Ok, I get it. There’s something along the lines of 700+ wineries in Napa Valley that you can walk into on an average day, so picking where to go seems like an impossibility for many people. Plus, the largest wineries all too often offer impersonal, uninteresting tastings that can’t touch your local wine store. Thus, the interest by so many folks in Napa Valley Wine Tours, especially when they’re visiting the valley for the first time. While I don’t think a Napa Valley wine tour is essential to enjoy your time in Napa (like tours of Europe as an example) there are some good ones and some which are resting on their laurels. I’ve attempted to sort through the mess for you here.
Before I go on, I think it’s important to note that Napa Valley is actually a pretty easy region to navigate. After all, in essence you can get anywhere you’d like in the valley by driving north and south on Highway 29, a 1 lane road in each direction for much of the trip. There are hundreds of wineries along that path.
Of course, wine tasting and driving doesn’t go together well. Outside of the Wine Train, there isn’t any public transportation to speak of.
Here’s a list of my favorite Napa Valley tours and tour operators if you want to simply pay someone to show you Napa Valley: One caveat, to make my list, you’ve got to have some deep ties either to the wine industry itself, but ideally you’ve got to be a local. Kicking up to Napa every so often from San Francisco doesn’t cut it if you want to offer a first rate Napa Valley wine tour.
Lastly and before we go on, yeah I care about this stuff. I see too many Napa Valley wine tours led by people that really haven’t done anything other than look up names on Yelp, or ask their friends. We spend time in Napa. I do it as part of sourcing wine for my wine club obviously, but I also spend time there with my family.
Here’s our pumpkin patch as an example:
The Guy I’d Hire to Drive Me if Price Were No Object:
Dave’s Napa Valley Wine Tours: Dave writes a website called the Napa Valley Wine Project, he’s personally visited at least 800 wineries in Napa Valley (he’s updated that in the time I was working on this to about a thousand and yes, more wineries in Napa come and go than you think). Typically when I see tour operators and their websites, I see the same tried and true names, Dave’s the only guy I’ve run into that has seen more of the Valley than I have. He has all the big names covered, including plenty of start up projects and winemaker personal labels. Dave knows everybody and if really want an insider wine experience that can be personally tailored to you, Dave’s the guy to call.
Other Good Napa Valley Wine Tours:
Platypus Tours: Owner Don Rickard advertises Platypus as a the anti-wine snob wine tour and has a price to match (in early 2016, it was $110 per person). They offer a nice mix of the known and relatively unknown on their website, as well as, an outstanding Trip Advisor rating. Just be aware, they have more than one driver, so like any tour your experience will differ slightly based on who you have driving your small shuttle.
Napa Private Tours: Their rates aren’t as low as Platypus (think $40 an hour for 2 people, or about $20 an hour per person for larger groups) but really, this is a smaller company of folks. They have a rather elegant Airbnb style listing on the site as well. I wish they gave a bit more information on the type of wineries that they visit, but there’s a good selection of well known, larger names on their company blog. The selling point here, I think, is the service which is reported to be top rate by all that comment.
Verve Napa Valley: When one founder started a charter school in Napa (let’s save that discussion for a different place) and another actually makes wine, there’s enough local interest to pique my interest. They have an interesting blog and like many other operators, it can feel like the larger, more established names have a lot of influence on their tours. That being said, it’s pretty clear you’re getting an awesome level of service as part of your tour here.
Of course, a car isn’t the only way to get around Napa Valley:
Napa Valley Wine Tours on a Bike: As nice as it is to get from one end of the valley to the other in a single day, you do, without a doubt, miss out on some of the experience. There’s something to be said for any Napa Valley Wine Tour to actually get you an experience in the valley itself. Much like walking through San Francisco in lieu of taking an Uber allows you a better experience, a bike allows you to experience the rhythm and feeling of Napa Valley like being in a car, cannot.
Napa Valley Bike Tours: Again, at about $100 each for the day, it’s taking a bite out of your entertainment budget. But, these are well designed with tours leaving from either Yountville or downtown Napa. That being said, those locations leave a bit to be desired when it comes to the wine part of the Napa Valley wine tour. You’ll recognize the names on their list of frequent stops, mainly because the wineries in and around highway 29 have dominated the wine marketplace in America for so long. Plus, you’re getting a sandwich…..as much as I like Oakville Grocery, there’s so many amazing meals (even cheap ones) I can’t fathom waiting in line a half hour for a sandwich.
Napa Valley Wine Tours by Train:
Ok, so I like the Wine Train as much as anyone. We’ve brought our kids on their Santa/Holiday train. I think the food is absolutely top notch. But, this isn’t a tour. There’s a single track that transverses the valley south to north from downtown Napa and your “tour” simply goes up the track, then back down. Sure, you can get off and enjoy a tasting at a big name like Chandon in Yountville…..but you can do that anyway and not miss some of their fun neighbors and lower production competitors.
Napa Valley Wineries to Visit:
Want to do Napa Valley, without a scheduled tour? I will assume like 99% of people you’ll have a car, with a designated driver. Here’s a handful of wineries that I’d visit in that scenario in what amounts to a single day visit to the finer parts of the valley:
Start in downtown Napa. Have a cup of coffee at Napa Valley Coffee Roasters. Ritual Coffee in the Owbow Public Market is a bigger name at this point, but Napa Valley Coffee Company is as local as it gets.
Vintners Collective: If you got a late start from your hotel, this tasting room opens around 11am. It’s a nice walk from your coffee (and breakfast, seriously people don’t skip meals when wine tasting) and offers one of my personal favorite small Napa brands: Patel.
After leaving the Vintners Collective, take the drive north. It’s gorgeous during almost any weather, but it’s nice to get a feel for the valley.
Inglenook: So there’s a lot of historical significance at Inglenook is you care about that stuff (it’s one of the oldest wineries in Napa, started by a Finnish sea captain back in the 19th century). It’s also family friendly with a pond of sorts, where your kids can sail boats with long sticks, while you eat and enjoy a glass. Also, given that Inglebook is owned by Francis Ford Coppola these days, you can see a few of his Oscars on display. This gets you a visit to a historic property and gets you into a neighborhood that I think is quite fun.
Ok, so Inglenook has some quick sandwich/light food choices on site. That’s an option for lunch. If you want something more, you’re basically across the street from Rutherford Grill-a Napa Valley institution. Something quicker? La Luna Market and Taqueria is the kind of spot where you find winemakers and cellar hands. It’s cheap, good and fast. There aren’t many spots in Napa Valley where you’ll eat a good lunch for under $10.
Moving away from lunch, you’ll have time to stop at a spot or two. First, I’d reach out to a few winemakers. Matt Reid makes the wine at Benessere and also his own label, People’s Wine Revolution. He’s pretty close. I can help with the process here (seriously, email me….winemakers that have small labels do like visitors, but please only do so if you may actually buy some wine), but really, part of visiting Napa Valley should include at least attempting to spend some time with someone actually making wine.
If not, Corison is only a few spots further north. Cathy is among the last winemakers able to purchase a plot in Napa. She’s among the first female winemakers in Napa. She’s damn good. Her winery also does something pretty unique: they hold back a lot of