9 Tips for Planning Your Trip to Napa Valley

Planning a visit to Napa Valley is no easy feat.  If you are not familiar with the area, it can be rather challenging.  I had zero understanding of Napa and all of the wineries available.  It would be safe to say that I had an embarrassingly large number of tabs open in Google Chrome trying to figure out how to put my vacation together.  After visiting, I learned some valuable points to pass along to others wanting to plan their first trip to the area.  Let’s talk about some of the most important points. 

Where to Stay.  The number of luxury resorts in the Napa area will have your head spinning.  I centered much of my search from Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts.  This was where I was able to find our booking with Carneros.  At the time of booking, the offer was to stay two nights and receive the third night free.  If you want more details on this, check out my post on Carneros Resort.  What I did not realize at the time of booking is that the location of the hotel is probably the most critical.  Carneros is located to the south and west of Napa.  This allows you to enjoy the wineries in the area.  But, if you are staying in Napa more than an extended weekend, I would not spend the entire trip at this hotel.

To fully understand, I want to familiarize you with the area.  The areas that I am going to refer to are Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga.  Napa is located the furthest south.  It is a “larger town” as compared to the others mentioned.  It is a little more commercial. If you stay in Napa, there are an abundance of restaurants and shops.  It also places you in close proximity to a number of the wineries closer to Carneros, but you still aren’t far from Yountville. To drive from Napa town up to the Calistoga area, it will take you a little over 40 minutes.

My opinion is that Yountville is probably the most centrally located.  It allows easy access to areas both north and south.  In addition, most of the hotels are within or directly adjacent to the main downtown area.  This allows easy access for dinner reservations.  Yountville has many major players like the French Laundry, Bouchon, AdHoc, Bistro Jeanty, and the list goes on.  Some of the options in Yountville to stay include Bardessono, Vintage House at the Estate Yountville, and Hotel Yountville. 

St. Helena is also such a charming town with a cute main street.  There are many restaurant options here and fun shops lining the main drag.  The feel is much smaller compared to Napa.  It takes you further North and places you in a difficult location to readily enjoy wineries to the south and west of Napa. To simplify, it really depends on what wineries you are most interested in visiting.

Finally, Calistoga is located the furthest North.  They opened a Four Seasons Resort in Calistoga, which I am sure is absolutely fantastic.  With that said, staying in Calistoga does not leave you in a central location if your goal is to explore as much as possible.

In summary, if you want to be centrally located, I would recommend staying in Yountville.  Design the trip on your specific interests and whether there are wineries or other special events that you want to include as part of your trip.  If you are staying longer, consider moving to another hotel and plan your winery visits on proximity.

Where to eat.  It certainly does not get any easier when trying to decide where to make your dinner reservations.  I found many lovely places that I wanted to try on my trip.  My actual reservations were limited by availability and also my desire to not drive too far for dinner.  Ultimately, I ended up eating at restaurants located only in Napa and Yountville.  The areas further north had some lovely options, but they were simply outside the area that I was willing to travel.  Make sure that you check where the restaurant is in proximity to where you are staying.  It likely goes without saying, but if you are after a specific restaurant, make sure that you book plenty in advance.  This is not a trip that can be easily planned last minute. 

How to get around.  In my opinion, renting a car is rather important.  We chose Avis at Santa Rosa airport.  During our time, we drove to all of the wineries and did not plan too many each day.  Also, if you didn’t want to drive the rental, you can always hire a driver.  There are many companies that allow you to hire someone to drive your rental around.  Or, if you don’t mind the expense, you could always hire a private driver for all of your needs.  Finally, if you would like alternate transportation for one day, ride the Napa Valley Wine train.  You can learn more about this in my post on the train experience. 

How many wineries to visit per day.  The first time I visited Sonoma it was for a long weekend.  I wanted to pack in absolutely as many wineries as possible.  Looking back and after visiting Napa, I would not recommend this.  My opinion is to visit two wineries per day.  The ceiling should be three.  During my week, I did have one day visiting three wineries, and it was just too much.  It was a great day, but I would not repeat three in one day on a return visit.

Book online in advance.  Every winery has a pretty fantastic system available online to learn about all of their tasting options and book.  I would not recommend showing up anywhere without booking in advance.  There are a select few that you have to call to book versus scheduling online.  Most wineries offer two or three tiers of tasting.  Some of them will offer food pairings or provide cheese/crackers. 

Look at a map.  I recommend making a list of all the wineries that you would like to visit while on your trip.  After this, place them into google maps and see what is in close proximity.  Not everything is close together.  Once you group wineries based upon proximity, check their availability online.  Most wineries are open daily, but there are a number that do not offer tastings on particular days of the week.

Allow plenty of time between wineries.  Almost all of the wineries will state an approximate time for their tasting when you book online.  This allows you to plan out your day accordingly.  We did spend additional time at several wineries we visited, so allow plenty of time between for travel.  Our tasting at Saintsbury was at 10am and our next winery at 12:30.  We barely made it due to going over at Saintbury.  Some wineries are very generous and give you additional pours and spend extra time discussing their wines.  Don’t try to pack too much into your day!

Time of year may matter.  Although I do not have anything for comparison, the wineries seemed less busy at the beginning of December.  It allowed me to plan the trip without as much advance notice.  The foliage was beautiful during this time of the year as well.  One of our tour hosts mentioned early December being a great time of year to visit. If you have specific pursuits, it is likely advantageous to book during a less popular time of year. 

How to get there.  On a previous trip to Sonoma, I flew into San Francisco and rented a car.  This trip, I flew into the Santa Rosa airport.  I thought this was a more convenient option.  My carrier of choice, American Airlines, flies a regional jet into this very small airport.  From here, you are able to rent a car and drive to Napa.  It took just under one hour to drive from the Santa Rosa airport to Carneros Resort.

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