The Napa Valley Wine Region is a sprawling expanse of amazing views, picturesque wineries, and delicious wines and restaurants, located an hour north of San Francisco. No trip to Northern California is complete without a visit to this beautiful place.
It can be an expensive region for accommodations. If you’re on a budget, I recommend staying in San Francisco and renting a car, or taking one of the many shuttles that run to Sonoma & Napa daily, to get there. Wine tasting in the city of Napa is an indulgent experience (and worth doing!), but nearby Sonoma is a great option for budget-conscious travelers. The tasting fees and wine prices are typically lower.
There are so many wineries here, it’s hard to know where to begin. Let these four options for exploring wine country guide you.
1. By Tour
Exploring the wine country via a wine tour is one of the best ways to go! You don’t have to worry about sorting through lists of “The Best Wineries in Napa Valley,” and you have someone on-hand at all times who is knowledgeable about the area AND will drive you around. Score!
A simple Google search will show a ton of reputable tour companies in Napa Valley. When selecting one, think about the following:
Which region would you like to explore? Tours through Napa and Sonoma are usually the most popular options, but some go as far north as Calistoga.
Are you looking for a romantic/private experience, or a social experience?Some tours are designed to get guests mingling and tasting together, so look at reviews and tour size before booking to make sure you have the experience you’re looking for.
What is your budget for tasting and purchasing wine? When you pay for a tour, your fees cover the guide and vehicle, but they don’t cover tasting fees or wine purchases. Tasting fees can range from $5-$30 per person depending on the region you tour — Napa is more expensive than nearby Sonoma. Do a bit of research on your tour’s wineries before setting out, and build in these cost estimates to the price of your tour. (P.S. You can find some great coupons for wine tastings here).
2. By Bicycle
This is my personal favorite way to explore wine country. This summer, my friend Jeff and I rented bicycles from Napa Valley Bike Tours in downtown Yountville, and proceeded to spend the day peddling around wine country and sipping some of the best wines that Napa has to offer. If you rent here, they’ll provide you with a map of the area, as well as recommendations for wineries based on your wine preferences, cycling ability, and special requests.
Things to consider before heading out on bicycles:
Napa is rather hilly, so some parts of these rides might be challenging depending on how in-shape you are.That said, it’s a fantastic workout and makes you feel a little less guilty about all of the calories that you will inevitably consume in Napa!
Watch your wine intake.You’ll be cycling on busy roads, so be sure to keep your wits about you as you travel from one winery to the next. Take frequent breaks from tasting and stay ultra-hydrated.
Just like with tours, tasting fees are in addition to the cost of renting your bike. This particular region (Yountville/Napa) is rather pricey for tasting fees, so expect to pay $20-$30 per tasting, per person.
You’ll inevitably get hungry while cycling, but wineries in Napa do not allow “picnicking.” Jeff and I learned this the hard way when we were already way past our hunger threshold and wanted to dig into our sandwiches, but were told we couldn’t. Be sure to eat well before setting out, and bring only small snacks that you can discreetly eat before heading into each winery. They will totally call you out otherwise.
3. By Foot
There are two “downtown” areas that I find ideal for exploring wine country on foot. The first is downtown Napa itself, which offers a wealth of tasting rooms and restaurants to explore. You can park nearby and spend the day tasting the best that Napa has to offer. Here are a few of my favorite spots in downtown:
Bistro Jeanty in downtown Yountville – another great place to explore on foot!
The second area is one of my favorite places in all of wine country – Sonoma Plaza. The downtown is arranged around a square, leaving you free to wander, wine taste, and eat your way through the best of Sonoma without ever leaving sight of the central park. Relax and wrap up the day with a coffee by the fire at the El Dorado Hotel. Here are a few of my favorite spots to hit:
This option allows you the most flexibility by far. With a rental car, you aren’t restricted to only visiting wineries within a certain proximity (Napa Valley can be quite spread out). You’re also free and able to explore the best restaurants in the area, many of which are off the beaten path.
However, it should be considered that for this option you would need a designated driver, who is willing to not partake in the wine tasting, and focus on getting your group around. Depending on who you’re traveling with, it can be easy or incredibly difficult to find a willing and enthusiastic DD. Consider the likelihood before arranging your visit to Napa.
If you do end up exploring the wineries by car, a whole world of new options are open to you! Use the region’s wine map to select wineries in the area you’ll be exploring.
Which method would you choose to explore Napa Wine Region? Let me know which one you’d like most in the comments below!