What to do in Napa: Three Day Itinerary - Poplar Travels
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Jan 21 2016

What to do in Napa: Three Day Itinerary

As we sat at a winery built to resemble an Iranian Palace, I had a seemingly ridiculous thought that Napa was not as uptight and ritzy as I had expected. Maybe the warm hospitality and the earnestly relayed story of immigrants living the American Dream made the imported travertine feel somehow obtainable. Or maybe a few days of wine tasting with a private driver, visiting an Italian castle and staying in one of the top BnBs in the country had clouded my judgement.


But now, a few days and an entire country removed, I still think Napa was quite inviting. The dry, sparse tourist town I had expected, perhaps even resembling some old town in a Western (but surrounded by billionaire’s grapevines), had turned out to be an adorably residential destination with art galleries, pizza shops, walking trails and plenty of locals. Our four nights and three days in Napa were filled with everything you would expect but spent in great company you may not.


To be fair, we should probably attribute some of our hearty greetings and intimate tastings to the season. Napa is not at its best over the New Year holiday, so it is probably at its least crowded. However, the weather was not bad at all and we felt the wineries were beautiful even though the vines were brown.


What to do in Napa

Day 1: Downtown Napa


Explore Downtown. So Napa’s hundred of wineries are pulling you out of town, but give yourself some time to walk down main street, window shop and pop in some tasting rooms in Downtown Napa. You’ll be able to taste wines from one vineyard or several at a time. Don’t miss the Mark Harold tasting room. Ask your accommodation if they have recommendations or free tasting cards. You can also purchase a tasting pass good at most of the downtown locations.


For casual dining, skip the pizza shops and choose from the variety of cuisines at Oxbow Public Market instead. We recommend C Casa for tacos. We ate at a few restaurants during our visit and while the one we were most excited about was closed for the season, the Market was our favorite spot!


For a local hangout, stop in Bilco’s for a game of pool and one of their dozens of beers on tap. Hey, even hardcore winos can crave a beer after a day of grapes. Sample some of the local California options like Ballast Point Brewery.


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Day 2: Get a Driver


So that we could all partake in the tastings, we opted to hire a driver and dedicated a full day to vineyards. We hired Napa Driver Tours and had a great day with our driver, Rod. We started in Calistoga and worked our way back South to Downtown Napa. You don’t necessarily need a formal plan for your day (Rod was happy to offer recommendations), but if you have a certain vineyard in mind double check their hours. Some tasting rooms are by appointment only and many close by 4p.m. You could theoretically drive down the highway and pull in to wherever looks interesting, but you wouldn’t make it very far considering the vineyards line miles and miles of highway side by side. Do some searching beforehand so you can at least narrow it down a little.


For your day, stick to three or four vineyards and take your time. You’ll want to soak up the scenery and explore the unique decor at the wineries. We made it to four, and it was a long day!


All the wineries we visited were $20-25 per tasting with options for additional tours and specialty tastings. If you opt for guided tours, you’ll probably only make it to three stops.


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Our itinerary:


  • Castello di Amorosa

The castle winery is exactly what it sounds like. An authentic Italian castle disassembled, shipped to Napa and painstakingly reassembled in the beautiful hills of Napa. Complete with a torture chamber (where no one has been tortured) and farm animals. Try the Fantasia, a drinkable bubbly dessert wine and their number one best seller. Due to the spectacle, this place gets crowded as the day goes on so its a good place to start.


  • Frank Family

The walls behind the tasting bar are covered in family photos and pictures of the vineyard’s owner with various celebrities. Play a game of I Spy while you sip your wines. Here, the cab was our favorite. This winery was very laid back and welcoming. The staff were all fantastic!


  • Hall Winery

This was our driver’s recommendation and it was a perfect contrast to the two before. The winery looks like modern art museum complete with a huge installation pieces. We were greeted by a giant leaping rabbit and then a white camel sculpture. The view from the second floor patio is gorgeous, and we loved hearing the inspiration behind their labels.


  • Cliff Lede

Also a fun theme and very laid back winery. The tasting room itself is on the smaller side and very tastefully decorated with comfortable couches and a fireplace. We took our time with our tasting and flipped through coffee table books while we listened to classic rock. In keeping with the rock and wine theme, we left with guitar picks.


Tip: If you’re in Napa during the slower months, you’ll be able to spend much longer talking to the staff. If they aren’t busy (and that part is important), you may even be able to ask to see things normally reserved for private tours like the bottling room. Several also allowed us to substitute the white wines in our tastings for other reds. It doesn’t hurt to ask!


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For lunch, we stopped at Gott’s Roadside for burgers which was a perfect pit stop between wine flights. If you come to California hungry for fast food burgers, you need to add Gott’s to your list! There are plenty of dining options along the highway, but we wanted something quick and easy.


Day 3: Take it Slow


Sleep in! You drank a lot yesterday. Your third day is a great day to venture to another downtown. If you’re staying in Downtown Napa, drive about 15 minutes up to Yountville where you can walk the entire stretch of the tiny town in a matter of minutes. If you’re in the mood to shop for arts or clothing, walk through the V Marketplace. Partake in some more shopping and grab lunch at R+D Kitchen. The Spicy Tuna Osaka Style is delicious and surprisingly filling (add the kale salad).


Tip: We stopped in the visitor’s center for a map. The staff was happy to recommend dining options.


Visit your final winery. If you have a winery you’re especially excited about, you could save it for Day Three so you can take a tour and enjoy your tasting with no agenda. We visited Darioush and spent almost as much time drinking wine as we did browsing their modern craft products for sale. The lavish exterior is home to splurge-worthy items like gold bar tools, blown glass and hand embroidered linen cocktail napkins. Their 2012 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon was one of our favorite wines in Napa!


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Shipping your wine:


Don’t stress about shipping your wine! Many wineries will ship a minimum number of bottles for you, but even if you only have a couples, or bottles from several wineries, you’ll have no trouble getting them home. Ask the staff where you are staying if they handle shipping. Chances are, they have arrangements with a shipping company and a weekly pick up time. Just fill out a form, leave your bottles and they’ll meet you back at home! Ours arrived safely in a cardboard box fitted with styrofoam specially cut for wine bottles. Only have one bottle? Pick up a wine bottle protector at pretty much any winery or store in town and put the bottle in your checked bag.


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Evanne Allen

Evanne co-founded Poplar Travels after quitting her job in Washington, D.C. She got itchy feet at a young age and has never lost the urge to explore the planet. A previous museum employee, she is apt to drag travel partners into several cultural institutions anywhere she goes. She wishes she could speak every language and loves meeting new people.

  • Jim Cho

    This is awesome! I had never heard of Cliff Lede.. I’ll be taking my wife to Napa in the spring and it’s been difficult to find guides that aren’t paid for by all the wineries. Thanks for the tips!

    January 22, 2016 at 11:16 am
  • Marg

    Very nice! Thank you for sharing!

    January 23, 2016 at 10:28 pm
  • Davis

    This is a great list. We will be visiting in the spring and will definitely be using some of your recommendations. Darioush looks amazing! How have i never heard of this winery?…

    January 23, 2016 at 11:01 pm
  • I love the Oxbow Market! So trendy 😉

    January 24, 2016 at 9:52 am
  • Nala Sr.

    You all are the best! Don’t know what we would do without your great advice! Any plans for Middle East travel – thinking the “holy land!” Would love for you to scope it for us!

    February 22, 2016 at 7:52 pm

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