Napa Know How: How to Conquer Napa Valley Without Blowing Your Budget

Justin and I just returned from five days in sunny California. We spent 2 full days in Napa Valley and 3 in San Francisco. Neither of us had been to Napa Valley before, so I literally spent hours researching wineries, restaurants and general visitor info. It's in my nature to plan and I want to learn all I can about a new place prior to visiting. As a result, we were able to enjoy an affordable, relaxing yet full few days there.

For all you Napa newbies like us, here's some tips on how to plan a successful trip:

1. Don't over-schedule yourself.
There are over 480 wineries in Napa Valley. It also seems that every person who has been there has a different favorite that you 'cannot miss'. Unless you plan on moving there, you are not going to be able to visit every one. Do your research, pick YOUR top few and enjoy.
Silver Oak Winery

On our first day there, we went to 5 wineries. Do not attempt to do anymore. We were able to visit that many for 2 reasons: 1) we only did tastings our first day, no tours and 2) we had a driver (see  below). I would say that 3-4 wineries per day is the optimal amount. It allows you time to enjoy at each vineyard, yet lets you experience several.

2. Visit a variety of wineries.
We visited a large winery in a castle, a winery in a cave and a small family-owned winery among others. They all had something unique to offer and we loved something different about each one.
As much as the large and popular wineries seem to get a bad rap, they are usually popular for good reason. The opulent structures and perfectly manicured vineyards are truly a sight to see.
Castillo di Amarosa

However, my favorite tasting experience was at the much smaller, more casual winery, Frank Family Vineyards. Justin, myself and one other couple participated in the 'reserve tasting'. Our host told us interesting anecdotes about the owner and the winemaker, was incredibly knowledgeable about the wine and even gave us a few extra tastes of wines not on the menu. They also have picnic tables available for guests to use for picnic lunches or to enjoy a glass of wine.
Frank Family Vineyards

We also were able to tour a very opulent winery...in a cave. Jarvis Winery truly spared no expense when building this amazing $150 million winery, which is literally entirely in a cave. It felt very Wizard of Oz-ish and made for a very unique experience.
Jarvis Winery

3. Don't forget the essentials.
What are the essentials, you ask?
First, a hands-free crossover bag for every woman is a must. It makes holding a wine glass, winery pamphlets and walking through vineyards much easier when you don't have to worry about carrying a handbag too.

Second, Colgate Wisps are a red-wine lovers best friend. We used these in the car between stops. They prevented the dreaded 'purple tooth haze', as well as kept our wine breath nice and fresh.

Third, comfortable shoes. Many wineries have long entrances from the parking lot to the actual entry. Napa Valley is also very hilly. This is not the time to wear high heels or uncomfortable shoes. You will stand for the majority of your tastings and you will walk quite a bit.
Finally, wear layers! We literally had perfect weather...sunny, mellow breeze in the mid-70s. However, it was a bit colder in some of the wineries, especially if you do any cave tours. You'll be glad you packed a light sweater.

4. Hire a Driver.
We obviously did not want to drink and drive, yet we wanted to be able to enjoy ourselves. I researched several companies that offer bus/shuttle tours and we almost went that route. However, the typical price was $99/person and you are not able to select the 4 wineries that you would visit. I stumbled across Napa Valley and Sonoma Wine Tours and discovered that they will drive your car (including a rental car) for you for just $25/hr. This way you can set your own itinerary and go at your own pace.

Robert was our driver and he picked us up at our bed & breakfast. We hired him for 6 hours but we went a little long, and he was happy to accommodate us. He took more scenic routes and knew of back roads and shortcuts, which we would've never found ourselves. It was absolutely worth the $150 for the safety, ease and service. I can't recommend them enough. This also ended up being less expensive than had we opted for a shuttle tour.

5. Take time to savor the scenery.
Duckhorn Winery

Although our 1st day was full with visiting 5 wineries, our 2nd day was much more leisurely. We had 2 winery tours scheduled and that was it. After the second tour, we visited the Auberge du Soleil Resort. AMAZING!!!! This high-end resort has the best view of Napa Valley. Although the resort is expensive (rooms typically start at $1000 per night and the resort boasts a Michelin-star restaurant), you can enjoy a cocktail on the balcony of the bistro and enjoy the same gorgeous view. By the afternoon of our second day, we were needing a break from wine, so we had a glass of champagne, some oysters and a pizza on the outdoor terrace.

We enjoyed the light meal and top notch service but most of all, we enjoyed a quite hour or two taking in the expansive view of wine country. It doesn't get any better than this.

6. Check websites and apps for deals.
I found and downloaded a few apps on my iPhone that were invaluable, such as the Winery Finder app, which offers lots of specials and discounts at various wineries. Thanks to the free app, we scored 2-for-1 tastings at both Duckhorn and Cakebread, which instantly saved us $50. The WineCountry.com app also offers deals and provides quick access to nearby restaurants, lodging, shopping etc. With just a few clicks, we saved money on wineries and our b&b, which we put towards more wine, of course!

The Napa Visitor Website offers current offers as well. Found HERE.

7. Don't feel pressure to buy wine you don't love.
There is far too many wineries and amazing wine out there to settle for anything but wine you love. We ended up getting a bottle(s) at all of the wineries that we visited, sans one.
Bottles that came home with us. We also purchased a bottle at Jarvis but enjoyed it in Napa:)

8. Enjoy each small town through Napa Valley, if you can.
Napa Valley consists of several small towns, each equally as quaint and welcoming as the next. Our favorite area was Yountville, which is the home of The French Laundry Restaurant, Bouchon bakery etc.      
We stayed in Calistoga, which is at the North end of the valley. It was slightly more affordable and a bit smaller that Yountville or St. Helena but just as charming.
Yountville in Napa Valley

9. Mingle
I'm fairly quiet by nature. My husband is not and makes friends everywhere he goes. It is one of the traits I love most about him. During our short visit, we enjoyed lunch with a couple from London, chatted with a woman from Quebec and exchanged favorite wineries with a couple from Houston. My favorite part of traveling is meeting people from different backgrounds. As much as I love the close-knit community of Kansas City, almost everyone I meet is from Kansas/Missouri and is a mutual friend of a classmate, neighbor or colleague. Sometime it's nice to interact with folks from different parts of the world and country and get their perspective on things.
Foreign Cinema in San Fran

10. Don't forget to eat!
With the excitement of trying to get in as many winery visits as possible and enjoying the wine at each stop, it's easy to forget to stop for some grub. Even a quick bite helps you from getting too tipsy or feeling green. We stopped at the famous, casual Gott's Roadside and had a delicious lunch. Justin went with a classic burger and I had the ahi tuna tacos, which were stuffed with fresh yummy tuna. Don't worry, the always-present line of people moves fast.

Here was our itinerary for reference-
Thursday, Arrived in Calistoga in Napa Valley at 10:30
10:45 Driver picks us up and takes us to 1st stop
11-Noon Castillo di Amarosa Wine Tasting
12:15-1:00 Frank Family Vineyards Tasting
1:15-1:45 Gott's for lunch
2-2:45 Duckhorn Tasting
3-3:40 Cakebread Tasting
4-5 Francis Ford Coppola Winery Tasting
5:30-7 Back to Wine Way Inn B&B to rest
7:30 Dinner
10 Bedtime! We were exhausted.
Coppola Winery

8am Breakfast
9-10:30 Walking around Yountville
11-1:30 Silver Oak Vertical Cabernet Tasting (tasting lasted an hour, then we bought some wine and chatted with new friends for awhile)
2-3 Jarvis Tour & Tasting
3:30-5 Auberge du Soleil for late lunch
6 Back in San Francisco for dinner

It was a fantastic trip and we are already talking about going back.
 Until next time Napa-

your fellow wine lovers,
Suzanne & Justin

Back to reality now. Whomp whomp.