The Right Way to Do Napa

By: Peter J. Frank

Is there any other place in America that celebrates The Good Life like the Napa Valley? Extraordinary wines, impeccably prepared food, hotels that epitomize laid-back luxury, and spas that help you recover from all of the above. Those are also the reasons why Napa can sometimes feel excessively crowded, overly commercial and punishingly expensive. How to avoid those pitfalls? Here's the advice we give Skylark clients who are headed to California for a wine-country weekend. Cheers!

Book Your Restaurants First

They may be more important than your hotel reservations, especially if you have your heart set on the heavy-hitters like The French Laundry or The Restaurant at Meadowood. Both of those now take reservations through a system called Tock, which compels diners to buy tickets (prepaid and nonrefundable) two to three months in advance. But even the more casual places book up early.

A few places we recommend: If you can’t (or won’t) do The French Laundry, eat at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon for traditional French bistro fare, or his Ad Hoc for American comfort food served family-style. At The Charter Oak, Meadowood chef Christopher Kostow cooks farm-fresh fare in a wood-burning hearth. You can also go to the bar at Meadowood itself, and order the Fireside Snacks, a series of delicious little bites to accompany a drink. Acacia House, at Las Alcobas Hotel, serves elevated California cuisine. Bottega is chef Michael Chiarello’s Mediterranean flagship. The majestic sunset views at the Auberge du Soleil restaurant tend to overshadow the food, so only eat there if you can get a table on the terrace. Cure your inevitable hangover with a bacon bloody Mary at Boon Fly Café at the Carneros Inn.

Now Let's Talk About Your Hotel...

The key questions are how much privacy and romance you want, and how much you’re willing to spend. Adults-only Auberge du Soleil, with its French provincial–style cottages on a sun-drenched slope, and Calistoga Ranch, with its freestanding timber lodges surrounded by oak trees, both offer the ultimate in seclusion. Rooms at the Carneros Inn are also mostly detached, but they’re closer together and have a more contemporary decor. The feel there is more social, as it is as Meadowood, with its East Coast country-club vibe, and at Solage, which has a younger and fresher ambience. The new kid on the block, Las Alcobas in St. Helena, is for adults only and offers a more contemporary take on Napa luxury.

All of the above hotels have phenomenal spas, and we recommend booking your treatments as soon you’ve made your room reservations.

Life is Too Short to Drink Bad Wine

There are more than 400 wineries with tasting rooms in the Napa Valley, so advance planning is essential. That includes making reservations: Popular spots can be mobbed on the weekends, so even if you’re not a lifelong subscriber to Wine Spectator, you’ll appreciate having appointments for tours and private tastings. Where to go? That depends on what wines you enjoy drinking. Ask your local wine merchant; chances are they can hook you up with a connection in Napa. Most hotels also have relationships and can arrange tastings for guests, sometimes gratis.

If you’re more of a wine-tastes-like-wine type, consider places that offer an experience that’s entertaining and/or educational. At Schramsberg, you’ll tour the underground caves and learn about the fascinating process of turning bottles painstakingly by hand to produce sparkling wine. Conn Creek does an interactive wine-blending lesson, where you’ll use medicine droppers and beakers to create a personalized bottle of cabernet sauvignon. Hall combines a private tasting with a tour of the superb contemporary art collection at its St. Helena facility.

About the Driving Thing...

You should definitely rent a car, since you’ll need it to get back and forth from San Francisco as well as around the valley. But don’t even think about driving to and from wine tastings. You can hire a limousine, but another worthy option is a designated driver service: An experienced guide will meet you at your hotel, take the wheel of your rental and drive you from winery to winery. They'll even provide bottled water and can help plan your itinerary. Napa Valley Tours & Transportation offers both services, so you can choose one of their luxury sedans or your own vehicle. To get to and from dinner, use Uber. 

How to Spend Time Between Tastings

You’ll want some drying-out periods, so don’t overplan. An early morning hot-air balloon ride is magical—you’ll drift quietly along the wind 2,000 feet above the valley floor, with a Champagne breakfast once you land (so much for drying out). Burn those empty calories with Napa Valley Bike Tours, which does both escorted and self-guided excursions on flat or gently rolling terrain. And Moore Creek Park features 15 miles of hiking trails, views of the Valley and Lake Hennessey, and the chance to see bear, bald eagles and other wildlife.

Getting There and Back

You’re most likely driving to the Napa Valley from San Francisco, in which case your first test is avoiding weekend traffic. The 50-or-so-mile drive should take around an hour, but that can easily triple on a Friday afternoon. Your best best is to leave the city in the morning, so if you’re flying in from the East Coast, we recommend spending your first night in San Francisco.

We often suggest that clients leave enough time on the way home for a detour to Point Reyes National Seashore to sample oysters fresh out of Tomales Bay. You’ll wind your way through the vineyards and mountains of Sonoma County to the coast, where you can stop for lunch at Hog Island Oyster Co. before making your way south on Route 1 to the Golden Gate Bridge.

What about Sonoma?

Doing both is easy, and they’re close enough that you can just stay in Napa and drive to Sonoma, or vice versa. But if you only have time for one, there are important distinctions. The Napa Valley (which includes the towns of Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga) tends to be busier, more commercialized, more luxurious and more expensive. Sonoma (which contains Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, Kenwood and Sonoma) has a more chilled-out vibe. It’s also more spread out, so you’ll be driving more. The wines are fairly similar, but lovers of cabernet, merlot and buttery chardonnay gravitate toward Napa, while Sonoma is the spot for unoaked chardonnay, pinot noir and zinfandel.