Enjoying Napa’s Finest

Sips and bites off the beaten track

Few trips to the bay area are complete without a stopover in wine country. Napa has approximately 500 wineries and dozens of restaurants that range from burger joints and oyster specialists to high-end french dining. Hotel choices continue to expand as are transportation options up to, and in, the valley. The best options include renting a car or hiring a limousine for the slightly more than an hour ride up from the city. Ferries also service vallejo, approximately a half an hour south of the town of Napa.

The Napa Valley has an enormous amount of sub-climates, wine styles and producers. Guests can sample everything from big, tannic Cabernet Sauvignons to cool-climate Sauvignon Blancs and crisp sparkling wine. What you can do in a day or a weekend will depend on what types of wines you want to taste and if you want to take in views and stunning architecture. I am offering a handful of classic suggestions in all categories:

The Classic

Domaine Carneros looks like a French Château perched on a hill just outside of Napa. Enjoying the house’s bubbly on the terrace on a sunny day is divine. They also offer super- informative tours on the sparkling wine production process.

The Stunner

Castello di Amorosa was built by Daryl Sattui in 2007. He brought Italian builders over to recreate a 107-room castle with faux frescos (and a moat in case the winery across the street “Sterling invades,”he jokes).The winery makes some delicious Italian grape varietal-based wines. It may be better to visit during the week because of the hordes of tourists that can descend on the property.

The Small Family Winery

The Buoncristiani brothers have been producing wine in Napa since 1999. The establishment is run by four brothers who are ambitiously constructing a huge underground wine cave on a hill slightly north of the town of Napa. The 20,000 foot space will be called “The Caves at Soda Canyon” and will feature the wines of three producers. The “Buon Brothers” have always excelled at blends, like their splendid OPC—short for Ol’ Pa’s Cuvee—a mix of Bordeaux red varietals blended with Syrah. They also make a great Sauvignon Blanc and when the cave opens— targeted for September and by appointment only—it is going to make for a stunning event and tasting space.

The Educational Tour for Wine Geeks

Robert Mondavi’s signature winery has long been a classic house of pilgrimage in the Napa Valley. As an educator, I have always sent students here for the amazing tour of the gardens and chance to taste, and look at, the bounty of grape varietals in the vineyard. The tour is informative, intimate and allows guests to sample quite a few of the winery’s vintages.

The Make-An-Appointment Visit Producer

Too many guests to Napa, or any wine-growing region in general, are hesitant to reach out to wineries that aren’t generally open to the public. They are missing out on some great opportunities: including a chance to taste wines with the owners; experience older vintages; and the ability to taste, and discuss, in relative peace and quiet. Cathy Corison is a fantastic producer of Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet Franc, and the winemaker is often present at the winery. A phone call is all it takes to gain entrance and you may be the only person at the tasting bar.

Where to eat, drink and enjoy the scenery in the Napa valley: Restaurants abound in both the town of Napa and along both arteries into the Upper Valley (and the towns of St. Helena and Calistoga) which are Route 29 and the Silverado Trail. Luxurious French food is easy to find, while other cuisines, great views and the occasional cocktails aren’t.

The Cocktail Destination

Goose & Gander, which took over a classic restaurant space on a downtown street in St. Helena, has a classic small-plates menu. The restaurant, located on two floors with an outdoor patio, also has a San Francisco cocktail master at the helm. Scott Beattie, known for having created the legendary bar program at Cyrus in Healdsburg, runs the downstairs bar program. His focus on local and fresh ingredients incorporates vegetables, herbs and flowers which deck the bar.

The alternative dining place: having lived in Napa I always craved alternative culinary flavors, which are few and far between. Tarla, a Turkish-inspired restaurant in Napa, has upped the ante by providing Mediterranean- influenced dishes—think lots of chick peas and lamb—as well as classic Turkish ones and a great and well-priced wine list.

The View

Despite all the hills in the Napa Valley, few places have as beautiful a view as Auberge du Soleil on the Silverado Trail. You can have a glass of wine at the bar or on the patio with a small plate. The restaurant offers wraps for the ladies when a cool wind blows and offers a fantastic-local wine list.

The Classic Italian

Michael Chiarello’s La Bottega has been heralded since it opened in 2008. I tend to be suspicious of chefs with multiple operations—and TV appearances—but this guy (and his chefs) can really cook.

The restaurant features classic and new interpretations on Italian dishes in the charming city of Yountville. The patio is divine and heated.

Don’t miss

Buying strawberries on the Silverado Trail, there’s a little shack on the right-hand side of the road, heading south, just before you hit Trancas and after Soda Canyon Road. These are the freshest and sweetest in the Bay Area. She also sells cherries and vegetables when in season.


LIZA ZIMMERMAN has been writing, educating and consulting about wine, cocktails and food for two decades. She is the principal of the San Francisco-based Liza the Wine Chick writing and strategic consulting business, assisting wine and cocktail producers and marketers fine-tune messaging, branding and other materials. She has visited all the world’s major wine growing and spirits producing regions—50 plus countries and counting—is one of several hundred people in the U.S. to hold the Diploma of Wine & Spirits (D.W.S.), the three-year program that is the precursor to the Master of Wine.