The headline seems preposterous, right? After all, the Napa Valley is renowned for its excellent restaurants. Millions of visitors flock here each year to experience some of the world’s best food and wine.
And yet, that’s what a woman I met this weekend told me. She said she “hates” staying in downtown Napa because “there are no good restaurants.” I didn’t try to change her mind. Why bother? All my favorite spots are crowded enough already.
Of course, what makes a restaurant “good” is subjective. But La Toque at the Westin earned a Michelin star. And two other downtown spots–Oenotri and C Casa–earned the “Bib Gourmand” designation, which Michelin defines as “good cuisine at a reasonable price.”
Perhaps I should give this woman the benefit of the doubt. After all, I remember a time 15 years ago when Napa wasn’t exactly replete with fine dining options. When I was a kid and my family drove over from Novato to spend time with relatives, a good meal meant malfattis from Lawler’s. And when visitors spoke of the Napa Valley, they were usually referring to the posh Upvalley towns like Rutherford and St. Helena.
But all that changed in 1999 with an infusion of capital that sparked a period of renovation and growth. New restaurants began opening at a quick clip—13 opened from December 2009 through November 2010, according to the North Bay Business Journal. And while a few of these restaurants have already shut their doors, including Bistro Sabor and Tyler Florence’s Rotisserie & Wine—many other well-regarded spots have cropped up, such as Napa Valley Bistro and Fish Story. I’ve had great meals at both.
Still not convinced? If you need more proof that downtown Napa does, in fact, have good restaurants, here are few other places to try:
Angèle—This French bistro earned a spot on the San Francisco Chronicle’s 2014 list of Top 100 restaurants
Ca’Momi—Consistently excellent pizza in the classic Neapolitan style
Pearl—Seriously, try the meatloaf
ZuZu—Delicious Spanish tapas crafted from organic, local ingredients whenever possible
What’s your favorite restaurant in downtown Napa? Share your opinion in the comment section!
I love accompanying friends on wine-tasting adventures–it’s an opportunity for me to introduce them to my favorite places, and for us to make new discoveries together.
Recently, three of my college friends came to town for our fourth annual Napa Girls’ Weekend. We decided to visit some favorites from previous trips–Paraduxx and Farmstead–but I threw in a few new spots, as well.
First up Saturday morning was Alpha Omega in Rutherford. I’d heard great things about this winery from an event planner who chose the location for a special dinner. And my friends and I are alumnae of Alpha Chi Omega, so even though the winery was missing a crucial component, we decided to give it a shot.
Because I’d called ahead to make reservations, we were immediately ushered to a prime spot outside on the shaded terrace, with a lovely view of the fountain. When Joe, our tasting room guide, learned that we couldn’t linger long, he brought out our tastes quickly but still provided plenty of background information on each wine.
Winery: Alpha Omega, 1155 Mee Lane at Highway 29
Tasting Room Hours: 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM
Tasting Fee: $30
Tastes Offered: 4
Appointment Required? No, but definitely recommended, especially on weekends
Joe talked us through the four offerings–the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, the 2011 Chardonnay, the 2010 Proprietary Red Wine, and the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. After we sniffed, swirled, sipped, and savored, the group consensus was that the Sauvignon Blanc and the Cabernet were must-purchase wines.
And when we finished our tasting with time to spare, Joe took us into the barrel room to thief some wine from the soon-to-be-released 2012 ERA wine, available to wine club members only. (This process, which involves using a tool called a “wine thief” to suction wine directly from the barrel, is always popular with visitors, I’ve found. It adds a little something extra to the tasting experience. After all, who doesn’t want to sneak a taste of something delicious that’s not available to the masses?)
Alpha Omega’s beautiful setting and well-crafted wines made it a new favorite with my friends. And I liked it so much that I joined the wine club. For me, the wine club perks–not just the wine itself–play a big part in my decision to join. At Alpha Omega, wine club members get access to some very cool events, including a lobster boil. (Many wineries offer this perk–it’s become a hugely popular feature in the Napa Valley. I went to one years ago at Salvestrin, and it’s still one of my favorite memories.) Plus, on weekends, the Alpha Omega picnic grounds are exclusively available to members (by prior reservation).
I expect we’ll be back at Alpha Omega for our fifth annual Napa Girls’ Weekend. And maybe next time, we’ll bring a picnic.
There are more than 300 tasting rooms in the Napa Valley. And most of them are only open for six hours a day. When you figure than you’ll spend 45 minutes to an hour at each tasting room, and you account for travel time between tasting rooms and a lunch break, you can realistically expect to visit a maximum of four tasting rooms in one day.
The options can seem overwhelming. How do you choose which tasting rooms to visit? Ask yourself a few questions to help narrow it down:
Taste a Favorite, Or Seek Out Something New?
Maybe you’ve had a memorable Napa Valley wine at a restaurant–a Cakebread Chardonnay, for instance, or a Nickel & Nickel Cab. If so, visiting that winery is a great way to try other offerings from that winemaker.
You can also winnow the field by focusing on tasting rooms that specialize in your favorite varietal. Maybe you’re partial to bold Cabernet. Or perhaps you prefer crisp Sauvignon Blanc. But remember, Napa is Cabernet country. Napa’s Cabs command a premium, so many vineyards are planted with that grape. There’s plenty of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Merlot, too.
While Cabs do dominate in Napa Valley tasting rooms, a wine-tasting trip also offers opportunities to expand your palate. You might seek out varietals that you don’t often drink, such as Viognier or Cabernet Franc from Miner Family, or Pinot Grigio from Luna Vineyards.
Tour the Grounds and Learn About the Winemaking Process, Or Simply Sniff, Swirl, and Sip?
Some people love learning about the importance of terroir and want a detailed account of how the wine is made, from the Brix at which the grapes are harvested to the toast on the barrels used for aging the wine. Other people only want to know one thing–how the wine tastes. And that’s okay. No judgment here.
(Well, maybe a little judgment. If you think “wine tasting” is synonymous with “getting trashed,” save yourself a trip to Napa and just visit your local bar.)
To learn more about the intricacies of winemaking, seek out a tasting room that offers an in-depth tour of the winery and vineyards. Some good options: Quintessa, Pine Ridge, Tres Sabores, Kuleto Estate, and Schramsberg.
If you’d rather skip the tour and go directly to the tasting, just be sure to choose a winery that offers tastings only. Almost all do, but a few, like Schramsberg, only offer tastings in conjunction with the tours. And tours tend to be pricier than a simple tasting. Standalone tasting rooms that aren’t attached to a winery and vineyard, such as Hill Family Estate or Hestan in downtown Yountville, or St. Clair Brown near downtown Napa, allow you to focus on the wine and get as much background information as you desire–or as little–from the knowledgeable tasting room staff.
Belly Up to the Bar, or Relax at a Table?
At many tasting rooms, visitors cluster around a central bar to sample the wines. The tasting room associates dispense tastes and answer questions from behind the bar. This is known as a “standing tasting” and is widespread throughout the Napa Valley.
Some tasting rooms offer “seated tastings,” where you and your party will be shown to a table. A tasting room associate will stop by your table to pour tastes and provide more information about the wines.
Standing tastings tend to be lively, and you can easily converse with other visitors. Seated tastings proceed at a more relaxed pace and are good for small groups who want to chat amongst themselves.
If you’re planning a visit to Napa during the busy season (essentially May through October) or on a weekend, I recommend seeking out a few seated tastings. When the tasting room is packed, standing tastings can be just a little too close for comfort.
Yes, there are too many great wines in Napa to taste in just one visit. But a little research will help you discover the tasting room experience that’s right for you. And if you still can’t make it to everywhere you want to taste, there’s a simple solution:
Plan a return trip!