Thinking about a new wine destination for your next ladies’ trip when everyone can get back on the roads and things are open again?
Organizing a wine tasting trip to the Napa Valley for your girlfriends can be a daunting task. Although it stretches for only about 35 miles from north to south (and 5 miles across), Napa Valley has more than 400 wineries and sixteen different AVAs (appellations or sub-regions), each with their own stories, style, and terroir.
So the list of “must-see” wineries when planning a visit can feel very long, and each time one goes to Napa there’s a raft of cool eateries to check out. Where to start? This is supposed to be fun to plan, not stressful!
So here’s a sample itinerary for a 3-4 day long weekend of luxury wining and dining using St. Helena as your base (and including a few pit stops in neighboring Calistoga). The guide below has a mix of a few different winery styles and takes you off the beaten track a bit. There’s something about this beautiful part of northern Napa Valley which keeps drawing wine explorers back to taste and learn more. Each visit to this region presents yet another layer to peel back and experience. Here’s just one of those layers.
Getting To Napa Valley
St. Helena is both a Napa Valley AVA and the name of the town. Downtown St. Helena is about a 66-mile drive north from downtown San Francisco, 77 miles from the San Francisco International Airport (SFO), and 83 miles west from the Sacramento airport. Your most efficient options of getting there from these points are jumping into a rental car or hiring a private car transfer service. Click here to track flight deals as they arise.
Things to Know Before You Go
It’s best to make reservations with all wineries and restaurants well ahead of time. Many wineries require you to book a tasting appointment to visit them and it can be very difficult to get a table for dinner on the day (let alone weeks before your trip), especially during peak seasons.
Winery tasting and tour fees will vary from place to place (and can start adding up) so check the costs with relevant wineries when you’re planning tasting appointments. (Many wineries will waive all or a portion of their tasting fees if you purchase wine during your visit, but this is not across the board).
Day 1 – Getting There and First Night
If your group is meeting in San Francisco (or at SFO) and heading up to St. Helena together, there’s no shortage of stops along the way if there’s time to taste before checking into your local hotel.
A great way to kick off a ladies’ weekend is to visit Domaine Carneros located about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. Located in the relatively cool-climate Los Carneros AVA region, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir does well here, especially for sparkling wine production. Built in 1988, the Domaine’s château was inspired by the country estate of Champagne’s Taittinger family (who established Domaine Carneros) and offers lovely, informative sit-down tastings of their elegant sparkling wines which can be paired with local cheese plates (dairy and vegan options). This gateway to exploring the Napa Valley feels special.
From there, get to Highway 29 or the less busy and scenic Silverado Trail (which runs parallel to Highway 29) to take you up to St. Helena. First settled in the 1850s, this little pioneering wine town has a feel of new and old. Get out and wander through the heart of Main Street before driving a bit north of town to check into the Wine Country Inn. With its tranquil location tucked away amongst the vines, an outdoor pool surrounded by gardens, and hearty homemade country breakfasts, this relaxing hideaway offers serious sustenance before a day of wine exploring and rejuvenating downtime. (In-room massages are also available. Just saying).
That evening it’s a short hop back to downtown St. Helena to settle in at the cozy, convivial, and inviting Cook St. Helena for top-notch Northern Italian-inspired fare and groovy wine list. It’s an institution for visitors and local industry types alike.
If you’ve still got it in you after dinner, hit up Ana’s Cantina on Main Street. The closest thing to a “dive bar” in town, this local place is known to go off in the later hours. Note: there’s no food at the Cantina, just drinks and cash bills hanging from the ceiling.
Winetraveler Tip: Keep your eyes peeled for the CIA Greystone campus (the culinary one that is) as you zoom between St. Helena and your inn.
Other Places to Stay in St. Helena
There are various hotels, inns and AirBnB options at different price points, but a few other ideas for places to stay are:
Just south of St. Helena: The Harvest Inn
Just north, in nearby Calistoga: Solage
Winetraveler Tip: Unless there is a designated driver (or a wine pro onboard who’ll be swirling and spitting for the entire day), your transport options are essential: using UBER between points, hiring a car and driver for the day or arranging a private tour with a local wine tour operator who can make all of your tasting appointments and help you modify your travel itinerary in need. Check-in with the other ladies in your group to see which model will suit their preferences and budgets.
Itineraries for Day 2 and Day 3 below assume that you will be getting to your first tasting stop by about 10:30 am.
Day 2 – Calistoga Dreaming
After a big Wine Country Inn brekkie, take the short drive north into the Calistoga region to spend the day exploring there. Calistoga is the most northern AVA in Napa Valley and its northernmost town. In addition to wine, Calistoga is also famous for its hot springs and mud baths, so spa-exploring is another great ladies’ trip activity in these parts.
But sticking with the grapes, your first stop is Schramsberg Vineyards one of the most famous sparkling wine houses in America. Schramsberg has been poured at official State functions during each US Presidential administration since President Nixon made his “Toast to Peace” with the Premier of China in 1972, Blanc de Blancs in hand. Founded in 1862, Schramsberg is in the Diamond Mountain AVA (an extension of the Mayacamas range) and has a range of different tasting experiences, including a tour of their 125-year-old caves. (Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon in still form from sister winery Davies Vineyards are also available for tasting). You really can’t have too many bubbles and it’s a perfect way to start the day and limber up the palate.
From Schramsberg it’s over to another icon of California winemaking history: Chateau Montelena Winery. Built in 1888 and reminiscent of an English stone castle, Chateau Montelena helped put California on the global wine map in 1973 at the “Judgment of Paris” tasting organized by Steven Spurrier (which some have dubbed the ‘shot heard around the world’). Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay beat out four French Chardonnays and 5 other Californian Chardonnays to take top marks in a blind tasting by wine judges. This winery also makes excellent reds including what many consider to be California “First Growth” Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as round and delicious Calistoga Zinfandel.
After reds like that, southern BBQ feels right. So if that’s how your group rolls, head to the roadside Busters in Calistoga for a casual and substantial lunch, which it’s been dishing out since 1965.
Tri-tip, ribs, ‘slaw, and cornbread. Enough said.
From there, head to Vincent Arroyo Family Winery. One of the hidden gems of the Napa Valley. This small family-owned and operated winery was established in 1984 and produces hand-crafted wines from ranch and estate land which the Arroyos tend. The relaxed and intimate tasting experience near their barrels and crush pad will want to take you back each time (along with their Petit Sirah and other reds). This is indeed an example of “less is more”.
During the course of a touring day, in-depth visits at three wineries is typically enough for your palate. But if your group is game for an afternoon closer, check out Tank Garage Winery on the way back to the inn. Started in 2014, the “rock and roll” mission of Tank’s founders is to serve “Legit Wine” in their 1930’s era garage. (Full disclosure: At the time of writing, and despite her best intentions to get there each visit, the author still hasn’t made it to Tank Garage. So please let her know what you think if you get there before she does!).
After some time at your inn to drop wine purchases and regroup, think about heading to Farmstead at Longmeadow Ranch just south of downtown St. Helena. If it’s nice weather, start with drinks in their outdoor patio area and then move inside for dinner – otherwise the inside bar is also cool for aperitifs. This place has a great vibe and brings to your table ingredients from the farm, ranch, and vineyards of proprietor Hall family.
Day 3 – Hitting the Hills Around St. Helena
The St. Helena Highway and Silverado Trail are the main wine routes in the area and host a long line of Napa Valley stars. But it’s also great to get up into the hills framing this part of the world to experience the elevation, differing aspects and diverse pockets of terroir. The sample day excursion below has you zigzagging around to Howell Mountain, crossing the Valley floor, climbing up into Spring Mountain, and then circling back to downtown St. Helena to wrap up your tour with a refreshing post-tasting cleanser.
First stop: Reverie II has a lovely “tasting cottage” at the base of Howell Mountain. There’s more to explore in Napa Valley than Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Roussanne-Marsanne, Barbera, Tempranillo, or Cabernet Franc anyone? Reverie II is a place where you can off-road (literally) to experience these kinds of drops and have a blast doing it. Sip white on the front deck, explore reds seated around an outdoor fire pit out back, and then jump into an ATV with your Reverie host to drive up their ridge for fantastic valley views. Many of Reverie’s wines are made with grapes sourced from the Sierra foothills, so there’s the bonus of experiencing that region. Wine here is made in limited quantities and is meant to be enjoyed now, not hidden away in your cellar or closet.
Your next stop, Viader is only about a ten-minute drive from Reverie but feels a world away. Perched high atop steep Howell Mountain slopes, it has magnificent views across to the Mayacamas Mountains and a wine cave built into the side of its mountain. Floor to ceiling windows in their peaceful tasting room await, together with a private, detailed tasting journey through Viader’s very small lot, age-worthy, and award-winning premium red blends such as their Black Label and Viader Proprietor blend (referred to as “Liquid Cashmere”). The passion and pursuit of trailblazing founder Delia Viader, her fellow winemaker son Alan and the Viader family which stands behind their finely crafted wines is clear. You’ll learn the story of how they’ve built their mission over the course of two generations. It’s inspiring, especially during these challenging COVID-19 times.
Lunchtime. Head back to St. Helena Highway and have a break by the Clif Family Bruschetteria Food Truck. Place your order at the truck (the Firecracker Kale Salad and Funghi Bruschetta are stand-outs), grab a bottle of Clif Family Rosé in their tasting room, and settle out back in their sunny courtyard for a casual bite. (If salad isn’t going to cut it, head down the road to Gott’s Roadside for burgers.
Moving from there, it’s a twenty-minute climbing drive up Spring Mountain to Pride Mountain Vineyards. Sitting at about 2000 feet above the Napa Valley floor and on the border with Sonoma Valley, vines were first planted in the area in the 1890s and almost one hundred years later the inaugural Pride vintage was released. There’s magical seclusion here and a beautiful cave to explore as you taste along the way. Warning: you might not want to leave. Their portfolio includes Viognier, Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon (but Pride specializes in the last two grapes). The trek’s worth it.
Winetraveler Tip: The road up to Pride is pretty winding, so if anyone in your group is prone to motion sickness think about reversing the order of the winery visits for this day and start with Pride.
So that’s a lot of story and wine to experience over the course of a day. A debrief refreshment at the Goose & Gander back in St. Helena (be it a soda, cleansing ale, or one of their famous cocktails) could be in order. Or head back to the inn first for some R & R before dinner, and then check out the downstairs bar in the Goose & Gander before heading over to The Charter Oak for dinner. The Charter Oak’s buzzy space gets the right balance of being a large space busy with people but remaining warm, welcoming, and personal. The family-style shared plates of locally sourced food is paired with an energetic wine list and fantastic service.
Day 4 – Walk, Shop and Head Home
It’s the last day and everyone might be feeling a bit sluggish after all that gourmandizing. The beauty of being in a wine region is, well the beauty of being outdoors. There are several state parks and walks in the area, but if you’re short on time before you need to jump into the car to head home, take a stroll around the old Bale Grist Mill.
Of course, no trip to Napa is complete without a stop at the Oakville Grocery on your way out. Coffee, cheeses, deli treats, wine (in case you need more), and presents for people at home.
One Last Point
If you’ve got some early risers in your group, a sunrise hot air ballooning adventure can be thrown into the mix. Talk about getting altitude. Note however that wind, fog, and changing weather patterns can throw a wrench into the best-laid plans, and balloon flights can be canceled on the day.