Wine Culture Magazine

Start planning your Cabernet-drenched California wine escape

Hot air balloons in Napa Valley. Getty Images photo

Even though it was a few years ago now, people in the Napa Valley still talk about the hot air balloon incident.

Ballooning is a popular thing to do in Napa when you’re not sipping wine. But the day we went up, an early season heatwave created thermals so vigorous every time our pilot tried to land, a puff of hot air would send the balloon bouncing right back up. We were drifting perilously close to San Francisco Bay before he managed to crash onto a tiny patch of mud in a body of water called, a little disturbingly, the Devil’s Slough. We had to be rescued by helicopter, and made the Bay area TV news. Hi, mom!

But while were aloft, we enjoyed a breathtaking view of the valley, its hills and vineyards and the misty shimmer of the ocean not so far away. And what we realized is that this place that has such a massive reputation in the world of wine is really not very big at all, which makes it all so much easier to explore.

Now that travel is back on the itinerary, Napa Valley is likely calling to you. Here’s what you need to know before you go.

Vines thrive in Napa Valley’s warm, dry Mediterranean climate. Joanne Sasvari photo

Small but mighty

Napa Valley is only 48 kilometres long—about the distance from Kelowna to Summerland—and only about eight kilometres wide. It is one of the world’s smallest wine-growing regions, responsible for only four per cent of California’s grape harvest. But in that tiny space are some 400 wineries and a puncheon’s worth of New World wine history.

The first commercial winery in California was established here when Charles Krug opened his St. Helena estate in 1861. In 1965, Robert Mondavi, then working at Charles Krug, broke away to open his own winery in Oakville and uncorked the modern era of North American winemaking. Then in 1976 came the famous Judgment of Paris, when a panel of French experts selected a Napa Valley Chardonnay and Cabernet over wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux in a blind tasting.

Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakland set the benchmark for what we expect in wine country—art, music, architecture, fine food and even finer wine. Joanne Sasvari photo

Napa is also home to California’s first official American Viticultural Area, established in 1981. Thanks to its wide range of microclimates, geography and geology, it now has 16 sub-AVAs, and grows everything from big reds like Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Zinfandel to elegant Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

But the most famous variety produced here is Cabernet Sauvignon, elegant, well-structured and lush with black fruit. Mondavi famously said that he wanted his reserve Cabernet to “to be as soft as a baby’s bottom and have the power of the voice of Pavarotti,” a description that perfectly captures the best of Napa Cabs. And any trip to the valley may as well begin at his famous winery in Oakville.

Wine touring by bicycle is a good option. Joanne Sasvari photo

Wineries to explore

Oakville sits pretty much in the centre of the valley, which stretches along Highway 29 from bustling Napa city in the south to the spa town of Calistoga in the north. In between, dotted along the Napa River, are picturesque communities including Yountville, Rutherford, Oakville and St. Helena and a whole constellation of Michelin-starred restaurants. This is not, to be sure, a budget destination.

Mondavi was the first of North America’s modern wineries, the place that established our ideal of wine culture, that blend of wine, food, art, music and living well. It is designed as an homage to California’s historic missions, its grounds littered with sculptures, and surrounded by the famous To Kalon vineyard.

There are other famous wineries nearby, including Far Niente and Cakebread Cellars, but any stop here must include a visit to the Oakville Grocery. Loaded with historic charm that dates back to 1881, it’s a place to chat with locals while you pick up some artisanal cheese and charcuterie for a picnic, and a bottle or two from a remarkable selection of Napa wines.

Napa’s vintage city centre. Joanne Sasvari photo

More than wine

The city of Napa itself is a lively little hub with a terrific dining and shopping scene. The 40,000-square-foot Oxbow Market is a great place to meander, graze and browse. Napa is also the place to board the Napa Valley Wine Train, and to gather information at the Napa Valley Welcome Centre.

At the other end of the valley, Calistoga is famous for its hot springs and mud baths; it has a chill, relaxed vibe and a geyser called Old Faithful that erupts at regular intervals.

In between, beautiful little St. Helena is where San Francisco’s old money families have long had their weekend homes and Yountville is where you will find a cluster of chef Thomas Keller’s restaurants, including Ad Hoc, Bouchon and three-Michelin-starred The French Laundry.

Enjoy a wine tasting right in the vineyard. Joanne Sasvari photo

In fact, everywhere you go in Napa there is something to make a wine lover’s heart beat happily. Famous wineries like Duckhorn, Stag’s Leap, Opus One, Inglenook, Domaine Carneros, Frog’s Leap and Beringer are worth a visit, but there are dozens and dozens of others to discover, almost all of them independent family-owned properties.

And there is also plenty to do besides tasting wine—cycling along the Silverado Trail, paddling the Napa River, soaking in a mud bath, dining on fresh local produce and, of course, going for a hot air balloon ride. Just watch out for those thermals.

Three napa cabs to try

Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
(Napa Valley, $98.99)
Complex, layered, juicy, blackcurrant, graphite, balanced.

Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2019
(Napa Valley, $48.99)
Ripe blackberry, black plum, sage, oak spice.

Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
(Napa Valley, $58.99)
Blackberry, cassis, tobacco, chocolate, plush.

If you go

Getting there: The Napa Valley is about a 90-minute drive from San Francisco International Airport, depending on traffic.

Staying there: The boutique Andaz is right downtown in Napa city, a short walk to the market, train and other attractions ( In Yountville, the sleekly designed Bardessono Hotel and Spa is a luxury escape ( while the Vintage House at The Estate is cheerful and airy (

For more information: To plan your trip, visit,, and

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