Get Lost: Napa Valley Off the Beaten Path.

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When Jay and I travel we like to go off the beaten path a little bit, avoid crowds and create our own adventures. After a few times to Napa we found our favorite little spots to visit without doing a whole lot of research. Sometimes you find the best places by just stopping road trip style when you see something interesting. There are wineries everywhere so you can't make a wrong turn. I will provide you with some guidelines and reviews of places we have gone in the past.  Hopefully this will help you gauge the direction you want to take in wine country as I will not be writing about your typical downtown Napa tasting room experiences. St. Helena, Calistoga, and Yountville are not the same experience as Downtown Napa but I guarantee it's one you'll never forget...

Napa Valley Vacation Tips

Fly into San Fran (unless your loaded $$ then fly into Napa)  it's about a 90 minute drive depending how deep into the country you are going. 

Where to Stay?---
-You are perfectly capable of finding your own little gem to stay at I've just jotted down some bullet points of where we stayed in the past. 
  • Downtown Napa- The Embassy Suites is super cute and convenient for the downtown Napa visitor with a swan pond in the courtyard.
  • Hilton Double Tree in Santa Rosa- Cheaper and closer to St. Helena and Calistoga. (You'll get a better chance of getting cheap room upgrade here also) Our breakfast was included here so we were able to eat from the buffet or spend a $30 credit on the breakfast Menu. I loved this option. There's also a badass brewery nearby that serves lunch and awesome beer called Lagunitas . Pronounced like log-ah-neat-us
  • Yountville- Right across the street from Hopper Creek is a little cozy place we rent with a kitchen. It's a perfect location.
  • San Fran- Driving to Napa every day is not fun when your tasting all day.
  • Vino Bello- Stayed here 4 times it's about 10 minutes outside of Downtown Napa they provide a bus to and from Downtown. We always have problems when we come here and it's a drive if your looking to explore in Calistoga and St. Helena. The rooms are nice and you can find it pretty cheap usually on one of the hotel discount websites.

Wine Country My Way--- 

Hopper Creek Winery-
This is the first winery Jay and I ever went to. In the beginning we had taken a trip to San Francisco and bought this discount "Grape Bomb" card on Groupon. After we bought it there was an email saying it would be "snail mailed" to us and that was just not going to work. We called them and they agreed to let us pick up the cards at Hopper Creek Winery in Yountville, CA. It's about a 2 hour drive from San Fran but we really love wine so we decided to go. 

Now 4 years later and we are still coming back to Hopper Creek every trip we make to Northern California. 
We come here for good wine, good company, and we never leave without a few bottles of wine. It's laid back, easy going, and set in the middle of a beautiful vineyard. You might want to call ahead of time to let them know you are coming and if your lucky you might run into, Barry the wine maker or Dieter the owner. Dan and Marcus run the tasting room and love what they do! It's a great place to start for your trip. Make sure to get yourself on the photo wall and have Marcus decorate one of your purchased bottles. If you go during crush season they will have crushed grapes out for you to play with! They serve chocolate here with their wine so we will stop at the market and get strawberries to bring. Say Hi to Chili Dog for me :) 

Hopper Creek Winery

Hopper Creek Winery

Hopper Creek Winery

My Recommendation would be to stay a night or two in Yountville so your not far from your hotel. We rented a cute little barn like loft nearly across the highway of Hopper Creek. (comment for more info)

Nichelini's and Sommerston---
We found this winery on accident. I had scheduled a vineyard tour at Sommerston winery and we got lost going down Sage Canyon Road. When you get outside of downtown St. Helena you lose all cell phone signal so I was unable to call telling them we would be late and my GPS lost signal. Finally we arrived after driving almost 2 hours to get there and they pretty much told us we could taste some wine but could not do the valley tour. I was really unhappy with this because they have a tasting room in downtown Napa that we have already been too and there were plenty employees standing around that could have done something for us. We left there in a bad mood and drove passed this little winery on the side of the road with a sign out saying "Crushing Today." Jay immediately stopped for a hope to cheer me up. Kenny was working that day (he moved to Florida so is no longer there) He happily greeted us when we walked in after we explained our situation at Sommerston he poured us a hefty taste of their deliciously grassy Sauv Blanc and took us down to their crush room. There they have volunteers who are doctors, lawyers and wine lovers all helping them with this process. It's the oldest family run winery since 1890 and they will treat you like your part of the family. We continue to come here because their wines are on point and they always brighten our day.
Open 11-5 Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Monday through Thursday make an appointment.

Nichelini Winery

My recommendation would be to either stay in St. Helena or Yountville and choose 3-4 wineries you want to see off Sage Canyon road then have dinner reservations in St. Helena or Yountville because they have the best restaurants in my opinion. So for our Sage Canyon day we would do and early lunch then Kuleto, Nichelini's, Rustridge and maybe end at Hopper Creek or stop somewhere interesting along the way. Keep in mind this road is a windy mountain road and not fun to drive at night!! 

Schramsberg Sparkling Vineyard---
Is pretty much a must go if you are spending time in or near Calistoga. There is so much history involved and a lot you probably didn't know about the making of sparkling wine. They serve this at the government dinners and there are pictures of Princess Diana drinking it so obviously it's good enough for me ;). The Blanc de Blancs was used for President Nixon's 1972 "Toast to Peace" with China. Even if you aren't ready to spend $60+ on a bottle of wine I would still recommend a visit here. We learned a lot on our first time and had so much fun!! Now we are wine club members which includes complimentary candle lit cave tastings when your in town very romantic and there is nothing more fab than sneaking off into a dark champagne cave to taste the high price bottles. The caves are all naturally made so you'll see the moss hanging down that gives it an old vintage feel (most caves have shock crete covering the walls and ceilings.) Not to mention you will be walking past millions of dollars in aging sparkling wine. It's all stacked in capped bottles along the walls before the corking process. Jay and I love being wine club members here we are on the 3 bottles every 3 month shipment and that's just enough to be able to celebrate and drink some, also reserving bottles to age.

Schramsberg Sparkling Vineyard

Schramsberg Sparkling Vineyard

My Recommendation: Make your appointment far in advance unless you are or know a wine club member. Also you will probably need to eat lunch after this because I always get my buzz on here no matter how little I drink! 

Kuleto Estate---
It not what it once was but the wine is still exquisite and the view, impeccable. It sits on 761 acres of hilly valleys with 90 acres of grapes. Visiting this place is the full experience, it's a tasting kicked up a notch sitting in scenery that appears to be a painting while your snacking on artisan cheeses. Be sure to make an appointment and get there early because it's a "fun" drive up the mountain!! You'll have to buzz in because only 1 car is allowed on the road at a time. The staff is very kind and knowledgeable if you make it to your tasting in time you will be walked around the property of Pat Kuleto who was previously known for his take on interior design in restaurants. So I can assure you it's a must see. 

Kuleto Estate Winery

Kuleto Estate Winery

My Recommendation: Even if your not looking for the $60 price tag it's still worth the tasting fee and a fun way to experience something a little more upscale even though it's somewhat rustic and causual. Don't be afraid to "revisit" any of the wines to get your buzz on get your $ worth!! "Was that Chocolate or Berry I was tasting?" 

Rustridge Ranch- 
We found this winery when we discovered Nichelini, sadly Nichelini does not make a Chardonnay which is my fave so Kenny sent us over to Jim and Susan who are a hard working couple just down the street from Nichelinis. They take pride in their wines (especially the Chardonnay) and will tell you anything you need to know about wine. Jim used to race horses so you will see this reflected throughout the Ranch. Plenty of horses and good wine to go around!! You can also stay here if you wish!! There is a B&B connected to the winery with a Country ranch vibe. We come here for the rich racehorse reds and the ultimate buttery, creamy, oaky, and delightful Chardonnay I've never tasted another one like it although we are wine club members we never seem to have enough in stock at the house. I can't help myself!! 

Rustridge Ranch Winery

Rustridge Ranch Winery

My Recommendation: This is normally our last stop along the Sage Canyon road. Unless you are really into rich Chardonnay and country ranches you probably could skip it.We will usually have Nichelini call up to make sure they are still there and head up before the windy drive back home. Just be sure to leave before dark it's miserable driving home after wine and no street lights!!

Jacuzzi Family Vineyards---
This is another great stop. We usually go here on our way back to San Francisco because it goes right out to the highway and we get our shipping boxes here. If your more on a budget or just like cheaper wine this is a good spot. You can schedule for a wine/cheese tasting and tour but you really don't need to. A regular bar tasting is complimentary and I LOVE the Prosecco it's $15 a bottle with a DOCG label which means it has been approved and tasted by the Italian Government before being bottled sounds like a good deal to me!! All of the wines we get from here are our easy drinking wine or "gift" wines if someone invites you to a dinner it's always nice to bring the wine. You probably had not heard of Jacuzzi winery before you came on this blog and you can't buy them in wine stores or grocery stores so it's an inexpensive way to give a nice gift. I get those gold and silver sharpies to personalize the bottle then tie a ribbon on it and wah-lah don't even need a gift bag! 

Jacuzzi Winery

My Recommendation: Finish your trip here if your flying out of San Fran we usually would stay our last night or 2 in San Fran to explore the city and extend the diversity of our trip. Also Jacuzzi family also owns Cline winery across the street Hello complimentary tasting times 2!!! I'm not a big fan but it's worth walking across the street for!! Buy in bulk if your in the wine club to take advantage of your discount.

How to Get the Wine you Buy Back Home for Cheap: 
  • Check with your airline and see how much it costs to check extra luggage it will probably be cheaper than UPS or having the winery do it personally and you'll be able to purchase bottles even if they can't ship to your state.
  • For Jay and I it's 3 free bags per person meaning we can ship back up to 6 cases of wine if we travel all carry-on and even if you have to pay remember it's just 1 way. 
  • If you are bringing back wine with you on the plane you'll need a cardboard styrofoam insulated wine shipping box or 5. 
  • We usually pick ours up at Jacuzzi winery on our way back to San Francisco it's the perfect end to an amazing vacation and will put you right on the highway after. (if you buy a bunch of wine they won't even charge you for the extra boxes) Free tastings too!! Can't beat that!! (see above for my review on Jacuzzi)
  • Keep in mind these boxes might not fit the longer tall Port bottles or some of the wider chardonnay or pinot bottles.
  • If the shipping box isn't your thing you can buy seal-able bubble wrap sleeves to put in your luggage so if the bottle breaks it won't leak. I've used these too without a problem I just cushion it between clothes.
  • If you do use my shipping box method make sure to check these curbside with your airline BEFORE returning your car and write your name and mailing address directly on the box. It would be miserable trying to make way through the airport with 6 cases of wine just get to the airport a little early. 
Other Tips- 
  • Don't be afraid to "revisit" any wine you have tasted.
  • If you like getting drunk please look into hiring a driver for the day. 
  • Take some time and walk around Downtown St. Helena it's so cute!! 
  • There is a Whole Foods in Napa. Take advantage of the olive and cheese bar while your in town. We go here before our hotel and stock up for our stay.
  • If your too cheap there's a Trader Joe's next door ;) 
  • Make dinner reservations prior to your vacation so there's no guessing or pouting when dinner time comes around. Some of these places book up 3 months in advance so you might find yourself with a 9 PM reservation! No worries!! Sleep in, eat a late lunch and it will be fabulous! Or pre-game with a bottle of wine at the hotel before dinner with olives and cheese. 
  • Don't plan out every little detail of your trip!! Get lost and pop into a random winery it might be the best part of your vacation!! 
  • Ask random locals for lunch recommendations there could be a food truck or a diner/cafe that only the locals go to. V. Sattui Winery is a good lunch stop but it can be very busy and congested. Send your honey in to purchase a bottle of wine while you wait for the food. Then pop a squat at one of the picnic tables.
V. Sattui Winery

  • Avoid the all day bus tours. You might get stuck along with a bachlorette party or not be up for the 6 wineries they have on the list and you'll be miserable and stuck.
  • Check how much corkage fees are at the restaurants it may be cheaper for you to bring your own. You can even drop it off early to have it chilled for a white or put in a decanter to air out for a red.
  • Try eating at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) I haven't had the chance to but I've only heard good things. 
  • In Napa there is no "dress code" even in the posh spots. That bearded guy in the plaid shirt sitting over there? Just the billionaire from next door. 
  • For the real deal feel visit during September/October during "Crush season." The air will smell of a musty fine wine it makes my mouth water. 
  • Most wineries will waive your tasting fee if you buy wine and give you a discount for a full case or wine club membership discount.

There's plenty of wineries everywhere in Napa whether you take my advice or find something new I applaud and would love to hear back. Everyone likes different things but the wineries I have left you with I think are mostly diverse you will find something you like no matter what. It's all about the love in the bottle :) 


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