Napa Valley is the ultimate playground for wine lovers. There are hundreds of wineries and dozens of world-class restaurants, not to mention terrific weather and picture-perfect views around every corner. With so many options, a trip to Napa can be easily tailored to your tastes, whether they lean toward the intimate, romantic, relaxing or adventurous.
"There's something for everyone in Napa," says vintner Suzanne Phifer Pavitt. "There's a Persian castle. There's an Italian castle. I just had to be genuine to who I am," she adds, describing her eco-chic tasting room made from reclaimed materials. Many flock to the Italian castle-inspired Castello di Amorosa or marvel at Darioush, the winery modeled after a Persian palace. Phifer Pavitt's tasting room reflects her rural roots in the state of Georgia and is evocative in its own way, complete with hay bales and a vintage tractor.
As its tourism industry evolves, Napa is moving toward more fine-tuned experiences. This is most evident in tasting rooms, which have been completely transformed. Gone are free, generic, belly-up-to-the-bar tastings. Instead, in the spaces themselves, distinctive architecture and art reflect the style of the owners. Tastings are typically longer, more relaxed, and seated. There can be tableside service, off-road vehicle tours, tastings narrated by wine educators, outdoor settings and food-and-wine pairings. Most wineries require appointments, and some have a concierge.
"When we first opened, in 1974, the entire visitor center was essentially a closet. We would only get two or three visitors on a busy day," says Bill Phelps, of Joseph Phelps Winery, as he gives a hard-hat tour of the renovations to the visitor center. When complete, the new setup will include private areas for tasting and a full commercial kitchen. "We want to take better care of [our visitors]," he explains. "We want to enhance what is here."
Napa Valley is also enhancing its dining options. There are more choices than ever, both in fine and casual dining. The classics remain, but many are getting makeovers. The French Laundry was closed for part of 2015 while it underwent renovations; a temporary sister restaurant, Ad Lib, at Silverado's Royal Oak restaurant, will remain open until mid-October. Meanwhile, landmarks such as Mustards Grill, Tra Vigne and Bistro Jeanty still impress, while relative newcomers Atlas Social, Torc and Ciccio are getting plenty of buzz. Opened in 2007, the Oxbow Market in downtown Napa is bustling, with an array of venues dishing up everything from sweet potato fries to oysters to spicy ground buffalo tacos.
For outdoor and fresh-air enthusiasts, Napa has plenty of activities to educate and delight, including hiking, golfing, bicycle routes and even yoga classes at wineries. There are also spa treatments, shopping and diverse hands-on experiences to add variety in between tasting and dining.
For this story, we've identified three strong themes running through Napa Valley's offerings: the new and exciting, the adventurous and rugged, and the luxurious and pampering. Many wine lovers will mix and match from these categories to come up with their own unforgettable trip. You might want to start your day with a massage, a hike or a cooking class. Lunch could be fried chicken, inventive tacos or fine dining. Winery visits can be educational, fun, relaxing or all three. Your custom-made Napa adventure awaits.
If You Go: Beautiful scenery and moderate weather add allure to Napa wine country, and there's never a bad time of year to visit, but rooms can book up quickly from April to October. Likewise, traffic gets congested along the main corridors on weekends; weekdays afford easier driving. Reservations are recommended at most restaurants. The hours of operation at wineries and tasting rooms typically change with the seasons, and many require appointments; always call ahead.