The Napa Valley is recognized around the world as the premier wine valley in the United States. Although many people may disagree (I live in Sonoma County, which is pretty darn good, too), when people talk about wine, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa just rolls off the tongue.
The Napa Valley is just that: a long valley with several small and unique towns and wine-growing areas throughout the valley. In a normal year when travel is not affected by a pandemic and wildfires that have decimated several wineries and a few vineyards, Napa is extremely expensive, crowded, and a little overwhelming. Even for me, and I taste wines and write about them for a living.
But, heading into winter with the fires in the rearview mirror and hotels, restaurants, and wineries clamoring for visitors, it is the perfect time to experience the Napa Valley. The temperatures are still mild and, while you may wake up to 38-degree mornings, by noon temps are well into the 60s or 70s. And the sun is shining, so don’t forget your sunglasses.
The Visit Napa Valley Association says, “We call November to April Cabernet Season, and it's the best season to visit for those in the know because it's a time when the valley slows down following the bustle of Harvest, making way for more intimate experiences and creating the opportunity to explore all of the culture the valley has to offer. In addition to being able to score great deals, visitors during Cabernet Season can more easily nab reservations at top restaurants and have the opportunity to meet winemakers and immerse themselves in a slower, more intimate atmosphere.”
Restaurants and wineries can only serve outdoors at this time but that may change at any minute. In the meantime, outdoor heaters abound, so there is no lack of comfort while tasting or dining.
Here, I will take you through some of the classic Napa Valley experiences and the unique towns and what they offer up and down the valley. In addition, I have interviewed some of the local personalities and vintners to get an idea of why they love Napa in the winter, when life slows down, reservations are easier to come by, and people take the time to chat. Cabernet Season: a perfect name for a time when a gorgeous glass of red at the fireplace is a memory that lingers for a lifetime.
1. Enjoy A Mud Bath And Spa In Calistoga
Calistoga is a charming town with a main street that still retains its historic look while boasting a cluster of diverse restaurants, tasting rooms, and retails stores, including a hardware and general store straight out of another time.
In recent years, Calistoga has benefitted from the emergence of first-rate resorts and the resurgence of older properties that have been reborn with new owners and extensive upgrades. But, the heart of Calistoga’s spa culture is the iconic mud bath, which could not be more appropriate on a chilly winter day. The area’s natural hot springs are why the town was named after New York’s Saratoga Springs, yet here, Cali- was added to toga to get Calistoga, and while the hot springs and mud baths remain popular, Calistoga has grown up to be a full-scale resort town.
Nowadays, Indian Springs Resort and Spa is the standard-bearer of hot springs, spa, soaking pools, and first-rate dining at Sam’s Social Club. One of the original thermal spa resorts, Indian Springs has preserved the enormous 1910 Olympic Pool and enhanced all of the hot springs and spa activities. A warm and nurturing place, in winter, rates drop considerably and the chance to cocoon a bit after the year we have had is seductive, to say the least.
Other hotels offering ways to stay warm in winter with hot springs, mud baths, and spa services include Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, Golden Haven Hot Springs and Resort, Mount View Hotel and Spa, and Spa Solage, a member of the Auberge Resorts family.
Wineries around Calistoga include the classic Sterling Vineyards with its gondola to the top of the mountain, Castello di Amorosa with its Tuscan castle, the welcoming Frank Family Vineyards, the historic Chateau Montelena, and French-inspired Clos Pegase.
You may not want to leave Calistoga, but if you’re heading elsewhere, one last site to see is the famous Old Faithful Geyser California, which is fun for the whole family with the attraction’s Animal Farm and Geology Museum.
Editor’s Note: Calistoga Hot Springs made our list of the 11 best hot springs in the U.S. Don’t miss the others if you’re after a hot springs experience this winter!
2. Enjoy The Ride To Saint Helena And Wineries Along The Way
Continue along Route 128 and stop at one of the founding wineries in the valley, Charles Krug, still a part of the Mondavi Family, AXR Wines on a ghost winery site (meaning a winery that didn’t survive Prohibition), and Brasswood Winery with their restaurant and bakery. Larkmead Vineyards has loads of history yet continues to experiment with different varietals, clones, and rootstocks. Greystone Culinary Institute (part of CIA -- the Culinary Institute of America) is worth a stop to shop their kitchen store and see their test kitchens and chocolate shop. This is a major culinary think-tank. Plan ahead for possible classes and events. In fact, try and plan ahead for all activities because the majority of tastings are seated and suggest reservations.
Route 128 turns into Main Street as it stops and starts through the town of St. Helena. Almost impossible to traverse in a timely manner in the summer, after harvest and through the winter, it’s really only locals shopping and dining in classic places like Model Bakery (Oprah’s called out the English Muffins), Gott’s Roadside Diner, and Tra Vigne Pizzaria. Retail stores include Woodhouse Chocolate, Daisy Clothing Boutique, Lolo’s Consignment, Acres Home and Garden, and Napa Valley Vintage Home.
Gorgeous, luxurious hotels like Los Alcabas Hotel, The Harvest Inn, and Southbridge Napa Valley beckon, but the Meadowood Napa Valley, long an iconic place for events and fine dining, was lost in the Glass Fire. Further down 128, you’ll find El Bonita Motel, a converted motel that is comfy, well-located, and a bargain.
Wineries abound here, and there are plenty of off-season values and no crowds. Merryvale Winery has a special package that includes butler service from the popular Gott’s. Louis Martini Winery has a winter tasting menu to pair with their historic wines. The Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch is a rare combination of restaurant and tasting room that provides the perfect break for lunch.
For an intimate experience, visit my friend Pam Starr’s Crocker and Starr Winery for a tasting or a picnic experience in the vineyard. After many years living and making wine in the valley, Pam explains why she loves winter here. “My husband and I love winter in Napa, the colors of fall and winter are vibrant and the air is so fresh. We hike the ridgeline north of Stags Leap and along the single track trails at Skyline state park.”
“There is great hot chocolate to be found in St. Helena while we walk along the town streets and check out the decor,” she told me. “Lunch at Angeles along the river in Napa is something we always do. And the mustard begins to bloom around February, so we put on our amateur photographers’ hats and hope to catch a great picture. The artists of Napa usually open their studios, fun to browse and dream. And the big bonus? We release our Rose in January and host locals who mark their calendars to secure a few bottles!”
3. The Famous Rutherford Dust Is Found In The Bottle
Just south of the edge of Zinfandel Lane (the border of St. Helena, which continues past Rutherford Road and from Route 128 to the Silverado Trail) lies the town of Rutherford and the Rutherford Dust terroir that makes these wines notable.
Some stellar wineries to seek out are Alpha Omega with their valet parking, stunning grounds, and personal wine experiences; Quintessa with its allocated, collectible Cabernets; the original Inglenook Winery that film director Francis Ford Coppola brought back to life; and Grgich Hills, whose winemaker Mike Grgich brought fame to California wines by winning international competitions.
For lunch or dinner, you can’t beat the Rutherford Grill or one of the finest Napa Valley resorts, Auberge du Soleil, where a reservation actually obtainable in winter with reduced rates and a third-night free offer.
4. Napa Valley’s Oakville Is A Powerful Blip On Route 128
Although there are few places to stay in little Oakville, the little grocery there has become the iconic Oakville Grocery with its gourmet goods and made-to-order sandwiches and pizzas. And it’s a good thing there is a place to eat because the real mission in Oakville is drinking wine from some of the most famous wineries in the U.S.
Robert Mondavi Winery basically put Napa Valley on the map and the famed To Kalon vineyard from which many wineries make prized wines is smack in the middle of Oakville. If you are a lover of Cabernet Sauvignon, then the wineries you know and love include Far Niente, PlumpJack, Nickel and Nickel, Silver Oak, and Opus One. In winter, you might actually get in to experience these classic Cabernet houses, but make reservations and realize tasting Cabs that retail for over $100 could cost a bit more than expected.
Longtime vineyard manager and vintner Linda Neal, who spent the last two years in the Peace Corps, makes a small amount of extraordinary Cab from her little Oakville plot called Tierra Roja, or red earth. She adores Napa in winter. “I love the beauty of this unique agricultural region, and that beauty is reason enough to visit. But the reason I most love the Napa Valley is the true sense of community, where most everyone, from all walks of life, comes together to support one another, be it the local schools or a neighbor. Normally, the winter is rich with small-town community fundraisers that are fun for visitors as well. This year, due to COVID, there will be none of those. However, if all you do is drive around and view the beauty from your car, you are well rewarded -- I love the fact we are still a tight farming community, despite all the dazzling window dressing. Napa Valley has it all.”
5. Yountville Lights Up For Holidays And Throughout Winter
Heading farther south, you come to Yountville, which is actually the largest small town as you head away from St. Helena and down to the town of Napa. Yountville is known for its heady restaurants known the world over: The French Laundry, Bouchon Bistro,
Bistro Jeanty, Bottega Restaurant, Brix Restaurant, and Mustards Grill. Although getting seated at some of these restaurants may still be a challenge, visiting in winter greatly improves your chance of a reservation -- and maybe some specials. Check for happy hours.
Yountville is very proud of its thousands of holiday lights and events throughout the season. Although this season is different given the pandemic, lights will still be on and Zoom events are taking classes and celebrations online.
“Winter is a great time to visit the Napa Valley,” said Whitney Diver McEvoy, president and CEO of the Yountville Chamber of Commerce. “The pace is slower, the valley is especially beautiful in the winter when the hills turn a vivid green set against the dormant vines, and the valley's chefs really shine with menus that perfectly pair with the great cabernet wines for which Napa is famous. In Yountville, there’s a magical feeling during winter when you can park your car once and enjoy our walkable town adorned with thousands of twinkling lights during the holidays. It’s also a perfect time of year to get pampered at one of our cozy spas and enjoy a glass of wine in the warmth of the fireplace in your room or on the patio.”
Stay in Yountville and never have to leave for your entire visit. From Bardessono, Hotel Villagio, or Hotel Yountville, you can walk to restaurants and nearby tasting rooms including Silver Trident Winery, where they are having some creative winter fun with wine and Zapp’s potato chips tastings! Winter makes the Napa Valley so approachable with value, incredible meals, and far fewer other people. Get to know the locals!