Napa Wineries

...some tips from a local

Visiting the wine country is a great side trip to do when you're in San Francisco. It's beautiful and the wineries are so much fun to visit.

Guided Tours Do-It-Yourself Tours
Town of Napa Maps

Which are the best Napa wineries to visit for wine tasting?

There are over 400 hundred wineries scattered up and down the Napa Valley. So which ones to choose? To make it a bit easier, I've listed some suggestions...a small sampling of Napa Valley wineries that I personally think are worth a visit.

Trying to see too many in one day detracts from the relaxing nature of the experience; three or four is about right. Leisurely sipping and peaceful enjoyment is the ticket!

napa valley vineyards
Napa Valley

My parents lived in Napa for over 20 years, so I've made countless trips from San Francisco to the Napa Valley, and explored it top to bottom. Napa's been like my second home for a long time, so I'm practically a local.

napa valley winery chapel
Winery Chapel, Castello di Amorosa

Take a Wine-tasting Tour or Do It Yourself?

There are pros and cons to each approach.

Take a Tour...

  • Everyone can do the wine-tasting. A biggie! No worries about drinking and driving, or missing out on one of the most fun aspects of visiting the Napa Valley.
  • No stress about navigating to the wineries.
  • No stress about hitting traffic coming back from Napa. Very important! Late afternoon traffic coming back to the city can be ugly.
  • No additional expenses like renting a car and paying the bridge toll.
  • Wine tastings are included on some tours. Tastings generally start at $15 and go up.
  • Interesting information about Napa wine production and the wineries from the guide.

  • They choose the wineries.
  • You're on a schedule, no wondering off to explore.
  • Traveling with a group.

Do It Yourself...

  • You go at your own pace; spend two hours hanging out at a winery if you want.
  • You choose the wineries. Is there a particular type of wine you're interested in? Have you heard about a particular winery you want to visit?
  • Time to explore some of the wine country towns: Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville.
  • Travel without a group

  • Expensive to rent a car.
  • Stressful driving in Bay Area traffic.
  • Need a non-drinking driver. Someone gets left out of tasting.
  • You have to educate yourself on winemaking. etc. The guide who takes you there usually fills you in on a lot.
  • You have to pay for all the tastings and tours, gas and bridge tolls. It can add up.

If you're here without a car, I recommend doing a tour. By the time you rent the car, pay for any insurance, pay the Golden Gate Bridge toll ($6), pay for gas, and pay for the wine tastings and tours at four wineries, it's probably a lot cheaper and easier to do the tour.

On a tour you can sit back and admire the scenery, and taste as much as you want. Traffic jam on the freeway on the way back to the city? No problem, just sit back and admire the view!

Some popular tours to check out:

Napa and Sonoma Wine Country Tour. Visit 3 wineries in Napa and Sonoma, and have lunch (on your own) in the cute Napa Valley town of Yountville. $85 (all tastings included). See 3 Winery Tour for more info and booking.

Napa Valley Wine Country Tour. This eight-hour tour includes a lot of goodies: visit 4 wineries, in both Sonoma and Napa Valley, enjoy a breakfast on the bus with mimosas, a picnic lunch at a winery, and with an olive oil tasting thrown in. $99 (tastings not included). For more info and booking, see 4 Winery Tour.

Napa Wine Tasting Tour. This nine-hour tour visits four wineries in the Napa Valley, including the really cool castle winery, Castello di Amorosa. It's a small group tour, with hotel pick-up included. $95 (tastings and winery tours not included). For more info and booking, see Small Group Napa Tour.

Half-Day Wine Country Tour. Pressed for time? Visit two out-of-the-way Sonoma County wineries, with hotel pick-up. Small group, four hours. $85 (tastings included). See Half-day Tour for more info and booking.

Note: most tastings run around $20 to $25, and often include 5 or 6 wines. Long gone are the days of free tastings, sniff. Guided tours of the winery are more. Inclusive tours save money, but offer less flexibility. Personal preference.

There is a huge variety of tours available for wine-tasting in Napa and Sonoma, and some are combined with other attractions as well. A little overwhelming! Check out the whole list at Wine Country Tours

sonoma vineyards
Sonoma Vineyards

The Napa Wine Train

Travel back to 1915 on the elegant wine train, enjoying a multi-course, gourmet meal while the beautiful Napa Valley vineyards glide by the windows.

I went on this years ago and it was great fun! The vintage cars are decorated like the European trains of the early 1900's: a nostalgic experience of the life of the leisure classes in years gone by.

Tip: the wine train is available for either lunch or dinner. During the summer when the days are long, either one is a great experience. However, during the winter months, I recommend doing the lunch trip, because after dark you can't see any of the gorgeous scenery.

I was in Napa recently when the Wine Train was pulling into the Napa train station.

napa wine-train, napa valley
The Wine Train Arriving in Napa

To book a trip on the wine train, with transportation from San Francisco, click here.

Or combine the wine train with a tour of one or two wineries. To check out the tours, click here.

Doing Your Own Winery Tours

I like to do some research on interesting wineries before I set out, and check for wine tasting coupons. If you can, it's much more enjoyable to go during the week and avoid the weekend crowds and traffic.

Tips for saving money on wine tasting.

Get coupons for free wine tasting!

Often hotels and B&B's will have coupons given them by certain wineries for free or discounted wine tasting. Be sure to ask if you're you're staying in a hotel.

Also, sometimes wineries will have coupons on their websites for free or discounted tastings. Requires some research, but could be worth it.

You can sometimes get a free tasting if you buy a bottle of their wine. Ask.

My suggestions for a do-it-yourself wine tour. Here's a trio to try out: a famous winery, a pretty winery and an unusual winery.

A "Famous Name" Winery

Mumm's Winery

Mumm Napa is the place to stop if you like champagne and other sparkling varieties.

mumm napa vineyard sign
Mumm Vineyards

The buildings are unpretentious and placed in a low-key, garden-like setting. You can do the tasting in a choice of settings: a glassed-in patio, an open air patio or a terrace area, all overlooking the pretty grounds and vineyards.

mumm napa winery
Mumm Napa Winery

Mumm Napa was named one of America's best tasting rooms by Wine Enthusiast. They also have a nice art gallery with Ansel Adams photographs.

Tasting: $20 to $28 per person, depending on which tasting option you choose. No reservations necessary for 6 people or less. We shared a yummy Artisan Cheese Tray ($25)

Tours: 45 minute tour of the vineyard, winery and browse their Ansel Adams collection and other photos in their art gallery. Tours at 10 am, 11 am, 1 pm and 3 pm include wine tasting: $40, must over 21.

Hours: Daily 10 to 6, last tasting 5:45.

Location: 8445 Silverado Trail, Rutherford (20 min north of Napa).

Very crowded on weekends; get there early. Better on weekdays.

Mumm's Napa website, (866) 783-5826 (reservations), (800) 686-6272.

A Beautiful Winery

Pine Ridge Winery

The Pine Ridge Winery has one of the loveliest settings I've seen, tucked up against a steep hillside covered with grape vines.

pine ridge vineyards
Pine Ridge Vineyards

They've also created a demonstration vineyard for guests to explore just outside the building.

Tasting: choices of five wines: $40 for a selection of current Pine Ridge wines.

Tours: extensive tours of the vineyard, wine production, and caves, followed by a tasting. 10, 12 and 2. Reservations required, ages 21 and up only. $50 per person, max of 8 people.

Hours: open daily, 10:30-4:30 (Fri and Sat, 10 to 5). Last tasting at 4:00 pm. No reservations needed for 8 people or less

Location: 5901 Silverado Trail, just north of Napa.

The San Francisco Chronicle named Pine Ridge Winery as one of the "Best of the Best Tasting Rooms in Napa".

(800) 575-9777. Pine Ridge Vineyards website

An Unusual Winery

Castello di Amorosa

This one is great fun: a full-scale medieval castle has been created in a gorgeous Napa Valley setting.

Castello di Amorosa

The owner has a passion for medieval architecture, so along with tasting some excellent wines, you get to explore a huge, authentic Tuscan castle! Truly amazing (and odd).

italian fresco, napa valley

Scene from the frescos decorating the walls of the Great Hall, Castello di Amorosa.

See more info and photos on the weird and amazing Castle of Love winery.

Tasting and entry: $25 (ages 8-20, $15). Includes 5 wines and entry to the castle.

Tours: $40 (ages 5-20, $30). One hour, 45 min, includes tasting of 5 wines. Reservations not necessary but recommended (I would get one, on weekends)

Hours: Daily, 9:30 to 6 (9:30 to 5, Nov-Feb).

Location: 4045 North St. Helena Way (Highway 29), Calistoga.

Castello di Amorosa website, 707 967-6272.

Two parallel highways travel up the length of the Napa Valley: Highway 29 and The Silverado Trail.

Tip: the Silverado Trail runs close to the mountains on the east side of the valley; it's prettier and less crowded.

Map of Napa Wineries

View Napa Valley Wineries in a larger map

Recommended route for driving to Napa:
Most scenic and easiest.

View San Francisco to Napa Valley in a larger map

The Town of Napa

Napa itself is not an especially attractive town, compared to a charmer like Sonoma, but it is a pleasant spot for a stopover.

A few years ago, the city decided to spiff up the downtown, which was a typical, pokey Northern California small town, with a court house on the main square and a few blocks of Victorian houses.

cafe in downtown napa
Downtown Napa

They built a series of buildings along the Napa River (a small and unremarkable river) that are new-looking but surprisingly attractive.

napa riverfront, riverwalk area
Napa Riverfront

In addition to condos and offices, a handful of excellent restaurants have been tucked in there, making it an enjoyable place to stop for lunch or dinner.

angele, french restaurant, napa
Angele, French Restaurant

Restaurant Suggestions

Just a few ideas for a good meal in Napa:

  • Angele. Gourmet French cuisine. Delicious food, pretty patio setting on the river. Somewhat pricy, but worth it. 540 Main St.
  • Celadon. Hard to classify; Asian, Mediterranean, Latin American selections. Yummy. In the Napa Mill, 500 Main Street.
  • The Pearl. Pork chops, polenta, oysters, tacos, etc. Moderately priced, small, cute. 1339 Pearl St.
  • Cole's Chop House. In the mood for meat? This is the place. Try the onion hash. Great desserts, too. 1122 Main St.
  • Grace's Table. Wide geographical variety. Friendly and tasty. 1400 2nd St.

More day trips...

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