Napa Valley is the magic kingdom of American wine. It has everything wine lovers prize, from world-class dining to top-flight tasting and touring. Its natural beauty puts it on the scale of a national treasure such as Yosemite, though with verdant vineyards taking the place of booming waterfalls.
Napa is one of the most fertile valleys in the world, hospitable to a variety of grapes. Its bounty of great wines, led by Cabernet Sauvignon–based reds, is breathtaking.
The valley is a mere 90-minute drive from San Francisco, with a generally agreeable climate that makes the area accessible most of the year.
There is also this: Napa is simple to navigate. The valley proper is roughly 30 miles in length, from the city of Napa in the south to its northwestern reaches near the small town of Calistoga, and only a few miles wide.
A good overview of the lay of the land is possible in a half-day or so. But most explorers stay longer, to more fully savor the region's many attractions. In any case, you'll need to familiarize yourself with the valley's two main roads, California Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, both of which run the length of the valley floor. Highway 29 is the main thoroughfare and hews to the mid-valley and west side; the Silverado Trail lies to the east.
Throughout the valley, you'll discover you're never far from its main watercourse, the Napa River. The river flows some 55 miles through a carpet of vineyards and pastoral landscape, from its headwaters on the slopes of the 4,341-foot-high Mount St. Helena. You may find it a raging torrent in rainy winter months or a trickle come summertime. For this adventure, I begin where the river empties into the cool waters of San Pablo Bay in the region known as Carneros, which is south and west of the city of Napa.
You won't need a compass for this journey, although your favorite navigational app or a good map may be helpful. Simply use the valley's compact size and basic north-south orientation to your advantage. General landmarks are given, but the exact route is up to you.
To start the tour, you'll need to get to Cuttings Wharf Road, a country lane that extends south of California Highway 121 (which connects Napa and Sonoma counties). Cuttings Wharf Road traverses a patchwork of rustic farms and vineyards and ends where a modest boat launch slides into the Napa River estuary. It's an unprepossessing location but critical to understanding what makes Napa tick, climatically speaking.
Carneros connects Napa County with the greater San Francisco Bay Area and forms a key part of the valley's natural air-conditioning system, which is powered by coastal breezes that arise from cold Pacific waters. As the land warms, it usually pulls cooler air into the valley—part of the ebb and flow of marine and continental influences that result in the myriad microclimates that are so important to the region's terroir.
On the hottest days, by early afternoon the breezes off the bay and surrounding lowlands turn flags northward. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrive here in the cooler climate.
Carneros vineyards border a vast marshland known for its wildlife. The soils are compact remnants of the bay's retreat. They can be dense, making them difficult to farm. Growers describe these sites as having "wet feet," with soils at the southern edges marked by saltwater intrusions.
Carneros (Spanish for "sheep" or "rams") has a rich history. Louis M. Martini planted La Loma Vineyard here in 1942, followed in 1961 by Beaulieu Vineyard planting its BV-5.
Bouchaine and Saintsbury wineries were pioneers in the production of California Pinot Noir here beginning in 1981. That was about the time that the region, once known more for dairies than for grapes, really took off, as vineyards marched across the landscape. Vintners were attracted by the relatively inexpensive land prices as well as the cooler climate. Carneros is also the home of Hyde and Hudson Vineyards, two diverse sites that grow a variety of grapes; their names are on many of California's best-known labels, including Kistler and Paul Hobbs.
From Cuttings Wharf it's a bucolic ride via Las Amigas and Duhig roads back to Highway 121. It's easy to think you've stepped back in time as you pass by acres of rolling vineyards interspersed with quiet ranch buildings and homesteads. But you'll soon be in the thick of things as you end up at Domaine Carneros, with its grand staircase and elegant decor. This is a reproduction of the château of France's Champagne Taittinger, right down to the mansard roof.
Across the highway is another Carneros landmark. In 1962, art collector Rene di Rosa bought a large tract of land he named Winery Lake; his property was an old winery, and he had an irrigation pond he fancied as a "lake." It's a quirky name from a flamboyant character. Today, Winery Lake is the site of the di Rosa Preserve as well as a prime vineyard owned by Acacia; it's well worth a visit to see Rene's collection of art and tour his old home.
Before reaching the next stop, the Stags Leap District, you will need to traverse the city of Napa. In contrast to the rugged terrain that surrounds it, most of the city of Napa is quite flat. Highway 29 cuts along its west side as a freeway. Housing tracts soon give way to vineyards as you head north, or "up valley" as the locals call it.
About a mile past the city limits, take a right on Oak Knoll Avenue. Oak Knoll crosses the valley and ends at Silverado Trail, which is usually less trafficked than Highway 29. Taking a left and heading north on the Trail, you will soon see the rugged outcroppings that give Stags Leap its name. It's a small area and unique in that it is one of the southernmost districts warm enough to easily ripen Cabernet.
The region functions as a funnel, with cooler air flowing over the slightly elevated bench at the base of the Vaca Range looming to the east. For a prime view of Stags Leap, go to the terrace of the tasting room of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. A vineyard spreads across a small vale before the slopes take over, and the palisades glowing in the late afternoon sun is a sublime sight.
There are many notable vineyards and wineries nearby, including Shafer, which makes its famed Hillside Select Cabernet from vineyards in the district. Another is Fay Vineyard. Nathan Fay planted the first Cabernet in the area in the 1960s, at a time when Cabernet was rare in the valley.
North of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, the Silverado Trail ascends a grade and enters the heart of the district. Stags Leap is roughly aligned north-south and has deep alluvial soils built by the decomposing palisades; as the rocks crumble, they disintegrate into fertile, well-drained soils.
You will zigzag across the valley at this stage to more fully appreciate the Oakville and Rutherford area, which is the mother lode of Cabernet and home to dozens of important wineries.
Proceed north on Silverado Trail to Oakville Crossroad; turn left and head west to rejoin Highway 29. This takes you across the valley floor and the deep soils that form its eastern perimeter.
You'll cross the Napa River again, and if it's not filled with water, examine the cross section of gravelly soils in its banks. These soils provide the drainage that is critical to growing high-quality grapes. Oakville Crossroad is home to several wineries of note, including Rudd, PlumpJack, Groth, Silver Oak and Opus One.
When you reach the intersection at Highway 29, make a stop at the historic Oakville Grocery for picnic provisions featuring local flavors. Back on the road, turn right; you'll soon pass Mondavi Winery, Far Niente, Nickel & Nickel and Cakebread. Shortly you'll be in Rutherford, home to Inglenook, one of California's most famous estates, nestled against the base of the Mayacamas. Beaulieu, another of the early giants of local wine culture, dominates the hamlet. This is truly hallowed ground for Napa Valley wine lovers.
You could head straight north to the bustling town of St. Helena, but instead I recommend one more traverse of the valley floor. Follow Highway 29 north and take a right on Rutherford Crossroad. Rutherford Crossroad takes you past Round Pond, a large mid-valley vineyard and winery, and then on to Caymus, one of the valley's major temples of Cabernet. As you rejoin the Silverado Trail, the differences between the two sides of the valley provide a contrast: the thickly forested west side of the Mayacamas and the more barren east side of the Vaca Mountains. The Rutherford and Oakville appellations both rise to 400 feet in elevation.
North of Rutherford, the valley narrows to an hourglass shape, with St. Helena in the middle. The town has long been the center of Napa Valley and is home to many historic wineries, including Beringer, Charles Krug and Louis M. Martini.
St. Helena has an irresistible charm, but can be quite congested. If you want to see its sights, follow the Access St. Helena signs and cross the historic Pope Street Bridge over the Napa River to get to the heart of town.
Heading toward Calistoga along the Silverado Trail, you enter one of the most beautiful parts of the valley. The absence of settlements, the craggy rock outcropping of the palisades to the east and the thickly forested hillsides of Diamond Mountain to the west are visually stunning. Although Cabernet is the most popular variety planted, this is an excellent area for Petite Sirah and Zinfandel.
As you drive along the Trail, it's easy to appreciate the area's geology, which can be seen in the road cuts. Layers of dun-colored volcanic tuff, ochre cinder deposits and even the black of glassy obsidian flakes are clearly visible. Despite their dramatic profile, these soils are challenging for grapegrowers; vineyards are spread out, with harder-to-cultivate terrain left vacant.
Calistoga is the hottest part of the valley in summer. Come afternoon, sea breezes work their way over the hillsides from Sonoma County, where they eventually converge with the breezes of Carneros.
The valley soon narrows. Just south of the town of Calistoga, Dunaweal Lane is home to Sterling—take the tram ride to the top for the panoramic view.
The conclusion of our journey is signaled by the looming presence of Mount St. Helena. There are many small wineries in the Calistoga appellation, the most famous being Chateau Montelena, a century-old stone edifice on Tubbs Lane. It's another good spot to stop and soak in a dramatic panorama softened by vineyards.
If you stay on Highway 29, you're headed toward Lake County. It's a steep climb, leading to a region that is on the verge of making a bigger name for its wines.
To return to our starting point, head straight back down Highway 29. If there's time, you can still visit what St. Helena has to offer, because you will take its Main Street on your way. St. Helena's wineries each tell their own story; you'll get an education about how the wines are made, the people behind them and what they taste like.
Having completed this tour, you'll have a richer appreciation for the lay of the land and a deeper understanding of what makes Napa Valley so special.