Touring Napa Valley California

Drink in the views in America's fabled wine country
Sara Schneider

Napa Valley travel planner: restaurants, wineries, hotels, and more

Press the switch to open the curtains in your valley-view room at the Poetry Inn, and you're suspended with the primary-striped hot-air balloons of postcard fame. Pedal up the Silverado Trail to the Miner Family villa, climb the steps, look west over your shoulder, and a world-class view is yours too. The first might be a decade's splurge; the second, just a weekend getaway. There are many ways to enjoy this wine country.

I came to it recently a little reluctantly. Several decades ago, the Napa Valley that I knew well ― a jewel of a strip roughly 35 miles long and up to 4 miles wide between the Vaca and the Mayacamas mountain ranges ― was dotted with sedately grand wineries inherited by the offspring of Northern California's early wine pioneers, along with a few humbler wineries scrabbled together by passionate new talents.

Deep pockets followed, hardscaping the valley with jaw-dropping showplaces ― and with them, tales of instructions to check with the concierge for permission to picnic outside. I found excuses to explore newer, wilder wine country.

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But you can't stay away from Napa forever if you love good wine. To get my bearings, I dropped back into Grgich Hills' still-rustic tasting room. The crowd, not more than 33 years old on average, was happily swapping opinions with the equally young staff about Mike Grgich's legendary Chardonnay. No pretension there.

So I ventured farther, to Clos Pegase, a Greek temple as interpreted by architect Michael Graves; to the Persian palace known as Darioush; and to Quixote Winery, the valley's newest spectacle, a Hundertwasser design that Gaudí might have come up with after a few too many tastings.

Sure, more wines in this valley cost $100 than should. But comparing those phenomenal Cabernets ― and Cab is king here ― is open to all. Can you taste the proverbial Rutherford dust in wines from that area? The iron fist in the velvet glove attributed to Stags Leap District Cabs?

Given all the options, though, what's a visitor to do? Choose wineries according to your interests, and assume you'll be back. I went back to Napa's roots at Rubicon Estate. The tour ― rich in valley history ― ended in the caves with a barrel tasting of, in the words of our guide, Rubicon's "pure Cabernet." Behind me a woman, on her way from 70 to 80, remarked rather loudly, "I don't think I've ever tasted Cabernet without the Sauvignon part." Here's to Napa Cab and to the young and old who come in search of it.

Napa Valley travel planner: restaurants, wineries, hotels, and more