Come for the wine. Stay for the food. Live the wine country life. That's the allure of Napa Valley in a nutshell. No matter what you might think about America's most famous winegrowing region -- critics claim that it's too crowded, too expensive or too ostentatious -- this is still a fantasyland for wine lovers.
While there are many spectacular wine regions to visit, there is no place in the wine world quite like Napa Valley -- you won't find more history, wineries and restaurants wedged into a single 30-mile stretch anywhere else.
Wine, of course, provides the focal point. It's everywhere you turn. And many wineries are willing to teach you everything you want to know about wine through educational tours and extensive tastings that cover everything from collecting to cooking.
Because there are scores of tasting rooms scattered throughout the valley, you can taste dozens of wines in a short visit. Stay longer and you can get a real feel for what makes Napa Cabernet or Syrah or Zinfandel so distinctive.
If you're interested in wine history or terroir, where grapes are grown and how they're made into wine, you can learn firsthand in Napa. You can even sit down with the experts -- the winemakers and viticulturists -- who will explain what they do and why they do it. And you can see how wineries were built more than a century ago, and why many of the historical ones are still in use.
In Napa, it's easy to taste how wine complements cuisine, and vice versa, by visiting any one of the valley's excellent restaurants. Dining options range from elegant settings in old stone buildings to sites with spectacular views of the valley. There are also plenty of lively yet casual bistros where the chefs are known to greet you at your table. The best of all of these, as well as locals' favorite food stands and gourmet shops, are rounded up in the following pages.
Of course, unless you're a day-tripper and zoom in and out of the valley without pause, you'll need a place to sleep and relax. As with dining, there's an abundance of choices. We've concentrated on the ones that best characterize wine country luxury.
No matter what time of year you visit, you can experience the seasonal sights, sounds and smells of wine country. Come in the winter, when the vines are dormant and stripped of their leaves, and you can see the lay of the land, the nooks and crannies, the rocks and the soils. Brilliant yellow mustard plants rise up among rows of grapevines.
In spring, the vines begin to push out new leaves and tiny grape clusters amid a backdrop of blooming trees and flowers. By summer, the vines carpet the valley floor and are weighed down with grapes and covered by thick leaf canopies. Come fall, the grapes are ripe and sweet, ready to be picked and crushed. Harvest can be a whirlwind experience, as grapes are picked around the clock, seven days a week, and the valley air is redolent of newly fermenting wines. As harvest ends, the grape leaves turn brilliant shades of red, brown and yellow.
Napa produces some of the most expensive wines in the world, and those wines typically come from specific vineyard sites. They are the product of soil, climate and the desire to make something great.
Napa's natural beauty and diversity is striking. As you begin to break it down into its elements, it's easy to see the geographic differences between Carneros, which backs into San Pablo Bay at the south end of the valley, and the rugged rock outcropping of Stags Leap. Or you can experience the serenity of the valley floor in Oakville and Rutherford as hot air balloons drift, carried by gentle breezes. You can also see the viticultural challenges presented by growing grapes on rolling hillsides or on steep, rocky mountain terrains.
Napa Valley's four main cities -- Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga -- have retained strong ties to the past even as they've undergone major renovations. A stroll through any of the downtowns provides a pleasant reminder of how things used to be even as it reveals how much they've changed.
The one constant is that Napa Valley is immersed in wine. For wine lovers, a visit to the region remains a compelling, multidimensional experience, which is why they keep coming back for more.