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Nobody likes tourists. Even tourists don’t want to be seen as such, but we blissfully walk around taking photos and exploring new sites, while often faced with a sense of overwhelming decisions and choices. What’s the best restaurant? What’s the best site to see? Which winery is a can’t miss and which one isn’t worth the money? My own wife can attest that for simple dinner plans I have to walk around for blocks to check out menus in window fronts. Only to change my mind a dozen times and then finally pick a place that usually ends up “just okay.”

Websites like Yelp, OpenTable, and TripAdvisor to name a few have tried organizing reviews to help, but what none of them have is the advice of an insider – a professional in the industry. Anyone and everyone can express their opinions and quite literally ruin a business or experience even if they don’t like the service offered in the first place. (One-star for that new Mexican restaurant? “I don’t like spicy food.” Then why are you there in the first place, let alone writing a review for it?) With everyone expressing their personal, and subjective, opinions, it can be difficult to get a real sense of a place.

The same can be said when it comes to wine travel. So, as an industry insider and Winetraveler myself, I want to offer you a few suggestions for truly wonderful experiences in the Napa Valley. I’ve been countless times and experienced everything from the big commercial wineries all the way to the smallest of boutiques, and restaurants from The French Laundry to the In and Out fast food joint. The Napa Valley recommendations to follow come without any ulterior motive, rather just the best of Napa as I’ve experienced.

Wineries To Visit in Napa Valley

Chateau Montelena

You must drive to the most northern part of Napa Valley to hit this spot, but it’s worth the trip. Chateau Montelena is perhaps one of the biggest reasons California wine is as popular as it is today. In the famous Paris Judgment of 1976, their Chardonnay beat the very best producers of France and lit the California wine scene on fire. Just walking around these grounds, a sense of history surrounds you along with some of the best wines in the Valley. Make sure to watch the movie Bottle Shock before heading out there.

Chappellet

Pritchard Hill produces some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon on planet earth and the folks at Chappellet are a big reason why. Hidden up in the hills on the Vaca range nestles one of the most gorgeous wineries you’ve ever seen. Beyond that, this winery is still family-owned and their hospitality upon arrival makes you feel like just that, part of the family. I send practically everyone who asks me here and it’s almost always their favorite.

Continuum

Just down the road, but up the hill from Chappellet, is Continuum. This is hands-down the most gorgeous view I’ve seen of Napa Valley. Tim Mondavi, son of the great Robert Mondavi, owns this estate and is making some of the best Cabernet on Pritchard Hill these days. The wine (and olive oil) is great, but you could be drinking Miller Highlife and fall in love from the view alone. This one is a tough appointment to get, so call your local Somm and hope for the best.

Robert Mondavi

For big commercial wineries it doesn’t get much better than Mondavi. Robert Mondavi is literally the man responsible for bringing tourism to Napa Valley. Walking the halls of this estate you get to enjoy one piece of history after another, and again, if you know a Somm you might even be able to have a private dinner over-looking the famed ToKalon vineyard.

Coppola Winery

Okay I know this is also commercial, but this place is the only winery in Napa Valley that has a full-blown pool with cabanas you can rent! Plus, they serve you Sofia Prosecco all day long! If you are doing the Valley for four days or more this is the perfect place to chill for a day. Just imagine the pics you can get riding an inflatable pink flamingo sipping on prosecco!

Restaurants To Try in Napa Valley

Mustards

This spot is old school and right off Highway 29. It’s also among some of the best vineyards on the Valley floor. For over 30 years Mustard’s has been serving locals everything from sandwiches to steaks and at reasonable prices. This place gets busy, so be prepared.

Gott’s Roadside

Along the same strip of highway is my absolute favorite lunch spot, Gott’s. A throw back to the 70’s era, this place features some of the best burgers in the country, let alone Napa Valley. Everything from a delicious basic burger all the way to a designer one that is worthy of a Michelin Star. This place isn’t to be missed.

Auberge du Soleil

Starting to get fancy now, folks. This hotel property offers the best view of the Valley that I know of. Tucked up into the Vaca range in Rutherford, you won’t want to leave. My favorite spot is the patio bar. It’s first come, first served and less pretentious than the main restaurant. The food is more expensive than the places previously mentioned, but it’s worth the money.

The French Laundry

Formerly written up as the best restaurant in America, Thomas Keller’s place does not disappoint. Yes, you could possibly spend a couple months’ car payments here, but this is by far the single greatest dining experience I’ve ever had. Reservations are tough to obtain, but they can be made by playing the wait and dial game. Or perhaps knowing an insider can get you to the head of the line.

R + D Kitchen

Walking distance from The French Laundry is R+D. There is nothing overly flashy about this spot, but it is perhaps the best place to hit an outside patio complete with firepits and blankets for those chilly Napa nights. It’s also worth mentioning, that the wine is some of the most reasonably priced at restaurants in the area.

Experiences in Napa

Winemaking at Conn Creek

One of the more enjoyable experiences I’ve had is creating my own wine from barrels at Conn Creek Winery. Available to the public, guests get to play around with barrel samples after a wine 101 session, to make their own blend. You’ll get to cork, label, and take the wine home with you. I’m not sure it’s the greatest wine you’ll ever have, but it is a lot of fun.

Mud Baths at Dr. Wilkinson’s

If you like spas as much as I do, you need to head to Calistoga in Napa Valley. This is a spa lover’s dream come true. And if you have never had a mud bath, now’s the time. Dr. Wilkinson’s is probably the go-to in the area with classic small-town Napa charm.

BottleRock

Every May in downtown Napa, this mega concert attracts thousands. Headliners usually include the hottest artists in the world, and this is nothing short of Lalapalooza, Coachella, or any other of your favorite outdoor music festivals. It normally sells out, so grab your tickets early.

Balloon and Helicopter Tours

I personally prefer the helicopter, but there’s something magical about watching, at times, dozens of early morning balloons rise over the Valley. One of the most picturesque opportunities in Napa Valley, this is something you will remember for a lifetime. Just remember to bring a light jacket because it’s cold that early in the Valley.

A Final Note: Someone from Napa please read this part!

My one beef with Napa to the day is the lack of options for families. I’ve yet to come across a hotel/resort that caters specifically to parents who like to wine. I’m not sure of the logistics to make this happen, but some kind of water park, play zone, kid-themed hotel is a much-needed option in the Valley. Until then everyone, you’re going to have to spring for a babysitter or bring the au-pair with you.

More Ways To Explore Napa Valley and Beyond

Wines To Bring To Different Social Events

The Wine-Staycation – How To Enjoy Wine in Your Hometown

5 Up-And-Coming Wine Regions You Should Visit

15 Tips To Plan The Perfect Wine Vacation


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Adam Sweders
Wine Director at DineAmic Group
Adam Sweders is the Wine Director for all of DineAmic Group's restaurants in Chicago including his prized possession, Prime & Provisions. Prime & Provisions is a top Chicago steakhouse offering a wine list of more than 300 wines. Sweders carefully curated the list, which earned the restaurant multiple accolades including Wine Spectator calling Prime & Provisions' one of the '13 restaurants not to miss for wine lovers.' Knowledgeable and passionate about the fermented grape, Sweders knows a thing or two about where to find the best wines, best pairings and not to mention what he feels will be booming regions to come for the curious wine-seeker.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Sweders is the Wine Director for all of DineAmic Group's restaurants in Chicago including his prized possession, Prime & Provisions. Prime & Provisions is a top Chicago steakhouse offering a wine list of more than 300 wines. Sweders carefully curated the list, which earned the restaurant multiple accolades including Wine Spectator calling Prime & Provisions' one of the '13 restaurants not to miss for wine lovers.' Knowledgeable and passionate about the fermented grape, Sweders knows a thing or two about where to find the best wines, best pairings and not to mention what he feels will be booming regions to come for the curious wine-seeker.

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