Our first trip to Napa Valley was in 1972. We camped at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park. We rode our bikes on Highway 29. Our 2-year-old co-pilot was fastened in a seat behind the Navigator. We tasted wines. We survived.
There were fewer than 20 wineries and tasting fees were unheard of. Today there are more than 400 wineries with tasting rooms and most charge $20 and up for a “regular” tasting. Still, the beautiful valley draws nearly 4 million visitors a year. If you haven’t gone, you should go for a day or, better yet, two days. You will love it.
Crowds can be huge and traffic terrible, so visit in the off-season and avoid weekends. Lodging is much cheaper, popular restaurants are not so busy, and you’ll be able to actually talk to the tasting room host.
I suggest you stop at visitors centers. You can get free maps, restaurant guides and best of all, 2-for-1 tasting coupons. Pick up a copy of Wine Country, This Week. On the last page is a listing of all the deals and discounts available. The American Canyon Welcome Center, Napa Tourist Information Center and Visit Calistoga are great resources.
To cut food costs, I suggest you take an ice chest with picnic goodies. A picnic in Napa Valley is a must and downright therapeutic.
The north end of the valley and the town of Calistoga have always been our favorite. It is less crowded, as most tour buses didn’t go there, lodging has been reasonable, restaurants have been more relaxed and a mud bath is a perfect end to a cold winter day.
Today, there are more wineries, tasting rooms, restaurants and upscale spas, but Calistoga still has that small-town feel. For example, happy hour at Johnny’s serves $3 sliders, $2 tacos and $6 wine, Just around the corner you can get ribs or tri-tip, garlic bread and two sides for $12 at Buster’s Barbeque. All Seasons Bistro (yes, a favorite) just celebrated its 40th year. You can park your car and walk to everything.
The rising star in the valley is the town of Napa. It has the Uptown Theater, the Oxbow Public Market, the Culinary Institute of America at Copia (the grand reopening is Feb. 18-19), art galleries, 12 tasting rooms and plenty of restaurants. You can buy a downtown tasting card for just $15, which is good for half-price tastings at all 12. (Visit www.donapa.com.).
For more cost-saving suggestions, check out Yelp or TripAdvisor, and don’t forget Airbnb or VRBO. Invite your wineaux friends and split the costs.
You can do Napa Valley – yes you can – just don’t ride your bikes on Highway 29. Cheers!