Napa 101: First Timers Itinerary | Local Wally's Napa Tourist Guide
Visit the BEST of Napa in a day, from big name wineries to local's favorite restaurants, all planned out for you stop by stop, perfect for first timers! Local Wally's Napa Tourist Guide is the #1 trusted source for unbiased info on Napa.
First Timer's Winery Guide: Napa 101
First Timer's Napa Trip Agenda
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? Trust that guy at work to help guide you? You don't even trust him with your stapler!
Instead, let me show you the best Napa wineries to visit, the best places to eat, and the best winery tours. Forget about doing tons of research, instead use my Napa 101 cheat sheet, a stop by stop agenda that takes you to all of the highlights, perfect for first timers who want to see the big name and iconic wineries that helped make Napa famous.
Day One sticks mainly to Highway 29, the main road, and Day Two (Napa 102) explores the Silverado Trail.
HARVEST TIME IS GRAPE STOMP TIME! Special Event for my readers, Sept 15th, stomp away while sipping great wines, enjoying small bites and dancing to live music. $59 and includes a free Priority Wine Pass for 2 for 1 discounts!
Wine Tasting is Expensive. Here's How to Make it Cheap.
It's simple, just get a Wine Pass. But not just any pass, get the Priority Wine Pass, the only discount offer I recommend. There's no fake deals, no tweeting before tasting. Instead you'll find discounts at Sterling, Beringer, even the Napa Castle (Castillo di Amorosa), as well as hidden gems who have GREAT wines at reasonable costs. To get a pass with my discount go here and get ONE pass per couple. And remember, reach out to me and I'll help you pick wineries and will make sure you get the most bang for your wine tasting buck! Still just $39.99 per couple, you'll break even before you leave your second stop!
Napa Valley's Frequently Asked Questions for First Time Visitors
Where is the Best Place to Stay in Napa Valley?
With a few notable exceptions the best places to start your search for hotels and resorts in Napa Valley are Downtown Napa and Yountviille. Both are walking distance to restaurants, something you will be thankful for at the end of the day. Downtown is typically a bit less expensive and has a bit more night life. Yountville is a quaint little town surrounded by some of Napa's best restaurants and and both have nearby tasting rooms.
Up mid-valley is The Harvest Inn, a top pick (email me as I sometimes have discounts there for free) and along the Silverado Trail are two incredible resorts, Auberge du Soleil and Meadowood. In Calistoga is Solage, another top end and high end resort worth checking out.
There are also AirBnB's around Napa. Check out my friend Jamie's place in Downtown Napa. With a private entrance, private bath, 3 full rooms to yourself and priced lower than a hotel it's a good pick for those who are looking for a great place to crash without breaking the bank.
When is the Best Time to Visit Napa Valley?
Every season is different and has its own pro's and con's. Spring is when all the fields turn to gold with mustard plants, tourists are usually sparse, it's my favorite time of the year. The negatives? No grapes on the vines, no smell of fermenting fruit in the air. Once June hits the Summer crowds stampede Napa. It's hot, it's lively, but come in Summer and you'll want to avoid the big touristy wineries and hit the smaller boutiques to get away from the crowds. In Fall is crush, the time of year when grapes are harvested and, well, crushed. There's no telling when the grapes will be picked but you can count on monster crowds from September through October. If you come at this time make sure you do a production tour to see how wine is made and don't forget to do a grape stomp like they did in I Love Lucy. From November through February it's often raining and the crowds are thin. Nothing wrong with wine tasting on a rainy day for romantics.
Where Can I get Free Wine Tasting in Napa Valley?
The days of free or cheap wine tasting in Napa are sadly just a memory. Today most wineries are charging $25 or more per person for standard tastings, more for their reserve wines or tours. Don't believe any site that claims to have hundreds of deals. Trust me on this, I have been doing Napa on a Budget before anyone else (I wrote most of the budget articles on TripAdvisor, now terribly out of date) and know the real deals from the fakes. Most wineries have abandoned the coupons and now embrace a "pay to play" model where you must buy a pass to get the discount. There are a lot of passes out there but the one I approve of is The Priority Wine Pass. At $39.99 per couple it pays for itself before you leave your second winery.
If you buy the pass I'll make sure you get your money's worth by building you a custom stop by stop agenda for your trip, for free. No dud stops, no bad wine, no rip off tastings, if I recommend it you know it's Local Wally approved. Even if you are only coming for a day the wine pass pays for itself. Buy it here to get my discount and email me for a personal response.
Stop by Stop Agenda Along the Main Highway 29
Stop 1: Good Morning, Yountville
9:00: Start Your Wine Tasting Day with a Great Cup of Coffee
Set that alarm clock to get you to Yountville bright and early and head straight to Bouchon Bakery where you'll find a great coffee bar and delightful pastries. Bouchon, of course, is owned by Thomas Keller, the chef behind The French Laundry. Dinner there will set you back $310 per person but at Bouchon Bakery an authentic French macaroon is but a few dollars, a delicious taste of the Keller magic. A table in the morning sun with a bag of pastries, cup of coffee, a perfect start to your day.
Take a short 5 minute walk north to The French Laundry where you can take your photo in front of the sign. Imagine how impressed your friends will be when they get your next Christmas card.
Getting Around Napa with Uber
Don't risk drinking and driving, not when Uber is now in Napa Valley! For those of you familiar with it you know the drill but for the rest of you simply sign up before you arrive and call for drivers from your phone. Quick, easy, cost effective, it's one of the best ways to get around Napa. Sign Up Here!
Stop 2: Domaine Chandon
10:00: Sparking Wines at a Beautifully Landscaped Winery
Right up the street from Yountville is Domaine Chandon, a beautiful winery with sparkling wines. Get there right when they open at 10AM to order a flight of champagne. While the outside terrace is tempting I suggest you stick to the bar where you can chat with the server to start your wine education. If you're serious about remembering what you like when you get home you might want to bring a notepad to take some notes. Trust me, you will not remember anything by the end of the day!
If you are coming with a large group of 10 or more note that Domaine Chandon is one of the few wineries that will welcome your group - as long as you make reservations. This place gets busy so come early.
HEY WALLY, FEED ME!
I'm not a huge fan of stopping at a restaurant for lunch unless you're staying for a few days. Why? Because restaurants take time, precious time when you could be wine tasting. I like to just grab a good loaf of bread, some cheese, some meats, and dine a la car when driving to the next stop. And look, there's Oakville Grocery on your way to your next stop! Slam those brakes and grab some grub for later.
Stop 3: Robert Mondavi
11:00: Make Reservations for a Basic Tour at an Iconic Winery
Well meaning friends are going to tell you to skip Mondavi, calling it commercial or touristy, but that's crazy talk. Step through the famous archway and you'll be enveloped in Napa history, Mondavi being one of the first wineries to offer tours and tastings. And that's exactly what you should do, tour and taste at Napa's best basic wine tour.
The basic walking tour happens on the hour and requires no reservations but you should upgrade to the reserve tour where you'll go from vines to wines in 90 minutes. This tour requires reservations which means you'll be away from the sometimes huge crowds of walk-in first timers trying to push their way to the front of the bar. Make reservations for the tour.
Stop 4: Grgich Hills Estates
12:30: Historic yet Unpretentious Winery - 2 for 1 with Wine Pass
If you've seen the movie Bottle Shock or have read up on the 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tastings, the event that put Napa on the map by beating out the French, then you might have heard of a wine maker named Mike Grgich. He was the one who made the winning chardonnay as the wine maker at Chateau Montelena. He soon thereafter opened his own winery which has been synonymous with the best wines in Napa.
Unlike many of the newer tasting rooms which are huge and modern, Grgich's tasting room is a complete throwback to the 70's. I like that and I think you will too. Come in with the Priority Wine Pass and get two for one tastings, saving you $25.
Stop 5: Beringer Vineyards
1:30: Two for One Standard Tasting with Wine Pass, Must See Winery!
One of Napa's original wineries, Beringer Vineyards offers lush landscaping and historic architecture along with a variety of tasting experiences. Those wanting to experience everything Napa has to offer should opt for the Legendary Cave Tour, a 30 minute walk through the tunnels and Old Winery while sampling 3 of their wines. More serious wine lovers will enjoy the reserve tastings in the Rhine House, the beautiful historic home where the Beringer brothers lived. Reservations required.
Though the tours are not discounted you CAN get two for one tastings in the Old Winery with your Priority Wine Pass saving you $25.
Stop 6: AXR Napa Valley
2:30: Free Tastings with Purchase at the Most Exciting New Winery in Napa - Reservations Required, call (707) 302-8181
Calling AXR a "new" winery is a bit misleading. It's a historic winery that recently reopened with a fresh start. AXR is surrounded by redwood trees, a fairy circle (you'll see), cottages, and a historic barn and beautiful tasting room. The scenery alone will blow you away - well, until you taste their wines and then hold on to your head and glass because it will blow your mind how good it is! Don't think twice, do this one.
There are a lot of super popular and busy wineries - this is not one of them but it will be someday. Come and experience it with no crowds. Get 2 Free Tastings with 2 Bottle Purchase, save $100.
hey wally, what about the sterling tram and the napa castle?
No doubt about it, the tram ride at Sterling Vineyards and Castello di Amorosa, the Napa Castle, are two of the most popular tourist attractions in the valley. During peak season if these two are on your bucket list then plan your day to hit these first. Crowds can be as thick as Disneyland and while both stops are impressive they're not essential if it means waiting in long lines just to get in. Don't waste your time looking for a deal at the castle - the only one out there other than the standard "buy a case, get tasting fee waived" is with me - $25 off per person for the Napa Wine Train and Castle Excursion. As for Sterling, email me and I'll send you out a free coupon.
Stop 7: Yountville Tasting Rooms
5:00: Want to do One More? Let's make it Two!
Most wineries close by 430 or 5 and stop taking visitors at least 15 minutes before closing. But don't worry, if you want to cap off a fun day of wine tasting with, well, more wine tasting then head to Yountville where you'll find a handful of great tasting rooms all within walking distance.
My favorite is Jessup Cellars (half art gallery, half wine tasting room, 2 for 1 with Wine Pass, save $25), open until at least 6 PM and later in Summer and high season. Across the street is another good one, Ma(i)sonry, an eclectic store with wine tasting, and now that you're full of wine let's not drive but rather walk to dinner. And guess what, Yountville has tons of great restaurants you can walk to.
Stop 8: Dinner Options
Yountville is filled with top notch restaurants, from ultra expensive like The French Laundry to one of my favorite moderately priced restaurants, Redd Wood. If you're on a budget but have a foodie mindset then you can do no better.
Ciccio is another favorite with locals and right across the street from Jessup Cellars. Down the road a bit are the classics - Bistro Jeanty, Bouchon, Michael Chiarello's Bottega, Ad Hoc, all delicious.
Now if you really, really want to get into a car or Uber the classic restaurants in Napa are pretty close:
Rutherford Grill: No corkage fee so bring in one of your bottles you bought today and order a grilled artichoke with a rack of ribs. Lively, fun, with an intoxicating smokey aroma that will long linger in your memory. Top pick!
Mustards Grill: Closer to Yountville is Mustards Grill, an upscale "truck stop diner" that looks nothing like a any truck stop you've ever been to. Upscale comfort foods,
Farmstead: Fancier than the rest but still pretty casual in a farmhouse sort of way, Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch has some seriously good food in a lively setting.
For more dining ideas to go my complete dining guide.
do the math - really, i'm pretty lazy so you do it!
The Priority Wine Pass is $39.99 and you only need one per couple. Do this agenda without it and you'll spend $350 on tasting fees! Did you fall off your chair? I'm serious when I say wine tasting has gotten expensive. Now get the pass and pay $225. Even backing out the cost of the pass you are, hmmm, $85 ahead? And remember, the pass is good for a year so it's crazy not to get it. It's not my company, I don't get winery kickbacks, I just like it for its good deals for my readers. Buy it here and get 1 per couple.
Life's too short for bad wine, let alone bad wineries. Look, stop messing around and definitely stop listening to your work friends, Yelp, TripAdvisor, and just listen to me. I don't get winery kickbacks, I don't even get paid to do this! I just want to give you honest and unbiased advice on which wineries deserve your time and dime. Pick from this list and enjoy wine tasting bliss :-)
I have a lot of fond memories of going to A/O when they were nobodies and serving wine out of a trailer. Today it's hugely popular and a seat next to the glorious water fountain a prime spot. And yes, their wines are high end deliciousness. Dog friendly, no reservations needed unless you're coming on a Saturday after 2 PM, open until 6, standard tastings are $50 per person and no deals that I know of. Picnics allowed only for wine club members and require reservations.
Good for: Lounging in the afternoon in front of the fountain.
I have a well intended friend who always gets my hopes up by saying "I got you a bottle of Cakebread!" and then pulls out Cupcake wine. Oh shoot, I just have to smile and pretend I'm drinking the good stuff when this happens. He has no idea how good Cakebread wines are and their reservations only tour and tastings are a well priced $35. You walk the winery and grounds and taste in small groups - and they actually pour Cakebread wine, not Cupcake!
Good for: Those looking for a bit of VIP treatment away from the bar tasting crowds.
The Napa "castle" is on everyone's short list. It's a full scale castle complete with all the fixings. But it's also busier than Disneyland so if you must go then go early in the morning, as soon as they open. The standard tasting gets you a peek into the castle so opt for the tour where you'll see the entire castle, including the torture chamber. There are no deals no matter what you see on the internet other than a lame "buy a case and get a standard tasting waived" offer, pretty much standard. No lookie loo freebies, $30 to taste, $45 and up to tour, everyone pays - even kiddos.
Good for: Families dragging bored teenagers along, big group friendly.
Lots of Napa history here. Believe it or not, Inglenook used to be a premium wine. But greed took over and turned it into a jug wine. Later Francis Ford Coppola, rolling in dough after the Godfather movies, rescued and resurrected it and turned it around. The winery itself is the draw with beautiful historic buildings, a bistro where you can kick back with a bottle of wine and some snacks, a large fountain where kids can sail model boats, and a setting that will make you want to stay all day. Military and locals get Two for One tastings, everyone pays $45 per person.
Good For: Long afternoons with nothing to do, it's a beautiful setting.
Peju Province Winery Napa
A fun tasting experience, especially if Alan Arnopole is around to yodel and rap about, what else, wine. You have to see it to believe it - check it out on this YouTube. No reservations required for groups of 7 or less means huge crowds but Peju queues you up into small groups so when it's your time you don't have to fight for a space at the bar. Once in expect the tastings to flow rather quickly, 20 minutes and you are out of there. $35 per person.
Good for: Fun wine tasting entertainment, a good stop if it's not busy.
Schramsberg Napa Valley
You like bubbles? I mean, really like bubbles? Then do the Schramsberg tour, a unique experience that takes you into their hand carved caves and their history as one of the pioneers in Napa. They'll show you how they still make their sparkling wines the old ways and then you taste inside the caves lit by candles. Quite the experience, $70 per person.
Good for: Romantics and sparkling wine lovers.
Email me to get a Discount Coupon! But before you go to Sterling let me tell it to you straight. As a winery experience I'm a bit torn - the tram is fun, the views great, and it's group friendly, up to 9 people. But the tasting experience is a bit like going to a restaurant and being served by a wait staff that memorized the daily specials. That said, if you have bored kids screaming at you to take them somewhere fun, or if you just want to do something different, then Sterling is a good pick - make sure you email me for the free coupon!
Good for: Families with kids, first timers looking for a bit of an adventure.