First time visitors to Napa Valley often feel overwhelmed planning a trip to wine country. With hundreds of wineries and dozens of world class restaurants, which ones do you choose to squeeze into a weekend trip? It's easy! I'll show you the best wineries to visit, the best places to eat, and the best winery tours. It's the ultimate first timers Napa Valley trip itinerary!
Don't Get Lost! Follow along in googlemaps.
BOUCHON BAKERY: Napa Valley built its reputation on wine but food comes in a close second. Yountville boasts three Thomas Keller restaurants, including the world renowned French Laundry ($225 per person). If that's a bit out of your price range, go instead to the Bouchon Bakery and sample some of their pastry delights with a bold cup of coffee. The macaroons are to die for.
V MARKETPLACE 1870: Sorry guys, but I would be in big trouble with the wives if I didn't tell them about V Marketplace, a one of a kind shopping center. Aim her towards Michael Chiarello's NapaStyle store because there's wine tasting there. Map
THE FRENCH LAUNDRY: Photo Op! Take your picture outside the famous restaurant for your next Christmas card. Your friends will be duly impressed. Map
DOMAINE CHANDON: Up the street from Yountville is your first wine stop, Domaine Chandon. Starting your wine tasting day with a glass of bubbling champagne just feels right and the beautiful setting is stunning. Map
ROBERT MONDAVI WINERY
Well meaning friends are going to tell you to skip Mondavi, calling it commercial or touristy and claiming there are better wines made in the valley. Just nod politely as they sip their Woodbridge and listen to me, this is a great stop for first time Napa visitors.
Learning how wine is made is the first step towards appreciating it and Mondavi's tasting fee includes a tour that takes you from vines to finished wine in 75 minutes. And if your experience with Mondavi has been supermarket level wines, you're in for a very pleasant surprise when you taste their good stuff. Map
OAKVILLE GROCERY: One can only imagine what Napa Valley looked like 120 years ago when Oakville Grocery first opened. Today it's a gourmet market with full deli and lots of foodie delights. There's "grab and go" sandwiches in front if it's busy, though I can't resist a crusty baguette, some good cheeses and salami, and a jar of gourmet mustard. Whatever you get, pack it up and grab some napkins and let's go! Map
RUBICON ESTATES: It's hard to believe but at one time Inglenook made some of the best wines in the world. Started by a wealthy sea captain in the late 1800's, it became one of Napa's premier wineries until the 1960's when its sale to a liquor corporation sent shock waves through the valley. The name remained the same but the quality went out as fast as the jugs came in. By the 1970's it's reputation was all but destroyed.
Francis Ford Coppola, flush with money after making The Godfather II, came to Napa in search of a small family vineyard. He ended up with the Inglenook chateau. Years later he's producing fine wines that rival the best. A visit to Rubicon pays homage to it's past and present owners. If you toured Mondavi, skip the tour and go explore on your own. Upstairs Coppola displays some of his movie paraphernalia but outside the chateau feels just like Europe with the bistro tables where you can get a glass of wine to enjoy with your lunch. Be discreet, however, as they don't officially allow picnics but rarely kick anyone out. Website / Map
CASTELLO DI AMOROSA: High on a hill is a sight that looks straight out of The Lord of the Rings. You won't believe your eyes as you drive up to Castello di Amorosa, a full scale, 121,000 square foot castle that's also a winery.
Wipe that cynical look off your face, this is no Las Vegas fake, this is a real castle that took 13 years to build using authentic materials and building techniques. There's even a dungeon with real torture equipment!
The 90 minute tour takes you deep into the castle and away from the crowds. But you can also just pop in to taste, walking through the front of the castle on your own. And happily, the wine is nearly as impressive as the castle. Website / Map
CHATEAU MONTELENA: Feeling a bit tipsy from all that wine? Then let's drive a bit to get to the next stop. A bit of history - in 1976 the French dominated the wine industry and hosted a blind tasting, now known as The Judgement of Paris. It was these tasting's that put Napa on the map when Chateau Montelena won for best chardonnay (and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars won for best cab).
Fast forward to 2008 when Hollywood made the movie "Bottle Shock" and once again put Chateau Montelena in the spotlight. The winery was the backdrop for the movie and it's as beautiful as you might imagine with the historic stone castle and a crazy Chinese lake in back. If you can do a fake French accent, practice saying "'That is definitely a California. It has no nose", one of the famous quotes from a French judge as he sipped a Napa wine. That should crack them up at the tasting bar. Map
GRCICH HILLS: The winemaker behind the winning chardonnay was Mike Grcich and if you have time, stop in on your way back to taste his latest version of the winning wine. His downhome intimate winery is a nice way to end the day. Map
MUSTARDS GRILL: The quintessential Napa restaurant, Mustards has been serving upscale takes on comfort foods long before it became trendy. Truckers dine with chefs and winemakers, the vibe is bistro lively and the food a delight. The Mongolian pork chop is their signature dish but as the sign says, "everything is delicious". If you only can go to one restaurant in Napa, go to Mustards. Website / Map
MORE DINING OPTIONS: Alternatively, head back to Yountville for a Thomas Keller experience. Ad Hoc is his "family" restaurant, serving up one menu that changes daily based on what's available. If you're lucky enough to be there on Fried Chicken Night, your dinner decision has just been made.
For fancier dining, head to Keller's Bouchon or a local favorite, Bistro Jeanty. And FoodTV fans will want to check out celebrity chef Michael Chiarello's new restaurant, Bottega, or Iron Chef Morimoto's new downtown restaurant called, of course, Morimoto Napa.
WHERE TO NEXT?
DAY 2: THE SILVERADO TRAIL
SPRING 2013: Thank you everyone for making this one of the most popular sites on Napa. Very cool.
The big Napa news is that we now have our own online store called Napa Valley Home & Garden. We're bringing the best of Napa Farmhouse living right to your home. Check it out - we're open for business!