While wine is definitely Napa Valley’s claim to fame with almost 950 wineries, about 450 of which you can visit. That isn’t all the Northern California destination has to offer.
For instance, did you know that Yountville, a town in the Valley, has the most Michelin Star restaurants per capita in North America? Did you also know that Napa is a geothermal area, home to one of three Old Faithful geysers? Finally, were you aware that there is an actual castle in this wine region?
From food to nature to architecture, and obviously to wine, Napa Valley surprised me on every level, and this is after only one day of visiting the area.
Since, I only spent a day here, I’m not writing a full guide about it, nor am I writing a piece highlighting Napa’s must sees. For that, I recommend visiting The Napa Wine Project or yTravel Blog. I’m merely going to explain why I chose the stops I did, and why I think you should consider them too.
Before I begin let me just make one thing clear, my day with Ric in Napa was extremely random. We started out only planning to visit, tour and taste at three wineries, some of which are located over a 30-minute drive from Downtown Napa, where we spent the night at Skyline Wilderness Park.
I chose to do this, because I wanted to actually be in the places where wines I had heard so much about are being made. I knew this meant I would be spitting out my tastings, which just feels wrong, because I was driving. But I’ve discovered that there are a million ways to see Napa and on my first time there, this is how I wanted to do it.
So I got to see a lot of the Valley and Ric…well he got pissed, as he was drinking for two, which would explain the last visit on this list.
Ric watching Old Faithful erupt in Napa Valley. Photo by Bobbi Lee Hitchon
Nature in Napa
It’s impossible to miss this. Venture out of downtown Napa and you’ll start to follow roads lined with California Oak Trees, catch your ears popping as you drive higher and higher into the hills and maybe even spot steam coming out of the ground.
This area is home to Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, where visitors can see indigenous trees, such as coastal redwoods, Douglas-Fir and Tanoak. Those who are lucky might also spot deer, foxes and bobcats.
Napa is also a geothermal area. Ric spotted Old Faithful Geyser on the way out to our first stop on the agenda. We were really confused as we both thought it was in Yellow Stone National Park.
We found out there are actually three Old Faithfuls. If you’ve seen the one in Yellowstone, don’t bother with the one in Napa as you will be very disappointed, but if you’ve never seen a geyser before and you’re not on too tight a budget (this attraction is $14 per adult) it’s worth a stop and you’re guaranteed to see it erupt as it does so every five to ten minutes. Plus, they have a petting farm there with lambs. Need I say more?
Chateau Montelena winery was built in 1886 and French-inspired. Photo by Bobbi Lee Hitchon
This is the winery that put Napa on the wine world’s map. In 1976 Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay won a blind taste test held in Paris that put French wines against Californian wines. This tasting was huge. Not only did it prove that France was no longer the only place capable of making great wines, but it also proved that the vintners in California knew what they were doing.
A basic tasting here costs $20 per person. Visitors can see a bottle of the winning Chardonnay from 1973. They can also check out the winery’s old-world architecture and a very unexpected Japanese garden.
I felt like a princess as Ric photographed me on the steps of this Napa Valley castle. Photo by Richard John Hackey
Castello di Amorosa
Driving up a small road, lined with Italian Cypress Trees, vineyards to both sides and forests separating the property from the outside world, a building begins to appear.
“That’s an actual castle,” were my words to be exact, and I’m sure the words of many who visit Castello di Amorosa.
This 121,000-square-foot castle was a dream to create for owner Dario Sattui, who also owns V. Sattui Winery. His Italian heritage, fascination with Tuscan and medieval design and determination to create something spectacular have made this a dream come true for visitors to Napa as well.
Enter the castle up stone steps and across a drawbridge. A small information office will be to your right, where you can purchase tickets to tour the castle and taste its wines. Otherwise, visitors are allowed to roam certain areas of the castle on their own and sample the wines for a general admission price of $18.
It was easy to see how much our guide Jeff loved coming to work at the castle every day and be in the California sun. I think touring the castle would have been wonderful no matter how we did it, but Jeff made the experience incredible.
Jeff led our group of eight through the castle’s main dining area, courtyard, caves where barrels of wine are kept and even a torture chamber, all while talking about the history of the place, how it was made and characteristics about the wine making process. Everything in the castle is hand made and designed after medieval times. The wine is even made in a traditional Italian method, fermented in barrels, residue scraped out, instead of being filtered.
The wine at this boutique winery is wonderful, but most people visit to see the castle. Luckily, with Castello di Amorosa’s castle tour, visitors can tour the grounds and try ten different wines from their collection for $33.
There are so many ways to see this winery. It’s a given that any visitor to Napa should tour the grounds their first time. After that, look into the castle’s many parties throughout the year.
It’s incredible how much thought was put into the design at Darioush and continues to be put into the vineyard’s wine and hospitality. Photo by Bobbi Lee Hitchon
Walking into this winery, which is actually based off a castle as well, I had mixed emotions. Everything about the open room visitors walk into is perfect. A nice mixture of modern pieces and ancient design, all somehow mixed together in a way that just works.
Though in other places I might have, I didn’t get that museum, do-not-touch feeling, nor did I feel like I didn’t belong. Maybe it was the warm lighting in the room or the smiling faces all around, but walking into the classiest winery I’ve ever been to, I immediately felt right at home.
I felt the warmth in Darioush’s welcome within seconds of entering the winery. Photo by Bobbi Lee Hitchon
This is one of the many details proprietor Darioush Khaledi thought about when he found his winery in 1997. Hospitality is one of the most important aspects of Persian culture, and Khaledi, who emigrated to the USA from Iran in the 1970s definitely made sure to highlight this at his vineyard, as well as several other characteristics of Persian culture.
The design of the cellar door at Darioush is actually based off Apadana Palace constructed by King Darius in Persia’s ancient capital city, Persepolis, which is near modern-day Shiraz, Iran where Khaledi grew up. Pomegranate trees welcome visitors as the front entrance. There is an amphitheater in the back. A collection of Khaledi’s maps of the Persian empire line the hallway to the bathroom. Plus they serve Persian-roasted pistachios, made with lime and salt.
This attention to detail carries over to the wine at Darioush. Khaledi plays a strong part in the wine making process, which is led by Steve M. Devitt. Our hostess, Michelle Romaine, who is extremely knowledgeable about the wine and history at Darioush, guided us through a tasting of their Signature Flight, which includes five different wines for $35.
For it, Ric and I sat down on leather chairs in our own personal tasting area in the main room. Each wine was clean and tasty, but my favorites were Duel, a cabernet/shiraz blend, and Capataz, which is a Malbec made from the Argentinian grapes.
I think it’s the traveler in me that is so drawn to Darioush, stepping onto this vineyard, feels like stepping out into another world, another time. Khaledi’s global influences, his interest in history from his homeland and wine from around the world, makes this winery a very special place to visit in Napa Valley.
Big D Burgers
Anyone who follows this blog or me on other networks, knows Ric has a thing for American burgers. Unless he is in Philadelphia, in which case he only orders cheese steaks, he will order a burger for almost every meal at almost every restaurant we visit. So for him to say Big D Burgers is his favorite in America. That means something, even if he was a few wines deep.
The burger shack looks like it hasn’t changed since the 50s, nor has its prices. He bought one quarter-pounder with cheese, curly fries and a drink and got another quarter-pounder free. You can bet I stole quite a few bites and sips of everything and-wow. The burgers are pretty standard, but made to perfection.
There are so many places in Napa known for culinary excellency that you should definitely take advantage of, but when you want to save money on a good meal during your stay, this is the best place we found to do it.
If you don’t want to worry about driving, some good options include, hiring a designated driver, booking a tour, purchasing a wine tasting card and sampling at various wine houses all in walking distance from each other in downtown Napa, taking the wine train or paying $1 for a single journey to various wineries on the Calistoga Shuttle.
All of my stops might already be included in the options above. Otherwise, I highly recommend making an effort to see each on their own or to convince one person in your group to take one for the team and follow this one day itinerary. Thank them with a burger, you’re going to get one for free any way.
Thanks to Jucy Rentals USA for sponsoring my trip out West. Visit their website to start planning your own US road trip. Use the code “BobbiUSA” to receive 10% off your booking. Follow my trip right here on Heels and Wheels, as well as on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
A special thanks to Castello di Amorosa and Darioush for sponsoring my visit to Napa Valley.
As always, all opinions are my own.
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