Spring in Napa Valley: Start Planning Your Visit

spring in napa

Ok, so March got past you, but it’s still spring and that means the mustard is blooming in Napa Valley. Many of you tell me how excited you are to finally plan a visit to the jaw-dropping gorgeous wine region in Northern Cal, but feel overwhelmed by the planning process. Let me help you figure it out. I will be posting a series of posts on places to stay, eat, wineries to visit and the best walks, workouts and wandering to do over the this season, culminating in the September harvest. I’ll put up loads of photos and even some videos I’ve shot over the last several years. Please follow along and enjoy the ride. I’m fortunate to have many opportunities to visit and visit again.

This summer, I have the great pleasure and honor of being included in the Napa Valley Wine Educators Academy, hosted by the Napa Valley Vintner’s Association along with the Culinary Institute of America- Greystone. This adventure will take place in later July and I’ll be sure to report on it while it happens.

As for your introduction to the Napa Valley: Napa proper, the actual city of Napa, while lovely and full of great restaurants, does not give you the full wine country immersion effect. In other words, you are hard-pressed to find any hotel that allows you to walk out the door and into a vineyard stroll. If you glance at the map above, you’ll see that Napa sits at the furthest southern point of the Valley and there are not more than a dozen or so wineries actually at that latitude or south of it. You can see as you climb north on the iconic Highway 29, you’ll go through the most spectacular town of Yountville, regions of Oakville and Rutherford, through my favorite gem of a Main Street, St. Helena, then head to the furthest northern town of Calistoga. If you’re looking for mud baths, they still exist in Calistoga and the addition of Solage brought an upscale property to the area (and one of the nicest outdoor pools in the Valley!)

If you’re looking for lap-of-luxury accomodations but instead some affordable options, consider Yountville, Rutherford, (Auberge du Soleil), or St. Helena, which only has a few places, most notably Meadowood. While staying in Napa or directly on Highway 29 is considerably more cost-effective, you will end up driving quite a bit to reach the rest of the Valley. Having Yountville as your base, or even St. Helena, where the CIA is located (and you won’t want to miss it), is a sure bet.

Driving around and tasting wine can be a dangerous affair and the cops don’t take it lightly. You either need a designated driver or to hire a driver. You’ll be glad you did.

Before you decide which of the idillic towns you’d like to call base camp, let me tell you how easy it is to get to Napa from Chicago, or any major city for that matter. Flights into San Francisco (SFO) or Oakland (OAK) are abundant and frequently non-stop. I suggest this since you will add a ninety minute drive onto the flight so why waste time with a lay-over. If you choose to rent a car, the drive from Oakland is approximately 25-40 minutes quicker, depending on traffic. You can get caught in a snarl from SFO quite easily, excpt at times like 11am – 2pm, so plan your flight time wisely. Because SFO is so enormous, the time it takes to get from your flight to the rental area can be an extra 20 minutes, too. And, if you want the scenic route and have even more time to kill, add about 45 minutes onto the drive to Napa if you go over the Golden Gate bridge on the 101. It’s gorgeous and worth seeing, but this makes the drive up to Napa more in the 130 – 145 minute range, rather than 90-105 taking the Bay Bridge from either SFO or OAK.

A few great sites to help you plan your trip: GoVine, which blends in a social componenet; Wine Country’s Napa Valley, for planning transportation it’s California Wine Tours and the best maps here.

Stay tuned for more and please enjoy some shots of the lovely Napa Valley. Please post any questions so I can help you get out there–soon.

Please also start contributing your favorite places to go, see, eat at, stay at or sip at in Napa. I’d love to get lots of input.


About Laura Levy Shatkin

Laura Levy Shatkin served for 10 years as food and wine critic for the Chicago Reader. Later, she became an Emmy-nominated executive producer for Taste, a 30-minute food and wine show on NBC-5 Chicago, which later merged into www.WineTasteTV.com, where Ms. Levy is a partner/owner. Today, she teaches private wine classes and hosts wine parties for consumers and firms, and continues to tell the video stories of wine, girlfriends and wine travel on her TCW blog, Wine…ing Women.