I’ve been to Napa Valley a total of four times in the past five months. I can’t help it! I love wine tasting and Napa is only an hour’s drive from Berkeley. Since I don’t think I’ll ever live in Northern California again, I wanted to capitalize on Berkeley’s proximity to Napa and go as often as possible when it was only a quick car ride away. Although I already covered my budget tips for Napa, I figured I’d also share my personal recommendations for Napa since I’ve been a few more times since then.
I’ll be honest up front: I really don’t like the huge, crowded, Disneyland-ish wineries. While many people do love the bigger wineries with cool features (V. Sattui has great picnic grounds and food, Castello di Amorosa is in a huge $40 million castle, and you can take a gondola ride to Sterling Vineyards) I just prefer beautiful tasting rooms, good wine, and a gorgeous setting. So take my recommendations with a grain of salt!
- If you looking to avoid the crowds, stay off of Highway 29 and stop in the wineries off Silverado Trail or side streets instead
- Go to the tasting rooms early in the morning. The pourers will be friendly and willing to spend more time talking to you and if you’re trying to avoid belligerent people, you’re in luck.
- Don’t try to squeeze in more than 3 or 4 wineries per day. You could do 5 in one day but you’ll be rushing from spot to spot. It’s better to go slower and leave some extra cushion time.
- If you can, go during the week or in the winter. During the off season, even “appointment only” wineries can take you 5 minutes later if you call for an appointment that day.
- Bring some snacks and water in the car with you.
- Designate a navigator and bring a map. Some of the side streets can be difficult to find and it helps to have a map along with your directions or smart phone.
- Frog’s Leap Cellars: This is one of the most beautiful wineries I’ve ever been to. There’s a few adorable winery cats and the tasting room reminds me of a charming Southern house. It opens up onto a grassy area and the tasting is seated, which is always nice after you’ve been standing at a tasting bar most of the day. I also highly recommend their tours, which are informative and include some interesting anecdotes of how the winery was founded.
- Silverado Vineyards: This is another gorgeous tasting room. There’s an outdoor patio with seating and a spectacular view of the valley. The building looks like an expensive Mediterranean villa without any of the snobbiness. The wine is great, too.
- Arger Martucci: Even though this winery is right off Highway 29, it has none of the negative qualities some of its neighbors have. This is not an upscale, fancy tasting room- Arger Martucci might have the worst tasting room yet the best tasting experience. It’s in a private home so the tasting feels extremely personal despite the fact that you don’t need an appointment. The tasting is cheap at $10, the pours are generous, and the wine is fantastic. This is one of my favorite places to taste wine! When you’re tired of all the other tasting rooms in Napa, come here for a laidback experience.
- Frank Family Vineyard: This tasting room is in a beautiful yellow house, with a nice courtyard and fountain outside. This was my mother’s favorite winery of the 8 we went to during my graduation trip. Our pourer was super friendly and gave us a few extra tastes when he learned I had just graduated. It’s a good mix between a classy setting while remaining the cozy vibe of some of the smaller wineries.
- Etude Winery: This is one of the more upscale wineries that I like to visit. Everyone who works here is so nice! It’s much closer to Sonoma Valley so they specialize in Pinot Noirs, which I love. The tasting room is pretty modern and the outside seating is really nice.
- Stony Hill Vineyard: This winery has two things most other Napa Valley wineries do not: absolutely no crowds and almost all white wines. They produce only one Cabernet, so when you’re bored of drinking red wines, come to Stony Hill. It’s far off the beaten track- when we were driving here we thought we were lost! It’s in the middle of a State Park so there’s almost no other wineries around and the road is one lane. I loved the relaxing atmosphere at Stony Hill, and the gorgeous view from the top of the hill doesn’t hurt either.
- Other recommendations: Domaine Carneros for sparkling wine in a beautiful setting, Artesa Winery for it’s amazing architecture, and Clos Du Val for the friendly employees and Bocce Ball court.
- Gott’s Roadside (formally Taylor’s Refresher): This is my absolute favorite place to grab food in Napa Valley. Gott’s has delicious gourmet burgers, salads, and wines in a casual picnic setting. Go to the location in St. Helena for the picnic tables in the grass. It’s perfect for lunch. There’s not much else I can say besides: Go to Gott’s!
- Farmstead: Right next to Gott’s in St. Helena, Farmstead is a fantastic place to get dinner. They grow most of their own produce and have a herd of cattle for their beef dishes as well. Everyone in my family loved Farmstead. My dad and sister even declared their meal the best ribs and the best meatballs they’ve ever had!
- La Condesa: Another great place in St. Helena. La Condesa has delicious Mexican food- try the fish tacos. It’s good for lunch or dinner and if you’re sick of wine, they have amazing margaritas. I also love how it’s decorated.
- Genova’s Delicatessen: Genova’s has a location in Oakland as well, and their sandwiches and deli items are unreal. Come to Genova’s in the morning to grab sandwiches, cheese, bread, and whatever other picnic food you want and then enjoy them later at a winery with picnic tables. Genova’s is so good.
Okay, so this post is nearing 1,000 words which means it’s time to sign off. Hope these recommendations are helpful and if you have any others please leave them in the comments!
This week I’ve been inside studying for my last set of final exams this upcoming week. Though I’m bummed I haven’t been able to enjoy the gorgeous weather we’ve been having here in the Bay Area, I did get to take a short break yesterday and take part in an early graduation celebration in Napa yesterday with a ton of friends. Now I’m back inside studying again, but the rest of the celebrations commence next week!
So Napa isn’t really known as being a budget destination– and for good reason. Wine tastings add up quickly and cheap food and accommodation are not readily available. However, there are ways for poor college students like myself (also other budget travelers) to experience Napa and still be able to eat for the next month! Here’s my top 5 tips for cutting down on expenses when in wine country.
1. Split the tasting– or skip the tasting
As I mentioned, wine tasting fees really add up. If you go to 3 wineries in a day, you could spend $60 just on tasting fees (not including any bottles of wine)! This isn’t feasible for many travelers. To save on the fees, split a tasting if you’re with someone. There’s several benefits to this approach: you save money and stay more sober, both of which allow you to try more wineries in a day. There’s also the option of skipping the tasting altogether– lots of wineries have beautiful grounds that you can walk around for free if you don’t want to do a tasting. Beringer Winery is one example.
2. BYOF (Bring Your Own Food)
Although there’s a great selection of restaurants in Napa Valley, many of them are upscale and thus expensive. A fun alternative is to bring your own picnic supplies! Many wineries have tables and grassy areas where you can enjoy your own food. My favorite is to bring bread, cheese, and cured meats. You’ll save even more money if you buy this food a little outside of the wine tasting region, as the Oakville Grocer, Dean and Deluca, and other deli options in the area are somewhat overpriced. Downtown Napa would be a good place to find cheaper picnic food.
3. Don’t do a bus tour
I’m all for taking a tour if you plan a drinking a lot. Part of the fun (at least for me) is getting drunk in Napa! I am a college student though, after all. Needless to say, It is NOT safe to drink and drive I am not condoning that. But if you’re planning on just doing a small amount of drinking and spreading out each winery visit (and eating lots of yummy food in between), then it is so much cheaper to rent a car every day than take a bus tour. Renting a car only costs about $15 a day, while bus and limousine tours can run between $90-200 a day, which does not include tastings fees. This could easily add up to several hundred a day if you’re doing all the tastings and buying wine! The one advantage to taking tours is that they sometimes take you to wineries off the beaten bath. However, if you read their Yelp reviews, the reviewers often mention which wineries they go to. Read the reviews and visit the wineries yourself!
4. Look for discounts online
Many wineries offer discounts on Yelp and Facebook (especially if you check in), so do your research beforehand. A common deal is to offer two tastings for the price of one. Discounts can also be found in the wine region magazines, which are given away for free at the Visitor’s Center, your hotel, or in the wineries themselves. Another place to check is Groupon or other daily deals sites. I’ve seen coupons for wine tastings, bus tours, and other special events at wineries on these sites.
5. Check out other activities besides wine tasting
Believe it or not, there’s other stuff to do in Napa besides wine taste. A few wineries have Bocce Ball courts. Some have art exhibits: Mumm Napa currently has an Ansel Adams photography gallery on display. Another option is the Culinary Institute of America, where you can participate in cooking demonstrations or take a tour. There’s many festivals that take place in Napa throughout the year– check the Napa Chamber of Commerce for more information. Napa is also a beautiful place to bike, and there’s several bike tour companies to choose from. There’s also the Napa Museum, if you want to see some art.
So I hope I proved that you don’t have to have lots of cash to spend to enjoy Napa. There’s plenty of free activities and ways to cut costs, so don’t think you have to skip Napa just because you aren’t spending tons of money!
After our delicious lunch at the Culinary Institute, we headed over to Beringer Winery to walk around the property and taste some wines. Beringer Winery is the oldest continuously operating winery in Napa Valley so in addition to tastings there is a beautiful and historic property to explore.
Beringer Winery offers 3 tasting rooms with a variety of wines and price points in each room. I recommend buying a glass for $8 in the second tasting room, where they also sell food and gifts. You can then walk around the winery while enjoying the wine, or sit on the sunny porch of the Rhine House.
Beringer is a great place to take families- we saw some many kids running around and there’s more to the winery than just drinking wine at a tasting room. Both houses (the Hudson House and Rhine House) on the property are from the mid nineteenth century, as well as the caves and tunnels where the wine are stored. Unfortunately, you can’t go into the caves unless you are on a guided tour, but there is plenty to see on a self guided tour.
Since it is located a little north of Saint Helena on Highway 29, Beringer was less crowded than some of the other wineries we visited in Napa. Beringer is a great alternative to V. Sattui Winery if you’re looking for a less crowded and more spread out winery to enjoy food and inexpensive wine (especially with a family). Tastings are $15/person in the Old Winery Tasting Room, $25/person in the Rhine House, or $8 for a glass. Tours are either $20/person or $30/person, depending on whether you’d like to include a tasting in the tour. Check out the Beringer website here for more information.
Its inevitable- no matter how much you love wine, its easy to get sick of it after you’ve been to a few wineries when on vacation in Napa Valley. So what is there to do besides drink wine in Napa? EAT!
After taking a “girl’s trip” to Napa with my mom during my winter break from school, I couldn’t wait to go back again. After all, its a sin to live only an hour away and not take advantage of it, right?! Luckily, I used my skills of persuasion to convince my boyfriend to hitch along for the ride. We first stopped by the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone for lunch at the Wine Spectator Restaurant and a cooking demonstration.
The food was AMAZING. Another one of my friends had visited the restaurant at Greystone before and told me it was the best meal she’s ever had. It lived up to these very high expectations! My accomplice and I split a wine flight and crabcakes for an appetizer. I got the seared duck with confit potatoes as my main entree while he got the pork. Many of the students work in the restaurant and its fun to watch them cook in the open kitchen.
The wine is great, too. Like every other restaurant in Napa, it has an extensive wine list that fills an entire binder! All the wines are from California and wine “flights” are available which allows you to try a few at a time.
After lunch we headed over to the DeBaun Theatre for a cooking demonstration. The instructor was extremely informative and also hilarious! He taught us how to make Latin spiced pork tenderloin with grilled pineapple-citrus salsa and tetelas. Needless to say, the food from the cooking demo was amazing as well. After the instructor goes through the entire recipe, everyone in the audience gets a small plate of whatever was made. I especially enjoyed the tetelas, which are a typical Oaxacan snack made with corn masa and a black bean filling. They kind of reminded me of samosas, another of my favorite appetizers!
Although lunch at the CIA is not cheap, there are lots of other inexpensive options to do at the Greystone campus if you’re strapped on cash and bored of wine tasting. The cooking demonstrations, which include a small plate of food and a glass of wine, are $20/person. There’s also much shorter demos at the “Flavor Bar“, which are 15 minute videos that guide you through a tasting and are $10/person. One Flavor Bar offering is the Chocolate Experience, where you learn about how chocolate is made and different types of chocolate. Ummm, yes. You can also take a tour of the campus for $10- the building is historic and very beautiful. Or you can always discover the campus by yourself and browse the amazing store for free!
In the mean time, I’ll be dreaming about those crabcakes.