Napa Valley, California
“It’s wine, food, and the arts. Incorporating those three enhances the quality of life.” Robert Mondavi
Napa Valley is obviously a must do for any wine lover. There are a growing number of regions in the US that are earning quality wine reputations, but none carry the weight or volume of Napa and the surrounding areas. There is wine for all palates and all wallets and a variety of experiences and different types of wineries. Some places give extensive tours, some tastings, and some full day events including multi course meals and reserve wine pairings. If you love wine, you can pretty much create any experience that you’d like. But if wine isn’t your thing, don’t you fret. Napa also has a great food scene with amazing restaurants, not to mention the history and tours of the wineries are amazing themselves, even without consumption of their product.
When planning your trip, keep a couple things in mind:
- First, you should decide what kind of wineries you want to visit and do some research. Are you looking for the highest quality wines? Are you looking for wineries that also have good food? Are you wanting extensive property and vineyard tours? Are you searching for nice views or settings? There are some great lists online that let you search by winery type which will help you map out a plan.
- Check availability of the wineries for the days you will be in town. Some have limited spots available and some are only open certain days of the week.
- Map out your route. There are a lot of beautiful, winding country roads in this area going up and down hillsides and vineyards. If you don’t map out a route, you will spend most of your day in a car doubling back and forth from Calistoga, and Napa, and Yountville, and back again. All day in a car is less day enjoying Napa wines…. which is bad.
- Once you have a good route mapped out, make reservations so you ensure you will have a spot in each of your desired locations.
For this trip, we researched wineries based on the experience. We skipped over some of the places with our favorite wines and instead went looking for some places with nice views or cool features so we could try new wines. If you want some recommendations of some wineries with phenomenal wines, send us a message and we can give you a few of our favs. But the great thing is…. we’re in Napa, so there is awesome wine around every corner. Even though we went looking for atmosphere, we were pleasantly surprised that they all had great wine as well.
Since we scheduled tours and tastings all day long, we made a tradition of making our first stop of the day a sparkling wine stop. It’s light, and refreshing, and it’s 10am so it made for a good way to kick off our day. Plus… this girl loves her bubbles!
Also… a side note about Champagne. For many of you already having vast wine knowledge, this will sound like a silly statement, but I was surprised to find out that there are a large number of people that do not know this little tidbit. Sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it is grown, fermented, and bottled in the Champagne region of France. There are some great wineries out there that use the traditional Champagne process to create high end bubbly, but if it is not from Champagne, it is called sparkling wine.
The first day we went to Domaine Carneros for our morning stop and we recommend you do the same. The Chateau there is breathtaking and has some amazing views. You can reserve a table out on the balcony that looks over the grounds. It’s a very romantic setting, and we even saw a guy propose while we were there. You can opt for a tour or you can walk the grounds by yourself. We ordered a meat and cheese plate and sat out on the balcony, drank some great sparkling wines, and people watched.
Staying on the topic of great Napa sparkling wines, another stop we loved was Schramsberg. Schramsberg embraces the old style of making sparkling wine by fermenting in bottle, which is also how high end Champagnes are made. The tour of their caves was a very cool (pun intended) experience and we even did a tasting underground (see photo ↓). Schramsberg boasts some of the best sparkling wines made on American soil. The Blanc de Blancs was used by President Nixon in his “Toast to Peace” with China in 1972 and has been a regular at White House functions ever since (not to mention it was a big hit at the Sutton wedding).
Once we moved on from our morning bubbles, we wanted to find a winery with vista like views. We found the mountaintop location of Kuleto Estate and the beauty of this winery is hard to describe without seeing it. All aspects of this property are very well managed, and although it’s a little hard to find and get to, it is worth the trip. From the top of the mountain there are views of Lake Hennessey as well as rows and rows of vines lining the mountainside. If you are looking for sweeping Napa views in a beautiful setting, you should visit Kuleto Estate.
Another winery we found with beautiful grounds was Chateau Montelena. The Chateau is a large stone castle surrounded by beautiful gardens that you can walk around and explore. It’s a very peaceful setting and there are a number of outdoor areas and gazebos where you can set up private tastings. It was originally founded and built in the late 1800’s and by winning a taste test in 1976 against well known French wines, it played a large role in making the Napa region well known in the wine community.
Speaking of awesome castles, another truly unique experience is Castello di Amorosa. This property is massive and definitely caters to visitors looking for extensive tours. They go to great lengths to cover all aspects of their property and their Tuscany inspired castle is massive. There are multiple levels, some above ground and some underground. There is a gorgeous stone courtyard, many different overlook areas, and there is even a torture room.
When looking for places to stay in Napa, there are many different types and locations. You can rent private residences or get a hotel right in town, or you can look for something away from the hustle and bustle. If luxury and top notch service is what you’re seeking, you should look into staying at Auberge du Soleil. Not only is it considered one of the (if not the) highest quality stays in the area, it has a full service spa and a Michelin rated restaurant. Even if you are not staying at the resort, you should still go there for dinner or for happy hour and reserve a table on their terrace. You will be treated to spectacular views as the sun sets over Rutherford and the Quintessa winery. ↓
Champagne and Propane- A Ballooner’s breakfast
Our favorite day in Napa was the day we checked off a bucket list item and rode a hot air balloon over Napa Valley. We are always craving adventurous and exhilarating activities to do when we travel, and we were definitely picturing this as a super fun, a little scary, high five-ing type of adventure. It turned out to be nothing like that… and we left happier and more satisfied because of it.
We used Napa Valley Aloft Balloon Rides and they were great to work with. They give you all the information you need ahead of time like when to call in the morning of, what time to arrive for check in, etc. There are two different types of rides they offer. There are group balloons that will have anywhere from 6-14 people and is less expensive, and there is a private balloon ride which is what it sounds like, just your group and the pilot. We upgraded to the private balloon, and although I’m sure the shared balloon is still an awesome experience, having the balloon to ourselves was amazing. Like many things on vacation, if you make yourself get up early, you usually get to see and experience amazing things that the rest of the world misses. Watching the sun rise over the endless vineyards of Napa from a balloon was extremely surreal.
Our pilot, Justin, told us about the history and art of ballooning which added to the overall experience. The first hot air balloon flights were in France in the 1780’s. During that time the country folk in the region were very removed from knowledge of what was going on in the cities. So when they saw a strange flying object soaring over their land spitting out fire, they prepared to defend their property and livestock as if they were under attack. During the first flights, pilots brought champagne with them to toast after a successful flight, but ended up using it as a peace offering for angry farmers who’s land they had invaded during landing. It has since been a tradition to always carry champagne with you during a hot air balloon ride and is something they still adhere to today in honor of the first flights in France.
Justin also shared with us the Ballooners Prayer:
May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with its warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well
that God joins you in laughter
and sets you gently back again
into the loving arms of Mother Earth.
The ride was less crazy and adventurous, and more peaceful and calming. Since you are flowing with the wind, there are no jerks or sudden movements, and never a feeling of being unsafe. Justin even did a “splash and dash” where he temporarily landed the balloon in the middle of the lake and then lifted off again before the basket got too wet. The whole flight was so relaxing and really allows you to enjoy the calm breeze and appreciate the beauty of the region as you just float over the valley. This was definitely the highlight of our trip.
Trip Summary: Napa, CA
Lodging: Auberge du Soleil- This resort and spa is top notch. The service is great and the property is amazing. It’s a little outside of downtown Napa, but the views (and massages) are worth it.
Good places to eat: Auberge du Soleil Restaurant- different dining experiences throughout the day and all with an unbelievable view, Mustards Grill- farm to fork with great wine pairing, Tra Vigne- Wonderful Italian food (not the pizzeria) and is a staple in Napa fine dining
Activities: Of course there are wine tours, there are many bus and train tours that are great so you don’t have to worry about driving, the foodie scene, hot air balloon rides, lakes with water activities, trails for biking and hiking, in town social activities
Do’s: Go on a hot air balloon ride, Do make reservations and a good tour plan, Do go to Auberge du Soleil even if it is just for dinner or a happy hour cocktail
Don’t’s: DRINK AND DRIVE (this is an obvious one people), don’t schedule your balloon ride for your last day- As in all cases of activities that can be affected by weather, if you schedule it for the last day you are in town and the weather doesn’t cooperate you won’t have time to reschedule, Don’t underestimate the drive time to different parts of the region- the roads are small and slow in some areas so plan accordingly when making reservations.
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