Visiting on a Budget

From the best motel and tastiest burger to affordable wine tours
Tim Fish
Posted: June 15, 2009

Napa" and "budget" are words that do not often appear in the same sentence. Napa, after all, is a playground for the rich, where dinner can easily run $100 per person before wine and tip, a tiny room in a bed and breakfast costs at least $200, and a few sips in a winery tasting room can carry a $25 price tag.

Yet a Napa vacation doesn't have to break the bank. All it takes is a slight change of mind-set: Think like a native. "All of us who live here don't want to spend a bundle," says chef Cindy Pawlcyn, who owns three restaurants in the valley, including the perenially popular Mustards Grill.

For dinner, follow the locals to Taylor's Automatic Refresher, Pizzeria Tra Vigne, Jolē¯ or Boon Fly Café, where entrées cost $20 or less. Even at culinary institution Mustards there remains plenty of value on the menu, and the generous portions encourage sharing. Many customers these days, Pawlcyn says, are putting together a table-sized meal from a handful of appetizers.

Drinking wine economically is also possible. Restaurants are adding more bargains by the bottle and glass, and some are giving deals on corkage fees. There are also wineries, such as Heitz and Cade, that give free tastings or charge only $5 to $10.

The biggest challenge for budget travelers in Napa is finding a place to sleep. Rates at the most basic motels are typically upwards of $100 a night, but if you reserve early, bargains can be had at places like the retro-classic El Bonita Motel or the newly opened River Terrace Inn.

In the following pages, we offer some ideas for restaurants, hotels, wineries to visit and other activities that will make your trip a memorable one without costing a small fortune. And whether you're a valley regular or a Napa novice, we have you covered, recommending classic destinations as well as the new places worth checking out.

WHERE TO STAY

EL BONITA MOTEL
195 Main St., St. Helena
Telephone (800) 541-3284; (707) 963-3216
Web site www.elbonita.com
Rooms 37
Suites 5
Rates $99-$289
This pastel-hued motel is right out of the 1950s. It may not be the fanciest lodging around, but El Bonita provides casual comfort at good value and enjoys a location in the heart of the valley. The original motel rooms are small but tastefully appointed, while a new wing offers more space and some suites with efficiency kitchens. The garden and lawn span more than 2 acres, and the motel has a pool and whirlpool out front that are shaded by tall trees. Continental breakfast is included and can be enjoyed on the patio when weather permits.

RIVER TERRACE INN
1600 Soscol Ave., Napa
Telephone (866) 626-2386; (707) 320-9000
Web site www.riverterraceinn.com
Rooms 78
Suites 28
Rates $149-$359
Located within walking distance of the Oxbow Public Market and the downtown Napa restaurants, tasting rooms and nightlife, River Terrace Inn offers value in a convenient location. The main lobby opens onto a lounge with a wine bar that features local wines, and guests can enjoy a glass on the hotel's large outdoor patio overlooking the Napa River. The high-ceilinged guestrooms are done in a handsome, contemporary style, and many of the standard rooms and suites have balconies. The sizable bathrooms have tubs and granite-topped counters; suite upgrades include a jumbo Jacuzzi tub. There is also a pool and gym. Restaurant Cuvée, a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner, is located in the same complex as the hotel.

WHERE TO EAT

BOON FLY CAFÉ
Carneros Inn, 4048 Sonoma Highway, Napa
Telephone (707) 299-4870
Web site www.thecarnerosinn.com/thecarnerosinn/restaurant_boonfly.aspx
Open Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $14-$28
Corkage $15
Credit cards All major
Boon Fly Café is a cozy spot for casual dining in the PlumpJack-owned Carneros Inn. This airy venue's lunch and dinner menus are similar—a comforting selection of tasty soups, salads and flatbreads, and mains such as Kobe burgers, stuffed trout, braised ribs and pastas, all but one (a steak) less than $20. The wine list holds 200 bottles and is almost exclusively Californian, with an emphasis on Carneros. Pricing is modest, with options ranging from Acacia Pinot Noir Carneros 2006 ($39) to Viader Napa Valley 2004 ($150). A good selection of wines by the glass rounds things out. All of this comes in a country setting steps from the vineyards.

BOUNTY HUNTER WINE BAR
975 First St., Napa
Telephone (707) 226-3976
Web site www.bountyhunterwinebar.com
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $12-$35
Credit cards All major
Housed in a late-1880s storefront on the river in downtown Napa, Bounty Hunter does double duty as a wine bar and a bistro. The list is international, with a lean toward Napa. There are 40 wines available by the glass and 400 selections in bottle, ranging from bargains to large investments. The decor features exposed brick walls, a high, tin-covered ceiling and various game trophy heads adorning the walls. The menu focuses on full-flavored fare, mostly crowd-pleasers such as small plates of cheeses or cured olives, Caesar salad, pulled pork sandwiches, rib eye steaks and barbecued ribs.

JOLĒ
1457 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga
Telephone (707) 942-5938
Web site www.jolerestaurant.com
Open Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $12-$18
Corkage $15
Credit cards All major
Inside the Mount View Hotel in downtown Calistoga, Jolē focuses on organic ingredients featured in contemporary American small plates that strike a balance between comfort food and refinement. On one visit, french fries got a Parmesan and truffle treatment, sweetbreads were chicken-fried, and filet mignon was trimmed in ground veal. There are about 40 selections on the wine list—a balance of New World, Old World and California—all of them offered in three sizes; glass, "pichet," or bottle, and reasonably priced from $7 to $85. The modern interior doesn't do much for noise control, and it can get quite loud when an enthusiastic crowd is enjoying the food.

MUSTARDS GRILL
7399 St. Helena Highway, Yountville
Telephone (707) 944-2424
Web site www.mustardsgrill.com
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $17-$25
Corkage $12
Credit cards MasterCard, Visa
When it comes to restaurant classics in Napa, there's no topping Mustards. After 26 years in business, it still delivers one of the most consistently satisfying food and wine experiences. Chef-owner Cindy Pawlcyn has a winning formula: comforting American food prepared with flair, sold at a moderate price and set in a lively atmosphere. House specialties include a mammoth pork chop, pan-roasted liver, and thinly sliced onion rings in a heaping pile. The dining room is intimate and energetic, done in dark wood and black-and-white tile. There's a notable wine list with 550 labels, almost all from California, as well as a fine selection of half-bottles and verticals of Napa collectibles. Markups vary, and there are bargains to be found; for example, we saw Voss Sauvignon Blanc 2006 for $34 and JC Cellars Syrah Ventana Vineyard 2006 for $55.

PIZZERIA TRA VIGNE
1016 Main St., St. Helena
Telephone (707) 967-9999
Web site www.travignerestaurant.com/pizzaria.htm
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $9-$15
Corkage No charge
Credit cards All major
Quality wood-fired-oven pizzas are abundant in Napa, but they are extra large, crisp and delicious at St. Helena's Pizzeria Tra Vigne. This cozy spot is known for comfortable booths and tasty toppings such as those on the "Ducati" (spicy Italian sausage, capicola, sundried tomatoes, mushrooms), but the pastas and salads are equally inspired. The wine list is trim, with about 30 California and Italian selections, all offered in glass, carafe or bottle format, and with none priced above $45. But best of all, there is no charge for corkage, giving you plenty of reason to strategize over what you'll be ordering for dinner while out tasting and wine shopping in the afternoon.

TAYLOR'S AUTOMATIC REFRESHER
933 Main St., St. Helena
Telephone (707) 963-3486
Web site www.taylorsautomaticrefresher.com
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $5-$15
Corkage $5
Credit cards All major
Although Taylor's has opened an additional location (with an identical menu), adjacent to the Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa, purists continue to make the pilgrimage to the original St. Helena spot for the famous burgers, fries and milkshakes and to enjoy the outdoor, picnic-table dining. As popular with locals as with tourists, this roadside diner goes its basic fare one better to offer sweet potato fries, ahi burgers and a Napa-centric wine list on which small-production Cabernets such as Karl Lawrence can be found ($34/375ml). Corkage is minimal.

WINERIES TO VISIT

Note: Hours and fees for winery visits and tastings are current as of press time in April. Calling ahead to confirm is highly recommended, especially at harvesttime. Certain tour options require an advance reservation.

ARTESA
1345 Henry Road, Napa
Telephone (707) 224-1668
Web site www.artesawinery.com
Open Daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m
Cost Tastings $10-$15
Of all the views in Napa—and there are many beautiful ones—Artesa's panoramic vista of Napa, Carneros, the San Francisco Bay and on a clear day even downtown San Francisco is perhaps the most breathtaking. The visitor center frames the grand views with graceful, minimalist contemporary architecture and sculptural highlights, including serene waterfalls, reflecting pools and a peaceful courtyard. Select from one of three tasting options, which range from a crisp glass of bubbly to more hedonistic reds.

BERINGER
2000 Main St., St. Helena
Telephone (707) 963-8989
Web site www.beringer.com
Open Daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Cost Tours and tastings $10-$40
Sure, it's one of those lively, belly-up-to-the-bar tasting rooms, but there are a few things that set Beringer apart from the rest; the grounds are beautiful, the wines are tasty, and the gift shop is a destination in itself. The drive through the tunnel of elms approaching the entrance provides one of the most iconic snapshots of all of Napa. In addition to visiting the main tasting room, take a stroll to check out the historic property's 19th-century Rhine House Mansion, recently restored.

CADE
360 Howell Mountain Road S., Angwin
Telephone (707) 965-2746
Web site www.cadewinery.com
Open By appointment
Cost Tasting $10; tour and food pairings $30
Perhaps the most innovative and thoughtfully designed winery in Napa, Cade is the latest project from PlumpJack proprietors San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom and composer and financier Gordon Getty. This Howell Mountain eco-winery is one of the greenest in the country, down to details like insulation made from potash and shredded blue jeans. For $10 you get to taste three or four current releases. If commitment to the environment is your passion, you may be tempted to upgrade to a $30 experience that includes a more intensive tour, prepared local foods and a chance to marvel at the winery's design (don't miss the impressive scalloped ceilings in the caves, which are shaped like PlumpJack's signature shield).

HEITZ CELLAR
436 St. Helena Highway, St. Helena
Telephone (707) 963-3542
Web site www.heitzcellar.com
Open Daily, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Cost Free
Heitz has been offering complimentary tastings at the site of their original winery since 1961. The new tasting room, opened in 2002, is a charming stone building with a cabinlike feel inside, a cozy fireplace and, through the back door, views of vineyards stretching across the valley. The staff is warm and friendly in giving you an opportunity to try their iconic Napa Valley Cabernets and the rare Italian red varietal Grignolino.

THE HESS COLLECTION
4411 Redwood Road, Napa
Telephone (707) 255-1144
Web site www.hesscollection.com
Open Daily, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Cost Tours and tastings $10-$40
Perched high up Mount Veeder, Hess is so far off the beaten path that you might forget you're still in Napa. Finding your way to the winery isn't difficult, but once there, it's easy to lose yourself in the sophisticated contemporary art housed in the property's three-story gallery-cum-museum. Admisssion to the collection, which includes works by Francis Bacon and Robert Motherwell, is complimentary, so wander around the world-class museum at your leisure before strolling down to the spacious visitor's center, where $10 will buy a pour of four new releases.

PRIDE MOUNTAIN VINEYARDS
4206 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena
Telephone (707) 963-4949
Web site www.pridewines.com
Open By appointment
Cost Tour and tasting $5
You'll find out firsthand why this property is referred to as "mountain vineyards" when you arrive at this special spot on Spring Mountain with its glorious views. Pride straddles Napa and Sonoma counties—a brick inlay denotes the county line, allowing you to have one foot in each. For a $5 fee, you can taste a series of Pride wines and barrel samples in the tasting room and caves. Larger groups can be accommodated in private areas. Come for the views, stay for the wine.

DIVERSIONS

TRY TWO WHEELS

CALISTOGA BIKESHOP 1318 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga
Telephone (866) 942-2453; (707) 942-9687
Web site www.calistogabike shop.com
Open Daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

ST. HELENA CYCLERY 1156 Main St., St Helena
Telephone (707) 963-7736
Web site www.sthelenacyclery.com
Open Tuesday to Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Not everyone drives a car, much less hires a limo, when touring Napa. Because of its beauty and varied terrain, the region is favored by cyclists both amateur and professional. "You can smell the smells and see the sites at a much slower pace," says Jake Scheideman, owner of St. Helena Cyclery. Touring packages are available, and many inns supply bikes to guests. Scheideman's shop is located in the heart of the valley. Also consider Calistoga Bikeshop, which is located in north valley where the roads are less busy. Rentals at either shop start at $10 an hour; $35 per day.

ARTISTIC VALUE

CLOS PEGASE 1060 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga
Telephone (707) 942-4981
Web site www.clospegase.com
Open Daily, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

DI ROSA PRESERVE 5200 Carneros Highway, Napa
Telephone (707) 226-5991
Web site www.dirosapreserve.org
Open Wednesday to Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; reservations required for some tours

Wine and food get all the notice in Napa but the valley is also home to superb art collections that can be viewed for free or a nominal fee. The largest is the di Rosa Preserve, a sprawling refuge for art and nature that includes hiking trails and more than 2,000 works of art. The Clos Pegase winery, designed by architect Michael Graves, is a dramatic creation itself, while the mostly modern artwork on display throughout the facility and grounds celebrates the winery's classical inspiration.

California-based Wine Spectator editors James Laube, Augustus Weed and MaryAnn Worobiec collaborated on this report.

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