Driving down clogged Highway 29 through California’s Napa Valley, it’s impossible not to notice how each winery tries to be bigger, better, and more expensively European than the next. Fake Tudor mansions neighbor Tuscan-ish “villas,” which sit next to concrete “chateaus.” Since the 1980s, Napa has become a competition of ostentation. Ingredients in restaurant dishes are outnumbered only by the guests frantic for a reservation; wineries hawk their wares for the price of a small car; and everyone seems to think that the bad oil painting/metal sculpture/puffy paint sweater for sale is redeemed by the fact that its subject is a grapevine.
Sure, Napa can be a corny alcoholic playground, but it’s also one of the most geographically beautiful areas of the country. There’s great food, wine, and even art. Napa is an expensive place to visit, there’s no getting around it. But it’s entirely possible to pick your battles.
Here’s our guide to the other Napa: restaurants that aren’t overpriced or overly touristy, wineries where it’s possible to have an intimate tasting experience, bars where waiters go to drink, taquerias where Mexican vineyard workers eat lunch, and gorgeous picnic spots.
Napa refers to both the City of Napa and the greater Napa Valley. That includes (from south to north, respectively) Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga. Connected by Highway 29 on the west and the Silverado Trail on the east, the points on this list are spread over the whole valley. There’s not much public transportation, so renting a car (and designating a friend to drive) is the way to go. When traveling north-south, take the less trafficked Silverado Trail, which is covered by a bright sneeze of yellow mustard flowers during the sunny summer months, instead of following the very-well-beaten path of Highway 29.
When to Go
The high season for visiting Napa is spring and summer, and it’s easy to understand why: Temperatures in the 90s and above make for excellent picnicking and pink shoulders. If you’re going then, try to avoid the weekend, when hordes of tourists descend, causing traffic jams and out-of-control tasting-room lines. The crush, when grapes come off the vine and go into the barrel, happens in September and October. During this time, Napa buzzes with the long days of work it takes to complete this monumental task, and some of the wineries will let you see the process. Winter is a quiet, almost-tourist-free environment, filled with friendly locals who are ready to give the curious visitor a personal and attentive time.