. So, for an extra-relaxing experience (including a designated driver), why not venture out with a savvy local guide? You can book any number of private chauffeurs, or hop aboard a bus tour as part of a group. Either way, your driver can offer insights about wineries and other points of interest—like, how you can be in Carneros, but also in both Napa and Sonoma, at the very same time.
Still, there are other fascinating ways to explore the Napa Valley—by bike, train, or hot air balloon—where the journey becomes as joyful as the destination. Some of the region’s numerous bike guides put special spins on their tours. The Velo ‘n’ Vino bike tour, for instance, by Getaway Adventures, puts you on a specialized Crosstrail road bike for a 20- to 30-mile ride fuelled by a seasonal picnic lunch of charcuterie, artisan breads, and cheeses (plus stops for sipping at as many wineries you choose), while Napa Valley Bike Tours invites warriors for off-road spins on sturdy mountain bikes, as well as paved cruises.
Explore Napa Valley by bike, stopping for a picnic lunch of charcuterie and cheese, or tour wineries while riding in a turn-of-the-20th-century cable car.
The Napa Valley Wine Train is a classic, multi-hour excursion in vintage Pullman cars (dress up in period costume for extra flair). Feast on a multiple-course gourmet meal—cooked onboard—as you gaze at wineries and vineyards through velvet-curtained windows. The train doesn’t make any stops at wineries, but you won’t really mind as you sip varietals and nibble chocolates onboard. To actually stop at wineries, try the Napa Valley Wine Trolley, a converted, turn-of-the-20th-century, San Francisco–style cable car. Guided tours take you to four wineries and include a gourmet lunch.
Or, get a view from overhead: Colourful hot air balloon voyages feel even loftier when capped off with the post-flight breakfast and mimosas at Domaine Chandon Winery in Yountville, courtesy of Napa Valley Balloons, or the touchdown sparkling wine breakfast from Napa Valley Aloft.
The artistry found at many Napa Valley wineries goes well beyond what’s poured in your glass. The Hess Collection, for instance, contains a virtual museum of important international works. Turnbull Wine Cellars in Oakville showcases one of the largest permanent photography exhibition spaces on the West Coast, including original works by Ansel Adams.
Quixote Winery’s former owner, meanwhile, commissioned Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser to design a stunning Silverado Trail palace, which evokes the work of Gaudi in Barcelona with its gold-leaf onion dome, melting architectural lines and expansive tile mosaics.
Even the downtown Napa streets abound with artwork, on display through the Napa ARTwalk program. On plazas all around town, you’ll see marvels like a giant charging bull crafted from steel and polished locust wood, a monster-size wine bottle made of woven grapevine cane, or an aurora borealis “curtain of light” crafted of aluminium, Plexiglas, and powder-coated steel.
In 2016, the historic 1880 Napa Valley Opera House transformed into a hip hangout, as the Blue Note club took over the bottom floor as an outpost of the famous New York music venue. The upstairs showcases acts of all kinds, such as NapaShakes (an interpretive Shakespeare theatre), Napa Valley Film Festival screenings and private arts programs.
Jazz, films screenings, and creative takes on Shakespeare reflect Napa Valley’s other forms of creativity.
The classics are well worth a visit too, for an immersion into the rich character of the centuries-old Napa Valley settlements. Yountville’s Napa Valley Museum, for instance, inspires with its Land and People of Napa Valley permanent exhibition (did you know that wine country boasted an important Chinese culture in the 1800s?), and St. Helena’s Robert Louis Stevenson Museum shares global treasures from the Treasure Island author and Napa regular.
Another must-stop: the Sharpsteen Museum in Calistoga, which is a treasure chest of Napa Valley history from its prehistory to post–World War I. Its stories are told through elaborate dioramas by Ben Sharpsteen, an Academy Award–winning animator, producer and Walt Disney Studios director.
Most people don’t associate coast redwoods with the warm climate of Napa Valley, but Bothe-Napa Valley State Park is home to rare, impressive clutches of these California giants of the plant world. Now spanning nearly 2,000 acres, the park has been a treasure since it was established in 1960, and offers year-round camping, picnicking, hiking, BYOH (bring your own horse) riding and seasonal swimming in a spring-fed pool. For an overnight adventure, reserve a campsite or cosy yurt, offering you more time to explore the park’s historic features, such as a pioneer cemetery, the site of Napa Valley’s first Methodist church, and a Native American plant garden.
You’re within walking distance of the Bale Grist Mill Historic Park, a fascinating example of 1846 ingenuity, where millers used (and still use) water-wheel-powered pulleys and grinding stones to craft artisanal organic flours, cornmeal, and polenta that you can buy at an onsite store (open weekends year-round).
The city-run Alston Park is another secret gem, covering 157 acres in the remote rolling hills of northwest Napa. Three miles of meandering creek and wildflower-lined trails lead equestrians, mountain bikers, hikers and dog-walkers (leash required) to an upper area known as Canine Commons, a popular off-leash dog area.
For another scenic walk, set out on the Napa Valley Vine Trail, which is slated to span 47 continuous miles from the Vallejo ferry terminal to Calistoga when it is completed; more than 10 miles is already open in several disconnected sections. Its picturesque paths run mostly parallel to Highway 29, and along a stretch of Highway 37 into Vallejo.
Attending one of Napa Valley’s best annual events isn’t just a way to taste more wine and eat great food—it’s also a good way to experience Napa Valley like a bit of a VIP. Take Flavor! Napa Valley, for instance, the March festival that includes celebrity-chef cooking demonstrations, Rising Star winemaker dinners, grand gala tastings, and behind-the-scenes “Terroir to Table” tours of the area’s best boutique producers.
Early spring, meanwhile, brings Yountville Live, when dozens of local vintners pour premium wines, paired with bites from Michelin-rated chefs at gala dinners; the event also features chef demos, live music, and the Taste of Yountville walk-around feast. In April, the Stags Leap District Vineyard to Vintner celebration wows wine fans with exclusive tours, tastings, and live music at some wineries that are normally closed to the public.
Even non-culinary gatherings have star appeal, like BottleRock Napa Valley. Each May, more than 100,000 music lovers converge on the Napa Valley Expo in downtown Napa for three days of big-name musicians, a wine village, and a food stage area, where you can watch antics like Snoop Dogg rolling sushi with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.
Another don’t-miss is the extraordinary Arts in April, an entire month dedicated to Napa Valley’s burgeoning arts scene. Explore studios, salons, galleries, and private homes hosting events like art installations, pop-up exhibitions, live performances, and glass-crafting workshops.
Fall’s harvest time brings its own kind of festivities. This is when you can witness the hustle and bustle of grape sorting, stemming, crushing, and the beginning of fermentation. Some wineries (like Staglin Family Winery in Rutherford and Paraduxx in Napa) celebrate the season by hosting pre- or post-crush parties with wine tasting, food, and live music. V. Sattui hosts annual harvest balls and crush parties, while sparkling wine purveyor Schramsberg goes all-out, hosting a weekend-long fall harvest camp. For deeper immersion, Grgich Hills Estate and Schweiger Vineyards offer old-fashioned grape stomping events: Just roll up your pants and jump in.
Nicknamed ‘Napa Valley’s Main Street’, this popular wine-country town has a bumper crop of shops, art galleries and cute cafes. Join an olive oil tasting at Olivier and satisfy your sweet tooth at Woodhouse Chocolate. Merryvale Vineyards (the first winery in the valley to be built after the repeal of Prohibition) holds daily tasting seminars in its historic cask room—it’s a great way to educate your palette before you head out to area wineries. That said, there are plenty of in-town tasting rooms—nice if you don’t want to drive. A local Passport St. Helena gives you access to eight stroll-to wineries, where you’ll get exclusive tastes of top vintages paired with nibbles.
'You’ll get exclusive tastes of top vintages paired with nibbles.'
Though St. Helena is undeniably appealing, try to drag yourself away long enough to check out Hall Vineyard, where top-notch wines and edgy art go hand-in-hand. The property is dotted with sculptures and installations and wow-worthy views from the second-floor ‘glass house’ tasting room.
Back in town, relax with a Harvest Signature Mud Wrap & Massage treatment in the garden at Health Spa Napa Valley, then dress up for dinner cooked by budding chefs at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in the magnificent Greystone estate.