Napa Valley Travel Guide: Everything You Need to Know for a Fall Tasting Trip

All the new developments, from Carneros to Calistoga.

The Napa Valley might be a mere 30 miles long, but with a slew of new hotels, restaurants with celebrity chefs, and tasting rooms pouring in, you will need to navigate your way carefully up and down the one-lane Highway 29 to avoid sitting in traffic rather than sipping vino. Start in the southern town of Napa and make your way north through these high-profile and newer stops along the tasting trail to Yountville and St. Helena. Here's everything — everything! — you need to know for a comprehensive updated guide to the region.

Downtown Napa

Dining

Crowds are gathering for lunch, dinner, and late-night snacks at Miminashi, the valley’s first-ever Japanese style pub. You won’t find a scrap of sushi but robatayaki and yakitori skewers using all parts of the chicken, corn fritters, soba noodles, ramen, ink squid fried rice, and Japanese pear salads. Nate Diaz (mixed martial artist and Ultimate Fighting Champion) was fueling up on this fun yet healthy menu at Miminashi recently over Labor Day weekend. They have also created a following for their soft cream in a waffle cone or bowl with matcha green tea, ginger, or vanilla bean almond with toppings of sesame honeycomb among others, which you can now grab at their take-out window.

The Japanese theme continues with Kenzo Estate Vineyards owners Kenzo and Natsuko Tsuji moto opening a fine dining Japanese restaurant, Kenzo, in mid-November of 2016 with renowned nine-year-running three-Michelin-star Chef, Hiroyuki Kanda from Kanda in Tokyo at the helm. Fresh fish and delicacies will be flown in daily from Japan and you will be able to watch the chefs from a prime perch at the Sushi bar constructed of wood flown in from Japan​.  

Entertainment

Blue Note Napa is slated to open this fall, offering live music seven days a week in downtown Napa. Occupying the first floor of the historic Napa Valley Opera House, the renowned jazz club will present national and international artists, along with Bay Area and regional favorites, paired with the region’s finest wines, craft brews, cuisine, and classic cocktails. Blue Note Napa will also present musical headliners of all genres in the Opera House’s second-floor Margrit Mondavi Theater. 

Napa Tasting Rooms

Founded by Michael Polenske, the Bespoke Collection is a wine producer and lifestyle brand that owns Blackbird Vineyards, Recuerdo Wines and was the founder of a design gallery called Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley (in Yountville which was acquired by Restoration Hardware) and ÆRENA Gallery in St. Helena. The latest venture for the company includes a tasting room, art and design gallery at the Riverfront in downtown Napa called RiverHouse. Guest can view emerging and established artists while sipping wines and this location benefits from a partnership with renowned Morimoto Restaurant next door for events. 

JaM Cellars opened in downtown Napa earlier this year, offering wine flights, by-the-glass and by-the-bottle for Butter Chardonnay, JaM Cabernet, and Toast Sparkling. They are also featuring a number of guest wines and special releases only available at the downtown tasting room. Napa Valley Distillery and Grand Tasting Salon opened their expanded distillery in May. Guests get a back stage pass into the art of craft spirits production and tasting with an educational distillery tour, then taste through a flight of award-winning locally made products.

Vineyard 29’s Cru @ the Annex has opened at the Oxbow Public Market, which is filled with vendors from Hog Island Oysters to truffle oil from Italy. The tasting space resembles a living room, complete with cozy couches coupled with an outdoor patio. Fieldwork Brewing Company expects open a taproom in Oxbow Public Market's main market hall by October 2016. Visitors to its Oxbow Taproom can expect an ever-changing tap list, sampler flights, beer by the glass, and fresh beer filled "to go" in growlers and Crowler cans.

Hotels

Archer Napa is the anchor of the First Street Napa development. The 183-room, five-story wine country retreat with an urban sensibility will offer sweeping 360-degree views of Napa Valley, the only vista of its kind in the area. The Charlie Palmer Group will be leading the culinary direction of the hotel’s rooftop bar, in-room dining, and the signature restaurant, Charlie Palmer Steak. 

If you’re traveling with children, the Olympic size pool surrounded by towering trees at Napa Valley Marriott Hotel and Spa will appeal to the little ones — and the serene spa will appeal to you for that much-needed time out. This newly revamped staple is also located outside of the downtown fray if you are seeking more solitude away from traffic and construction but with easy highway access. The kitchen is actually turning out some great food from prime steaks and pastas for dinner to hearty breakfasts that will set up for a day of tasting. When you return for a break in the late afternoon, you can enjoy a complimentary local wine tasting in the lobby or out on the patio. 

Carneros

New Winery Experience

Part of the Peju Province wine dynasty in Napa Valley, new little sister Liana Estates is located in the cool Carneros region surrounded by San Pablo Bay. This location is all about immersive experiences from culinary classes, interactive workshops, and wellness activities including yoga paired with bubbly, mozzarella making, oyster shucking and harvest dinners — all utilizing the five senses, along with sipping chardonnay, pinot noir, viognier, and rosé. There is also a bocce ball garden and ample perches for a picnic from a hill with a million-dollar view of the bay or a cozy modern barn.  There will be a public tasting room near the production facility with rusted metal bar carts, leather banquettes, reclaimed wood, blown glass lighting fixtures and bistro tables. The second floor holds The Wine Club Lounge, a private tasting room that will offer private concierge service, and culinary bites from the kitchen. The third-floor loft features earthy details of concrete tile and metal, along with a succulent wall that mirrors the colors of the landscape. A built-in dumbwaiter brings food up from the kitchen right onto the custom live-edge table made from fallen trees on the Peju family’s property. Don’t miss the mercantile store near the entrance with flowers, produce, and private-label olive oil. 

Yountville

Dining

Some have nicknamed Yountville “Kellerville” due to the number of restaurants by chef Thomas Keller, who put the tiny bucolic town on the map when he opened The French Laundry in 1994. Billed as one of the top restaurants in the world, and certainly the country, the now iconic fine-dining tasting menu venue is currently revamping its kitchen (while operating with a temporary one) and is slated for a grand reopening next spring. If you can’t score a reservation, the garden across the street is open to the public, and you can meander through with a cup of coffee. Or you can buy the produce at Keller’s Finesse, The Store on Sundays. Keller also owns the more affordable French bistro Bouchon down the street, which is celebrating 18 years of still packing in the crowds for one of the best roast chickens on the planet, along with steak frites, croques, lardon laced salads, and oysters. From November 17 through 20, Bouchon will offer a special tasting menu with Beaujolais nouveau. Next door is Bouchon Bakery, which makes classic French pastries and some of the best French bread this side of Paris. Keller also owns Ad Hoc, a family-style larger-plates eatery, known for award-winning fried chicken, on the other end of the one-mile town, so you pretty much can’t throw a rock and not hit one of his establishments. 

Another nationally recognized brand and celebrity chef has been closed for a little remodeling in the heart of town. Right behind one of Food Network’s Top Chef Masters Michael Chiarello’s popular Italian eatery Bodega, his flagship store, NapaStyle, has been closed for a revamp, which we hear will include more of a culinary offering to guest along with an expansion of their kitchen and cooking class program. 

Ciccio Italian restaurant is now occupying the old Market space on the north end of Washington Boulevard by the Napa Valley Lodge. Be sure to make time on your way out of town up to St. Helena to drop by for a wood fired pie, fresh pasta. or lamb shoulder chop. There is usually a wait and they don’t take reservations, so be prepared.  

Tastings with Art

Cliff Lede Pinot Patio could be the only vineyard in the world were the vines were blocked and named after hits song titles from Dark Side of the Moon to Born to Run. The tasting club is referred to as “the front row.” Next to the art gallery, a.k.a. “backstage tasting room,” featuring the work of Jerry Garcia from The Grateful Dead and Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, is the new FEL Pinot Garden (named after the owner's mother), for savoring and sipping wines by the glass in a comfortable alfresco lounge with Adirondack chairs. Canadian-born Bordeaux lover, Cliff Lede, opened his musical-themed vineyard on six acres in the Stagg’s Leap District in 2002 and it still remains one of the most well visited and entertaining stops on a tasting tour of the region. The flagship cabernet sauvignon is called Poetry, just like the small inn located up the hill from the property, so feel free to spend the night if you can get a room. 

The JCB Tasting Salon opened early this year, featuring Napa Valley and French wines. The Salon also features the Surrealist Boutique that showcases luxury goods produced from around the world, including JCB’s custom-designed jewelry collection, candles, and perfumes.

Hope & Grace is a small-production winery from the Santa Lucia Highlands focusing on limited production, single vineyard, 100 percent varietal pinot noirs, cabernet sauvignons, Malbec, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and dry Riesling. And now the public can try the wines in their modern and sleek tasting room in Yountville that resembles a gallery.

On your drive from Yountville to St. Helena, do stop at Mondavi winery, founded by Robert Mondavi, the grandfather of the region. Locals say that he put Napa on the map when he opened his family owned winery 50 years ago. The grounds are museum worthy with sculptures and statues, there a several tasting rooms and patios where you can lounge, and the gift shop is also worth a peek. For the rest of the year, they will be holding special concerts, exhibits, and tours to celebrate their 50th anniversary. 

St. Helena and Calistoga

Hotels

The biggest news up in these parts is the opening of the 68-room Las Alcobas, a Luxury Collection Hotel, in Napa Valley right next to the iconic Berringer Vineyards and Estate, set to bring a little South of the Border flair to the area. The hotel will feature a 3,500-square-foot spa and wellness center, restaurant, and a barn for private events. The fireplace-adorned outdoor terraces overlook the vineyards and 10 rooms feature outdoor soaking tubs. Interiors were conceived by award-winning international design firm Yabu Pushelberg with Rivolta Carmignani linens, and oversized spa-like bathrooms with soaking tubs and showers. Amenities include market bags crafted in Mexico City, where the brand’s award-winning flagship hotel resides. The treatments should appeal to the A-List as well with ancient healing, artisanal handmade products, and an apothecary-style aromatherapy blending bar offered as part of all massage experiences. The signature restaurant, Acacia House, is a 1907 historic property that will be led by celebrated chef Chris Cosentino — Top Chef Masters winner — together with business partner Oliver Wharton of San Francisco's acclaimed Cockscomb restaurant. The food program will include on-site artisan bread, picnic baskets, and musette bags for cyclists.         

Dining

Renowned chefs Sang Yoon (Father's Office, Lukshon) and Douglas Keane (Cyrus, Healdsburg Bar and Grill), have collaboration on restaurant located in the historic, newly renovated Freemark Abbey Winery originally built in the 1800’s. Two Birds One Stone showcases a menu of California-inspired yakitori, as well as plates that feature locally sourced poultry and product, along with a state-of-the-art draft system — focused on wines made exclusively for the restaurant by regional California vintners —alongside a refreshing beverage menu that stresses cocktails with an Asian bent and a wide selection of Japanese whiskeys.  

Goose & Gander is still stopping traffic for the ample patio and best gourmet burgers that you can top with foie gras or bone marrow, but they it has also become renowned for its mushroom soup. It’s also a refreshing change to order a fresh herb cocktail after all the inevitable wine tasting. NBA Champion LeBron James was a recent visitor, so he must have had the same idea. 

Tasting Experiences

Should you require a private guided tasting in Mandarin, YAO Family Wines opened a tasting room in St. Helena earlier this year, which boasts an expansive marble-topped oval bar and intimate lounge spaces for groups. Don’t miss the prime views of the Calistoga vineyards from Davis Estates Winery’s tasting deck which opened in May.

Blend Your Own Wine

Conn Creek Winery is well known as a “cab house” on the Silverado Trail that is now offering a strong barrel blending experience that includes a tasting of their Anthology Cabernet Sauvignon. You’ll be learning about the sub-appellations of the regions by a wine educator along with tips and techniques on blending as you play wine maker for a day. At the conclusion, your creation will be bottled up for you to take home with a custom wine label so be thinking of what your vintage should be called. 

Cheers!

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