Navigating Napa Valley

Traveling to Napa: Just do it.

Hello everyone! It seems @smashleythegrape is a tad occupied with her studying for WSET Level 2, so you get my voice and insight for this post. Let me introduce myself. I’m Greg, the man behind the camera (aka “Instagram husband”), the one usually holding Walter’s leash, and full-time Naval Officer. Nice to meet you all! Thank you for joining us. Today we’ll be putting my military experience to good use and exploring a very important subject:  logistics! Hopefully I can share some tips that will help everyone make the most out of a visit to Napa.

Photo taken outside our patio at Wine Country Inn & Cottages

Make a Plan and Crush It!

The first time Ashley and I visited Napa, we drove up the coast from SoCal and made it to the Valley after stops in Monterrey (otters!) and San Francisco (clam chowder in bread bowls!). Driving to Napa can be great for a couple of reasons. First and foremost:  plenty of trunk space to bring home some fantastic wine. On that first trip, we joined a couple of wine clubs and were able to take home our first batch of shipments (plus a few extra bottles our hosts threw in). Second benefit:  flexibility. There’s nothing worse than getting a great recommendation for a winery from someone and not being able to take advantage of it because you have to catch a flight. Driving allows you to keep an open schedule and that’s the best way to take advantage of the hospitality of Napa and social aspect of wine-tasting.

Our second trip to Napa was our first time flying up and renting a car. We booked flights into San Francisco International Airport (SFO) from San Diego. After checking in and getting through TSA, we learned that our flight was delayed due to the weather in San Francisco. The rather well-known bay area fog was limiting the number of flights that were being routed into SFO… and this was in July when the skies are generally clear and blue! After a delay of a couple of hours on the tarmac, we were finally on our way. The last hurdles we overcame were the slowness of getting our rental car and then having to navigate through “The City” to get out to the valley. After finally getting to Napa several hours after we had expected to, we swore to ourselves:  never again.

Since that first fateful airline trip via SFO, we have probably flown in and out of Sacramento (SMF) at least half a dozen times. We. Love. That. Airport! Sacramento is much smaller and sooo easy to navigate. There are NEVER lines at TSA or the check-in kiosks/counters. It’s a quick shuttle from the terminal to the rental cars and then about an hour drive into Napa. The drive in through the Davis area always renews my appreciation for the agricultural aspect of wine-making. Plus, there’s virtually no traffic going into the valley from the east. So easy. Highly recommended by these social grapes. We’ve heard that Oakland is a comparable experience just with a little more Bay Area traffic involved, but we’ve never tried it so don’t quote me.

Hotels so nice, you’ll want to stay twice!

Let me start this section by being as up-front as possible… Napa is an expensive place to visit. There are some very pricey hotels that I can tell you very little about because I have never been to them, let alone stayed there. What I can tell you about are some of the pros and cons of staying in town or farther north in the heart of the valley.

The city of Napa has some great options for hotels, restaurants, and bars. We’ve stayed at the Westin Verasa and the Andaz. The Westin Verasa was great because it is walking distance to the Oxbow Public Market (tons of amazing food, drink, and shopping options) and also had complimentary tastings in the lobby on Friday and Saturday. We have gone back to the Andaz a few times now – they always welcome with a glass of something great and we usually get upgraded thanks to the AMEX. While we think the Andaz is a better value, we also like how close it is to some great restaurants (Ca’ Momi and Allegria come to mind) and bars (lobby at the Archer Hotel and Stone Brewing). The Andaz also has a great outdoor patio bar for when the weather is nice (any time except winter). The only downfall to staying downtown is the 20-30 minute drive to the wineries. This makes getting around between wineries and back at the end of the day somewhat challenging (see more below).

About 30 minutes north of downtown Napa is the town of St. Helena, centrally located in the heart of Napa Valley. There are several hotel options in the area including Harvest Inn and the Wine Country Inn and Cottages. Usually these spots are a bit pricier than the downtown hotels, but we love how accessible all of the wineries are. Like downtown, this area boasts some great restaurants (Cook, Farmstead, Archetype, and Gott’s Roadside) and bars (Goose and Gander, Saint). Harvest Inn gave us a half-bottle of wine in our room when we checked in and both of those hotels invite wineries to provide complimentary tastings on the weekends. Of the two, Wine Country Inn and Cottages is our favorite with a great breakfast spread in the mornings and coffee in the lobby 24/7.

Another great hotel we plan on returning to soon is Senza, which is conveniently located about halfway between downtown and St. Helena. Right around the corner from there is Don Giovanni (legendary Italian cuisine) and it’s a short uber/drive to Brix or Mustards (two great contemporary American options).

Photo of @smashleythegrape taken at SENZA Hotel

Hotel Highlight Reel:

  • Wine Country Inn & Cottages:  very nice pool area, surrounded by the vineyards of Duckhorn, super quaint/quiet, you can walk to Freemark Abbey (worth a visit), dog friendly (they even supplied Walter with a huge/fluffy dog bed and treats), rooms/cottages are spread out so you don’t feel like you’re at a hotel, complimentary wine tastings on Fridays/Saturdays.
  • Senza:  nice pool, discount for Hall Winery members, plenty of vineyard views, much like Wine Country Inn the rooms are spread out and you don’t feel like you’re at a hotel, breakfast buffet included bubbles/juice for mimosas/hibiscus, dog friendly, fireplaces in most rooms.
  • Andaz:  hospitality is great, cool vibe/atmosphere, lobby bar/coffee stand, outdoor mezzanine bar, breakfast/lunch restaurant is quite good, fireplace and freestanding bathtub in the suites.
  • Harvest Inn:  quiet/quaint setting in the midst of large trees but super close to St. Helena, two pools/jacuzzis were open late, nice lobby bar and restaurant, complimentary wine tastings on Fridays/Saturdays, spread out rooms so you don’t feel like you’re at a hotel, some rooms have vineyard views (but not all).
  • Westin Verasa:  really great lobby bar, the restaurant – La Toque – has a Michelin star, complimentary wine tastings on Fridays/Saturdays, we got upgraded for joining SPG rewards club, nice pool.

Getting Around

Let’s face it:  driving and wine-tasting do not mix. Especially if you’re fully embracing your inner “social grape” like we tend to do. Usually when we are visiting, I will drive to the first couple of wineries and after that we go into uber/lyft mode. That’s why we love staying up near St. Helena; with shorter distances to wineries, we can get to more tastings and ubers are much more affordable. When we stay downtown, we start our day with the wineries that are farthest north. After we drop the car off at the hotel, we can then usually uber to one or two more that are farther south in the valley. The great thing about downtown is the option to continue tasting wine at one of the many bars or restaurants – including Restoration Hardware Wine Vault which is beyond trendy and has incredible wine offerings (they offer wine tasting all night). While the wine is still enjoyable in a setting like that, for us nothing can compare to the experience of tasting a wine while looking out on the vineyards where the grapes are grown or next to the crush pad where they are brought during harvest or in the cellar where the recent vintages are still aging in oak barrels.

Live Your Best Wine Life!

When planning your visit, make sure you have a strategy and map out vineyards by AVA (American Viticultural Area). This will allow you to make the most of a trip to Napa and maximize your inner social grape. Hopefully some of these tips and pointers have given you a few ideas and will lead you in the right direction as you plan your own trip. Happy travels and thanks for sipping with us!

The Social Grapes

Instagram: @smashleythegrape

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