Like many business travelers, I’ve visited San Francisco many times for business. Conventions, meetings, trade shows, sale calls, partnership meetings, there are more than enough reasons for business people to head to San Francisco. And while I frequently just fly into the city, do my business, and then leave to get back home as soon as possible, sometimes it’s nice to do something different, especially if you have a few extra days.
Business travelers heading to San Francisco should consider adding on a few extra days, either before or after their business trip, to head north to the nearby Napa Valley for a few days of rest and relaxation.
Just northeast of San Francisco by about an hour and a half, the Napa Valley is a great place for business travelers to unwind from a busy convention or stressful meeting with clients or prospects. The Napa Valley has a huge range of activities and great relaxation stops for any business traveler.
So, if you’re flying into San Francisco for business and you want to take a few days in Napa, here’s my list of some of the top Napa activities for business travelers.
You can’t head to Napa without a visit (or many visits) to a winery (or wineries). The Napa Valley (and nearby Sonoma) are home to an incredible number of top-flight wineries, with amazing wines, interesting tours, and beautiful vistas. And perhaps the best place to start your Napa Valley “business trip” is at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (note the apostrophe—there are actually two wineries with similar names. There’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Stags’ Leap Winery. I’m talking about Stag’s Leap).
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is a titan of Napa Valley history. The winery’s second vintage, in 1973, was rated as the top red wine in the world at the historic Judgement of Paris in 1976. Stag’s Leap win put Napa Valley winemaking on the world map and the industry has exploded since the win.
Today, visitors to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars can take a great tour that provides insight into the winemaking process or they can just sit outside (or inside) and sip some amazing wines (I particularly liked the winery’s S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cask 23) while taking in the view of vineyards and the nearby Stags Leap Palisades. On a nice day, the tasting and views from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars visitor center is as good as any in the valley. The winery offers a great, compact winemaking tour that provides an opportunity to visit the caves.
Tours typically include selected tastings, and reservations are recommended. I highly recommend a visit to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars for any business traveler.
As I discovered when I visited, Napa Valley is the perfect place to take a balloon ride. Hot air balloons launch each morning in the middle of the valley and generally float down toward the city of Napa. Sometimes they get down there fast, other times they just bobble along, and sometimes they float away from Napa. It’s all dependent on the wind and the skills of the pilot.
Until I took a balloon ride with Napa Valley Aloft Balloon Adventures I never realized exactly how much piloting could happen in a hot air balloon that can basically just go up and down. From the hour and a half trip I took, I learned there’s a lot a balloon pilot can do. In addition to adding hot air (and altitude) to a balloon, they can open vents at the top and let some of the hot air escape (to lose altitude), and they can also open side vents to spin or orient the balloon. The rest of the piloting is finding different pockets and flows of air to travel one way or another.
Taking a balloon ride, like the one I took with Napa Valley Aloft Balloon Adventures, is an amazing way to see Napa Valley. Their balloons have large wicker baskets with multiple compartments where passengers stand. You’re pretty much guaranteed a front-row seat to unfolding scenery below you. We flew over farms, vineyards, highways, schools, and shops. The air was soft and quiet—until our pilot ignited the monster burner above our heads that fed hot air into the balloon. Landing can be particularly thrilling.
We came down in an auto dealer’s parking lot, while my traveling companion (in a separate balloon), came down in front of residential houses on a cul-de-sac, where everyone came out to admire the strange sight of a balloon landing in front of their house!
Be ready to get up early if you’re heading for a balloon ride since they have to launch near dawn to get the right wind conditions. But the early morning wake-up was a small price to pay for such a beautiful and fulfilling experience. The whole experience takes about three hours and starts from the V Marketplace in Yountville (yes, you take off from a parking lot). While there are multiple options for a balloon ride in Napa, Napa Valley Aloft Balloon Adventures is a good choice because takes fewer people per balloon (8 – 14) compared to some of the other balloon companies.
The company’s launch location (Yountville, right across from the famous Bouchon Bakery) is also very convenient no matter where you are staying in the Napa Valley.
Napa Valley Aloft Balloon Adventures has been providing hot air balloon rides in the Napa Valley since 1978. All its pilots are FAA certified. Flights fly every day, weather permitting. Napa Valley Aloft Balloon Adventures is located at 6525 Washington St in Yountville. Its website is www.nvaloft.com, and phone is 855-944-4408. Flights start at $220 per person.
While a hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley is a great way to take in all the scenery, one of the best ways to get a real feel for the valley is to take a bike ride. During my stay in Napa Valley, I took a Napa Valley Bike Tours’ bike ride that was great. The company’s Classic Half-Day Napa Bike Tour is perfect for non-serious bikers who want to enjoy a bike ride through the beautiful Napa Valley without devoting a whole day to it. Napa Valley Bike Tours’ half-day ride starts at 9 am in Yountville and finishes around 1:30.
The tour visits two wineries, where you can sample wines if you want, although tasting fees are not included, so you’ll have to pay extra if you want to imbibe.
The ride is perfect for casual bikers and doesn’t require any serious work, although you will be pedaling for about ten miles or more in total. Tours are limited to 12 people, so they aren’t overwhelming. Napa Valley Bike Tours classic half-day bike tour was one of the highlights of my short stay in Napa Valley. Riding a bike past vineyards and farms was simply beautiful, and I was able to see a whole different view of Napa than I would have from a car window. While the first winery we stopped at wasn’t anything special in terms of aesthetics, it did offer the opportunity to taste wines from a variety of micro-boutique producers.
The second winery we stopped at was special--it was a small family winery set in vineyards of the valley floor. Sitting outside on a picnic bench and sipping wines while drinking in the atmosphere was wonderful.
If you make it to Yountville for either a balloon ride or bike ride, consider stopping by Bouchon or Bouchon Bakery, in the middle of town. Founded by Thomas Keller, the upscale but very comfortable French bistro is informal but amazing. Save some money by stopping by for a lunch, when it’s less crowded, or simply visit Bouchon Bakery next door for a wide selection of pastries and the best madeleine that I’ve ever tasted. Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery are located at 6528 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599, telephone (707) 944-2253.
Auberge du Soleil
While Napa and the nearby towns have an amazing number of places to eat, Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford is a high-end resort that has a beautiful restaurant with an outdoor deck and eating area that overlooks the valley. Their small bar offers nice views for a late afternoon cocktail, or you can try visiting for a luxurious (with price and view to match) breakfast with a view. Auberge du Soleil is located at 180 Rutherford Hill Rd, Rutherford, CA 94573, telephone 707-963-1211.
While there are almost an endless number of wineries that you can visit in Napa Valley, there are far fewer choices if love the bubbly stuff. One of my favorite stops for Champagne in Napa (even though it is not technically champagne because it doesn't come from the Champagne region of France) is Domaine Carneros. Domaine Carneros was founded by the family that owns Champagne Taittinger in France. Although the winery is rather new (it started in 1987), its champagnes are superb. If you’re willing to splurge, I particularly love the company’s Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs, which has some of the smallest bubbles I’ve ever tasted.
The winery has a palatial estate located on a small hill with nice views of the surrounding fields and vineyards. I loved spending some time on the patio of the French-inspired château, sipping their different vintages. Contact details: 1240 Duhig Rd, Napa, CA 94559, (707) 257-0101.
Last, but not least, a visit to the city of Napa or St. Helena wouldn’t be complete (for me, at least) without a visit to Gotts. Gotts Roadside is an upscale fast-food joint: burgers, fries, shakes, etc. But what an amazing delivery. Gotts simply has the best burger, possibly the best fries, and without question the best milkshake I’ve ever had. Stop by. You won’t regret it. Once you’ve tasted Gotts, it probably won’t be the last time.
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