Tips for a Self-Guided Driving Tour of Napa Valley Wine Country
If you are lucky enough to visit Napa Valley California, just north of San Francisco, you may want to take a drive around to check out the lay of the land to help plan your stay.
There are several ways to see this wine country, including the famous Napa Wine Train which runs from Napa to St Helena. Many private companies offer limo services that can be customized to create a unique experience to suit your tastes.
Most people prefer the independence of taking a self-guided drive, so the schedule can be more flexible. Of course, the driver will need to show restraint at the wine tastings! Most people travel north on HWY 29 from Napa to Calistoga. This article explores several suggestions for your Napa Valley visit.
The first landmark you will come across is the small town of Yountville (exit right at Washington Street, then stay left at the stop sign). This takes you to V Marketplace, formerly known as Vintage 1870. Its stunning buildings house 40 shops and restaurants.
Michael Chiarello of Food Network has his restaurant Bottega here, which is Mediterranean-inspired and prides itself on using local produce. Chiarello is behind the brand NapaStyle, and a large store featuring his goods does not disappoint. The grounds are beautifully kept. This would be a great place to pick up unique, wine-inspired souvenirs.
Bouchon Bakery is across the street, and should not be missed for the most outstanding French pastries and croissants.
The French Laundry
The most famous Napa Valley restaurant is The French Laundry in Yountville. It has three Michelin stars (the highest rating) and the James Beard Award for outstanding restaurant. They have a fixed menu that changes daily of 2 nine-course meals. The price is about $275 per person, and does not include wine. Apparently reservations are required about 6 months in advance.
Mondavi Vineyard and Oakville Grocery
Time to get back on the road! Go back to highway 29, and continue north.
The first big vineyard you will see is Mondavi, but everyone stops there first, so I would suggest doing it on your way home. It is on the left, and crossing the highway can be treacherous. I recommend trying to see things on the right side (east) going up, and the west going back so no left turn is required. Mondavi is worth seeing, because it is the most well-known vineyard in Napa Valley, and the grounds are beautiful.
Oakville Grocery store is famous and will be on your left practically sitting on the road, it is so close! If you can, stop in for a few minutes, but it can be difficult to safely park.
Grgich Hills and Dean and Deluca
There are wineries everywhere you look. Just stop when one gets your attention. It can be tricky on the busy road though. A vineyard the wine train stopped at is Grgich Hills in Rutherford.
There is a Dean and Deluca in St Helena, which is basically a gourmet grocery store and has been voted best picnic food in California. Great place to pick up some cheese, etc. to go with your wine.
The next town you will come to is St Helena. The streets are lined with shops and restaurants, but again it can be difficult to stop and park.
My suggestion would be to continue straight on up to Calistoga. Turn right to see the little town, or stay on the 29 to reach Sterling Vineyard. This is one of the best wineries to experience in Napa Valley, because for about $15–20 but you get a tram ride, self-guided tour with beautiful views, and 5 wines to taste.
Culinary Institute of America at Greystone
Once you have visited Sterling, I recommend heading back down south on 29. There are 2 notable stops just North of St Helena.
Coming up on your right will be the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. This is a great spot to stop for lunch or dinner, or just to look around. The food is excellent, and reasonably priced for Napa. They have free Valet parking, so don’t be too upset when you turn into the parking lot and don't see a spot in sight!
Remember this is a learning environment, from the wait staff to the chefs, so expect it to take a little longer than a typical restaurant. There is a great gift store too. You may even get to see the students cooking through the windows. Worth a stop for the foodies.
Directly next door, and not to be missed is Beringer Vineyard. Definitely worth a stop, if for nothing more than to see the beautifully landscaped grounds. The estate wines can be tasted in the mansion. Like all of the wineries, there are tours of the cellars, and a fabulous gift store.
If you managed to see all you wanted while heading north on 29, then you may want to take the Silverado Trail back down to Napa. This road runs parallel to highway 29 on the east side. It is dotted with wineries including some of the most expensive wines from the region such as Stag's Leap and Opal. It is less busy, and there are no shops or restaurant to distract you! Many of the wineries on the Silverado trail need appointments for tasting.
I hope you enjoy your time in this beautiful part of the world!