36 hours in Napa Valley: How to plan for a great weekend ahead

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If you like wine, consider that compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. ranks No. 16 in wine consumption, well behind Portugal, whose residents drink 13 gallons per capita annually, versus three gallons in the U.S.

In the U.S., 73% of wine sold is priced under $11 per bottle, with wines over $15 just 13% of the market. 

Direct-to-consumer wines sold from Napa Valley average $65, though grocery and liquor store prices are lower.


Why are prices high? 

Fifty years ago, an acre of Napa land went for $1,000. Today, that same acre costs more than $300,000.

Almost 90% of all U.S. wine comes from California — but only 4% comes from Napa, America’s premier wine growing region.

Just 90 minutes from San Francisco, tiny Napa Valley — with more than 500 wineries — is a major tourist destination, popular for weddings and weekends.

A drive down Highway 29 is like attending the Pro Bowl. Everywhere you look are all-star wineries — Hall, Nickel & Nickel, Opus, Cardinale, Grgich, Cakebread, Alpha Omega, Mondavi, Heitz, Beringer … all producing world-class wines every bit as good as Bordeaux or Tuscany.

Up to 4 million people will visit Napa Valley this year, with peak season from August through October, which corresponds with harvest.


The first thing to know, however, is you can’t do Napa in 36 hours. Yet, by hitting a few iconic spots, you can have a great weekend that captures everything you need: awesome wines, a casual, cultured vibe, great people-watching and first-class, farm-to-table food surrounded by blue skies, sprawling vineyards and rolling hills. 

So where to start? Let’s dive in.

Where to go?

First, a little geography. Highway 29 runs north-south through the middle of Napa Valley. 

Most wineries run along 29 or the nearby Silverado Trail, which runs parallel across the Valley floor connecting the county’s four main towns — Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga.

Small warning: Traffic on the 29 can get heavy during the season, depending on the time of day. Keep that in mind as you’re making reservations between wineries or dinner.


If you don’t want to drive, try the Napa Valley Winery Tour, where a driver takes you to a handful of wineries, or the Napa Valley Wine Train, a fun, no-stress alternative that stops at vineyards like Belle Glos, Charles Krug and Beaulieu Vineyards.

The average visitor buys about $400 in wine to take home.

Most Napa wineries offer great wines, but not all tastings are the same. When you begin hunting on the internet on where to visit, check the list of what wine flights are available. Do you want whites, reds or a mix of both? 

Do you like mineral, stainless steel-aged chardonnays or creamy, oaky blends? Pinots, zins or the kings of Napa, cabernets? 

Check the prices and ask if they will waive the tasting fee if you buy wine — most do. The average visitor buys about $400 in wine to take home.

What to expect? 

Expect to make a reservation and pay $40 to $125 per person for a wine-tasting experience — usually a flight of four glasses. 

Some include pairings with food; some don’t. Some include walking tours of the winery’ some don’t.

Another consideration: Is your tasting indoors or out? It may not seem like a big deal, but the experience is totally different. 

If the weather is even marginal, I prefer outside. Unless each tasting party gets their own room, noise from nearby tables can interfere with your gathering. Just be aware of the atmosphere when you’re making a reservation or when you are being seated.

Also, be on time or early. We showed up for a tasting on a Sunday at 10 a.m. at Domaine Carneros — and saw 50 people arrive in minutes. Good tables go fast.


Finally, find out what they’re pairing with your wines: bread sticks, or a selection of cheeses and fruits? Why? 

Wine is strongly influenced by what you eat. A decent red can elevate to awesome with the right cheese. My recommendation: Get the tasting platter to go with your flight. Yes, it’s a little more, but it also reveals more about the wine and pays off if you’re going to buy a few bottles.

Wine tasting

Frank Family Vineyards is one of my favorites. Love the big outdoor setting, old estate house with a screened-in porch and the new Miller House, a large glass tasting area with long tables and couches. 

The wines are superb; there’s a range in prices and varietals; and many of the bottles you buy here are generally not found in the stores.

“The richness of food amplifies the wine,” said Liam Gearity, a sommelier and our wine guide at Frank Family.

On our visit, Gearity paired a rich brie, a hard Cypress Grove like-gouda called lamb chopper, a fennel and garlicy salami and a thinly sliced, dry cured prosciutto called capocollo. 

He paired it with a sparkling wine, a 2021 chardonnay, and two top-of-the-line reds, Winston Hill and a 2016 RHF cabernet, a blend of grapes from the Rutherford district on the Valley floor and a hillside vineyard.


“The valley floor fruit is earthy, the hillside grapes, are powerful, intense. Together they make for a very round, full-bodied red that you can drink now or hold a decade where it will soften around the edges — a great marriage,” he said. 

Two other great spots are Far Niente and Nickel and Nickel, both owned by Beth Nickel. The outdoor settings are breathtaking and the wines equally memorable, especially the Far Neinte chardonnay and En Route Pinot. 

The picturesque property includes lush gardens surrounded by vineyards.

Nearby on Highway 29 is Cakebread, known for an affordable, estate-grown Sauvignon Blanc and Alpha Omega, a family-owned boutique winery in Rutherford. 

AO offers stunning views of the Mayacamus Mountains and a relaxing patio for tastings.

Three others I like on the nearby Silverado Trail: Miner, Regusci and Chimney Rock.

“We make about 20,000 cases a year,” said Chimney Rock’s Amy Scholz, who handles commercial relations for the vineyard owners, William and John Terlato. 

“All our wines are aged in 100% French oak and the grapes are hand-picked at night. We ship to a lot of restaurants, so we make several Bordeaux blends that are softer and immediately approachable. Our Clone 7 and Tomahawk hillside vineyards produce small clusters, thick skins, stronger wines.”

Next door is Regusci, an old family ranch in the Stags Leap District. Owners Jim and Laura Regusci grow vegetables on site along with pigs, goats, horses and chickens.

There are also dozens of small wineries offering a more intimate experience.

If you’re up for a short drive off Silverado Trail, discover the Chappellet winery on iconic Pritchard Hill. The rugged, mountain grown grapes produce a family of rich, complex red wines.

There are also dozens of small wineries offering a more intimate experience.

“The competition here in Napa is pretty intense, but not every visitor is looking for the same thing,” said JoAnn Serafini, owner of the acclaimed Shibumi Knoll Vineyards and winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown.

Shibumi offers small, intimate tastings on property surrounded by grapes. Their crisp, award-winning chardonnay routinely scores in the mid to high 90s. 

Without a big marketing budget, Shibumi grows through word of mouth and restaurant sommeliers who recommend the wine. After trying it, people call to visit or join the list.

“I do this all day, every day and love it,” said Serafini. 

“We talk family, friends and wine. It’s a very intimate experience because it’s just me. And I know the wines better than anyone.”

If you head north toward Calistoga, you’ll pass through the cute town of St. Helena, great for shops and galleries and two landmark wineries, Beringer and Charles Krug.

For shopping, try the chic women’s boutique Elyse Walker, which also has stores in Los Angeles, Newport Beach and New York City. 

From designer clothing and handbags to casual day wear, the shop will help style you in something special or help fill in gaps you forgot to pack.

Another wine option: Walk in, stand alone, no-appointment tasting rooms. 

There are several in Yountville and downtown Napa. 

The market allows you to sample some of the best Napa cabs by the glass. 

But one that is entirely unique is the Oakville Grocery, which dates back to 1881.

Right on Highway 29, it includes a pizza oven, full bakery, deli of locally grown veggies and picnic tables to grab and go or sit and sip. 

The market allows you to sample some of the best Napa cabs by the glass. Try a few ounces of a $400 bottle of 2019 Opus One for $30.

Food options

Up the road is Yountville, where you can park your car and spend a morning or evening just walking. 

On Main Street is Thomas Keller’s famous French Laundry, and a small enclosed mall called V-Marketplace, containing a few shops and two restaurants, Michael Chiarello’s Coqueta, which is Spanish, and Bottega, which is Italian. 

Across the street is Bistro Jeanty, which has a tasty tomato bisque and coq au vin served in a traditional casserole. 

Next door is Bouchon Bakery, a classic French boulangerie, great for breakfast before a line develops outside. 

Across the street is the equally good Model bakery.

Looking for more action and choices? Head downtown. 

A century ago, Napa was a steamboat landing for traders from San Francisco. 

Today it is a relaxed seven-block area to walk, shop and drink wine in old stone buildings and glass hotels. 

A few years ago, Napa had eight tasting rooms. Today there are 41. 

Popular restaurants include Allegria, Morimoto and Celadon, a former warehouse with garage doors that open to a garden and an interesting, moderately priced Asian fusion menu.

For lunch, try the Oxbow Public Market, a collection of small restaurants under one roof with an outdoor area if you want to picnic. 

From pizza to Mexican or burgers, Oxbow is super casual and has something for everyone. 

Other food choices closer to St. Helena include Gott’s Roadside for burgers and shakes, the casual Goose and Gander to more upscale spots Brasswood, Charter Oak, Rutherford Grill and the open-air Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch.

If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path place that locals frequent, try Yak and Yeti for Indian food or Don Giovanni for Italian. 

For breakfast, try the Sunshine Cafe off Trancas; it has a huge menu and reasonable prices (and the bathrooms are lined with superhero artwork). 

In short, Napa is a paradise for foodies and wine lovers. It’s hard to have a bad time — even if you only have 36 hours.

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