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Napa on a Budget
Do Napa in a Day.. on a budget!
A Short History of Napa
Napa has a long history but here's a short version. It was 1839 when the first grapes were planted and in 1861 Charles Krug opened Napa's first commercial winery and sparked the first wave. By 1899 there were over 140 wineries. Success wasn't guaranteed and disease and prohibition sent Napa into a tailspin. It wasn't until 1933 when prohibition was repealed that wineries like Inglenook, Beaulieu, Louis M. Martini and Mondavi brought Napa back from the dead.
People today take wine for granted but that wasn't always the case. Prior to 1976 most Americans drank beer or cocktails. Wine was fancy, extravagant, and too confusing. But that changed with the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, also known as the Judgement of Paris and documented loosely in the movie Bottle Shock. The French ruled the wine world back then and thought it clever to put their wines against Napa, highly confident they would naturally win. They didn't and Napa soon exploded - and the wine industry in the US as we know it today was born.
Saving Money in Napa
Visiting Napa today is expensive. Hotel rooms are hard to get and $300 a night is considered a good deal, even in off season, and wine tasting is on average $25 per person - most people go to 5 wineries a day so a couple can easily spend $250 just on tasting fees. I decided to try to do Napa on the cheap, to really experience Napa like a first timer on a serious budget. Here's what I did.
WHERE TO STAY: For starters, I skipped staying at a hotel. Instead I shopped the AirBnB's and found a cute cottage for less than $200 a night. That was easily a hundred bucks a night cheaper than the cheapest hotel. I collected the best bets for AirBnB's and put them in a separate article you can find here.
TIP: My friend Jamie rents out a downstairs bedroom as an AirBnB. If you want a fresh, new, and friendly place to email me and I'll put you in touch with her. She also can drive you around if yo want to taste without worry of drinking and driving.
START YOUR DAY: My first stop was Oxbow Public Market where I set my sights on Model Bakery. They have GREAT breakfast sandwiches for around $6, made with their famous English Muffins. You need this breakfast. You need these muffins. Trust me, skip the sit down breakfast houses and eat here instead.
TO WINE PASS OR NOT TO WINE PASS, THAT IS THE QUESTION: If you've been on my site you know I am a big fan of the Priority Wine Pass. I used to promote free coupons, phone apps, passports, but no one does it better than the annual Priority Wine Pass. It's basically a two for one pass you show on your phone, saving you $25 or more on average at every stop. Get it HERE to get my discount - it will be $39.99 but you only need one pass per couple. Of course you don't need to get the pass but you will be kicking yourself at the first winery when they tell you two tastings are $50 and you realize you could have both had tastings for half that price.
FIRST STOP, A TOUR: So with the Priority Wine Pass loaded on my phone I was off to the races. I wanted to experience Napa like a true first timer so I opted for a tour to see how wine is made. I picked Bell Winery and did their Grape to Glass tour which is pretty fantastic. I've been on a lot of tours and most of them have you walking through vineyards in the hot sun and make you listen to a boring presentation before letting you sip some wine. The Bell tour is short, just enough to get a feel for production and history, and before you know it you're in the barrels room and they're popping open a bottle of sparkling. Bell has great wines and you move all the way through the gamut until you get to deep bold reds. It's a 90 minute experience, reservations are required, and it was half off with the Priority Wine Pass. That made it $25 per person which is a killer deal.
CHEAP LUNCH IN NAPA: Remember how I told you to go to Oxbow Public Market for breakfast? Another reason why I love Oxbow as my first stop is for their cheap lunch supplies. Don't get all fancy, a baguette, some cheese, and perhaps some deli meats is all you need for a great Napa picnic. Don't forget the waters!
For the adventurous and spirited head over to The French Laundry, Thomas Keller's famous high end restaurant where dinner for two will set you back a thousand bucks. No, I'm not saying you should eat there. Instead go across the street to their gardens and you'll find a few picnic tables and a chairs. Be discreet and you found the perfect picnic spot. Of course they might kick you out but that's why I said you need to be adventurous!
My wife is a bit of a chicken so instead of risking being kicked out of the French Laundry gardens we headed over to Napa Cellars, one of the best winery picnic spots. What makes Napa Cellars so good is that they give you two for one glasses of wine with your Priority Wine Pass, perfect for enjoying with your lunchtime snack. Napa Cellars is $20 per person but two for one with the pass - $10 per person for a glass of wine and picnic spot, that's a good deal.
THE LAST FREE TASTING IN NAPA? Sutter Home Winery, the folks who brought you White Zinfandel so many years ago, is perhaps the last free tasting left in Napa. The gardens are beautiful and the wine is free so why not stop? OK, yes, it's not going to blow your socks off but free wine is free wine. I tried it. I did! And yes, the gardens are beautiful :-)
IT'S TOURISTY, IT'S POPULAR, BUT IT'S WORTH IT: Beringer Winery is perhaps the most beautiful winery in all of Napa. Tasting fees are $25 per person but you get two for one so it's another bargain. Lots to see, there's a retail shop, gardens, and lush landscaping all around. It's the perfect last stop. I normally skip Beringer due to the crowds but really loved it here. There was live music, a fun vibe, I liked this stop a lot!
Let's Do the Math
So how much did this day cost you? Let's assume you got the Priority Wine Pass so you got the savings.
BREAKFAST: Less than $20 for two for breakfast sandwiches and coffees.
BELL WINERY: $50 tour for two.
PICNIC LUNCH: Less than $20 for two for a baguette, cheese, meats and waters.
NAPA CELLARS: $20 for two.
SUTTER HOME: Free tastings
BERINGER WINERY: $25 for two.
TOTAL COST FOR TWO: $135 + $39.99 for Wine Pass = $174.99. That's only $90 per person! That's not bad since I didn't really cut any corners. Heck, even the stop at Sutter Home was fun and helped me stretch the wine tasting budget.
Dinner on a Budget?
I didn't forget about dinner. My absolute favorite budget dining in Napa is the Happy Hour at Bounty Hunter where you can get ribs and slaw for $6 and two for one glasses of wine. Bounty Hunter has very credible BBQ and is worth it at any price but the Happy Hour before 6PM, M-F, is place to be.
Don't forget, you can email me if you ever want my free, unbiased advice! I can guide you to the best of Napa on a Budget and show you the wineries, restaurants, and places I love in Napa!
At a Glance: FARM is a destination restaurant inside the luxurious Carneros Inn focused on delivering an elegant yet casual dining experience using the finest farm to table ingredients. Expect stellar service and stunningly beautiful plates.
Perfect for: Special occasion dining, romantic dining, impress your date dining.
Wally Says: Modern farmhouse, gourmet chefs, I never knew farmers were such foodies!
Napa is filled with lively, upbeat, bistro-vibe restaurants but where do you go when you want a more refined, more elegant dining experience? For that I go to FARM, the upper end restaurant inside the Carneros Inn that features foodie worthy dining in a relaxed and sophisticated setting. The design features a living room styled alfresco lounge, patio dining, cathedral ceilings and two fireplaces, white tablecloths, the works. Date, be impressed.
TIP: If you're driving in for dinner, come a bit early to walk the grounds of this unique resort. It's really unlike anything you've ever seen, a place to bookmark for your next visit.
One of my dining rules is to always start with a cocktail, especially when it's served at a trendy looking bar serving custom craft cocktails. Modern, hip, the bar at FARM is welcoming and friendly and the cocktails creative and sophisticated. And of course, the wine list at FARM is extensive, even featuring wineries within walking distance to the resort. For dinner corkage is $25, waived if you purchase one of their bottles as well.
Farm to Table Dining
Simply stunning plates, beautiful presentation, and flavors, oh yes, the flavors are fresh and vibrant. Make sure you get the Agnolotti, tiny ravioli's with fava beans, green almonds, fromage blanc, and lemon preserve. It's a starter so the portion is tiny but it's so good that you'll need to watch your table manners when the person next to you wants a bite. Um, no, get your own!
In fact, everything appears to be over the top delicious at FARM. Designed by Executive Chef Aaron Meneghelli, the farm-to-table menu showcases simple, elegant food based on the natural abundance of the surrounding region. FARM is refined in presentation and flavors and each dish includes at least one element from the on-site farm. And yes, vegetarians get more than the obligatory nod with plenty of options, all equally delicious.
Expect to spend around $60 per person before drinks for an appetizer and entree. Portions are sized appropriately for the rich ingredients though some might want to add a salad or dessert to round it out. A $115 tasting menu features a 5 course dinner, a great option for a special occasion. Service is polite and professional and the noise level low enough for an actual conversation. Wow, what a concept!
So Napa has plenty of good - great - restaurants, so many that it's hard to choose. That said, FARM should make your short list if you're looking for beautiful plates of exceptional ingredients deliciously prepared.
TIP: Doing a day trip to Sonoma? Make FARM your dinner stop on the way back to Napa.
Now Open for Brunch!
For the first time ever, FARM at The Carneros Inn (4048 Sonoma Highway) is pleased to announce Sunday brunch. Previously only open for dinner, FARM invites guests to enjoy the summer brunch season on FARM’s newly-renovated outdoor patio and with a round of bocce. The family-style brunch will be offered from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. every Sunday, with the first brunch on July 3, 2016.
Designed by Executive Chef Aaron Meneghelli, this elevated family-style brunch will be a play on classic brunch items with Napa Valley nuances. Guests will choose four menu items as a table to be shared family-style for $45 per person. The menu will change weekly, depending on the best local seasonal produce, as well as what is being harvested in The Carneros Inn’s culinary garden. A sampling of Chef Aaron’s brunch dishes will include Smoked Fried Chicken and Waffle with pepper jelly; Beets and Berries with fresh ricotta, garden greens, pistachio, and saba; and Fresh Biscuits with Silverado Trail strawberries, foie gras mousse, and Marshall Farms honey, among others
Cheap Eats in Napa: Napa on a Budget
I'm not going to kid you, dining in Napa can get really expensive but if you follow my advice you can get that Napa dining experience without blowing your budget. And don't forget to check out picnics as a huge way to stretch your dining budget without sacrificing experience.
Eat Where the Locals Do
You don't really think that locals are taking up all the spots at The French Laundry, do you? Nope, they're eating Napa-Style at these budget friendly restaurants:
- Eight Noodle: $14.99 lunch special with chicken, egg, pork bun, and rice - drink included.
- Gott's Roadside: $10 burger and beer on Tuesday
- UVA: $10 burger and beer on Tuesday
- Kitchen Door: $1 wings on Wednesday
- Hog Island Oysters: Happy Hour deals will make you very happy.
- Bounty Hunter: $10 BBQ plate during happy hour
- Redd Wood: Craving a steak? $35 ribeye big enough to split, add a pizza and you barely break $50 for two.
- La Luna Market: Nothing upscale here, just solid Mexican food to go that will make your next picnic unforgettable.
- Red Rock Cafe and Back Door BBQ: Take out or dine in, this might be Napa's best BBQ. Full dinners for under $20.
- Clement's Italian Takeout at Vals: Take out Italian fare in the back of a liquor store. Seriously! To go food has never been so good!
- Filippi's Pizza Grotto: This is old school Italian, nothing gourmet, nothing fancy, but if you want huge portions of spaghetti and meatballs or giant pizzas oozing with cheese, this is it.
- The Kitchen Door: The "nice" restaurant inside the Oxbow Market with everything from Asian noodles to pizzas, all under $20.
Go Big (But Still Go Budget)
If you have your heart set on dining at the big name Napa restaurants, don't let your wallet boss you around. Instead order smart and enjoy the experience!
- Rutherford Grill: Can get pricey but no corkage fee keeps the final tab in check. Sit at the bar, order a grilled artichoke and split an entree and you get all of the experience at a fraction of the price.
- Bouchon: Leave the American Express card at home. Just order the Croque Madame, a fancy ham and cheese sandwich with Keller's famous frieds - under $20. House wines perfectly acceptable here.
- Bistro Jeanty: Lovely French restaurant, get the Coq a Vin (chicken, mushrooms, red wine sauce) for a mere $21.
- Hurley's: Sit at the bar and get the wild boar sliders ($16) and share an order of truffle fries with bacon and melted cheese ($12) and it seriously does not get much more Napa than this!
Don't do Lunch, Do a Picnic
Picnics and Napa go hand in hand even if you're not trying to save money. I like to start early in the morning at Oxbow Market, gathering cheese and meats and bread before my first tasting. (Tip: bring some ice from the hotel to keep things cool and that extra blanket in the closet). Then I like to aim a tasting at one of the wineries that allow picnics and combine some wine tasting with my lunch.
Remember, not all wineries allow picnics and of those who do some are significantly better than others. Here is the complete Napa Picnic list but below are my favorites.
- Rombauer: Way off the beaten track, picnic tables under the redwoods, nice and secluded.
- Napa Cellars: Terrific picnic spot with wines by the glass.
- Clos Pegase: Picnic next to the vineyard in the shade, drink wine, fall asleep :-)
- See all of Napa Picnic Wineries with photos of each spot.
1 Main St, St Helena, CA 94574| (707) 967-4695
AT A GLANCE: High quality farm to table dining at the Harvest Inn's Charlie Palmer restaurant. Hidden gem, food will not disappoint.
With five culinary gardens on site, Harvest Table prides it self on serving local seasonal dishes that highlight the Napa Valley’s agricultural prowess. Even the honey comes from the garden bees used to pollinate the crops. Needless to say the dishes are inspired and constructed with a familiarity of farmers market style cooking. These guys take farm to table seriously!
The two open patios blend seamlessly with the inner dinning room and present a connection with the forested grounds of the Harvest Inn. The restaurant setting is detailed but not elaborate and is a place where comfortable conversations thrive.
The menus are split between lighter and more robust options with equal weight given to both. The roasted Carrots with Granola were a great introduction into the Harvest Table’s mantra of fresh/local. And as the Chef Levi Mezick hails from the south, the Shrimp and Grits have an unmistakable authenticity and passion. The octopus salad, with octopus slow cooked for 4 1/2 hours and then finished on the grill, was an excellent companion for the Domain Caneros Brut (2010) and spring heat. The Pork Chop—paired with Polenta and morels with fresh pea greens reminding the garden beds are a stones throw from the table—was cooked perfectly. We finished with a mentionable Chocolate peanut butter bar and a Rhubarb Shortbread; both nothing less than delicious.
If you're wine tasting in St. Helena and getting a bit hungry, take a detour and stop in for a bite at the bar. Oysters, Pommes Dauphine (fancy Tater tots), Crispy Pork Head, a Burger, and homemade ice cream sandwiches, can all be found on the bar menu. I'll be on the patio :-)
GUEST BLOG AUTHOR BRIAN LARSEN