Visit the Wineries of Napa Valley

Only thirty miles long and five miles at the widest point, Napa Valley is home to roughly 400 wineries and 45,000 acres of vineyard land.

Some of the most highly acclaimed wines in the world are made here, but this fabled valley only produces about 5% of all the wine made in California. What is it about Napa Valley that makes it both a wine superstar and a major tourist draw?

Within the Napa Valley there are 14 AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas), reflecting the diverse micro-climates, soil types and varying terrain of the region. From the flat valley floor to steep mountain slopes, wine grapes thrive and although Cabernet Sauvignon is the leader here, other highly successful varietals include Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and a number of Rhone and Italian grapes as well.

Napa Valley’s first winery was Charles Krug, established in 1861. By the 1880’s the wine business was a prosperous industry with 140 wineries in the valley. Setbacks that included the vine disease phylloxera and U.S. Prohibition nearly destroyed Napa’s wine trade, but recovery and eventual success grew over time. In the 1970’s the wines of the region came to prominence with international critical accolades and a growing consumer interest in higher-quality wine.

In the last fourty years Napa Valley has undergone a transformation from a quiet agricultural district with a few stately wineries to a veritable wonderland of spectacular facilities that boggle the imagination. From castles in the sky to secret underground chambers, the depth and breadth of wineries to be seen in Napa Valley is unlike anywhere else in the U.S. But in spite of the massive levels of new investment, you can still find charming old estate wineries and tiny garage startups right next door to wine cathedrals that house art collections worthy of major museums.

Wherever there is good wine, there is good food. Nowhere is this truer than Napa Valley. Some of the very finest restaurants in the U.S. make this area their home. For visitors seeking the opportunity to enjoy a truly gourmet food and wine experience, this region is jam-packed with world-class dining. Of course, great weather most of the year and scenic vineyard vistas in a green valley surrounded by hillsides just add icing to the cake.

Visitors to Napa Valley typically arrive via car at the wide southern end of the valley. Driving northward, the valley becomes narrower and the hillsides steeper. At the southern end of the valley where the Napa and Sonoma valleys meet is the Carneros region, noted primarily for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Excellent sparkling wines are made here as well.

Traveling north above the city of Napa, Highway 29 becomes a two-lane road that follows the valley floor through the small towns of Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga. Running parallel to Highway 29 along the eastern side of the valley is the Silverado Trail. There are several east-west connecting roads called “crossings” that link the two. This is the heart of Napa Valley and literally hundreds of wineries are within a few miles of each other.

Many wineries in Napa Valley have regular tours, tasting and visitor facilities to enjoy all year round. Some wineries require visitors make appointments in advance. If your heart is set on tasting the latest darling of the critics and collectors, don’t expect to find these vintners waiting for you to arrive. These so-called cult wines have very limited availability, high prices and are produced in facilities never open to the public. Having a combination of arranged visits and spontaneous stops is a good way to ensure you see the full spectrum of all that Napa Valley offers.

Among the many unique wineries to visit are several spectacular facilities noted for their unusual design. These would include Clos Pegase, Sterling and Jarvis. For wineries with historical significance and beautiful grounds visit Chateau Montelena, Niebaum-Coppolla and Beringer. Interested in how sparkling wines are made? Enjoy a tour, tasting and lunch at Domaine Chandon or visit Mumm Napa. Modern art fans will enjoy The Hess Collection Winery, Artesa, and St. Supery.

When you’re tired of cruising the valley, head for the hills. The twisting mountain roads on both sides of the valley lead to growing areas with distinctly different climates. Sample a Zinfandel from Howell Mountain or learn why a Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is so different from one grown on the valley floor.

If you think the wineries in Napa Valley are not OK for families or even your dog, think again. Although tasting wine is only for those over 21, many wineries have excellent picnic facilities, gardens and play areas that are OK for Fido and the kids. Expect to pay for wine tasting most of the time. Many wineries will offer special tasting of their reserve wines for an extra fee.

Whether you’re a collector on the hunt for a 100-point trophy wine, a wine fan who just wants to learn more or you don’t know the difference between wine and a wine cooler, there is something enjoyable for everyone in the Napa Valley.