In Part I of this Napa Valley Trip blog series, Giana Pacinelli discusses navigating Napa Valley from the perspective of someone who hasn’t been before. We’ll learn about how to plan a trip to Napa Valley as well some need-to-know details for when you arrive.
Before I share my journey of my first trip to the luscious Napa Valley, I’d like to start with a few disclaimers.
- I love my wines, but that’s as far as my knowledge goes. The purpose of my trip to Napa was to enjoy the sights, and of course the wines, but the following reviews pertaining to wine are going to be fairly basic.
- I only had 1.5 days in Napa, so my hours were limited although pretty ambitious.
- I’m a red wine drinker, so my tastings of white wine was kept to a minimal, although I did develop more of an appreciation for it.
Planning a Napa Valley Wine Tour
If there’s one thing I learned from my travels, it was that you don’t have to be an oenophile to enjoy California’s captivating Napa Valley wine region. However, you do have to devote a significant amount of time to planning your ideal trip, as there are several decisions you need to make when planning your route. I’ve tried to outline a few of those decisions below.
Where to Stay When Visiting Napa Valley
One of the first things you’ll want to decide is where you want to stay. San Francisco is roughly an hour drive from the valley, depending on where in Napa you are starting. San Francisco can serve as an easy base-camp for your stay with plenty of bus and tour options for you to travel to Napa. However, for the full experience, I’d recommend immersing yourself in Napa’s perfect weather, sweeping landscapes of hills, vineyards and rivers, and fine and fresh dining.
I stayed in Calistoga the first night, which rests in the Northern part of the valley. When we had a full day of winery tours, we made our way down the valley and spent the second night in downtown Napa. Driving through the valley only takes about an hour, but by the end of the day we were grateful to not have to drive back North.
Tours vs. Tastings in Napa
As you begin to research your trip, you’ll have to decide between simply scouring the various wineries on your own and purchasing tastings, or having a guided tour through the grounds. While these decisions will largely be determined by your budget, there is something to be said about the tours, regardless of your interest in wine making.
On one hand, a tour takes time (anywhere from 30 min to 2 hours) and is more expensive. On the other hand, you’ll get to visit certain areas of the grounds that are closed off to the public and have a designated guide that is available to answer all of your questions. Plus, these tours typically provide you with wines to taste throughout the experience.
The most common method is to mix and match tours and tastings, allowing you to learn about certain wineries while also being able to maximize how much ground you cover.
For my trip, we did two tours and three tastings which provided us with a background on Napa and the wineries while also allowing us to have a little bit of independence and explore on our own.
Reservations at Napa Valley Wineries
If for nothing else, I recommend reservations in order to keep you on a schedule. Napa Valley is not really a place you can just wander through, as many wineries are private, require reservations ahead of time or have specific designated times when tastings are available. This is another area where research is essential. If you come across wineries that don’t need reservations, try to fit them in a designated time anyway. This was necessary in particular for my trip, since we didn’t have much time in Napa.
If you have the opportunity to spend more than a few days, it might be easier for you to go with the flow. You can make reservations the day-of, but some places might already be sold out depending on the season and day of the week. We were told that Friday and Saturdays are the busiest, while Mondays and Tuesdays are much quieter. If you choose not to make reservations, you should make note of the ones that are not open to the public.
Getting Around Napa Valley
Since it’s likely safe to assume you will be drinking your way through Napa, driving yourself shouldn’t be an option unless you are fortunate enough to have a designated driver. If that is the case, navigating through the valley should be fairly simple as vineyards are a straight shot through St. Helena Hwy or the Silverado Trail.
#ProTip: The GPS/Map on your phone continues to track your location with or without service.
Most people recommend using a car service, which typically charges an hourly rate and can provide an added sense of information and background on the history of Napa (and also usually water).
If a car service isn’t in your budget, another option is Uber or Lyft. These services prove to be more cost effective options, however it’s important to note that you will go in and out of service depending on where you are in the valley. Drivers also aren’t as available as they are in San Francisco. If you plan to take this option, always ask to log onto the winery’s Wi-Fi and give yourself at least 20 minutes to wait for a driver.
And now the fun begins! Please join me as I reflect on my journey through Napa Valley and my newfound appreciation for wine, wine making and the breathtaking backdrops that set the stage for a magical trip.
Start Here: Visiting Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga
Checkout these other great blog posts on Napa Valley to learn more about this amazing wine region below:
- Napa Valley Regional Guide and Map
- Some of our Favorite Napa Valley Wine Tours and Vineyards
- 10 Off-the-Beaten-Path Wineries to Visit in Napa
- Castrucci Wines — Napa Valley Vintner Makes Wine Personal Again
Giana Pacinelli is a full-time advertising executive and a part-time freelancer writer. Her passions for writing, traveling and being awkwardly straightforward have led her to become a contributing writer on platforms such as The Huffington Post, Elite Daily and Thought Catalog. Other hobbies include reading, football (Go Gators, Go Cowboys) & eating (mostly pizza). Find out more at GianaPacinelli.com.