For much of this blog’s life, I’ve written about the virtues of living and traveling in the San Francisco Bay Area. From towering redwood forests to a ruggedly beautiful coastline, the natural splendor of Northern California has made it one of the most alluring destinations in the United States. So what happens when you add in a world-class wine region and some of the most acclaimed restaurants in the nation? It’s the recipe for a spectacular weekend 50 miles north of San Francisco, immersed in the beauty of the Napa Valley.
Flanked by the Mayacamas Mountains to the west and the Vaca Mountains to the east, Napa Valley is home to more than 45,000 acres of vineyards—grapes that didn’t earn worldwide recognition until 1976, when several local varietals bested the French in a blind tasting in Paris. Decades later, more than 4.5 million wine lovers, foodies, and outdoorsmen flock to this scenic valley each year. And while unforgettable meals at The French Laundry and hilltop suites at Auberge du Soleil contribute to the region’s reputation as a playground for the well-heeled, fear not. This weekend, we’re indulging in some of the best wine, food, and views that Napa has to offer—all without breaking the bank.
So pack your bags. We’re going to California wine country for the next three days.
Do You Know The Muffin Man?
Your weekend begins in St. Helena, a picturesque town of 6,000 residents that, according to one theory, gained its name from the local chapter of the Sons of Temperance in 1854. So it seems only fitting that a century and a half later, St. Helena is widely regarded as the Main Street of Napa Valley wine country.
For nearly 90 years, the Model Bakery has been a fixture in downtown St. Helena, serving freshly baked bread and pastries to locals and visitors alike. But it’s the delicious English muffins—light, crisp, fluffy, and made from scratch—that keep customers flocking back (1357 Main Street).
Muffin in hand, spend the rest of the morning exploring St. Helena’s many charms. Peruse the beautiful selection of home goods at Napa Valley Vintage Home (1201 Main Street), or splurge on the hand-crafted shoes and accessories at Flats (1219 B Main Street). Just don’t leave town without wandering through the St. Helena Farmers’ Market, the Friday morning gathering place for local farmers, food purveyors, chefs, artisans, and musicians (Crane Park on Grayson Avenue).
Penn & Keller
In 1992, 36-year-old Thomas Keller came upon an old French steam laundry that had been converted into a restaurant in Yountville, a small town ten miles south of St. Helena. After taking over the space and opening The French Laundry two years later, Keller would spend the next years earning Michelin stars, James Beard awards, and worldwide acclaim—and transforming Yountville into the capital of his culinary empire.
If The French Laundry’s nine course tasting menu is within your budget, I’m jealous. But if you’d like to experience a more casual sampling of Keller’s flavors, you’re also in luck. At Addendum—the take-out version of Ad Hoc, Keller’s tribute to family-style comfort food—you’ll be treated to three pieces of his signature fried chicken, two sides, a succulent piece of cornbread, and plenty of picnic table seating. All of that, and it’s only $16.50 (6476 Washington Street, behind Ad Hoc).
Just be sure to save room for dessert at Keller’s Bouchon Bakery, located only a short stroll away. Expect a line out the door—but the almond croissants and macarons are well worth the wait (6528 Washington Street).
One Is Silverado And The Other’s Gold
Highway 29 is the spine that connects Napa, Yountville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga, but you’ll spend the afternoon exploring the vineyards and views on the more scenic road to the east, the Silverado Trail. For truly spectacular vistas and a wonderfully intimate wine tasting experience, make an afternoon appointment at Chappellet Winery and Estate Vineyards on the slopes of Pritchard Hill. Not only is Chappellet one of the region’s most beautiful settings, it’s also one of the world’s leading sites for growing Bordeaux varietals (1581 Sage Canyon Road, St. Helena, reservations required).
Stranded At The Drive-In
There’s no better compliment to an afternoon of fine wines than an evening of burgers and fries, and Gott’s Roadside in St. Helena has been serving delicious American classics since 1999. Highlights of the locally sourced menu range from the classic double cheeseburger to the sushi grade ahi burger—and no meal is complete without a creamy, dreamy black and white shake (933 Main Street).
In 1872, Samuel Brannan first visited the upper Napa Valley, lured by tales of natural hot springs with healing powers. He would eventually purchase more than 2,000 acres of land there, selling off plots to finance his dream of creating California’s rival to Saratoga Springs—a place that would become known as Calistoga.
Today, this charming town at the base of Mt. St. Helena is one of the Napa Valley’s most popular spa destinations, as well as the home of the friendly Calistoga Bikeshop. And it’s here that your morning begins, with a reservation for the shop’s signature self-guided Calistoga Cool Wine Tour. For the bargain price of $89.99, the helpful staff will provide you with a bike, concierge service, roadside assistance, tastings at nearby wineries, and a customized route through the countryside around Calistoga (1318 Lincoln Avenue). All you have to do is pack a picnic lunch from Cal Mart (don’t miss the cheese selection), and you’re set for the day (1491 Lincoln Avenue).
Ciccio And Chong
Although much of Yountville is built around fine dining, Ciccio—the new kid on the culinary block—has quickly become a local favorite for its bold flavors and delightfully casual atmosphere. Opened by local winemakers Frank and Karen Altamura in late 2012, Ciccio’s ever-changing menu of pizzas and Italian-inspired entrees is driven entirely by fresh local ingredients, many of which come from their gardens. So don’t worry about reservations—just stop by for some of Napa Valley’s most delicious and reasonably priced dishes (6770 Washington Street).
Climb Every Mountain
In 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of such classic novels as Treasure Island, honeymooned with his wife on the slopes of Mt. St. Helena, the 4,342-foot peak north of Calistoga. Today, the land is protected as Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, home to some of the most scenic hiking trails in the Napa Valley. For a route that combines beautiful pine forests, volcanic rock formations, and sweeping views of the surrounding hills, consider making the 2.5-mile ascent to Table Rock (Highway 29, mile marker 45). Or if you’re in the mood for something longer, the ten-mile roundtrip climb to the summit of Mt. St. Helena offers a commanding view of the San Francisco Bay Area and, on the clearest days, Mt. Shasta 192 miles in the distance (Highway 29, mile marker 49).
If you pass through Oakville on your way to the trailhead, pick up some gourmet picnic fixings at Oakville Grocery, California’s oldest continually operating grocery store. Founded in 1881, Oakville Grocery offers some of the best products from local farmers and artisans—just don’t forget to grab a bottle of wine and plenty of water for the trail (7856 St. Helena Highway).
While you could easily splurge on a delicious (and expensive) Sunday dinner, consider recovering from your hike with some late afternoon Mexican comfort food. La Luna Market and Taqueria may look like a strip mall grocery store on the outside—but locals’ favorite tacos, burritos, and quesadillas await you inside. Don’t miss out on the tacos al pastor, a wonderfully simple combination of marinated pork, onion, cilantro, and salsa (1153 Rutherford Road).
Here Comes The Soleil
Perched on a hillside high above Rutherford, Auberge du Soleil has been a trailblazer in Napa Valley luxury since it first opened its doors three decades ago. And while budget travelers might not stay the weekend at this tranquil resort, spa, and Michelin-rated restaurant, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy a glass of wine and dessert on the bistro terrace (180 Rutherford Hill Road). So sit back and enjoy one of the greatest sunset views in the entire Napa Valley—this long weekend is officially in the books.
A Few Notes
Although I’ve focused on how to make the most of Napa on a budget, don’t discount the value of the occasional splurge. After all, it’s not every day that you get to enjoy Thomas Keller’s favorite after-work meal (the roasted chicken at Bouchon), or a spectacular personalized menu at the three-Michelin star Restaurant at Meadowood.
There are few bad times to visit the Napa Valley, but to really see the region at its best, consider a long weekend in the spring or fall. You’ll see less of the crowds that can crush the valley in summer, while the shoulder season colors and temperatures leave little to be desired.
TITLE: The Napa Valley, from Silverado Vineyards | FRIDAY: Beaulieu Vineyards; Napa Valley Vintage Home in St. Helena; Addendum; sweets from the Bouchon Bakery; the view from Silverado Vineyards | SATURDAY: A self-guided wine tour | SUNDAY: Oakville Grocery; the interior of Oakville Grocery; Auberge du Soleil.