Monday, September 9, 2013

Napa Valley

Those of you who have been keeping up with us on Instagram know that Eric and I managed to sneak in another week of vacation this year.  Despite the amount of traveling we do abroad, neither of us had ever been to the West Coast!  We packed up and jetted across county last week, spending the first four nights in Napa Valley, and the second four nights in San Francisco.

I know a lot of you travel-junkie readers want detailed information (and I want my own record for next time!), so I'm going to break this trip down into two posts for us. We'll start with our top picks for Napa.

First up, the wine.
(everyone's favorite part)

Tied for #1 spot: Frog's Leap & Domaine Carneros

Frog's Leap was recommended to us by Chelsea (affectionately referred to in our home as, "Walter's Mom"), and I owe her a million thanks.  We started out our wine tasting with Frog's Leap on the first day, and it was the BEST experience ever.  First, their main building and surrounding gardens and vineyards are just gorgeous.  Think wide-planked floors, roll away doors, open air, large porch, and outdoor seating. Plus, the weather that we had last week was just PERFECTION. Sunny and high in the mid-70's. Perfect for shorts and a cardigan, which is basically my ideal casual outfit.

I've had Frog's Leap wine before (and loved it), so tasting at the winery didn't disappoint.  We ended up walking away with a Rose that isn't distributed elsewhere, and we also tried a Petit Syrah that was amazing. Frog's Leap is certified organic, and in my opinion, you can really tell when tasting the wine.

For us, the small details make the difference.  Everything was so nicely done, yet understated, and not over the top. The staff was beyond friendly at the winery - upon our request, they recommended a fantastic restaurant for lunch, printed out the menu for us, and (wait for it) even highlighted their favorites for us!  I really liked the small, intentional details. For example, they used local products from Napa Soap Company in their restrooms. Swoon.  We finished up our tasting and then strolled their grounds and rocked in their wooden rocking chairs with a glass of Rose. Such a relaxing way to start the trip.

Frog's Leap was probably the best overall experience that we had in Napa. It may not be on the large, paid-advertisement maps that you pick up at your hotel, but trust me, you do not want to miss this one.

Also tied in first place (just very different) is Domaine Carneros. They WILL be on your large maps, but definitely don't disappoint.  We paid to take a tour here because they produce sparkling wine - something I love, but know nothing about. The staff at a winery can either make or break the experience, so luckily, our tour guide (Mike) was fantastic.

 The winery itself was just so pretty, but the sparkling wines were just as good.  We didn't take as many photos here.  Those of you who know me know that a) I love anything sparkling, and b) My inner nerd loves a good tour.  Combine those two, and I was pretty much in the zone and sans camera the majority of the time.

However, this might give you some indication of how much we liked it. The day after we toured Domaine Carneros, Eric found out that he got a big promotion at work. A promotion that has been much, though probably unnecessarily, stressed about, and that is very well deserved.  (He won't brag, but as his wife, I sure will!) It was so fun to find out on vacation because we were really able to celebrate! First stop? BACK to Domaine Carneros for a bottle of bubbly on their lovely terrace, despite all the other lovely wineries nearby that we hadn't visited yet. And Mike ended up being our server again!  We snagged a bottle of their organic brut to bring home.  Sorry for no link - it's only available there!

2. Beringer

Kait recommended doing the tour at Beringer a while back, and it was so fun!  Take the image/taste/price of the Beringer bottles on the shelves at your local Walmart, and just chunk them away.  Visiting the actual winery was a whole different experience.

First, the tour was great, and very informational.  We did some pairings here, and also got to taste from the barrel, so some different experiences than we had at other wineries. Second, it's worth visiting just to see the place. I mean, it is gorgeous.

What put Beringer at number 2? The wine was great, but not oh-my-gosh-the-best-I've-ever-had, and the ticket price is a bit high for the tour.  If you're visiting on more of a tight budget, skip the tour, and just do just a tasting on your own. Bring your own picnic and enjoy the gorgeous grounds.  Next time we're here, that's what we'll probably do.

 3. Roche Winery

Again, this is another winery that probably won't be on your big tourist maps.  It's actually in Sonoma, and we stumbled upon it by accident when we had time to kill before a dinner reservation.  I have no photos because I forgot my camera that afteroon. Whoopsie!

However, the wine was excellent, the staff extraordinarily friendly, and the tastings were both casual and inexpensive.  I think we tasted 12 to 15 wines for $5. And then the bartender ended up giving us BOTH of our tastings for $5.  I have no idea why it was this cheap because in my opinion, they could be charging a lot more. We must have stayed there chatting for at least an hour and a half.  Very enjoyable, and very good wine. Plus, we tasted from the barrel here as well.  This winery is quite small and family owned, but you're guaranteed to enjoy your experience here.

4. Hess Collection

If you're into art, Hess Collection is a must see for you.  There is an impressive private art collection on the second floor that is free to view.  It was enjoyable, but I know nothing about fine art, so my observations were limited.  A Napa local recommended this winery to us at dinner the night before, and we always, always take locals up on tips.  However, it's a bit of a drive out to this tasting room, and I'm not sure we'd come back again.  The wines just weren't our personal favorite.  However, with that being said, you might love them.  Wine tasting is such an individual rating sort of thing.  The facilities, art collection, and pricing were great, so keep this one in mind at least.

5. Acacia Vineyard

Alexa recommended this winery to us, as it was one of her favorites when she honeymooned there!  Based on the quality of the wine - I can see why.  The pinot noirs were probably our favorite of the trip. This was the same afternoon that I forgot my camera, so sorry, no photos of this one!  All that being said, you might be wondering why this one ended up at the bottom of my Top 5 list.  Again, staff can make or break an experience.  And this is a "whole experience" kind of list.  The wine at Acacia was fantastic - definitely did not disappoint.  But the lady who served us was....a bit strange.  And instead of telling us about their wines, she just poured and told us about some of her favorite recipes. None of which sounded all that appetizing.  It was an odd experience. 

That being said, the wine really was good.  We tried a couple of whites, and a trio of pinot noirs - which was really fun!  If you're visiting just for the quality of the wine alone, this one might be higher up on the list. But from a "whole experience" point of view, we were happy to taste and move on.

Napa Best Eats

We did a LOT of eating on this trip. Here are our top picks in the Napa Valley area.
I'm not ranking them because I can't pick, and they're all so different. 
Basically, you should go to every single one.
Carpe Diem
Also recommended to us by Alexa (thank you!!), Carpe Diem had fantastic food. Not overly expensive, a good beer/wine selection, and high-quality, fresh food. They had a bit of an eclectic menu, which we enjoyed.  I actually ended up with an Ostrich Burger, topped with a poached duck egg. I ate every. single. last. bite. And it was delicious.

Have you ever dipped french fries in poached duck egg? I highly recommend it. You'll want to make a reservation for this place.

Bistro Sabor

This place was very small, and quite inexpensive, but one of my favorite meals of the entire trip. It is El Salvadoran, with a bit of flair.  Eric tried the pupusas, and I tried a taco plate. Both were amazing - excellent quality, excellent flavor.  The owner was working the cash register (love that), and the staff was quite friendly.

The Thomas

I'm linking to the cocktails menu at The Thomas because that's all we tried. They were PACKED though, and the food looked amazing.  I'm thinking a full dinner here is on our agenda for next time.  If you look at their cocktail list, you'll see why I had trouble making a selection.  I ended up going with the Red Pepper Daisy, which was a tequila cocktail made with red pepper juice. It was nothing short of amazing.  I could have sat at the bar and watched the bartender all night long - his bartending was a CRAFT, and nothing short of. Yes, the cocktails are pricey, and yes, they are worth every penny. Every single penny.

Gott's Roadside Grill

 This place was also recommended to us by a local, and it was the perfect type of lunch to have after a long sweaty hike when we were starving.  We visited the location in St. Helena, and sat outside in the shade to eat.  The sweet potato fries were my favorite, but I appreciated the menu option to order fresh, raw veggies.  I just stole some of Eric's fries.  Eric appreciated the cans of PBR on the menu to go with his burger.

Giugni & Son Grocery

It is very possible that you will want to pick up a picnic to go during your time in Napa.  Most of the wineries have picnic grounds, and it's so nice to sit outside and enjoy the view while you eat.  This little hole in the wall shop had the best sandwiches I think I've ever had, and that is no exaggeration. You can pick up drinks, a sandwich, chips, and old fashioned candy. Darling little place, but limited seating, so you might actually be better off getting it to go. They have too many options to count, and you build your own.  My favorite part was the jalapeno cheddar bread and the "Giugni Sauce".

The Kitchen Door

We stumbled across this little place while browsing Oxbow Public Market, and I seriously have NO IDEA why we didn't see it as a top pick on Yelp or in any guidebooks or travel blogs.  This was one of my top two favorite meals of the ENTIRE trip (again, not ranking these restaurants here...all too different).   The atmosphere of the place was fantastic - we sat outside on the (dog-friendly) patio, watched the sun set over the hills, and enjoyed the outdoor fireplace.  Eric had korean short ribs with bacon fried rice (you read that right...BACON), and I had the roasted chicken with peppercorn gravy and corn on the cobb. Another eclectic menu, but the quality of the food could not be beat.  We shared a s'more with homemade marshamallow for dessert and easily could have eaten a second. Easily.

Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company

Starbucks ain't got nothin on this coffee.

Eric also ordered a cinnamon latte, which was like heaven in a cup.  And this place has a red, perfect, chippy paint screen door.

Enough said. 

The Extra Bits

  • There are a variety of "wine finder" apps that will ordinarily get you some sort of discount or two-for-one tastings. Just search your phone's app store, and you will find them.  Most require you to check in on Facebook or something of the sort, but on average, they save you $10 to $15. Worth it.
  • We were a little nervous about going to Napa during "high tourist" season, but we never felt like it was crowded ANYWHERE.  Maybe it's because there are so many wineries that people spread out, I don't know.  The only other thing I could think was that we went the LAST week of August, which is when a lot of schools start back. So maybe parents stayed home to get the babies off to a good start that week, I have no idea.  The point is to not let "tourist season" scare you off.  I would definitely go back this time of year again.  The grapes were on the vine, there was lots of harvesting activity, and the weather could not have been more perfect.
  • You don't actually save a ton of money by buying wine in Napa unless you are buying entire cases, and we honestly didn't find one we loved enough to do that.  We just tend to like variety.  We bought wines that were not distributed that we could only get at the winery. Otherwise, you will come out cheaper buying them off the shelves at a store. No fun, I know.
  • I happened to find a delightful little souvenir in Sonoma. An impulse purchase, which I rarely make. A giant cow painting. Her name is Abigail. She had to be shrink wrapped for protection and had to fly in-cabin with us back home, tucked down beside the seat, which entertained Eric to no bounds. Worth it. I love her. 
  • We stayed at the Embassy Suites in Napa. It's very nice and was just remodeled - no complaints. You can't beat free, which is what Hiltons are for us these days with travel points. I think next time we might stay in St. Helena just because we thought it was a super cute little town, and there were a lot of restaurants there that we wanted to try.
  • This doesn't necessarily belong at the bottom of the list because it was one of our favorite things that we did. But we spent one morning hiking at Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.  It was cool enough to need long sleeves for the first half of the hike, and it was lovely.  The hike was maybe 5 or 6 miles round trip, so nothing too strenuous.  It was nice to enjoy the views and the quiet and the cool weather though. Funny enough, I hiked the entire thing with my purse because there were signs at the beginning of the trail about recent break-ins and I had a favorite purse that was an anniversary gift from Italy with me that I refused to leave in a rental car. If you need a break from tasting wine and eating (I definitely did), this might be a good way to break it up and spend a morning or two. 
It was actually RAINING condensation in this photo, which was crazy cool.

So that's our list of loves and likes in Napa Valley! As always, feel free to email me if you have specific questions or want more detail. Happy to help with your travel plans! And for free at that ;)

A MAJOR thanks to all of the aforementioned ladies who pointed us to some truly amazing places on this trip!

I'll be back later this week with a San Francisco post - hope you all have a lovely Monday!


  1. What a fun, fun, fun vacation! Much congrats to Eric on his promotion and HOORAY for looking hot while at all wineries and while acquiring spiders in those hiking photos ;)

  2. Love love love this!! You are designed as our guide when we take our girls trip ;) And a huge congrats to Eric!!

  3. Yay for his promotion! I'm so glad you guys had fun! Napa is just the best!

  4. I definitely want to go to Napa some day, so thank you for this list of recommendations. I LOVE sparkling wine, so we will need to check out Domaine Carneros for sure! And congrats on Eric's promotion! Can't wait to hear about San Francisco :)

  5. I love to taste different kinds of wines and I am so glad to come across your post.Napa is just the best place for visit.

    napa valley wine tours