Napa Valley is the epicurean capital of California. This fertile valley is a short drive from San Francisco where I was meeting up with some girlfriends.
We decided to take the easy journey north for a quick, overnight trip to sample the region’s fine food and wine. Our main goal was to spend 24 laid-back hours eating, drinking, and enjoying each other’s company – all accomplished!
Even though this guide was based off an experience with gal pals, it can apply to mixed groups and couples as well.
Getting to Napa Valley from San Francsico
Driving from San Francisco to Napa Valley by car is an easy and economic option when traveling in a small group. Without traffic, the pleasant journey only takes 60-100 minutes depending on where you’re going in the region. Traffic will most likely be lightest mid-morning during weekdays (after the city’s rush hour). Napa’s peak season is during the harvest from late August through October. Expect prices to be higher – heavy congestion is almost guaranteed on weekends.
A one-hour ferry can be taken either from the San Francisco Ferry Building or Pier 41 to Vallejo for about $14 USD each way. Visit the San Francisco Bay Ferry website for the most up-to-date schedules and fares.
After debarking in Vallejo, board The Vine bus for Route 29 that stops in Napa, Yountville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga. Fares usually run around $3 USD.
Designated Drivers + Getting Around
It doesn’t hurt to have a designated driver while touring the wineries. A driver can still partake in tastings by using the spittoons, it’s poor form to get inebriated anyway. Have apps like Lyft or Uber ready to get around town if in a pinch. Taxis are also available, but often cost more. Alternatively, hire a private driver for the day.
We had an indulgent stay at the SENZA Hotel located on the northern outskirts of Napa on the way to Yountville. It’s a cross between a luxury, boutique hotel and friendly bed and breakfast. We shared a large suite that faced a peaceful vineyard and was furnished with two lavish queen beds, a bathroom with an elegant tub and spacious shower stall, a gas-light fireplace area, and patio overlooking the vines.
The two-acre property was immaculately kept with cozy lounge areas for guests to convene. Art is peppered throughout the grounds and the cabanas by the pool and hot tub are a great place for girlfriends to unwind and catch up on reading. The hotel also includes a fitness room and small spa where friends can get massages.
Kathryn and Craig Hall, vintners of HALL and WALT Wines, are the owners of SENZA and have integrated their love of the surrounding region into the experience. Guests are invited to the lobby and veranda every evening to partake in complimentary wine tastings that showcase local brands. On top of that, a gourmet continental breakfast is served every morning with tasty items like fruit, cereal, yogurt, and freshly made treats from nearby Bouchon Bakery.
4066 Howard Lane, Napa, CA 94558 | (707) 253-0337 | www.senzahotel.com
One of our main goals was to eat a multi-course upscale dinner in Napa. To save room in our stomachs and wallets, we opted to lunch at establishments that served light fare, as outlined in the first two recommendations:
Breakfast + Lunch: Bouchon Bakery
Famed chef Thomas Keller of the prestigious 3-Michelin Star restaurant, French Laundry, opened an affordable and accessible French-style bakery in downtown Yountville. Bouchon Bakery was originally created to source fresh bread to his restaurants and became a destination in its own rite. The small boulangerie serves simple yet savory artisanal sandwiches like tomato and brie or ham and gruyere in addition to salads and quiches. This is also the place to grab a snack or light breakfast of flaky croissants, rustic breads, and delicate pastries. Items can be ordered to go or enjoyed at a table on the bakery’s patio. Visit Bouchon Bistro down the street for more substantial brasserie fare.
6528 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599 | (707) 944-2253 | 7:00 am – 7:00 pm | www.thomaskeller.com
Breakfast + Lunch: Yountville Deli and Market
An affordable and easy option for a take-out or a sit-down lunch is the Yountville Deli which is attached to a gourmet market. This no-fuss eatery serves house-made sandwiches on husky slices of bread like ciabatta, focaccia, and sourdough. The deli has an extensive menu that ranges from Muffaletta to Vegan Ahimsa sandwiches. If nothing catches your fancy, customers are welcome to build their own creations. The sandwiches are pretty big, ideal for sharing if you don’t want to eat too much.
6498 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599 | (707) 944-2002 | 6:00 am – 3:00 pm | yountvilledeli.com
Dinner: La Toque
The Napa region is renowned for its abundance of upscale dining options. My girlfriends and I wanted a fine dining experience, but had a couple caveats: it needed to be vegetarian-friendly and not completely blow the bank. Although French Laundry offers a vegetable tasting menu, the $310 price tag was a bit too steep for our budget. Enter La Toque: a Michelin Star restaurant with a six-course vegetable tasting menu that started at $85 without wine pairings.
Located by the Westin in downtown Napa, La Toque ’s menu is inspired by flavorful French and Californian cuisine, showcasing seasonal ingredients sourced from local purveyors. First off, the service was impeccable. The staff was professional, friendly, and extremely accommodating to dietary restrictions, which was reassuring since one of my friends has severe allergies to certain nuts. The presentation and food were contemporary and creative. From the steamed green and white asparagus with spring onions and dill to the potato gnocchi with juicy morels and fava beans, the food had fully developed flavors that were clean and subtle. Reservations are recommended during peak season or to make special dietary requests.
1314 McKinstry Street, Napa, CA 94559 | (707) 257-5157 | 5:30 pm – 9:15 pm | latoque.com
HALL St. Helena
SENZA Hotel, where we were staying, is owned by the same proprietors as Hall so we received a promotional deal for a free tasting from the hotel (which usually starts at $40 USD). The original plan was to spend an afternoon visiting two or three wineries. But once we settled at HALL Wines in St. Helena, we had no desire to leave. The tranquil atmosphere and drinks had us city girls relaxing. Plus, we felt less guilty knowing we had another tasting waiting for us when we returned to the hotel for its complimentary social hour.
Family-owned HALL Wines has two wineries in Napa: one in St. Helena and in Rutherford. Both estates have been certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and maintain a strong commitment to using innovative, state-of-the-art technology. The facility at HALL St. Helena was the first LEED Gold Certified Winery in the California, making it a green pioneer of the wine industry. Red wine fans will appreciate that HALL specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon (though it does produce a crisp, refreshing Sauvignon Blanc). In fact, the 2010 HALL Exzellenz Red Wine and the 2013 HALL Rainin Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon were both awarded a coveted 100 point score from Robert Parker, the renown critic for Wine Advocate.
Like its wines, the grounds of HALL St. Helena are a skillful blend of modern and historic notes. An expressive collection of contemporary art greets visitors throughout the property. The sleek, glassy tasting room opens to an inviting terrace, outdoor fireplaces, and garden lounge areas that overlook fields of grapes. Our tasting included a complimentary sauvignon and choice of four reds from the menu – and did not require prior reservations like some other wineries require. Visit HALL’s website for events that include special tastings and culinary workshops.
401 St Helena Highway, St Helena, CA 94574 | 10:00 am – 5:30 pm | www.hallwines.com
Our favorite pastime during our 24-hour visit to Napa was to relax and fill our bellies, but there are plenty of activities that don’t always involved wine:
Stroll the Oxbow Public Market
Tease your senses by strolling the aisles at the Oxbow Public Market. Located by the river in downtown Napa, this market is a hub of locally sourced food, drinks, and shopping. From merchants selling spices to spirits and tacos to chocolate, everyone is sure to find something tasty.
610 & 644 1st Street, Napa, CA 94559 | (707) 226-6529 | 9:00 am – 9:00 pm | oxbowpublicmarket.com
Take a Cooking Class at the CIA at Copia
The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) recently reopened its Copia, a public-facing campus in downtown Napa (across the parking lot from Oxbow Public Market). The center touts itself as a “playground for food and when lovers” where they can shop, take classes, watch cooking demonstrations, and dine at its in-house restaurant. Check CIA Copia’s website for events like tastings and concerts or to book a class.
500 1st Street, Napa, CA 94559 | 10:30 am – 9:00 pm | www.ciaatcopia.com
Burn all those calories gained from drinking by biking. Several outfitters lead bicycle tours to winery tastings or allow travelers to rent bikes for self-guided tours through Napa’s back country.
Napa Valley Bike Tours & Rentals | napavalleybiketours.com
Travel tip shared by En Route Traveler