Some towns are upfront about their identities. Las Vegas, for instance. Walking those first few blocks of the strip, with its in-your-face neon signs and light-up advertisements, will at least tell you that this place exists for fantasy and entertainment. Napa announces itself too, in a different way. The wide Silverado Trail looks out onto vineyard after vineyard, each one (otherwise indistinguishable from the others) proudly labeled with the name of the winery. The green mountains in the distance frame all those rows of yellow leaves and purple-blue grapes, growing luxuriously fat and sugary in the California sun. There’s no mistaking it. You’re in wine country.
Although I sometimes feel like an intruder in the quiet solitude of those vineyards, I'm not really interrupting. Like Vegas, elements of Napa are manufactured just for me, the visitor. V. Sattui, for instance, produces Italian-style wines. Their tasting room looks like a Southern Italian cottage and they have a small, Italian deli with a beautiful meat, cheese, and bread selection. It has little to do with the grapes themselves and much more to do with creating a lifestyle experience for V. Sattui’s guests.
For me, the difference between Vegas and Napa is that I actually like the lifestyle narrative Napa offers its visitors. I love the good food and the wine (and drinking too much of the wine) and the French country style cottages and Italian villas. I love looking out onto all those picturesque, symmetrical rows of grapes. I like that it’s quiet enough for me to hear the leaves rustle on their vines and that everything is spread out enough to make each vineyard feel like its own universe. It also helps that Napa is a complete departure from noisy, congested Downtown Los Angeles (no offense, LA).
I’m writing about Napa this week because I was there last month. My in-laws, who live in the Bay Area, drove us there for such a relaxing day of picnic-ing, tasting, and dining at one of my favorites, Bistro Jeanty. It made me want to share some of the vineyards, restaurants, and markets that made an impression on me— from this trip and past ones. Here goes!
Places to drink wine—
This is my favorite place to splurge on a formal wine and cheese tasting. "Far niente" means "without a care." If you opt for a tour, they'll tell you all about their lifestyle philosophy, a bit of light science behind their wine production, and the history of their estate. Its 13-acre garden also makes it the most beautiful of all the vineyards (at least that I've seen).
Another gorgeous place to hang out for awhile. I'm pretty committed to red wine. But Duckhorn's sauvignon blanc is so good, it might change my mind about that one day.
A smaller location that still has a picturesque patio overlooking its vineyards... and a FREE tasting (yes, probably the only one in Napa). It's worth a stop just to try the port, which is delish.
Nickel & Nickel
Far Niente's sister winery that has a different (but also charming) aesthetic. It offers a tour and tasting that's just as informative and fun as Far Niente's.
Probably the best cab I've ever tasted. Those bottles are out of my price range (maybe one day), but I loved doing a tasting there.
Such a fun experience for wine and architecture lovers. It's inspired by both modern and ancient Persian traditions of winemaking. Darioush probably has the strongest narrative and branding around its wine— as proven by their beautiful, towering estate that looks like an ancient Persian palace.
I love V. Sattui for a casual tasting and a picnic afterwards. Like I mentioned above, they have a little Italian market in the front of their tasting room. You can buy wine and food there, then eat it outside in their shaded picnic area. Make sure to try their riesling. I think it's the best thing they have to offer.
Places to eat—
If you're going to eat escargots and coq au vin, you should probably do it on a sunny patio decked with colorful tables and kitchy French bistro decor. This place is just my style— serving up the French classics that melt my heart with a limited amount of fuss and a lot of charm.
Because a trip to the French Laundry will have to wait until you have access to that secret family trust fund.... This is another member of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. It's traditional French fare in a classically elegant setting.
The Girl & The Fig
A produce-centric, French-inspired menu that's always fresh and innovative. Their menu makes me want to hurry back to my own kitchen to invent something new— but not before I eat what they have to offer.
Very straightforward, high quality American comfort food (think burgers, steaks, and roast chicken) with an enthusiasm for California ingredients.
Another member of the Hillstone Restaurant Group (like Rutherford Grill). Consistently fresh, delicious New American food with some California favorites too (like sushi).
A classic destination that cranks out high quality American classics. Think cheeseburgers, milk shakes, and fries. I also love their veggie burger. It's a good place to take a casual break from the more formal New American and French dining scene in Napa and Yountville.
Oxbow Public Market
A big market with lots of vendors under one roof selling everything from olive oil and fresh fruit to kitchen supplies. It's a good place to stock up on wine paraphernalia you never knew you needed (portable wine chiller, anyone?). It also has a taco place where you can get things like duck and potato tacos (I've had both and they're great).
The oldest and most perfect market in Napa with a killer meat and cheese selection as well as prepared foods and produce. If you're going to do a picnic, I'd recommend stopping here first.
*I made this list with the help of my dear friend, Bianca, without whom I wouldn’t know how to do a proper day in Napa with too much wine and excellent food and general enthusiasm for living.