How to Plan Your Perfect Trip to Napa Valley

I've now visited Napa Valley twice, and the only reason that number isn't higher is because it's a 5+ hour flight from Detroit. It's great for any occasion - I've been for both an anniversary and on a girls' trip, and it would also fit the bill for a birthday celebration, fancy bachelor/bachelorette party, graduation trip, or just because!

One thing to keep in mind for events or celebrations is that a lot of the wineries are reservation only. When I went in 2015, that wasn't the case - my now-husband and I walked into several different wineries and picked a tasting option to try. But now there's much more planning in advance required, and oftentimes the reservations only accept a party of up to 6 people. 

But there are over 400 wineries in Napa Valley, tons of excellent restaurants, great weather for walking, hiking, or biking, and Sonoma isn't far away, so how do you choose which places to go to when you're there? I would suggest starting by figuring out where you'll be staying.

Typically I'm an advocate for staying in hotels because you don't have to worry too much about the quality of the host with a big chain, you earn rewards points, and there are a couple small amenities included, but in Napa Valley, I think Airbnb, is a better way to go. There are a lot of options and they are close to the wineries. The places I looked at in Napa were much nicer than your average Airbnb, which makes the price a little higher. However, this was the first Airbnb I've ever stayed at with really comfortable beds, so that, along with the convenient location, make the higher price worth it in my opinion.   

Next, if you're making the trip to Napa, you probably want to drink some wine. Or maybe a lot of wine. But there are a couple of things to thinking about when planning your winery visits. There is such a thing as too many tastings in one day. Since you'll get 4 to 6 different wines to try in a tasting, you should plan on a maximum of 3 full tastings per day. After that your pallet just starts to feel muddled from all the different flavor profiles you've subjected it to. 

Also, that amount of wine starts to add up, even if you are only having a few sips of each glass, so go into the day with a game plan for food as well. Leave a large enough gap in between reservations to have a leisurely lunch. Some wineries offer food, and others don't. If food isn't an option, bring some snacks with you to enjoy on the way there, or when you're headed to the next destination. I would have loved to have something to nibble on before, during, and/or after each winery (my thoughts on some food options are below, after the wineries). 

Stay hydrated! The wineries all offer water with the tastings, but it's a good idea to have a water bottle with you for in between locations as well. It's hard to relax and enjoy the Napa experience if your on the verge of getting a dehydration headache all day. 

And most importantly, make sure to have a designated driver. Even if you booked wineries right next to each other, it would be difficult to get around and get to your reservations on time by walking, because the driveways are often extremely long and the vineyards do a good job of distancing the wineries from one another. My husband and I had to limit the number of places we went so that we could make sure that we were able to drive safely. If you don't want to do that, you may want to look into renting bikes, private driver, a party van, tour bus, or bike tour that goes between wineries. You could also use services such as Lyft or Uber, but they tend to have long wait times, which could be an issue if you are trying to get to reservations at a certain time. 

A trip to Napa Valley unfortunately isn't going to be cheap. Plan on each tasting costing you a minimum of $40, and typically they will be more than that. If you book a tour or one of the dining experiences, it will cost more like $70-$175 per person. For that price, you usually get to try some Estate wines (meaning they were made with grapes grown on that estate), or winery exclusives, though. So at least you won't be spending all that money to try wines you could purchase at your local store. Also, despite the higher price tag, I think the perfect Napa trip includes one tour to see what's going on behind the scenes and learn more about how the wine is made. 

With all that in mind, you're ready to pick a few wineries to visit! Everyone's taste is different, which means everyone will enjoy different wineries, but here are my thoughts on the ones I've been to. 

Robert Biale

If you enjoy dry Zinfandels, Robert Biale is a great place for you! I haven't had a lot of these, so I was excited to try them - turns out they aren't my favorite. Oh well, now I know! The winery is really pretty though. We visited on a chilly morning in October, so they had us set up at a table on the patio right next to the vineyard, with a heater overhead and blankets for everyone that wanted one. They didn't rush us through our tasting, even though they clearly had a lot of reservations that day (tastings are by reservation only). 

Our host took all the pictures of our group that we wanted and then explained the history of the winery really well during our tasting, but skipped over some of the basic notes on the wine itself, which seemed odd to me. As one of the cheaper options, at only $40/person in October 2022, I would say it's worth trying! 

Robert Biale does offer a "Harvest Experience" from August through October. My group didn't have time to participate in it, but I do think it's a really cool offering and doesn't cost much more than their tastings. Another nice perk is that they have wine suitcases for sale here for a very reasonable price! If you don't want to bother joining wine clubs to get wine shipped to you, you can just purchase one of these and check 12 bottles in it on your flight home instead!

Beringer

The Beringer Estate is gorgeous and they offer way more tour and tasting options than the other wineries I've been to. The Legacy Tour that I went on is very reasonably priced at only $50/person! Another plus for Beringer is that they are more flexible and reservations are recommended not required and will accommodate larger groups (15+). I would still make a reservation if you plan on visiting, but if you find yourself in the area with some extra time, you can likely do a walk-in tasting or tour. 

I think that Beringer offers a fantastic experience for people just discovering wine or that aren't sure exactly what they like. During our tasting, the host explained not only the nuances of the wine, but how wine pairings are created, and how food changes our perception of how wines taste. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about it, and we had food samples available to confirm what he was saying ourselves. 

The Beringer estate provides plenty of photo ops, and if you like the wine here that's great news for you! Their brand includes some wines that are relatively inexpensive and readily available in stores all around the United States.  

Mumm Napa

Mumm only makes sparkling wines. If you aren't sure how you feel about sparkling wines, you can book the outdoor patio tasting for only $40 (in October 2022) to find out! Or there are other, more expensive tour and tastings options, if you are already a Mumm fan. It didn't end up being my cup of tea, but don't regret trying it in order to find that out. 

They do have a nice food sampler plate, if you're looking for something to eat. There were also boozy popsicle and ice cream options, but apparently those are for long standing wine club members only, so I wasn't allowed to purchase those. It seemed silly to me that they wouldn't take my money, since I'm not going to join the wine club just for access to a dessert cart...

You have to make a reservation in order to visit Mumm, and your party size is only allowed to include up to 6 people. Overall, it's a good option to add variety to your wine tasting itinerary though.

Castello di Amorosa

The Tuscan-style castle at Castello di Amorosa is truly impressive, and is the major reason this winery is worth a visit. You can't get into the castle without a tasting reservation, but a full tour is only $10-$20 more expensive, so I think you might as well book it if you don't plan on touring somewhere else. Regardless of what tasting option you choose, make sure to head up to the castle turret afterwards for some superb views of the surrounding vineyards. 

Go ahead and budget an extra 45 minutes to an hour for your visit in addition to your tasting to walk around the gift shop, watch the animals by the entrance (goats, chickens, and more), go up to the turret, walk around the vineyard, and get all the pictures you want. 

Another benefit of the giant castle is that it has plenty of space to accommodate large groups - there are even special tour and tasting options for groups of 15 or more people. You could also book a private event, and we saw a few being set up while we were there. 

Personally, between the tour and wine here and at Beringer, I preferred Beringer's. I've only done tours in small groups though, so if you have a large group, Castello di Amorosa may be the better option. 

Robert Mondavi

I drink Robert Mondavi at home all the time, so I couldn't resist visiting them in Napa to try their estate wines. This is another place that only does tastings by reservation and only accepts parties of 6 or less, so if you feel the same way I did book your tasting here in advance. 

Because of the reservation requirement, the winery never felt very busy. The patio area was also only a small portion of the winery compared to most of the other places I've visited, so that added to the impression of a more VIP experience than what we paid for with the Estates Collection tasting. 

The wine at Robert Mondavi was the favorite by consensus on the girls trip I went on, and we all went home with a few bottles! It turns out joining the wine club here is free, and then you get a discount on all the wine you purchase, so I did end up doing that. If I had thought to join far enough in advance of the trip, the tasting could have been free for most of us (the wine club member plus 3 guests). 

Regusci

Regusci was a ranch before becoming a winery and I love that they've stayed true to their roots. When you drive up to the entrance of the winery, there's a wagon of produce that you can help yourself to and leave some cash on the honors system for whatever you take. If you end up staying at an Airbnb with a kitchen like I did, the vegetable stand can give you a great start to a home-cooked meal for a break from high Napa prices.

Wait to pick through the vegetable stand until after your tasting though, because if you arrive before your appointment time, you get to go hang out in the gardens with a glass of rose until they text you that your table is ready. We arrived about 10 minutes early, but honestly, I would have been happy to relax in the garden for closer to 30 minutes. 

 There are limited hosts which is why tastings are by reservation only, but the host was excellent. She customized the tasting for someone in our party that really wasn't sure what type of wines she liked and then gave her a discount when she didn't really like any of them, talked us through the details of the wines we were trying, and offered thoughts and recommendations on food and other wineries in the area. On a 10-point scale, I'd give the winery a full 10 points, but the wine - more like a 6. 

Cakebread Cellars

When I visited in 2015, reservations weren't required, no food was available, and there was only one tasting option. 

They've changed a lot since then! Reservations are now required, only parties of up to 6 people can be accommodated, there is a paired food and wine tasting option, and that is just one among the many tastings they now offer. What I hope hasn't changed, is how delicious the wines are. Of all the wineries I've been to, Cakebread has had my favorite wines by far. 

Food Options

Bouchon Bakery - Great option to start your day! The bakery offers a delicious array of desserts, breads, coffees, teas, sandwiches, and more. Between the 6 of us on the trip, we bought and tried close to 20 different pastries and breads. My favorite thing was the passion fruit macaron, which I was excited to see on the menu since passion fruit isn't something I come across often in Michigan. The croissant was also delicious, and the epi baguette made a great side dish/snack throughout the day along with the house-whipped butter. Of course, we also tried the namesake bouchon, which was sort of like a dark chocolate brownie bite. 

The Grove at Copia - This restaurant is really cool because it is staffed by students from the Culinary Institute of America (right next door). I do like to support the CIA students, and the appetizers that I tried were excellent. Unfortunately, the dinner itself wasn't as good, so I guess we caught them on a night when they were still learning to perfect those dishes. The menu looks like it changes frequently to keep the students on their toes, so your experience could be totally different from mine because of that.

Napa Farmers Market - There were so many fun booths at the farmers' market! I got some fancy potato chips that I really enjoyed, some mushroom jerky, a few empanadas, fruit to snack on between wineries, and some veggies to cook back at the Airbnb. They are only open on Tuesdays (April - December) and Saturdays from 8am to noon, so be sure to set time aside on those days if you want to go. 


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