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9 Ways to Be a Smart Wine Country Visitor

Napa Valley Insider Tips


9 Ways to Be a Smart Wine Country Visitor

Napa Vineyards in the Fall

©2006 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

Like many of California's most famous destinations, Napa Valley is in danger of becoming a victim of its own charm. On weekends, CA Hwy 29 looks more like a city at rush hour than a quiet country lane, wineries can get very crowded and it's easy to miss the things that make Napa the special place that it is.

Try a few of these insider secrets to make your visit more enjoyable:

  • Read our wine-tasting tips before you go. They'll help you have the best possible experience.

  • Not all wine tasting experiences are the same. The most mundane involve standing at a bar, sharing a pourer's attention with a dozen or more other people. Others are more special, with seated tastings that feel like fancy dinner parties, barrel tastings, wine blending and food pairings. Use the guide to Napa's best wineries to find the most enjoyable of the lot.

  • If you plan to take a winery tour, bring a jacket or extra layer of clothing to wear in the caves, which are about 60°F year round. If the tour include a trip into the vineyard, pay attention to your footwear, which should be suitable for soft dirt, gravel and dusty paths.

  • Use the Napa/Sonoma Map to figure out where everything is.

  • Visit mid-week. There's a lot less traffic and some hotels have lower rates.

  • On a hot day, head south. Contrary to the weather in many other places, the north end of Napa Valley tends to be hotter than the south, which is cooled by the San Francisco Bay.

  • Try using Silverado Trail as your north-south driving route. It's more scenic and less crowded. You can reach it by driving east from CA Hwy 29 on any main road you find. Oak Knoll Avenue is a good choice if you're going north.

  • Rutherford Hill Winery's picnic area has a great view and is often nearly empty when picnic areas on the main highway are packed. As a courtesy to the winery, buy a bottle of wine from them to enjoy with your picnic.

  • Sunshine Market on Main Street in St. Helena (pronounced Hel-EE-na) has an excellent selection of cheeses, fruits and baked goods for that picnic and so does Oakville Grocery on Hwy 29. Don't forget to pick up cutlery and napkins with your purchase.

  • As improbable as this sounds, don't miss Steve's Hardware in St. Helena for kitchen toys ranging from tiny tart pans to wooden spoons big enough to stir a cauldron.

  • If you want to eat at the French Laundry or one of the other fine restaurants in the area, but don't have a reservation, show up prepared to wait and there's a good chance you'll get in. But have a contingency plan just in case you don't.

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