Our Trip To Napa Valley, California

Wine lovers- this one is for you!! Today’s post is going to be a long one, but I’m excited to share all about our recent getaway to Napa Valley, California as well as some trip planning tips for visiting the valley.

A little background- to put it simply, Patrick and I LOVE wine. And beyond just loving a good glass of Cabernet with a juicy steak, we enjoy learning about wine making, viniculture, grape variations, vineyard history, and everything in-between. When Patrick was in high school, he began researching and learning everything he could about wine. By the time he was 15, his parents were allowing him to select their bottle of wine when they went out to dinner… despite him not legally being allowed to try it for himself! And after a family trip to Italy in 2009 where he was able to truly enjoy wine for the first time, he was in love.

Our first formal wine tasting together was when we lived in Australia for the summer in 2013. We were 20 (legal to drink!) and took full advantage touring the Hunter Valley wine region, known for their Semillon. My wine appreciation got even stronger when I took a wine tasting class during my senior year at Virginia Tech (yes, 3 credits for drinking and reviewing wine!) and it’s become a bit of a hobby for us both to learn and try as many different varietals as possible.

Over the past several years, we’ve been lucky enough to taste local wines on several of our international vacations (Italy, Austria, Germany, France, Australia) as well as on some of our domestic trips (Washington, Oregon, Virginia, Hawaii, Texas… even Florida!) And we had been dreaming of one day planning a trip to the wine mecca of the United States- Napa Valley, California!!

So when Patrick surprised me on my birthday with a fully planned itinerary for a 4-day trip to Napa, I cried tears of happiness and we marked our calendars for just 8 weeks later when we would fly out to California!

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So here is a recap of our trip itinerary!

DAY ONE

We flew out to San Fransisco on Saturday morning and by the time we landed, it was around 1pm local time. Patrick had never been to San Fran before, so we spent a few hours hitting some of the highlights: we took a trip down Lombard Street, drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, saw San Fransisco City Hall, and took in the epic views of the bay at the Battery Spencer.

By this time it was late afternoon, so we excitedly drove out to the Napa Valley and into the town of Yountville to check into our INCREDIBLE hotel, The Vintage House. Patrick and I both agreed that this was our favorite hotel we’ve ever stayed in– the rooms were incredible with our own cozy fireplace + balcony and the property was so inviting and romantic. It had heated pools, a huge hot tub, the most incredible “wine country breakfast”, fountain-lined walkways, with fire pits and cozy couches at every turn.

By that time we were starving so after a quick room service cheese + meat platter, we freshened up and headed to dinner at Bouchon, a Michelin-star restaurant by the famous Chef Thomas Keller. (Note: Reservations open 60 days in advance and book up very quickly, so this is something you need to plan in advance, especially if you’re visiting on a weekend.) We enjoyed a bottle of Shypoke Amelia’s Block Petite Syrah and it was the perfect start to the weekend.

DAY TWO

Thanks to jet lag, we were up by 5:30am on our second day, and after a morning walk around town to see the daily hot air balloon departures, we headed over to Bouchon Bakery (also owned by Chef Thomas Keller) for some lattes and pastries before heading out for our first day of tastings.

We didn’t hire a driver for the first day, so we paced ourselves and visited wineries a bit closer to our hotel. Our first stop was Far Niente which was the perfect way to kick off our visit! Far Niente has an INCREDIBLE property (adding it to my list of bucket list wedding venues I would LOVE to shoot at) and they gave a fantastic tour. Our tour guide, Scott, was super knowledgable as he guided us through the wine caves (they have over 1 mile of underground caves!) and out to their new tasting facility for a wine + cheese pairing. Patrick and I both loved their 2012 and 2015 Cave Collection Cabernet Sauvignons and were blown away by the experience they provided. HIGHLY recommend and note that reservations are required to visit.

After our first stop, we had a bite to eat at Mustard’s Grill for Ahi tuna burgers. You really can’t go wrong food-wise in Napa and loved our meal.

Our second winery of the day was Caymus. While Caymus offers walk-ins and reservations, we were very happy that we had reservations so that we had our own private area on the veranda to enjoy the 70 degree day. Caymus was also a great value, because the $50 tasting fee can go towards a wine purchase which basically means you get a bottle of wine + a tasting for the price of just a tasting! Note: we did just the tasting here as opposed to the tour + tasting.

We ended the day at Anderson’s Conn which Patrick had picked because it was a small production winery and more “off the beaten path”. Again, this was a reservations only experience, and oh boy were we in for a treat! The winemaker greeted us wearing old jeans and a flannel and clearly had come from working in the vineyard all day (this was much different than the tour guide who was wearing a full suit at Far Niente!) and Patrick and I got our own private tour of the property via his ATV! We ended in the caves laughing, telling jokes, and drinking all of the wines.

For dinner, we headed back to the hotel and grabbed a bite at the restaurant next door, Perry Lang’s. This is a brand new steakhouse and although the food was good, the service was miserably slow (especially after a long day of drinking when all we wanted was some food!) We wrapped up our first day of tastings by stopping into one of the many tasting rooms back in Yountville walking distance to our hotel, Hill Family Estate.

We ended the night soaking in the hot tub back at the hotel– the perfect ending to our first full day in Napa.

DAY THREE

On Monday, we wanted to cover a bit more ground so we hired a driver to take us around to a few more wineries. After a great wine country breakfast at the hotel, our first stop was at Cade up on Howell Mountain. Howell Mountain is notorious for growing some of the nicest (and most expensive) grapes in the valley. The property was incredible overlooking the valley and we really enjoyed a tour and tasting (again, this was a reservations only experience). Their tasting including a wine + cheese + chocolate pairing which made the experience even better.

After Cade, we stopped at the valley’s famous roadside burger joint, Gott’s. Patrick and I split tuna poke tacos and a cheeseburger before heading on to explore some of the quaint towns. We walked through the shopping district in St. Helena’s and drove through Calistoga and Napa before heading to our second winery of the day, Chateau Montelena. We opted for no tour and just a tasting and although we had reservations, they also accepted walk-ins to stand by the bar. The wine was good, albeit not our favorite, but the medieval castle-like tasting room made it worth the visit. A highlight was tasting their 2006 vintage cab which was a special treat!

Our third stop of the day was at Frank Family Vineyards. We really enjoyed this winery and had a great experience enjoying our tasting on their back porch with another sweet couple who both worked in the Napa wine industry themselves. Frank Family had a wonderful sparkling Pinot Noir but the real showstopper was their Zinfandel. We really enjoyed our time and probably could have spent half a day there chatting with the tasting room employees who were welcoming and knowledgeable.

Our last (and my favorite!) winery visit was Reverie II. This was a recommendation from our wine tour company, and with little to no information on what to expect other than knowing it was appointment only, we decided to take a gamble and give it a try! And we were in for a TREAT! We were greeted by the general manager, Austin, and he invited us into the most gorgeous home on the property overlooking the vineyards. We met his sweet pup, Pedals, and hung out on the back porch taking in the views. Austin told us (it was just the two of us there) about how Reverie II got its start and how his interest in wine came about as a kid growing up in Napa making wine in his parent’s garage. Such a cool story! And Austin immediately felt like an old friend! He then asked if we wanted a quick ATV ride around the property so we jumped in (Pedals the pup, too!) and we rode up to an observation deck overlooking the valley. We chatted more, tried more wine, and watched the sunset before ATV-ing back down to the house. On top of this being perhaps one of our best wine tasting experiences, the wine was GOOD. Like really, really good. But because they’re a small production winery, you can only purchase bottles if you’re in their wine club. Soooooo that led to us joining their wine club! We had originally said we weren’t going to join any of the clubs during our visit, but we couldn’t pass this one up after having the best experience with our new friend Austin tasting some truly great wines.

After another great day of wine tasting, we found a food truck back by our hotel (Tacos Garcia) to grab a few quick tacos to enjoy fireside by the pool.

DAY FOUR

On our last day, we had a slow morning at the hotel enjoying our final wine country breakfast (smoked salmon, oats, pastries… all the good stuff!) and one final latte from Bouchon Bakery. After a short walk around town we packed up and headed back towards San Fransisco.

My first and only other time I had been to the bay area was for a family vacation when I was in 6th grade. I had super fond memories of a cute bayside town, Sausalito, and convinced Patrick we should stop on our way to the airport to see if it was anything like I remembered. And yes, Sausalito is adorable! We stopped for a coffee and a walk by the water and it was all the cuteness exactly as I had remembered.

Then we dropped off our rental car and headed to the airport where we enjoyed a final wine flight at the SFO Airport Wine Bar. After a quick layover in Charlotte we arrived back in Atlanta late on Tuesday.

It was the best 4 day weekend ever. In fact, other than our honeymoon in Italy, this may have been one of our favorite vacations to date! It’s so rare that we’re both able to completely disconnect and enjoy time together away from the hustle and bustle of real life. I’m so grateful for Patrick for putting in all of the planning research/work to make this trip as amazing as it was!

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Now if you’re looking to plan your own Napa trip, here are some quick tips!

PLANNING / RESEARCH:

  • Patrick did a LOT of research before this trip and planned it all to a tee. (Bless him!!) Napa is not somewhere you can just “show up and wing it” like we do for many of our other travels. Wineries book up weeks (and sometimes months) in advance so intentional planning is key.
  • Make sure you look at what each winery is known for and book your trip based on your own personal wine preferences! Napa is probably best known for their bold Cabernet Sauvignons and oaky Chardonnays, but most wineries grow several different varietals. Personally, we’re more Cab people (and Chardonnay is not my fav), so we tailored our winery visits accordingly, while still having the opportunity to try several different varietals during each tasting.
  • Make reservations for tours and tastings! Although some wineries accept walk-ins, the experience is SO much better if you make a reservation in advance. For example, at one of the wineries if you had a reservation you were given a couch area on the veranda overlooking the vineyard for your tasting with a concierge host vs. if you walked in you were asked to stand around a crowded bar inside for your tasting (and the cost was the same!). It’s also important to note that most of the wineries require reservations for your visit anyways, so it’s better to just plan your stops well in advance.
  • I’d recommend visiting a mix of large and small production wineries. The experiences are so different and we loved getting both ends of the spectrum. The large production wineries often have incredible facilities/tours/guest experiences while the smaller ones can be so intimate and relaxed! While visiting two small production wineries, (small production means you cannot buy their wine anywhere except at their winery or if you’re a wine club member) we hopped on the owner’s ATV for a tour of the property and it was just Patrick and I on the tour!

 

BUDGETING:

  • First and foremost, I am ALL about trying to travel on a budget and save money where you can. But to be honest, Napa is NOT the place to try to do on the cheap. It is expensive, but very worth it.
  • Discuss beforehand if you plan on buying/shipping wine during your trip. This is important because certain wineries can be higher pressure when it comes to wine sales and cater more towards high-end collectors vs. casual wine drinkers. Do your research and read reviews from people to get an idea of how the winery handles wine sales and wine club membership pitches. Patrick and I decided that we were only going to buy wine if we REALLY loved it and wouldn’t be able to find it online. We ended up buying most of our bottles from the smaller production wineries because we knew we would never be able to buy it anywhere else! We also found it most cost effective to ship all of the wine we bought from various wineries at the end of our trip in 1 shipment vs. paying for shipping at each winery. (To put it in perspective, shipping 1 bottle of wine costs around $25, while shipping 6 bottles is ~$50). All of the local hotels are more than happy to help with packaging/shipping!
  • Most of the wineries in Napa have higher tour/tasting fees than you may be used to. We frequent the North Georgia wine region where tasting/tour fees never exceed $25. In Napa, expect to pay $50-$100 per person for each tasting. Again, it’s definitely pricey, but worth it if you have an appreciation for some spectacular wines and experiences.

 

WHERE TO STAY: 

The 4 most popular neighborhoods to stay in Napa are:

  • Yountville: This is where we stayed and is the “foodie capital” of the valley. Yountville has more Michelin stars per capita than any other town in America and is perfect for a romantic getaway. It’s known for it’s upscale hotels, bistros, and gardens. After going all over Napa Valley, hands down I think Yountville was the perfect choice for us and would definitely stay in that area again.
  • Napa: Napa serves as the gateway to California wine country. Perhaps because it’s the closest settlement in the valley to San Francisco, but it’s a bit more bustling/crowded than the other towns. Napa is also home to the famous Oxbow Public Market and has the most tasting rooms in the area.
  • St. Helena: Known for their high-end shops, spas, and hotels, St. Helena is one of the most expensive places to stay in the valley and has more of an “exclusivity” vibe to it.
  • Calistoga: Our driver described Calistoga as “Americana” and that couldn’t be more accurate. Calistoga offers a glimpse of old-world Napa Valley. The spa town’s natural hot springs continue to attract wellness seekers, who come to relax in its steaming mud baths and mineral pools.

OUR FAVORITE WINERIES:

With 400+ wineries in Napa, there are SO many to choose from. If you’re interested, our absolute favorites were Far Niente and Reverie II.

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Until next time, Napa!

xoxo,

Marybeth

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marybeth marlow  photography

ATLANTA BASED DESTINATION WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER