When it comes to Napa Valley, it's all about the wine.
This Napa wine tasting guide is dedicated to helping you figure out where to go, what to do, and how to get the most out of your trip so that you create memories of a lifetime (and a few bottles too!).
Where is Napa Valley?
Napa Valley sits just north of the San Francisco Bay in Northern California.
It doesn't take long to get there from San Francisco, only about 1.5 hours by car – and for about $200 you can arrive by limo service from SFO airport.
If you're trying to get to Napa from Los Angeles, you've got a dusty, 400-mile drive up the I-5 that isn't exactly scenic. Perfect time for an audio book.
When is the best time to visit Napa Valley?
The best time to visit Napa Valley is May through October, but be warned: it gets busy (especially on the weekends). So, if you come during the week from Tuesday through Friday you'll have a more laid back trip.
Honestly, off-season in Napa Valley is actually quite nice too. The rainiest month (February) is wet only 30% of the time.
Additionally, there are a few fun annual events throughout the year to know about, including Bottlerock in September (a massive music event) and two Napa Valley Vintners wine auctions which happen annually in February (Premiere Napa Valley) and June (Auction Napa Valley).
Napa Wine Tasting FAQ
Here are some really important things to know when planning your Napa tasting visit:
Try to limit yourself to 3 wine tastings per day To be fair, we once pulled off 5 Napa wine tastings in a single day, but it was brutal. We were late for every appointment after the first one. Fit your tastings from 10am–5pm during open hours.
Expect to spend a minimum of $25–75 per wine tasting in Napa Valley Prices range from about $20 at the lowest to upwards of $500 per person per tasting. Most wineries will waive your tasting fee if you purchase something.
Call ahead and make appointments. This is due to the 1990 Winery Definition Ordinance that restricts small wineries from having tours and tastings open to the public. Only the larger wineries have walk-in wine tastings. So, if you want something unique, set up an appointment. Fortunately, this antiquated rule may change soon.
Plan to drive or hire a driver. It's nearly impossible to get around without a car in Napa Valley. So, designate a driver in your group and use the spitoon. Better yet, hire a driver. You'll learn so much about the valley in between stops because good drivers are sommeliers and can help you pick where to go. Expect to spend about $400–$600 a day (not including tip).
Stay in Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville, or Napa. Each of the 4 cities in the Napa Valley offer amazing accommodations. Napa has big city amenities including the Oxbow Market; St. Helena and Yountville are the most luxurious and quaint; Calistoga has hot springs and feels the most laid back.
What is the best way to tour Napa Valley?
The best way to tour Napa Valley is to see the whole valley. In a car, you can do this by driving Highway 121 and looping back on the Silverado Trail – a 60 mile round trip. For a great view, head to one of the mountain vineyards on Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain, or Spring Mountain.
Which wineries to go to in Napa Valley?
Finally, we get to the serious question: what wineries should you go to in Napa Valley? We've definitely given folks a list of the most popular wine tasting destinations, but it's time to reveal some secrets on how to curate your own Napa wine tasting experience.
Choose wineries by location
Many of Napa Valley's best wineries have vineyard estates at the winery location. So, it's helpful to know what the best wines are in each part of the valley.
Time for a party at Ashes & Diamonds winery in Oak Knoll District.
Valley Floor Wineries
Ripe, bold, lush, full-bodied red and white wines.
If you’re into lush, bold, and opulent Cabernet-based wines with a dominance of fruit flavors then the valley floor estate wineries will suit your fancy. These wines show marvelously in their first decade. They hit another sweet spot at around 15 or so years of age.
The more northerly region of Calistoga produces more mineral styles. As you head south, St. Helena offers a wide diversity of varieties due to a multitude of terrains and soils. Into Rutherford, Oakville, and Yountville, the valley widens and this is where you'll find large winery estates famous for single-varietal Cabernet.
Stunning views at Barnett Vineyards high up in the hills of Spring Mountain District.
Robust-yet-restrained red wines, with high tannins and minerality.
If you’re into bold, smoky, and mineral-driven Cabernet-based wines with tannin then the mountain winery estates are going to make you happy. The higher UV exposure in the hills and sparse water in the vineyards results in more complexity in the wines. These wines take at least 5–10 years to come around, but when they do, they taste lithe and supple.
You'll find these wineries in the mountain appellations of Diamond Mountain District, Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, and Atlas Peak. There's also an unofficial appellation referred to as "Pritchard Hill" which is a keen highlight for wine geeks.
Rolling vineyard estates (like this one at Artesa Winery) offer views of San Francisco in the distance.
San Pablo Bay
Look here for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sparkling wines
If you love bubbles, white wines, and Pinot Noir, the southern part of Napa Valley is your special place. You'll find grassy rolling hills planted with rows upon rows of cooler climate grapes producing elegant red wines and creamy Chardonnay.
Look into wineries in Los Carneros to see many great choices.
Choose a winery by feature
Here are a few themes you might consider to select a winery.
Robert Mondavi hired Cliff May to design the now iconic mission-style Robert Mondavi Winery.
It's hard not to come to the valley and see history everywhere. One person you'll hear a lot about when it comes to the valley is Robert Mondavi. So, if you're looking for stories and historical spots, definitely stop by Robert Mondavi Winery and ask about To Kalon vineyard.
During the pandemic crisis in 2020, the organic producer, Grgich Hills, started offering virtual tasting tours.
If you've been trying to find like-minded individuals who put their energies into land preservation and sustainable farming, then one stop worth considering is Frog's Leap Winery.
Palmaz Vineyard in Coombsville has an elaborate underground cellar.
The most exclusive luxury exists in Napa Valley, and there's actually a growing list of cult destinations complete with Helipads. For starters, check out Opus One Winery with a storied partnership.
Some Napa Wine Tasting Tips
Practice basic tasting etiquette Follow the 4-step tasting method where you look, smell, taste, and take notes. If you plan to go to several wineries while you're there, this becomes invaluable after the fact.
Pack for "wine country upscale" style Napa Valley is one of the few wine regions in the United States that feels like it has a dressed up vibe. It's cultured and classy, but with the reality that you're going to walk into a vineyard (and likely get dirt on your shoes). Keep this in mind when packing.
Hydration is super important It's very easy to not drink enough water when travelling and doubly so when you're wine tasting. Be sure to pack extra water in the car.
Bring some rain money It's very common to tip for everything from your driver to your tasting attendant.