The best Napa wineries, by a Sommelier! Napa Valley, California wine tasting is the best in the country, and Napa is the most scenic wine country in California.

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Rolling vineyards. Misty mountains. Opulent castles. Welcome to Napa Valley, California’s most iconic wine country – and for good reason! California makes the some of the best wine in the world (we’re biased, but it’s also true) and Napa wineries are the glittering heart of California’s globally-celebrated wine industry.

Napa Valley is one of the world’s most iconic wine destinations, but it isn’t just the Cabernet that brings in nearly 4 million tourists every year. Ideally situated about an hour north of San Francisco, Napa Valley sets the standard for wine tourism and hospitality. Its classic wine country views, Michelin-starred chefs, and imaginative wine tasting experiences attract wine lovers and inspire connoisseurs. Napa Valley is a must-visit destination if you’re planning a trip to Northern California!

We are lucky to have Aubrey Terrazas, who is an Advanced Sommelier and wine buyer for the San Francisco-based digital tasting app Palate Club, guide us through the best wineries in Napa. Aubrey has frequented Napa Valley for the better part of a decade, and has discovered unique tasting experiences while acting as a tour guide to visiting friends and family (um, can we. come too?). Take it away, Aubrey!

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Sunrise mist over the vines in Napa Valley, California.
Sunrise mist over the vines in Napa Valley, California. The contrast between Napa’s cool, foggy mornings and evenings and the heat of the sun are what make Napa’s wine so good!

Things to Know about Napa

Let’s start with why Napa Valley is famous: really, really good wines. Napa Valley is ideally situated to make some of the world’s best wines. The grapes get long hours of California sunshine to ripen, but the area quickly drops around 40 degrees Fahrenheit at night due to the cool Pacific Ocean’s influence. The reliably cool, foggy mornings and evenings allow the grapes to retain acidity, which leads to more balance to the wines. 

Mountains surround the valley on both sides: the Vaca Range to the East and the Mayacamas to the West. Within less than an hour’s drive, soil types and microclimates vary widely, and between these two mountain ranges, wineries and vineyards are sprinkled throughout!

It takes less than an hour to get from one end of Napa Valley to the other, but the wineries’ density could quickly fill up a week of wine tasting.

Most Napa tourists stick to Highway 29, which is lined by dozens of wineries (many of which you don’t need typically a reservation to visit). Traffic can lurch on the weekends, but driving Highway 29 and stopping wherever tickles your fancy is the easiest way to visit Napa without much planning. Just be prepared for crowded tasting rooms and potentially slower service!

Napa vs. Napa Valley

Napa Valley is a 30-mile long stretch of valley, ringed by mountains, running from Carneros to Calistoga. The Napa Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) includes 16 distinct sub-regions and includes the towns of Carneros, Napa, St. Helena, Yountville, and Calistoga.

Napa Valley takes its name from the biggest city in the area, Napa, and the town of Napa was named after the Napa River which runs through it.

So, when most people say “Napa,” they’re typically referring to ALL of those regions and towns throughout the Napa Valley – not just Napa, the city!

Lia wearing a long blue printed maxi dress in a vineyard studded with yellow spring flowers, mountain in the background.
I tend to default to a maxi dress for wine tasting. Just make sure to bring a warm layer – it gets COLD at night!

What should I wear to Napa?

You don’t need to dress to the nines on a visit to Napa, but you don’t want to look like a schlub, either. Aim for “wine country casual” – kind of a cuter, frillier version of business casual. You’ll fit right in wearing a sun hat (this is my favorite), cute sandals, and a dress.

Napa Valley is about 40 minutes east of Sonoma and the Pacific Ocean, and its daytime temperatures climb much higher than foggy Coastal California. Daytime – especially in the summer – can get to over 100 degrees, so wear something breathable and comfortable!

But if you’ll be staying overnight or past sunset, bring warm layers. It’s much colder during the night than it is during the day – temperatures can plummet 20 degrees within hours.

I’m from Chicago, so I thought I had thick blood for cold weather, but the Pacific breeze is natural and guaranteed after sundown! You’ll be shivering in your sundress, so pack a change of clothes and a warm sweater for the evening.

What is the cost of tastings in Napa?

Wine tastings normally cost between $15-50. $30 is about an average price for a tasting, and yes, that’s per person. Napa is pricey!

That said, you can usually get this fee waived by buying a bottle or two of wine. You can also sometimes find two-for-one tasting deal coupons by stopping by the Visitor’s Center.

What is “Palate Fatigue” and how can I avoid it?

Palate Fatigue is what happens when you’re tasting the same thing over and over again until you become unable to taste its nuances anymore – or lose all appetite for the thing you’re tasting. It’s like the wine tasting equivalent of when you repeat or stare at a word until it loses all meaning. And when you’re paying as much as you are for tastings in Napa, it also means you’re probably not getting your money’s worth.

A rule of thumb: Two tastings in a day is relaxed. Three is efficient. Four or more tastings is work.

You might be excited to visit all of your favorite wineries, but if you’re doing more than four, be sure to plan a nap before dinner.  When I’m looking for new wine for Palate Club, I taste at four or five wineries a day. I’m a wine professional with a decade of experience, and I still find that I have significant “palate fatigue” after three wineries.

What’s that bucket for?

Most Napa tasting rooms will have buckets out on every counter (and if you’re lucky, crackers or other neutral-tasting nibbles). These are called Spit Buckets or Dump Buckets (yes, even in the fanciest wineries, this is what it’s called), and they’re there for you to toss out the rest of your glass – or even your mouthful of wine. And don’t worry, it’s not considered rude!

It may seem counterintuitive to pay for a taste of wine that you just dump out, but if you’re a serious wine connoisseur, you’ll find learn that there are some wines you just don’t really like – and you don’t need another sip of. Spitting is also a great way to taste wine without going way over your limits, and it reduces palate fatigue, too.

Here’s a sommelier secret to having your best day of wine tasting: you have to spit. When I visit wine country to find wines for Palate Club, I sometimes spend four hours on the road and taste 100s of wines in a day. If there is not a spit bucket, I ask for one to make sure that I get back to my hotel safely. It’s not rude, and it’s not wasting wine. Most winemakers appreciate it when you pace yourself to stay sober enough to enjoy the wines.

That said, if you have different plans for your weekend in Napa, no judgment! 

What should I eat in Napa?

I typically practice intermittent fasting, but I always eat breakfast before wine tasting. Even if you’re spitting, you’ll get worn down quickly without food. Plan time for lunch and bring snacks in the car.

You’ll want carbs, healthy fats, nutrients, and lots of water. I like to pack nuts, fruit, baguette, and plenty of water in a reusable water bottle. You can grab a sandwich off Highway-29 at Oakville Grocery, just north of the Opus One winery, and bring it along with you.

I also included my favorite restaurants in Napa at the end of this post because if there’s one thing Napa does amazingly well other than wine, it’s food!


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Grapes turning colors during veraison time in the Napa Valley.
Grapes turning colors during veraison time in the Napa Valley. “Veraison” season is when the grapes change colors!

History of Napa

Napa Valley started its viticultural journey with Spanish missionaries in the 1770s. At the time, Palomino Negro was the dominant grape, nicknamed “Mission” due to its cultivators. Commercial planting wasn’t a thing until the early 1880s when the Mexican government released control of viticulture from the church (remember when California belonged to Mexico?). 

European influence rushed in after 1849 when settlers flooded the area searching for gold, bringing their preferred grapes and viticulture methods with them. In 1861, Charles Krug founded what is now Napa’s oldest commercial winery. Beringer, Schramsberg, and Inglenook followed suit until the area faced devastating decline due to phylloxera, an insect pest of grapevines, and Prohibition.

It was decades before Napa Valley could recover from Prohibition, as only “sacrament wineries,” or wineries that made wine for church, were permitted to operate during that time.

It wouldn’t be until the 1960s when trailblazer Robert Mondavi galvanized winemakers and wine lovers around the world to discover Napa’s underutilized potential. Arguably, it was Mondavi that built Napa’s reputation for fine wine.

But it was the dramatic Judgment of Paris in 1976, when Stag’s Leap and Chateau Montelena shockingly defeated first-growth Bordeaux and Burgundy in a blind-tasting competition, that positioned Napa as the New World’s most famous fine wine region. At the time, even wine professionals outside of France weren’t taken seriously, so when California stole the show, it was a huge upset.

The movie Bottle Shock dives into the dramatic story, and the day that put Napa officially on the map forever!


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What to Know Before You Visit Napa

Closeup of the welcome sign in Napa Valley, California
Welcome to Napa Valley! Napa is an hour north of San Francisco by car, but you can also take transit to get from San Francisco or Oakland to Napa.

How to get to Napa

The easiest way to get to Napa is to fly into either San Francisco, Oakland or Sacramento and rent a car. Napa Valley is about an hour north of San Francisco and Oakland, and an hour west of Sacramento. 

You can rent a vehicle from the airport you fly into, or directly in Napa. Note that California roads are often windy, so if you get car sick, opt for a comfy SUV rather than a sports car!

  • From Downtown San Francisco: If you are staying downtown but HAVE to see the Golden Gate Bridge, take Highway 101 on the way North to Napa but I-80 on the way back. This route will save you from the $8.35 southbound Golden Gate bridge toll. Be sure to plan your route from your hotel, as going downtown to the Golden Gate Bridge adds about 30 minutes to your course. If you’re not interested in driving over the Golden Gate bridge, you can take the Bay Bridge from downtown to get to I-80.
  • From Oakland: If you plan to go directly to Napa, you can save 20-30 minutes by flying into Oakland and bypassing the jam-packed Bay Bridge and San Francisco traffic. 
  • From Sacramento: If you fly into Sacramento, your route will likely be I-80 W. The path between Sacramento and Napa is efficient, but you’ll miss the coastal views of the Bay. 

Travel Tip: Keep in mind that the Bay Area is rated one of the worst areas for traffic in the country, so give yourself plenty of cushion time, especially during rush hour (7-10 am or 4-7 pm). Be prepared to get stuck behind a tractor or bus without a passing lane, which can significantly pressure test your schedule. 

Getting to Napa without a Car

If you want to skip driving, there are options to get from San Francisco to Napa Valley.

Extranomical Tours and Gray Line San Francisco both have reputable wine country tours that include San Francisco pickup. Uber and Lyft will also get you there for around $120 one way. 

You can also take a bus and train combination through Amtrak to get from San Francisco to Napa Valley in 3-4 hours for around $40 round trip – this is definitely the cheapest option!


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How to Get Around Napa

It’s definitely easiest to get around Napa with a car – but if you won’t have one, or you just want to focus on enjoying the wine, you do have a few options.

  • Rent a Car: You can rent a vehicle from the airport you fly into, or directly in Napa once you arrive. It’s challenging to get around Napa without a car, so draw straws and pick a Designated Driver (another pro tip: be sure that everyone pitches in to get the DD a nice dinner at the end of the day).
  • Ride Sharing Apps: Lyft is available in Napa Valley and start around $15 for a 15-minute drive. Wineries could be 45 minutes away from one another, or just up the street, so I suggest planning ahead. In my experience, it takes around 10 minutes for a Lyft to show up, but expect longer for more remote locations. If you have appointments, plan with extra time, as you may need to wait for your ride to show up in more isolated locations.
  • Rent a Limo: If you’re balling out or looking to party, limo or party bus rentals are the best way to get around Napa Valley. Napa Shuttle Limousine provides custom packages depending on your itinerary. Limos start at $99, depending on the company.
  • Hire a Driver: Companies such as Designated Drivers Napa Sonoma offer local drivers. Because they drive your car, the cost tends to be lower than private shuttles or tours. Make sure your driver is licensed and insured by referencing the California PUC’s Transportation Carrier Lookup. Their name should be listed there if they are licensed. 

Travel Tip: most of these options require you to pre-plan your itinerary. Many wineries require reservations, and they can fill up quickly during the busy season. In general, I suggest making reservations, as you can plan your route and you won’t waste time getting turned away if the tasting room is full. 

But If you’re not particular about where you go and want more guidance from a local (and transportation as well), consider one of Napa’s many wine tours!


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Napa Wine Tours

Napa wine tours are a safe, relaxed way to visit Napa Valley and the easiest way to visit Napa wineries without worrying about transportation. If you have a few days in wine country,  I suggest starting with a tour to learn more about Napa, then venturing out on your own to hit up your top-choice wineries!

A few things to note: Unless you hire a private driver, you won’t have much input on which wineries you visit. And gratuity is not included, but most guides typically expect it if you enjoyed the experience – so bring some cash to tip them!  

Tours from within Napa Valley

  • Napa Valley’s Historic Wine Train will bring you from Napa to St. Helena and back on a relaxing, scenic 3-hour train ride. While you enjoy a multi-course meal (with wine, of course) you’ll watch vineyards and mountains roll by out the windows. Note that this is not a party bus – the operators of the Wine Train will kick off rambunctious groups, leaving them stranded in Napa!
  • This small Napa vineyards tour run by Platypus Wine Tours visits lesser-known Napa vineyards and includes a picnic lunch at a winery! The tour guides are knowledgeable, fun, and known to introduce their guests to wineries that they wouldn’t have found independently.
  • Take a Napa Bike Tour: Yes: this is a thing in Napa! There’s a 47-mile Napa Vine Trail bike path currently in the works, but until it’s finished, cyclists can enjoy the scenery on their own or with a guided bike tour. You’ll cycle through beautiful scenery and stop at two wineries for tastings.

Napa Tours from San Francisco

Staying in San Francisco? There are a few great options for day trips to Napa Valley that include pickup and drop off in San Francisco:

  • Wine & Redwoods Tour: If you’re staying in San Francisco, this Muir Woods Redwoods and Wine Country Tour is a full-day excursion that includes Muir Woods, the Golden Gate bridge, and winery visits in Sonoma and Napa.  If you have a short trip to San Francisco with only one day to visit wine country, this option because allows you to see the beautiful redwoods in addition to wine country! The tour includes a stop for a picnic lunch in Sonoma but does not provide meals. It’s fairly easy to grab a sandwich in Sonoma (Sweet Pea Bake Shop is super cute), or you can find something in San Francisco ahead of time.


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