Wine Country
at its best

Photo: St. Helena Vineyard produces three Cabernet Sauvignons, a Chardonnay and a few specialty wines.

Napa Valley, in the California wine country, is definitely the place to go for a glimpse of the American good life. About an hour and quarter northeast of San Francisco, the valley abounds with breathtaking vineyards, magnificent wineries, legendary dining and stylish inns and hotels. In 2015, Napa Valley saw 5.5 million visitors.

Surrounded by the Vaca Mountains to the east and the Mayacama Mountain range to the west, Napa’s mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers, along with cool evening breezes emanating from nearby San Francisco Bay produce the perfect wine grape growing climate.

“Napa is a special place,” said Ron Rasmussen, a restaurateur visiting from South Carolina. “Every vintner and winery has their own unique story.” Napa County’s wine country runs north-south, from American Canyon in the south to Calistoga in the north, where the thermal baths bubble.

Photo: A rack of Tournesol bottles in a rack.

Wine is king

Internationally recognized as one of only ten “Great Wine Capitals” in the world, one big question is which of the various wineries to see. Whether traveling by car, by train, (The Napa Valley Wine Train,, is a cool way to see and taste Napa in a vintage train) by tour bus or even by bicycle (lots of easy flat roads to navigate) - some wineries should be experienced. However, before beginning a wine tour, visitors should try and figure what they want to experience. Do you want to see the world famous wineries like Opus One, Silver Oak, Far Niente, or Robert Mondavi Winery; or perhaps the venerable grand dames such as Charles Krug, Schramsberg, Inglenook, BV or Beringer? Do you covet tasting stunner wines? Then visit: Shafer, Biale, Staglin, Duckhorn Vineyards, Viader, Corison, Casa Piena or Pride. Some wineries sport amazing views like Oakville Estates, Silverado Vineyards, Round Pond, Kelly Fleming Wines, Meteor, Cade and Constant Vineyards. Others go deeper and present fascinating wine caves to see including Jarvis, Cliff Lede, Clos Pegase, Pine Ridge, Caldwell and Robert Sinskey Winery or Baldacci. Or does architecture tickle your fancy? Then try and visit Quintessa (an entirely self contained, gravity-fed facility), Peju Winery, Quixote Winery (Hundertwasser design), Castello di Amorosa, Tournesol or the estate at Domaine Carneros.

Napa Valley also presents numerous wineries displaying serious – and some not so serious — artworks on-site. Art lovers shouldn’t miss The Hess Collection - with its fabulous modern art museum; Clos Pegase with many whimsical statues, Mumm Napa Valley and its Ansel Adams exhibits or Markham Vineyards with vintage rock and roll photos. And don’t worry, there are many easy going, fun wineries serving great wines, yet where wine snobs need not apply. V. Sattui, Trefethen, Azur, Black Cat, Frank Family Vineyards, Truchard, Blue Oak, and Mi Sueno Winery are all places that will make visitors feel comfortable and happy. Note that most Napa Valley wineries are not permitted to provide food. One notable exception is V. Sattui with its fabulous deli. Some do offer cheese platters, nuts and other small bites. Try and bring along some fresh bread, (The Bouchon Bakery in Yountville is a must visit) nibbles and of course, plenty of water.

Photo: The fried chicken at Thomas Keller's Addendum is among the valley's favorite noshes. Bob Ecker

Napa: A veritable feast

For dining, plan on stopping at some of the fantastic restaurants scattered all over Napa Valley. These run the gamut from the uber-sophisticated French Laundry (with its six month waiting list) and the sublime like The Grill at Meadowood and awesome La Toque, to elegant yet wine country casual spots such as Press (my personal favorite), Bistro Jeanty, Ninebark (a trendy new urban spot in downtown Napa), Ciccio, Cole’s Chop House and Goose & Gander (great bar). Other more relaxed yet no less tasty places include: Mustards (always hopping), Brix, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch, Bistro Don Giovani and the Boonfly Café. Then there’s the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone or CIA which presents culinary and wine seminars, classes, demonstrations and is a fabulous dining treat in its own right. Opening soon in downtown Napa, Miminashi, a Japanese styled pub. Generally, prices are moderate to high in Napa but fear not, they aren’t all expensive. A local fave is the outdoor Addendum. Produced by Thomas Keller, this little spot serves up the best Fried Chicken on earth, casually served on picnic tables. The City of Napa offers up plenty of excellent restaurants within Oxbow Market such as the Hog Island Oyster Company, plus Napa boasts the lively Norman Rose Tavern, Oenetri, Don Perico Mexican Restaurant, Zuzu, Morimoto, Il Poste and Torc.

Spa central

Wine touring and tasting is the number one sport in Napa Valley but spas (and necessary after all that wine tasting) in Napa are of world-class distinction. Try the gorgeous Spa at the Villagio, the Spa at the Calistoga Ranch, the lovely underground spa at the Meritage Resort (very cool, pictured here), the boutique and serene spa at the Milliken Creek Inn, and the spa at the Carneros Inn to name a few. Spa treatments in Napa are refreshing, professional and relaxing.

Photo: Cyclists ride next to vineyards in the Napa Valley during the first stage of the Tour of California bike race in St. Helena. John Storey/AP

Other attractions

If you’re up for it, renting a bike is an enjoyable way to see Napa. Relatively flat, rides up and down-valley can be an invigorating way to get exercise while stopping in at wineries and restaurants. Balloon rides are a peaceful and romantic way to see the valley - though they only fly quite early in the morning. Hiking/walking is another option through all the towns and many parks. And don’t miss the famous Grapecrusher statue at the lower end of Napa Valley.

Combining winemaking experience, modern technological advances, a passion for producing the finest wines that money can buy, along with outstanding cuisine and lodging, it’s no wonder that so many come to see and experience Napa Valley.

Photo: The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

Insider Tips:

Most wineries in Napa Valley close at 4:00 - 4:30 p.m. A few, such as Merryvale or Mumm Napa Valley stay open until 5:00 p.m. or later.

Take the Silverado Trial when driving North/South through Napa Valley, and then cut over on cross roads as needed. “The Trail” gets only 10% of the traffic compared to 90% that Highway 29 receives.

Napa Valley is fun all year round, but visiting in late fall/winter and early spring is far less crowded and the hotel rates are more reasonable.

The Rutherford Grill, in Rutherford, offers free corkage ($ charged for bringing your own bottle of wine) and is frequented by lots of wine industry folks. Bring a bottle, people watch, have a great burger and save some bucks.

Where to stay:

Andaz Hotel. 1450 First Street, Napa. 707-687-1234,

Calistoga Ranch. 580 Lommel Road, Calistoga. 707-254-2800,

Milliken Creek Inn & Spa. 1855 Silverado Trail, Napa. 888-622-5775,

Villagio Inn & Spa. 5481 Washington Street, Yountville. 707-944-8877,

Where to eat:

Bistro Jeanty. 6510 Washington Street, Yountville. 707-944-0103,

Ciccio. 6770 Washington Street, Yountville. 707-945-1000,

Goose & Gander. 2345 Spring Street, St, Helena. 707-967-8779,

Mustards. 7399 St. Helena Highway, Napa. 707-933-2424,

PRESS. 587 St. Helena Highway, St. Helena. 707-967-0550,

What to see:

The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. 244 Main Street, St. Helena. 707-967-1100,

Grapecrusher Statue. Vista Point, Napa Valley Corporate Drive, Napa.

Uptown Theater. 1350 Third Street, Napa. 707-259-0123,