Napa for Newbies 101 - Jack's Visitors Guide to Napa Valley

Traditionally, I'm a tequila and beer guy. And far from a wine snob. But in the interest of taking advantage of the Bay Area -- and the fact that my kids seem to have swim meets up in Napa Valley regularly -- we've been getting to know the Napa region fairly well.

Because I couldn't find a wine tracker app that I liked, I went ahead and built my own wine tracker right here on Boegerweb. It's easy to share and very handy as a mobile reference. I can input new wines on it via mobile too. This satisfied another need for helping my friends who visit the Bay Area. I've learned that other locals haven't conquered the intimidation factor and simply don't know where to go. Hopefully some of these posts that are tagged "Napa" will help you folks out.

Deciding where to visit really depends on how much time you have and if you expect to be a repeat visitor. Are you planning one big day in Napa or just nibbling every once in a while from the region? Maybe you are scouting out a new club membership because you live in easy striking distance? Napa is full of beautiful tourists traps, and some of them - like this Napa Castle - are totally worth it. If you are visiting more for the wine than the spectacle, you might already have some targets in mind. If you are a full-on enthusiast, you have already scheduled your private tastings at small production wineries (and are hoping to also discover new wines to love.)

Visit the Large Wineries

Many of the larger Napa Valley wineries have consolidated ownership over the last couple of decades (ie they are corporate owned.) Usually these are the ones with the spectacular grounds, views, and architecture. They have parking for buses and $15-and-up tasting fees. Sometimes the wine is excellent and sometimes it's atrocious. I'll leave it up for others to tell you which ones to avoid. If you are indeed a tourist, the touristy ones might be perfect for you -- what tourist doesn't enjoy a spectacle?

Visit the Small Production Wineries

Most of the wineries in the Napa Valley are small production and therefore operate a bit differently. The tour buses don't go here -- you call up and make an appointment because they have a daily limit (by law) of visitors. The general rule here is to waive the tasting fee if you buy some [amount of, varies] wine.

The small production juice tend to be better and this is where the enthusiasts look to expand their palettes and collections. Often, these wines are only available at the winery or at select high-end wine shops, restaurants, and tasting rooms.

Hang Out in the Tasting Rooms

The great thing about tasting rooms is they help you figure out what you like (and subsequently, where to go next.) Is it a hot day and you want to taste a flight of unusual whites and chardonnays? Maybe some sparkling wines or rose's or, of course, some of the BIG BOLD REDS that Napa Valley is famous for.

Some of the wine merchants also have in-store tasting rooms so this is a splendid place to taste. We have a favorite shop in Yountville where they run the INSTANT CHILL machine so we can take some cool, crisp specimens to a nearby park (you are allowed to drink wine in Napa parks) and eat a picnic lunch.

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The fun part for us has been visiting new small production wineries. The people there are usually real nice and send us on to the next one. There is no shortage of great wine. And it's not always super-expensive either. Many are very reasonable. The fun right now is finding the ones that most "suit our style" that we'd want to return to often, attend their events (especially if music related), and get discounts on their delicious vino (ie join their wine club.) The search goes on.

Meanwhile, here are some tips for insuring a safe, fun, and hassle-free visit to the Napa wine region. Be sure to check back later for more linked wine, winery, and tasting reviews.

  • Go to taste, not to get wasted. Buy bottles along the way and get swervy later after you are done driving if that is your dealio. The CHP is on the alert for drunk drivers along the Napa corridors so beware.
  • Bring a picnic lunch (or buy one at Oakville Grocer.) If you are a ***foodie*** and want to spend hours in a restaurant talking about food, you are reading the wrong blog. I am far more likely to write about pairing wines with many varieties of unpopular music. Don't forget to pack a wine opener and some glasses (or outdoor non-glasses.) Bring a frisbee.
  • Don't try to cover too much ground. There is only so much you can taste. I like to have a plan with the "afternoon option." Avoid wasting time zigzagging all over the valley.
  • Don't worry about the wine snobs. Don't let them bother you and don't bother impressing them. A good wine is the one that you like. Cheers!