A visit to Napa Valley engages all your senses: You can smell the wine, gaze across golden hills dotted with California live oaks rising above trellised grapevines, and enjoy the taste of the area's food.
It seems like everyone wants to visit it, if only for a day. The thing that makes planning a single day's trip is that you have too many choices. Napa is packed with literally hundreds of wineries. Picking just a few to enjoy during a short trip is enough to bewilder even the heartiest of travelers.
Here's how to sample the best of Napa in just one day.
What You Need to Know About Napa Valley Layout
The Napa Valley runs from the town of Napa in the south to Calistoga in the north, less than thirty miles.
If you're going to do it in a day, use the Napa/Sonoma map to figure out where everything is.
Rule #1: Pace Yourself
Most Napa Valley tasting experiences are more or less the same. Everyone makes wine the same way, so more than one wine-making tour isn't needed. And unless you're a wine connoisseur, most of it tastes good, so you don't need to obsess too much about exactly where you go.
Exciting tours and beautiful tasting rooms are what will make your day special. Most of them are off the beaten path, and you're not likely to find them by just driving into Napa Valley and picking a place at random.
Furthermore, a visit to Napa is about savoring what it has to offer, not about speed-drinking. Don't try to pack in a bunch of winery visits in one day. Instead, pick one winery tour and one wine tasting experience from the top Napa Valley wineries list. Go to one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The best ones require reservations, and it's essential to plan ahead.
Depending on the wineries you've chosen, drive through Napa Valley on California Route 29 in one direction and on Silverado Trail in the other. Not only is Silverado Trail less busy than the main highway, but it's more scenic, too.
The patio at Domaine Carneros south of the town of Napa on California Route 121 is a perfect place to end your day in wine country. They stay open a little later than other wineries and the views from their patio are extraordinary.
Where to Eat
Allow time for a lunch break in one of the Napa Valley's many excellent restaurants. Centrally located St. Helena may be the most convenient place, and you'll find a selection of top-notch eateries there. You can't go wrong with Farmstead in St. Helena, you can usually get in without waiting—and the food and service are both top-notch.
Alternatively, you could combine wine tasting, olive oil sampling, and a great meal by choosing the Il Pranzo experience at Round Pond Estate, where the wine, olive oil, and much of the produce are all grown within sight of where you will be eating them. Their Garden to Table Brunch is also a good choice.
For a wine country picnic, buy some goodies from Oakville Grocery (California Route 29 at Oakville Cross Road) or the Sunshine Market on the south side of St. Helena. Find a winery with a picnic area and keep in mind that it's customary to buy the wine for your picnic from the winery whose tables you are using.
How to Get to Napa Valley
It takes about an hour to get to the south end of Napa Valley from San Francisco. If you only have a day, getting stuck in traffic is not the way to spend it. Before you set out, check the car racing schedule at Sonoma Raceway. If there's a big race going on, it will be faster to take Interstate Highway 80 north and California Route 12 west to get to Napa Valley.
If you are staying in San Francisco and need a car for the day, you can rent one from Avis or Hertz's city offices near Fisherman's Wharf or Union Square.
How to Get Back to San Francisco
If to return to San Francisco from Napa by way of the Golden Gate Bridge, you need to know that toll-taking on the bridge is all electronic. To avoid a fine and possibly rental car fees piled on top of that, you'll need to get prepared.
Use the Golden Gate Bridge tolls guide (written just for visitors) to find out what your options are.