I just returned from a week-long trip in Napa Valley, which just so happens to be one of my favorite places on Earth, to coordinate what began as a small birthday party that turned into what the hostess and I deemed the 5 day ”Royal Wedding” of a birthday celebration. (Picture ice sculptures, private chefs, an estate, and you’ve pretty much captured the spirit of the Royal Birthday.)
Being that I was flying into Napa Valley, I also thought I’d take the opportunity to do some wine tasting after the 5-day celebratory birthday coordinating had come to an end. I invited my sister because wine tasting for one just isn’t as much fun. (Although, I’ll gleefully participate…) She gladly accepted my invitation and we happily made our way around Napa Valley for two days in what I like to call “Zen Mode” (Conni’s Zen Mode= a relaxed, laid-back, no hurry mentality. Which, as most of you who know me can vouch, is VERY HARD for me to do. But Napa Valley seems to draw that Zen feeling out of me… Might be the wine tasting but who’s to say for sure?)
A little education for you. Napa Valley lies between two mountain ranges, the Mayacamas to the west and the Vacas to the east, and because of this mountainous surrounding it leads to such varied climates which in turn produce some amazing wines! You can navigate Napa Valley by two thoroughfares, the Silverado Trail on the Vaca side and Highway 29 on the Mayacamas side. Whichever side you decide to start navigating, you’ll be graced with over 400 winery choices so be ready to either wing it and turn in to your nearest winery or, like me, grab a map ahead of time, use recommendations, & make a plan! Believe it or not, you’ll only be able to hit 3 wineries in one day, maybe 4 at most if you’re in a hurry (of which I was most certainly not), to have a truly relaxed, enjoyable experience.
Among the wineries lies beautiful quaint towns to relax, wind down, & stay at the end of a wine tasting day. You can find fabulous bakeries & coffee houses to start off your day or do a bit of touristy shopping should that happen to be your thing (it happens to be mine…).
Yountville & St. Helena are two of my favorite towns to spend most of my time wandering around when I’m not wine tasting because not only do they have picturesque, walkable streets but they are home to some of the finest restaurants in the valley. Did I mention that I like to eat, too? You can most certainly plan a great 2 to 4-day trip filled with merriment, eating, drinking, and shopping, between these two towns both of which happen to lie on the Hwy 29 side.
If you’re thinking of planning a trip to Napa Valley in the near future, I have some great recommendations for you where to eat, stay, and play while you’re there. Fall is a personal favorite time of year for me to visit because it is such a beautiful time to be in the valley. The climate is amazing (70′s during the day, 40′s at night) and the views and changing of the leaves are without-a-doubt, breathtaking.
St. Helena in all it’s fall beauty
If you’re heading into Napa Valley, one of your first stops should be Yountville. Home of Thomas Keller’s famed French Laundry, he also has Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery that are well worth the visit (get in line early at Bouchon Bakery and make a lunch reso for Bouchon) and within a reasonable budget. They are both a delight to your soul and stomach. I just left Bouchon Bakery with a pack of Pumpkin Macaroons and Peanut Butter Salted Caramel dipped Chocolate cookies and about devoured all of them in one fail swoop.
Bouchon Bakery: Taking home my peanut butter salted caramel cookies!
Bouchon: A great place for lunch, dine inside in a darling setting or outside on the lovely patio
After a stop at Bouchon or Bouchon Bakery, head over to Chandon Winery. I joined their wine club and I am pleased as punch (or sparkling wine??) I did. Each shipment of sparkling wine leaves me beaming with joy and contemplating my next dinner party so I can promptly drink it. Sit out on their beautiful patio with a glass of sparkling rose and take in all the outdoor beauty.
Entrance to Domaine Chandon. Photo Courtesy
If you’re looking for a lively little spot for dinner in Yountville, head to Ciccios for a dish of their cauliflower roasted with raisins or a mushroom & carmelized onion pizza. It used to be an Italian Grocery store and was remodeled and it’s adorable. Their homey environment, along with their polka dot glassware if you order a cocktail (channeling Kate Spade), make for a great dinner! Not to mention, their staff are pretty great too!
The outside of Ciccios all lit up at night
You can also head over to Redd Wood or Redd, all of which are great stand-outs for lunch or dinner and are worth every penny.
Image Courtesy: Redd Wood
If you’re going to stay in Yountville, there are endless choices from high to low, depending on your budget. If you’ve got some $$ to spend, are design minded, and are looking for high quality, I’d stay at Hotel Yountville. (Sometimes you can score a deal on Jetsetter or head there on a weekday.)
Hotel Yountville’s well-designed room. Image: Courtesy of Hotel Yountville
If you’re a bit more on a budget, stay at The Vintage Inn (if you see are able to score a weekday deal) or The Bordeaux House. I’ve stayed at The Bourdeaux House 3 or so times and each time I’ve had a nice, pleasant room, friendly hospitality, and a great continental breakfast made by the Inn-keeper each morning. It’s worth the price to stay here and it’s walking distance to all the restaurants and shopping in Yountville.
The 7 bedroom Bordeaux House in Yountville. Image Courtesy
Winery Tip: Pricing for wine tasting can be anywhere from $15.00-40.00 depending on what type of experience you’d like to have. Sometimes, if you purchase a bottle of your favorite wine, they’ll waive one of the tasting fees for you.
On the drive up to St. Helena, you’ll pass through Rutherford. Be sure to stop at one of the many wineries off of Rutherford Road. Honig and Frog’s Leap are a few favorites of mine. Both of these wineries are on the Rutherford Road/Rutherford Trail which is in Rutherford (obviously, a pattern there..)
Frog’s Leap is a winery that I would like to pick up and move straight into as quickly as possible. The entrance to the winery is like walking into a new, craftsman-style, 2-story vacation home. It’s wide open, wooden doors lead out to the back patio with a corn-hole game on the grass and a walking, working farm on site. You can make a tasting appointment to tour the red barn, which you’ll want to do, and walk the grounds or sit on the patio and order a cheese board with your wine. I go here every. time. I’m in Napa Valley and purchase a bottle of Sav Blanc and Pink on my way out. Honig has a beautiful tasting room and the staff are beyond helpful and friendly. You can get lost in your thoughts sitting on the beautiful patio, wine-tasting, and looking out at the vineyards. Not a bad way to get lost, eh?
Frog’s Leap Winery
Frog’s Leap’s living room: Photo Courtesy
The infamous Red Barn: Photo Courtesy
Enjoying the colors of fall at Frog’s Leap
Honig’s outdoor patio:Photo Courtesy
Moving up North on Hwy 29, you’ll eventually hit the sublime town of St. Helena. This darling little area has all the makings of a storybook fairytale. With a spattering of great restaurants, a great coffee house, a lovely bakery, unique shops, and a few quaint places to call home for the evening, where do I even start??
Food is always my favorite beginning and it’s where I feel the comfort of a town. If a town has great food, then it’s a town worthy of staying in or going back to because food creates character and draws in good people, which earns a whole lot of stars in my book. St. Helena is one of those places. I could write a post devoted entirely to where to eat in St. Helena but I wouldn’t have enough space or time, so I’ll list a few must-go’s if you’re only there for a day or two. If you have more time then by all means try Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, Tra Vigne, & French Blue. But on this trip, here were my highlights.
Cook is a must-try. Cook is a divine little spot with enough seating to fill a small classroom, but there is always a seat available if you go at the right time or make a reservation. Everytime I go, this is my fourth time now, I order something different. From Risotto, to the BLT, to the cheese plate, and I am always, always satisfied. For lunch or dinner, make this a spot you must try when in, or driving through, St. Helena.
For cocktails or small bites dinner, try Goose & Gander. Oddly, there was no duck on the menu and I opted for a soup of the day, and was pleasantly surprised by the flavor, but what I really loved was the atmosphere. Being there was like sitting in a gentleman’s bar or classy hunting lodge, with leather tufted seats, a roaring fireplace, and mementos hanging on the wall. It was a treat for the eye, no doubt. I think their menu needs a little tweaking to fine-tune some of their dishes, but overall, it’s an eye-catching place to sit for drinks with friends (I tried Goose & Gander solo, during my Royal Wedding sized event, and I had a great time). Kind staff, great environment.
Photo Courtesy: Goose and Gander
Photo Courtesy: SF Gate
Another Fav. fav.fav.or.ite of mine is Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch. This place is another must-try and don’t miss if you are in, or around, St. Helena (or the entire Napa Valley for that matter). The outdoor, indoor, farmy feeling has you wishing this is where you grew up and how you ate on a regular basis. The kale salad is to die for. The perfect combination of spicy dressing on the thinly sliced kale leaves you wanting this whole thing for yourself as your meal. Too bad everything else is so amazing that you have to order more (not in the, “I am forcing you to” but more of a “I can’t decide so I’ll take one of these and one of these” sort of way….).
Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch
And as if you haven’t eaten enough already, don’t forget to make a stop off at Model Bakery for their English muffins. They are absolutely, unavoidably delicious with a little fig butter and jam. Seriously, go. Sit outside and enjoy the people watching and just relax. This place is a yummy gem and a don’t miss.
Enjoying a quick coffee & muffin break at Model Bakery with my Stis (a childhood nickname).
As you’re driving North, there are so many places to see and stop at for wine tasting that it’s really a matter of preference. I happen to be drawn to recommendations or sometimes just a visual glimpse of a winery or vineyard will summon me towards its doors like a pleasant surprise. That happened to be the case with Larkmead Vineyards.
Larkmead: How beautiful from afar, right? Photo Courtesy
I had been driving past the vineyard each day on my way to coordinate the (somewhat small…) party for 18 to get from where I was staying (I’ll get to that fab place momentarily) in Calisoga to Sunshine Foods in St. Helena (another fun spot) to pick up goods I needed. I kept noticing the crisp, white immense two-story building smack dab in the middle of gorgeous vineyards. Finally, I thought it wise to stop and my taste buds were delighted to join the party my eyes had been feasting on. Sonny, one of the managers of Larkmead, told me that it is one of the oldest running wineries with over 150 acres of land dating back to the 1800′s. (Turns out that a daughter’s rambunctiousness led to development of some great wines….you’ll have to visit the winery to hear the whole story. Sonny tells a pretty great version. Make a reservation and ask for him.) The tasting is $40.00, which isn’t cheap, but the reds are delicious and the views & stories are worth it. You can also host a pretty good shin-dig here, which as events go, is a pretty amazing venue.
The back patio of Larkmead, with a great vineyard view.
Larkmead’s tasting room. I love those striped chairs!
Three other great wineries along the way are Frank Family, near Larkmead, and Charles Krug on the way back towards St. Helena and St. Clement Vineyard. I loved Frank Family‘s Chardonnay and Charles Krug‘s (who offers great sparkling wine) reds. All of them! They are the valley’s first winery and are run by the Mondavi Family (can you just imagine the holidays with the Mondavi’s? Wine anyone?)
Frank Family’s entrance to their quaint tasting room, tastings are between $20-30.00
Walking around Frank Family Vineyards is beautiful in the fall
Leaving Charles Krug with my yummy Pinot!
Set atop a beautiful hillside over looking the valley is St. Clement Vineyards. It’s a beautiful place to sit and look out over the valley with a great Cabernet.
What a view!
Wondering where to stay in St. Helena or Calistoga after a lovely day full of wine tasting, shopping, and eating? Two of my favorite places one on the higher end, which has every amenity you’d ever think of, is the Solage Calistoga, and one on the more affordable side, small, neatly designed, and right in the heart of St. Helena is the Wydown Hotel.
Solage Calistoga is a beauty of a place, simply, yet elegantly designed. The resort in its name implies all that you’ll find at the Solage. Located in Calistoga, it’s a hop-skip-and a jump from the center of Calistoga’s main shops on Lincoln Street. You can take one of the available bikes located outside your room to ride on over to Lincoln Street and pick up a few things. One of my favorite shops is Blackbird. Relatively new, its home, kitchen, and little goodies for the kiddos is a site to see. The website doesn’t do the store justice but if you’re in the area, certainly stop by.
At the Solage, you can sit back at their famed Sol Bar and enjoy a glass of wine, then order up a delicious lunch or dinner. Or sit poolside and kick back for the afternoon. If pampering is more your style, you could head to their spa for a massage or pedicure. The rooms at the Solage all come with a patio and each night at turn-down, you’re greeted with a written bedside quote of the evening to inspire you. (It’s the details at the Solage that I love….)
I stayed here while I was coordinating the birthday extravaganza and needed papers each morning (which were conveniently left on my doorstep) and had to ship items back to San Diego (which they were able to do on site! Ahhh, the ease!) Each staff member greeted me with a smile and were more than helpful…If you haven’t already figured it out, I completely enjoyed every moment here and highly recommend it.
Solage Pool: Photo Courtesy
My lovely little studio complete with bikes!
A perfect little (dream) car ride at the Solage!
The Wydown Hotel is an affordable, boutique in a great location on Main Street, walkable to Model Bakery, French Blue, all the great St. Helena Shops, and at the South end, Farmstead. Warm, friendly staff are there to greet you in a uniquely furnished lobby and the rooms are spacious and well-decorated. The only downside, which they warn you about ahead of time, is that it’s location is near a fire house and every so often you’ll hear an alarm that lasts around 5 seconds or so. Not so bad as to deter me from staying here again though.
Our room at the Wydown, lovely & spacious
Wydown Lobby: Photo Courtesy
Our patio outside our room. Coffee anyone?
In need of direction? Check out this adorable map of St. Helena: Photo Credit
If shopping is one of your favorite past times, like it is mine, you’ll love St. Helena’s Main Street. Main Street has everything from vintage shops, to boutique home shops, and everything in between. A few of my favorites are Footcandy Shoes, Pennyweight for the cutest stationary & supplies, & Oliver Napa Valley.
Oliver Napa Valley, cute packaging, right?!
Home ware & Kitchen goods that will last a lifetime!
That pretty much sums up my overwhelming love for vacationing in Napa Valley. I’ll leave you with a few images from the 5-day extravaganza “Royal Wedding” birthday that took place at the beautiful property Tenstone Estate in Calistoga.
From birthday dinners, to a bloody mary bar, bocce ball & ice sculptures…..A week full of adventure.
I hope you’ve fallen in love with Napa Valley as much as I have. What are your favorites in Napa Valley? Have you been? Are you planning a trip soon? I’d love to know. Connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google +, or leave a comment on my blog. I always love hearing from you!