A Beginner's Guide To Napa Valley
I am not afraid to admit I am a self proclaimed oenophile. While my friends were throwing back Jager Bombs and Red Bull Vodkas, I was at my local wine shop asking questions and looking for bottles that intrigued me. Don't let me fool you, I had my fair share of Red Bull, but my taste shifted.
Fast forward to 2018 and things haven't changed much. My passion for wine is greater than ever and my friends are now sipping on craft beers and Aperol spritzes. I completed my WSET level one certification earlier this year and created a weekly segment on my blog called "TJ Tuesday" that highlights wines from Trader Joe's that cost less than $10.00. Sometimes I run across a complete gem while others head straight for the trash.
Over the past fifteen years, my priorities, palate, and understanding of wine have grown immensely. Trips to Napa Valley has evolved from " how many wineries can I conquer in a day" to "what are the most unique, small production wineries that I can visit?" I'm often asked for recommendations or advice when planning a trip to Napa, so I thought I would put together this post for all my future oenophiles.
Planning your first trip to Napa can be quite overwhelming. Did you know there are over 400 wineries in Napa Valley and almost 600 if you include Sonoma? No wonder it seems so daunting to plan your first trip to wine country when you don't even know where to begin.
Have A Plan
While this seems completely basic, you would be surprised how many people wait until the last minute to find accommodations, make tasting arrangements and try to secure reservations at some of the most popular restaurants. Don't be that person.
Likely, you are purchasing your flight well ahead of your scheduled trip, unless you are a member of Wheels Up, which in that case, you certainly don't need to be reading my tips.
In order to assist with my trip planning, I keep a running list of sights, vineyards, and restaurants on my phone. I'm constantly coming across things in magazines or picking up tips from some of my favorite bloggers, so it's nice to have one central place to house all of the information. I typically use the Notes app on my iPhone but more recently have been using Google Keep which is great for lists and it's super easy to share.
Tasting room reservations will vary by vineyard but some of the most sought-after restaurants will open their reservations two-three months in advance.
Select Accommodations In A Centrally Located Area
Make smart choices.
If you choose to stay at an Airbnb or at a five-star luxury resort, make sure your accommodations are centrally located. There's nothing worse than staying in one part of the valley and having all of your tastings on the opposite corner. Not only do you lose valuable time tasting but you're likely going to add unnecessary stress and lots of additional travel time.
Most hotels require a minimum night stay, while others have less stringent requirements.
Don't drive. Period.
This is your first time in wine country and there's no reason to add additional stress driving, not to mention the fact that you absolutely do not want a DUI.
There are several car services that offer day rates as well as packages for extended stays. If you find that's a little out of your budget, simply stick with Uber and Lyft. If you do choose a rideshare program, I'd recommend that you order your rides well in advance because not only can they be sometimes hard to get, but you don't want to be late for your next tasting appointment.
Bottom line, it's much easier to have someone drive you around rather than trying to navigate the windy roads of the valley. Even with Google Maps!
Limit Your Winery Visits
This is key for a successful trip.
I used to be one of those people who thought they were only going to visit Napa Valley once and tried to squeeze in as many wineries as possible. A mindset like that led to rushed tastings, forgetful dinners, and terrible hangovers. Trust me, the last thing you want is to be hungover and driving through the windy roads of wine country.
I have found that the sweet spot tends to be three wineries. Limiting your tastings allows time to learn about each vineyard, enjoy the tasting itself and provides enough flexibility to make it to your next destination in a timely manner. If by chance you still have an itch, you can always try to drop in.
Take it from someone who has learned the hard way, it's not worth the hangover!
Schedule Your Tasting Appointments
You've booked your flight, finalized your hotel and now it's time to figure out which wineries you are going to visit. While this is one of my favorite parts, it can also be one of the most stressful. Once you narrowed down your list of wineries, take a look at where they fall on the map. As I mentioned earlier, you don't want to book more than three visits a day, so make sure that they three you choose are relatively close in proximity to one another or you will spend more time in the car than you will tasting. Until you are leaving one winery and headed to the next, people often overlook how spread out wine country truly is.
Make sure you include time to eat.
This is one mistake I've made on multiple occasions and trust me, it never ends well. Maybe you prefer to start with a hearty breakfast or perhaps you have your sights set on a picnic lunch, whatever the case may be, make sure you allow time to grab a bite.
This is where having a car service can come in handy. Rather than stopping for a meal, you can always keep snacks and bites in the car to have between tastings rather than forfeit time for a meal.
However, if you are Ubering from place to place, the options are endless. I've listed some of my favorites below. You can't go wrong with any of these options.
Mind Your Manners
Even with all the planning, let's face it, life happens.
Perhaps you took a wrong turn off the highway or maybe that last winery kept pouring VGS (very good shi*t), you're running late to your next tasting. As a courtesy to the winery and those random strangers that are waiting on you in your tour group, pick up the phone and let them know you are running late. While most wineries are understanding, I have heard of some places that will forfeit your tasting, even if you have already paid for it.
If you're hitting three wineries a day, you're tasting anywhere between three and five wines at each winery and the details can start to run together. I recommend bringing a small journal or notepad to capture any standouts. This will help tremendously when you get home and want to order some of that delicious juice you tasted!
If a journal isn't your thing, you can always use your phone.
Don't Forget To Thank Your Host
Did your host pull out all the stops? Serve you wines that were only to be shared with wine club members or that perhaps fall in the reserve category? Make sure you say thank you with a tip.
Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that you need to tip someone who literally poured the wine into the glass without any background or information. Simply acknowledge those that go above and beyond to ensure that you have an incredible experience.
Wine country is truly a magical place. Sit back, relax and enjoy the trip.
If you have any other questions about planning your trip to Napa or winery recommendations, feel free to drop a note below or message me.
Until Next Time!