A visit to wine country near San Francisco is a wonderful add on to any northern California adventure. Situated alongside it’s sister valley and marketing rival Sonoma County, Napa Valley is home to over 400 wineries, though the number is hard to nail down because of the variety of tasting rooms, vineyards, and crushing facilities that abound.
The valley is 35 miles long and five miles wide and has a world-renowned climate and growing location which arguably rivals those with far more ancient lineage in Europe. The area was discovered and promoted in 1836 by George Yount, a European settler who planted wine grapes and quickly found the soil was favorable for the vines. Word spread rapidly and names which still endure today put down their own roots — Inglenook, Beringer, Krug, and later Mondavi, as examples.
While visiting wineries is often about tasting multiple varieties of wine, there is a strong art and food culture that is integral to the area. World class chefs and iconic eateries such as The French Laundry draw tourists from all over the world.
We visited the Hess Collection and toured three floors of galleries. Not only did the art enhance the experience, it made for a wine-free option for our family and a no-cost way to visit some of the most beautiful vineyards. By California law, wineries must have a retail component to their business and as such, welcome any and all visitors, even if they are not participating in a tasting. We were able to see the grounds and vineyards of Hess, and enjoyed sweeping views of the valley at Silverado, an estate owned by members of the Disney family.
The valley has undergone a transition, with a visitor center and downtown designed around the architecture of late 1800s California and some landscaping created to protect the city center from flooding. Friendly volunteers help tourists map out their tasting adventures and gauge the type of experiences they are seeking.
In an effort to cut down on drinking and driving, wineries have instituted a tasting fee and reservation system. Tastings must be scheduled and deliberate. There are a very few wineries offering drop-in tastings any longer. There are numerous services that will drive visitors around, and there are pairings promoted such as gourmet lunches and dinner events to go with the wine.
Estates are looking to keep visitors on site for longer periods of time, sampling and spending. However, one may still enjoy the area just by driving and grabbing a picnic at the Oxbow Public Market, an upscale farmer’s market and artisanal food destination not unlike the Boston Public Market.
There are small groceries and eateries sprinkled about, and regular grocery chains such as Safeway. The Napa Valley Vine Trail is a wide and paved multiuse path which winds through the valley and when it is fully built out, will run 47 miles. It’s great for biking or walking. Valley towns such as Calistoga, Yountville and St. Helena run along California 29 and provide bakeries, olive oil shops, and satellite tasting rooms for larger vineyards perched in the mountains.
Changes in the climate are affecting wine production, as are events such as wildfires. In 2017, the area was devastated by the Napa Valley fires, destroying 24 wineries and damaging countless others. A documentary about this event was produced by chef Tyler Florence, touching on the heartache and resilience of the wine growers.
The weather is also changing, and visitors will note giant propellers and lollipop-shaped machines designed to blow cold night air out of the valley floor so that grapes don’t freeze. Years of drought have also stressed vines and put pressure on irrigation systems. Water is necessary to produce and bottle wine. Vintners are digging wells, but low levels of groundwater make many unusable.
As with so much of the California agricultural economy, water is the lifeblood, and its availability will impact product costs for the rest of the country. The Napa Valley is a fascinating and beautiful place to visit as a day trip or weekend destination while in California. Add it to your list.