California is full of amazing, beautiful places, and few have the air of class and sophistication for which the Napa Valley is known. But is there any truth to that perception, or is it all just marketing and puffery? Find out if Napa Valley is really worth burning a week of vacation time as well as your life savings.
Fine wine used to be a thing only Europeans made. But in the mid-1800s, a guy named Agoston Haraszthy (the “Father of California Viticulture”) arrived in California and planted some European grapes. A hundred years later, California beat the snot out of the snotty French wine industry and the rest is history — drunken, vomit-ridden history.
To be sure, there’s nothing quite like sipping Araujo Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon (2002) on a sun deck overlooking the bucolic vistas of Napa’s rolling hills and endless vineyards. It’s an experience almost sublime enough to make you forget about the three-hour slog you’ve got ahead of you driving back to San Francisco.
Napa is a world away from San Francisco.
The Napa Valley is only approximately 50 miles north of San Francisco, but if you’re thinking of driving up there, you’ll need to pack a few extra things: anger management audio books and a dental appointment to repair the teeth you’ll grind down to bloody nubs. That’s because, thanks to the rise of Google and Facebook, Bay Area traffic has become so torturous that being whisked away to a CIA black site would, by comparison, almost be a relief.
Still, if you’re like most American tourists who drink, the Valley’s horrible traffic won’t stop you from visiting this idyllic valley in a rented stretch limo with a bunch of bridesmaids hanging out its sunroof screaming, “We’re in Napa, bitches!” at the top of your wine-soaked lungs.
After spending the day “tasting” wines (or rather, chugging), you’ll inevitably find yourself hunched over a pristine, Victorian-era brass chamber pot coughing up a meritage blend of Napa reds and an equal amount of alcohol-infused blood. You probably won’t remember much, but you’ll have countless “selfies” of you drinking straight from the bottle to jog your memory.
Can you afford to go wine tasting?
In a move ostensibly to cut down on tourist over-indulging (and winery loss write-offs), Napa wineries have taken to charging anywhere from $15-$50 a person for tastings. This once-free perk is now a veritable cash-cow for wineries (though it’s usually “softened” with the assurance that you can “apply the fee toward the cost of a bottle” assuming a bank manager approves the loan).
Add the cost of multiple tastings on top of the cost of a limo rental and Napa wine-tasting starts looking more like a 1-percenter’s dalliance than a smart industry marketing ploy to increase wine consumption among puritanical midwesterner teetotalers. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the area’s less valuable vineyards plowed over to make way for an exclusive golf-course or Gulfstream G650 landing strip.
Looked at cynically, the vaunted Napa Valley is only a slightly more classy version of Las Vegas. Oh sure, there’s only one casino in Napa. And people typically drink Barbera instead of bourbon. But accommodations in Napa are just as expensive, and there’s a shockingly large selection of strip clubs nearby. (I guess the bridegrooms need something to do while their fiancés are banging hipster sommeliers behind a wine press.) Luckily, Napa has the edge on Vegas where it counts.
Napa Valley restaurants don’t suck.
In recent years, Napa has become known for more than just its alcoholic beverages. A number of very highly regarded restaurants have “cropped up” (see what I did there?) to put haute cuisine on the Valley’s menu, too. Top chefs trying to escape the bright lights of the big city have found Napa’s spotty cell reception and non-existent nightlife more to their liking. As a result, the overall Napa experience has improved dramatically.
Fine dining is where Las Vegas and the Napa Valley really part ways. Napa restaurants offer far more value for the money than the ones in Vegas. For example, a $40 Napa entree will blow away a $40 Vegas entree because there’s actual competition for diners. On the Vegas Strip, there are about 77 expensive restaurants and they’re expensive simply because they can be — I mean, what are you going to do, get in a car and try to drive somewhere? Riiiight. Or worse, go to an all-you-can-eat casino buffet? (I wouldn’t recommend them.) Vegas decides what to charge in restaurants the same way they decide how often slot machines pay off: Whatever they can get away with.
In Napa, by contrast, there are only about 25 expensive restaurants and they’re expensive for no other reason than that they’re pretty damn amazing. Much as Napa restauranteurs would probably like, they can’t really over-charge patrons because they know that the fourth best US food city isn’t far away. Now, that’s not to say Napa restaurants are affordable for the average person (unless the average person you mean is Larry Ellison), it’s just that you’re not getting totally ripped off — Napa restaurants are actually worth their blindingly high prices.
Our first night in Napa, we went to “Adhoc” in Yountville. This Thomas Keller restaurant haughtily promises “temporary relief of hunger,” and while the decor tries to appear casual and even low-rent, the prices clear up that misconception right quick — there aren’t many dive restaurants where you can get Krug “Grande Cuvée” Brut with a plate of fried chicken. Though, to be fair, the fried chicken was top-notch and so huge that we brought half back to our hotel room and ate it at every meal for the next 3 days.
Once we’d managed to finish choking down our chicken (wait, let me rephrase that), we went to Iron Chef, Masaharu Morimoto’s eponymous restaurant, “Morimoto.” The food was good, not surprisingly, but the atmosphere was brighter and louder than you’d expect at a nice small town restaurant. A substantial percentage of the clientele was young, energetic, and annoying because of it. What we expected to be a romantic dinner turned out to be more like a rave (only without the glow-sticks). Still, the restaurant didn’t turn into a full-on dance club until after we left, so we ate our expensive meal in peace and passively-aggressively tore them a new one about it on Yelp. You know, like mature adults.
Deciding that we didn’t want to go to any more overly lit restaurant/nightclubs, we headed to a New American place named “Redd,” by chef Richard Reddington, formerly of San Francisco’s Masa and Jardiniere (one of my old favorites). But, upon arriving, we weren’t sure if the place was closed or they just hadn’t paid their PG&E bill — it was darker than a Guillermo del Toro movie.
It was so dark that we could barely read the menu, but Redd was such a positive experience that we went there twice. Once, for a glass of wine while waiting for our table at Ad Hoc (both restaurants are literally right next to each other), and a second time for a full dinner the next night. The restaurant made great cocktails, served incredible food, and provided top-notch service — better yet, at no time during either visit was there ever a threat of techno-music to ruin the experience.
Farmland as far as your blurry eyes can see.
The Napa Valley is home to only 150,000 citizens within its 750 total square miles. By way of comparison, the city of San Francisco encompasses a mere 49 square miles while home to 850,000 people. Clearly, Napa is in no immediate danger of becoming over-crowded, cosmopolitan, or super-interesting to me any time soon.
That’s because Napa is mostly a bunch of farms — grape farms, granted, but still just farms. And I grew up near a lot of farms so, naturally, I hate everything about them. Especially since the ones I grew up around weren’t growing anything organic, antibiotic-free, gluten-free, or anything else that would’ve made money. Without some kind of clear road to profits, my childhood impression of farming was that it was a stupid and pointless thing to do.
But seeing Napa Valley changed all that, mostly because Napa farms are very different than the massive monoculture farms stretching across America’s flyover states in a number of critical ways. For one, the guys who grow wheat, rye, and corn rarely tool around town in twin-engine McLaren P1s with topless supermodels spraying Dom Perignon out the window while high on crack cocaine. (At least, I’ve never seen it.)
Now, I’m not suggesting that this sort of behavior happens all the time in Napa, just that it’s a whole lot more possible there. That’s because the Napa Valley isn’t very far from the Silicon Valley, where people replaced fertile farmland with office parks and stopped paying farmers to grow crops in favor of paying programmers to grow greenbacks instead.
As a result of the Silicon Valley’s sudden “wealth creation” growth spurt over the past decade or so, the Napa Valley is now rife with expensive super-cars, actual castles, and wild-life safaris as opposed to the rusted pickup trucks, dilapidated farmhouses, and bank foreclosures on most American farms. Sadly, if you’re going to go into the farming business, your choice of crop matters. A lot.
Napa Valley isn’t all sunshine and Sauvignon.
Now, if you’re thinking of visiting the Napa Valley (and you should), be warned that the climate may be ideal for grapes, but it’s not always ideal for humans. The weather is deceptive in Napa — like most of Northern California — because it changes constantly. Sure, Napa looks sunny and warm in winery marketing materials, but it’s more often just sunny. This isn’t Southern California, people, Napa gets bone-chillingly cold at times.
The air temperature of the area is more or less a constant 50-60 degrees year round. But when the sun comes up, the temperature can easily reach up into the 80s or higher — and this is critical — when you are…IN…THE…SUN. When you step out of the sun — even for a moment — you will freeze your grapes off. That includes when you step indoors, when you cross to the shady side of the street, or when the sun goes behind a cloud. Even if you hail from a cold climate, NorCal makes everyone into a reverse vampire — without the warming rays of the sun, you will die.
Not surprisingly, the glorious act of sipping Araujo Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon (2002) on a sun-deck overlooking the bucolic vistas of Napa’s rolling hills and endless vineyards gets uncomfortably nippy as the sun sets. So when you go to Napa, ALWAYS wear layers — start with a tee-shirt, then add a regular shirt, and then bring a sweater or fleece — even if it’s the dead of Summer. Alternatively, if you’re a hipster, wear a tee-shirt, a plaid three-piece suit, Beats by Dre, and a vintage monocle.
So should you go to Napa Valley?
In the final analysis, there are a lot of great reasons to visit Napa — the wine, the food, the wine, the beauty, and of course, the wine — but saving money isn’t one of them (nor is getting a suntan). Still, despite a few misgivings, Napa’s still a pretty great place to visit. So if you have an upcoming bachelorette party and an unnaturally high tolerance for alcohol, the Napa Valley will be a very pleasant and enjoyable vacation — assuming you remember any of it.