Packed in shoulder-to-shoulder along a narrow 35-mile valley bounded by two mountain ranges, American winemaking’s greatest and most famous names are all found in the verdant Napa Valley. Three hundred-plus wineries lie along Highway 29 and the more scenic Silverado Trail in what is considered the epicenter of American wine, food, and fine living. The sunny days, cool nights, long growing season, and well-drained soil caught the eye of winemakers as early as 1858, but disasters like phylloxera (root-destroying insects) and later Prohibition left growers more interested in almonds and fruit trees. Its modern revival as a world-class wine region began in the 1960s, when pioneers like Robert Mondavi devoted themselves to producing superb cabernet sauvi-gnons that could stand up to the greats of France. And a culinary tradition to equal the wines has since sprung up in the small towns along Highway 29, including the restaurant lauded by many as America’s finest, the French Laundry.
Crowd-pleasing wineries include powerhouse Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville for the best and most extensive tours; Rutherford’s Rubicon Estate (formerly Niebaum-Coppola), owned by filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, for its expansive wine offerings and stunning restored historic grounds; Yountville’s Domaine Chandon for its sparkling wines and fine dining; and Sterling Vineyards for its broad selection and tram-accessed valley views. But don’t overlook the little gems, like Schramsberg, with excellent sparkling wine and appointment-only tours of hand-dug caves, and Swanson Vineyards, where tastings are limited to eight guests and include linger foods in an intimate, vibrant Salon.
For a multisensory experience (and eliminating concerns about designated drivers) hop aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train, which runs from Napa to St. Helena, past 27 vineyards. Enjoy the scenery and dine handsomely during the three-hour, 36-mile journey aboard restored 1915-era Pullman Cars.
Develop your palate at C0PIA: The American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts, a $50 million complex that offers classes like Wine Tasting 101, rotating art exhibits, summer concerts, movies, and cooking classes with famous chefs (the caliber of Jamie Oliver or Nigella Lawson). Many visitors come for the day, but to truly appreciate all Napa’s offerings, stay awhile. The Meadowood Resort is one of the finest choices, with an old-money feel in the rambling main lodge and cottagelike suites scattered in the hills above. Rooms are at their most precious the first week of June during the Napa Valley Wine Auction, a lavish three-day swirl of parties, wine tastings, dinners, and the auction al Meadowood, the world’s most soigne charity wine event.
Smaller and more intimate, Auberge du Soleil is a luxury property perched on a 33-acre hillside dotted with olive trees. Its sunny one-bedroom suites all have private decks or terraces overlooking the vine-studded valley, offering the same heavenly views as its celebrated Restaurant at Auberge. Seek out Gordon’s Cafe and Wine Bar for its famed fresh scones. For lunch and dinner, there’s a long list of favorites: Mustard’s Grill in Yountville; Terra, known for chef Hiro Sone’s innovative cuisine; and the French Laundry’s more relaxed sister restaurant, Bouchon, in Yountville, featuring classic bistro fare. Tra Vigne in St. Helena, a Tuscan-style trattoria in an ivy-laced farmhouse with high ceilings, offers wood-fired pizza, decadent short ribs, and the best alfresco dining in the valley.
Believe it or not, there’s more to the valley than food and wine. It’s beloved by joggers and cyclists for its undulating country roads, spa junkies for its famed mud baths, and just about everyone for its warm, sunny days and laid-back country air.