Your suggestions for touring Napa Valley

My wife and I are planning a trip to Napa Valley with another couple in October. My wife was inspired by the episode of The Big Bang Theory in which they ride on the Napa Valley Wine Train, since I’m a train buff, and she and the other woman are wine buffs. The other guy is probably between me in the ladies WRT his love of wine and trains, i.e., not as much of a train buff as me, or wine buff as them. (I’m not nuts about wine.)

We’re still deciding which of the dozen or so train trips to take, but there’s also the question of what else to do in the valley. We’ll be there for a Saturday and Sunday. On one day we’ll do the train trip, and we’re trying to plan the other.

Some of the train trips include winery tours, others are just fancy meals in the train’s very nicely restored historic dining cars. I’m considering whether it might be better to take one of the meal trains (which offer more time on the train) and do winery tours separately.

I’ve found a few outfits that offer winery tours, from some in which a guide drives you in your car, to bus tours, to fancy (and expensive) limo tours. It seems as though for most of these (except the most expensive) you pay for the winery tours or tastings separately.

So my questions to any Dopers who have visited Napa before include:

[li]Have you done the wine train? If so, which trip, and do you recommend it?[/li]
[li]Have you used a tour service in the valley? If so, which one, was it worth it, and do you recommend it? [/li]
[li]Should we just plan our own tour? If so, what resources do you suggest for deciding which wineries to visit? Any you particularly recommend?[/li]
[li]What else is there to do in the valley, besides wine and trains? [/li]
[li]Other suggestions?[/li][/ol]

I’m not nuts about wine either.

We visited Napa in 2012…probably toured about 10 wineries over two days, and although most if not all are somewhat enjoyable, none really stood out above the rest, but maybe that’s just me.

We stayed at a very nice B&B Vineyard Country Inn, and had a great lunch upon arrival at Long Meadow Ranch - both in St. Helena and I can recommend both confidently.

Saw the train a couple of times, but that’s about it.

Never done the wine train.
We really liked the di Rosa collection. If you like Contemporary art, it’s a must-see.
The Oxbow market is a good way to take a break, and have a treat.
We drove up to Calistoga, and did a couple’s spa. I really enjoyed it, even though I was skeptical at first.
If you like food, don’t miss Dean and Deluca and Oakville.

ETA: we liked Olive Oil tastings more than the wine tastings!

I’d like to find some wineries where, if one of the party isn’t going to participate in the tasting (me), he doesn’t have to pay the same price as those who are. A couple of places I’ve called say that everyone pays the same, even if they don’t drink anything.

I envy you all!

Its someplace that I will never get to go… like The Steppes or Mt Everest or out for a beer with Barack Obama or for tea with The Royal Family of England.

Pictures are nice & I hope you will be kind and post Many!

I have been to Napa probably a dozen times, but not in the last 5 years so. I’ve never heard of such at thing. You pay to taste, but most tasting rooms are set up like boutique shops these days, selling everything from bugs to aprons to books and wine glasses.

I like to start out with a Champagne (sorry, Sparkling Wine) tasting. Chandon will do nicely.

If you like white wines, don’t miss Grgich, for some of the best Chardonnay you’ll ever have. If you want to hit the biggies for reds, look for Silver Oak and/or Caymus. Personally, I like to go to Krug (which is up at the north end). They make a variety of very nice wines that are not ridiculously priced.

I’ve never done the wine train, but I’m guessing they want to keep you on the train (spending money there) as opposed to out and about.

Napa has some great restaurants, too. So many to choose from, but one of the more popular and not crazy priced ones in Peppers.

Hit the Oakville Market for lunch (great sandwiches). It’s pretty much mid-valley, so works out well if you’re heading north to south or vice versa.

Also consider Sonoma, which is right next door and not as crazy touristy as Napa (although Napa is absolutely gorgeous).

See if your hotel has partner deals with wineries that they steer you to for a discount or for free. There are so many wineries in the area that you might as well go to the ones that don’t charge for tasting.

The Coppola Winery is a very scenic drive north in Alexander Valley, and in addition to a terrific restaurant, they’ve got an impressive museum exhibit of props, costumes, and Academy Awards from various Coppola films (father & daughter).

Thanks, all, for the suggestions. FYI, we’re staying at an Airbnb, not a hotel.

Some of the Airbnb people have connections or at least know good deals. I’ve been looking to stay in the area in September and some of them say so in their ads. Can’t hurt to ask them.

I live in Napa and used to be in the wine hospitality industry, but it’s been a while so take this for what it’s worth. I grew up here and saw this area change drastically in the last forty years, so I’m a bit cynical about a lot of it, so here’s some bullet points from a long time local.

I’ve been on the wine train. I like trains too, but I wouldn’t bother. It’s just a rolling restaurant and if you do a dinner excursion in October it will be dark and you won’t see anything.

The traffic isn’t horrible in October either, so just drive yourself. You’ll have more flexibility to be spontaneous. In fact, that’s what I recommend. Don’t make big plans. Just head upvalley and follow your whims. Nobody here makes bad wine.

Take one winery tour. No need to do more. Most places charge for the tasting and maybe the tour. You may need a reservation. October is crush season, so there’ll be lots to see and smell.

Skip Oakville Grocery. Packed full of tourists and hard to get in and out. Go to Guigni’s Deli (pronounced Joony)in the middle of St Helena. Great sandwiches and the place hasn’t changed in forty years. A true locals joint.

Rutherford Grill is a great restaurant, another local fave.

If the weather is good, get up early and watch the hot air balloon launches. Usually in Yountville.

Domaine Chandon and Mumm are great places for sparkling wines. Go to Prager for port.

Don’t sweat the “Disneyland” type places. Sterling and, Castella D’Amarosa are cool in their own way, but very cynically touristy. (If you must, I recommend Sterling. Cool tram ride to the top, great view, great wine. I used to work there.)

Go to Calistoga and walk around. It’s a lot more authentically “Napa” than most places. You can have a hot mud bath if that’s your jam.

Be prepared to spend money. Everything’s expensive. There’s exactly one fast food place north of Napa proper.

Yountville is food central. Home to the French Laundry, but don’t expect to get in. Chef Keller has another place there, though. Bouchon. It’s a French bistro.

Oxbow Market in Napa is pretty nice. It modeled on the ferry building market in San Francisco. Lots of little shops under one roof. Downtown Napa offers lots of cool shopping, too, plus tasting rooms.

Do you golf? Silverado Resort has two 18 hole courses designed by Johnny Miller. The PGA tour stops there in October, too.

Drive up into the hills. Super pretty scenery and some winery gems.

Hike to the top of Mt St Helena. It was the inspiration for Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. You can see the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco on a clear day from up there. It’s a bit of a strenuous hike.

St Helena is pronounced Saint Heleena. Long e on the second syllable.

That’s about all I have time for right now. Lemme know if you need more.

How could I forget to plug my friend’s winery? Duh.

Judd’s Hill, just north of Napa on Silverado Trail. Nice small family owned winery. Great wine. You’ll need a reservation. The owner, Judd, runs the Hawaiian band I play in.

Thanks very much, Jumpbass!

Thoughts in no particular order:

Before you go
Watch Bottle shock. Filmed in Sonoma, but set in Napa and gives lots of perspective on the area. These are farmers at heart, even if big corporate interests are buying up land and labels. Somm and its sequel both are interesting as well, but different perspectives.

Wine train
Nice restoration. Track is straight, flat. Two primary values: (1) if you really, really like and prefer trains to anything else in the area and (2) if you use the train to ferry you between wineries while drinking (i.e., to replace a driver).

Tour companies
Reasons for a tour company are (1) access to X winery that you really like or (2) driver. If there is no X winery that you really care about, just pick the best value driver.

Aside: Unless you have a clear designated driver, having a driver matters.

Wineries to visit
I second John Mace’s suggestion of at least one champagne house. Chandon is fine. I tend to send people to Domaine Carneros, which I think presents more grandly.

Otherwise, buy a laminated map of Napa (available at convenience stores) and just pick places that suit your fancy. I’d do a loop up 29 and down Silverado trail, or vice versa. 29 has the towns, Silverado is more rural (and has less traffic). Call wineries in the 10-30 minutes before you show up, or just ask the folks at winery #1 what they recommend for winery #2. Many wineries take reservations or have limited seatings. But don’t worry about missing out - as Jumpbass wrote, it’s all good.

If wine isn’t totally your thing, many wineries have other attractions. MovieMogul pointed out that Coppola has movie props. Far Niente has classic cars, Gargiulo has guitars, etc. Again, call before you show up, just to confirm that there is a seat.

Charged for just being there
I’ve had complimentary tastings, tastings paid by the glass, tastings paid by the flight and tastings paid by the session. Never, ever heard of paying just to be there with others who are tasting. Keep in mind that the wineries want everyone to have a driver/responsible minder.

Other - FOOD
Listen to Jumpbass. Napa has wine, but Napa also has great food. Look over the restaurants available in Yountville - not just the French Laundry, but Redd, Bottega, Bouchon, Mustards, Brix etc., find one that suits, and go. On a Saturday, I’d recommend reserving a box lunch from Addendum, a little to-go shack behind Ad Hoc. $16.50 is a hella lot to pay for take out fried chicken and a couple of sides, to be sure, but (a) it’s awesome and (b) you get to say that you had a Thomas Keller meal. Reservations strongly recommended for any meal any place in Yountville.

beowulff made some great suggestions for places to stop - Oxbow Market and Dean and Deluca are great for getting picnic supplies, in particular.

Driving, in general

Napa is reasonably big, can be reasonably crowded, and depending on where you go can be hilly as well. Driving is not fast, and that’s before some winery or the other catches your eye. Keep all that in mind as you look at different itineraries.

Castello d’Amorosa charges admission just to get in, including a tasting, and at least one or two other places have tour/tastings that are the same price for non-drinkers.

Never been to Napa, but my friend recently went and said that the two things she’d do differently:

  1. Stay closer to town. She stayed in a place that was nice but off the beaten path. They had to drive everywhere.

  2. Hire a driver for the wine tours.

Because everyone got plastered and they weren’t safe to drive, or because they didn’t drink as much as they would have liked, just to avoid that? :smiley:

I’ll probably be the designated driver, since I’m not that big on wine.

Thanks again to every one who made suggestions.

We leave for SFO tomorrow and are planning to go to the following places (listed in no particular order), many recommended by posters here:

Sterling Vineyards
Coppola Winery
Napa Valley Wine Train
Rutherford Grill
Oxbow Market

Any other suggestions?

Also, we have reservations for the first tour of Alcatraz on Monday morning. We have to be at Pier 33 at 8:15 to check in. We’re staying in Glen Ellen. Google Maps says the usual travel time is 1 hour, 15 minutes. How much longer should we allow for traffic on Monday morning?

Thanks again.

Yay! The weather is great right now. It’s been in the 80s in the afternoon, but cool in the mornings. Looks like clouds moving in starting Sunday with rain expected by Tuesday.

I don’t know about Glen Ellen, but the mornings in Napa smell like wine right now. Come over early and watch the hot air balloons. Glen Ellen is about 40 minutes from Napa, more during the commute. An awful lot of people work in Napa but don’t live here, so there WILL be traffic. Especially on the weekends.

If you don’t mind windy roads, come over the hills via Trinity Rd/ Oakville Grade. Very little traffic and when you come over the top into Napa Valley, you get a big panoramic view. It’s a very curvy road, though, but worth it for the scenery.

Plan more time to get to San Francisco in the morning. (Remember, don’t call it Frisco!) You will be in the commute traffic. So you get there early and have a coffee and croissant- is that so bad? Right now, 8:00 am on Friday, Google Maps says 1.25 hours like you said. I’d go an extra half hour early to get lost, negotiate parking and actually get to the ticket office.

Your list looks like a good time. Make sure to take some time and get off the beaten paths. The Napa and Sonoma Valleys are beautiful right now. Post again with a trip summary!

Drop me a PM and let me know when you’re going to be at Oxbow Market. If I’m free I’ll meet you for a beer and talk your ear off about my home.

Thanks for the additional suggestions, Jumpbass.

I was going to allow two hours for the drive to the city, and we’ll probably still do that. But I’m relieved that you don’t think it will take *longer *than that.

Thanks for the offer of meeting, and if it were just me, I’d definitely arrange a meet up. But since my wife and I are traveling with another couple, I think we’ll be pretty self-contained.

I’ll be checking in here again before we leave this afternoon, so if anyone else has any more ideas, please chime in.

And I’ll file a full report in the middle of next week, after we get home.