Why Cabernet Season Is the Best Time of Year to Take a Napa Valley Road Trip
After what was deemed a “near perfect” growing season, autumn’s bountiful harvest left the Napa Valley ripe for winter relaxation. From November until April, the pace around wine country slows down. The grapes have been brought in and the new vintage rests in cellars throughout the Valley, giving winemakers the chance to relax and chat with tasting room guests in a way they can’t during busier months. Winter is also when Napa’s famed cabernets are released, giving visitors the chance for a first taste of some iconic wines.
Beyond the vines, the perks of road tripping through the quiet of winter are many. Snag a table at one of the Valley’s sought-after, Michelin-starred restaurants, cozy up with a hot toddy by the fire pit, wind along a blissfully traffic-free Highway 29, and snap photos of the brilliant swaths of mustard flowers popping up everywhere. This guide delivers a blend of new and noteworthy along with well-loved local haunts for a perfect long weekend (or longer!) in Napa Valley.
Napa: Wine Country 101
Once sleepy Napa no longer turns into a pumpkin by cocktail hour, with everything from new hotels and restaurants to a dynamic arts district and the opening of Blue Note Napa, an outpost of New York’s famed jazz club, playing a role in the town’s reawakening.
As the gateway to wine country, Napa makes an ideal first stop on a Valley road trip. Wine novices and vineyard veterans alike can hone their oenophile chops at the Culinary Institute of America’s CIA at Copia, which opened in 2017 in Napa’s buzzing Oxbow neighborhood. A roster of classes with enticing titles like, “How to Taste Wine in 90 Seconds” and “The History of Napa Valley in 8 Glasses” is offered throughout the season, any of which will arm visitors with just enough savvy to enhance a weekend-full of wine tastings.
Be sure to make time to explore the campus. Last August the Institute unveiled the Chuck Williams Culinary Arts Museum, which features more than 4,000 culinary pieces once belonging to the founder of Williams-Sonoma. Meanwhile, cooks and eaters alike will love Copia’s on-site store, a haven of gorgeous kitchenware, pottery, books, and home accents.
Later, put newly acquired wine knowledge to use on a stroll with Paper Napan Walkabouts, a boutique tour company that spotlights Napa’s Rail Arts District – a cultural campaign turning forgotten outdoor spaces into works of art – and makes stops at a handful of downtown tasting rooms along the way. Afterwards, relax fireside at the boutique Archer Hotel’s rooftop lounge, Sky and Vine, over small plates and delicious wines.
Yountville: Taste of the Town
Named after George Calvert Yount, a former fur-trapper and pioneer who planted Napa Valley's first grapevines back in 1839, quaint Yountville’s picturesque main drag invites wandering. Often considered the epicurean epicenter of Napa Valley, a bounty of culinary options line Washington Street alongside 16 tasting rooms, which double as eclectic retail spaces. Pick up a passport-style Yountville Wine Walk map at the town’s welcome center – each tasting earns you a stamp. Meanwhile, the works of more than 30 artists scattered throughout town furnish Yountville’s curated Art Walk, including Rich Botto’s whimsical stone mushroom garden on the corner of Mulberry and Washington.
Start the day with a latte and a ham, egg, and cheese on a perfect croissant at Bouchon Bakery, Thomas Keller’s popular Washington Street boulangerie. Across the way, take a peek at the chef’s famed French Laundry Gardens, which supply produce for Keller’s beautifully renovated, three Michelin-star restaurant.
Down the street, pop into Jean-Charles Boisset’s opulent JCB Tasting Salon for an unmatched sensory experience. Gilded mirrors adorn a matching ceiling hung with sparkling, Baccarat crystal chandeliers while leopard print stools surround a gleaming tasting table. To sip sans bling, visit family-run Stewart Cellars, one of Yountville’s newer additions, where you can sample a flight of five different wines in the airy Tasting Hall. Or settle in by the fireplace in the rustically elegant Nomad Heritage Library for the 2016 Nomad Cabernet tasting.
Though chef Richard Reddington’s well-loved Redd closed its doors in October, Redd Wood, his more relaxed, Italian-inspired osteria continues to deliver gastronomical joy. Tuck into house-made pastas, wood-fired pizzas, and plates of succulent meatballs – perfect for a cool-weather feast.
Oakville-Rutherford: Cabernet All Day
Barely a blip on the bucolic landscape along Highway 29, the tiny hamlets of Oakville and Rutherford could be easily bypassed en route to St. Helena, but the area absolutely merits a stop. Though it takes a seasoned palate to differentiate between the much-lauded cabernets from these mid-Valley appellations, for the wine novice, knowing that some of Napa’s best hail from this pocket of land should suffice.
The prettiest spot for a tasting is Frog’s Leap, with its big red barn and welcoming farmhouse tucked into the heart of an area known as the Rutherford Bench. A pioneer of organic, sustainable agriculture in the Napa Valley, winemaker John Williams touted the benefits of dry farming, chemical-free growing practices, and crop diversification – the winery also grows a bounty of vegetables along with more than 20 varieties of fruit – back when it was considered a hippie-hoax. Three different tasting options feature the vineyard’s current releases, but for a sampling of the famed Rutherford dust, their Estate Grown Cabernet is the one to try.
Afterwards, head for a bit of pampering at Auberge du Soleil. Nestled on the hillside with bubbling fountains and gorgeous wine country views, the spa there feels like a sanctuary. The Best of Auberge facial is especially lush, employing Vintner’s Daughter Botanical Serum created by nearby Gargiulo Winery’s former winemaker April Gargiulo as part of the sublime experience. Spend some time pre or post-treatment in the spa’s steamy thermal soaking pool, which overlooks a seemingly endless stretch of Valley vineyards.
At dinnertime, do what the locals do and settle in at the inviting Rutherford Grill, where winemakers sip and talk shop over elevated comfort food like fall-off-the-bone ribs and oak-grilled salmon. Perch for a while at the restaurant’s huge, festive bar – and don't hesitate to bring-your-own – there’s no corkage fee for the first bottle.
St. Helena: Main Street U.S.A.
The pretty hamlet of St. Helena is often called Napa Valley’s Main Street. Packed with indie boutiques, art galleries, wineries, and restaurants, this half-mile stretch of Highway 29 invites exploration – and may be the best place to secure a few Napa Valley mementos.
Kick things off at The Model Bakery, a St. Helena institution since 1908 famous for their from-scratch English Muffins and pecan-laden sticky buns, then stroll through town stopping into local favorites like Pennyweight, Woodhouse Chocolate, and Vintage Home. Tucked off the main thoroughfare at the end of Charter Oak Avenue, Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturing feels like stepping into a time capsule. The snug, circa-1931 Italian purveyor has been making olive oil for decades and still bottles their own custom blend on site. Around the corner, find wine-infused bath bombs, antioxidant-rich vinotherapy cream, and lush, lavender body butter at Napa Soap Company all made by Valley local Sheila Rockwood.
Opened in 1999 by brothers Joel and Duncan Gott, the indisputable St. Helena lunch stop is Gott’s Roadside. The red and white Highway 29 icon, with its umbrella shaded picnic tables and walk-up window, remains the quintessential drive-in joint. Fish tacos and healthy salads grace the menu, but there’s no need to stray from the classics – a couple of cheeseburgers and an order of fries accompanied by a glass or two of Buehler Vineyards 2015 Cabernet (this is wine country, remember) is all you need.
Later, take a break from the grape at Mad Fritz Taproom, home to hyper-local, single-origin beers by wine industry veterans Whitney Fisher and Nile Zacherle. Fisher and Zacherle, who launched the brewery in 2014, are wholly committed to making their bottle and cask-conditioned beers using locally grown ingredients. A rotating selection of Mad Fritz brews can be sampled at the new Taproom, which opened last spring.
Calistoga: Pairing Wine and Wellness
Built around abundant, natural hot springs, quirky Calistoga had a spa industry long before it had a wine industry and the northernmost Valley town still exudes its own brand of vintage charm.
Detox at Moonacre Spa & Baths at the new Calistoga Motor Lodge, where the décor taps into classic, mid-century Americana. The vibe is pure camp – turquoise tiled walls dotted with cheeky signage surround claw-footed tubs that invite soaking while three geothermal mineral pools fed by underground springs await outdoors. For a dose of Napa Valley wellness-style, try the divine Wine Country Scrub – a grapeseed exfoliation followed by a full-body massage using oils infused with local rosemary and lavender. Afterwards, sit and schvitz in the spa’s large steam room, styled after the communal bathhouses of a bygone era.
Ready to re-tox? Stick with the retro theme at Tank Garage Winery, which features a rotating selection of four, one-and-done wines during tastings. Housed in a cool, 1930s-era gas station complete with old-fashioned pumps, pinball machines, and a backroom speakeasy, Tank produces a small collection of unique California reds, whites, and rosés - so unique that once they’re gone, they’re gone.
At nearby Solage, chef Massimo Falsini infuses California cuisine with Italian flair for a dining experience at Solbar, part of the Auberge Resorts Collection. Elegant and inviting, the airy space is made cozy with velvet banquettes, deep woods, and twinkling chandeliers while the vibrant bar offers several comfortable seating areas where diners can relax over pre-dinner cocktails. The menu changes with the seasons, taking full advantage of the bountiful ingredients provided by local growers and producers. Solbar also offers a stellar wine selection that is both extensive and playful, spotlighting a large selection of biodynamic wines from neighboring Eisele Vineyard along with 12 pages of offerings arranged by flavor profile.