The Napa Valley encompasses a rather small geographical area that produces only 4% of California's entire wine production and is one of the premium wine growing regions in North America.
The earliest vineyards date back to 1836 and the oldest winery was built in 1861. The valley itself is only 32 miles long and several miles wide. However there are a wide range of micro-climates, temperatures, elevation and soil types within this small region. Two primary mountain ranges run the length of the valley – the Vaca range on the Eastern side of the valley and the Mayacamas range on the Western side. There is a huge diversity of soil types within this small valley, an incredible 33 different soil types exist. Vineyard elevations range from next to sea level to about 2,400 feet.
This small wine region is world famous for the quality of wines it produces and is visited by more than 4.5 million people each year that come to enjoy a wine tasting break. It is sometimes rare to have premium restaurants in a rural region, but the Napa Valley is also well known for its top restaurants and is a great place for foodies. In 2011 it boasted 14 restaurants with Michelin stars, of which two restaurants have three stars each. Napa is home to approximately 420 physical bonded wineries and another 450 virtual wineries. Most of Napa's wineries have a cellar door, welcoming visitors for wine tastings and vineyard tours.
WHEN TO GO AND FOR HOW LONG?
You can visit the Napa Valley anytime of the year (wineries stay open year round) however Spring and Fall are considered the best choice of times to be in the valley.
Fall is a fun and absolutely crazy time to be in the valley (especially if you are in the industry). There is an air of excitement in the Napa area that you can only have during harvest time; loaded trucks with bins of grapes are flying down the roads to winery facilities, barrels and tanks are constantly moving around, walk into a wine lab and smell the unmistakable odour of yeast, enology & viticulture consultants find that their cell phones are invariably an extension of their head, and around the wineries, you can smell the awesome sweet smell of grapes and fermenting juice.
During Spring everything is green, bud break has already occurred, the grapes are leafing out, the summer crowds have not yet hit, and as a result there is less traffic and the weather is usually decent. Serious wine enthusiasts should consider visiting for a week – those wanting to get a feel for the valley and its wine and food culture should visit for at least 3-4 days.
WHERE TO GO?
It is best to try not to see it all. Focus your efforts in certain parts of the valley rather than trying to visit wineries spread out all over. Around 150 wineries do not require appointments – you can just walk in. The rest of the wineries in the valley do require appointments. Try to get off the beaten path and visit with some of the smaller wineries – your visits will often be very personalized and with the owner and or winemaker.
Top wine regions (sub appellations) within the Napa Valley are Oakville, Stag's Leap, Howell Mountain and Rutherford among others. When discussing non winery highlights in the Napa Valley – food quickly comes to mind. Top restaurants include the French Laundry and Meadowood. The Culinary Institute of America has a campus in the town of St. Helena, including a restaurant that is open to the public. Celebrity chefs such as Michael Chiarello, Tyler Florence and Masaharu Morimoto own restaurants in the valley. Other highlights not related to food or wine include hiking Mt St. Helena and the Palisades in the Northern part of the valley, Old Faithful Geyser and a visit to the Petrified Forest (petrified wood of giant Redwood and other trees).
The Napa Valley Film Festival – annually in November, venues are setup around the valley for showing films, often the director or actor will be present to speak after the showing, so you may even meet a celebrity.
Biking – the two best parts of the valley for cycling are Carneros in the South and Calistoga in the North. There is less traffic in both areas, smaller more rural roads.
The Napa Valley Wine Auction (held annually in June) is the world’s largest charity wine auction, having raised more than $100 million in 30 years for Napa County health, youth and housing non-profit organizations.
Find out more about the Napa Valley wine region, best wineries to visit and additional itineraries from local experts on our Blog.Read less