These days, a wine country getaway can be had in many of the 50 United States, but Napa Valley still reigns at the very top with its diverse and abundant range of tasting and touring experiences. There are standard-setting wines pouring from castles, caves, shacks and chateaux, and Napa's wineries and vineyards have certainly become renowned globally.
With more than 400 stops to choose from, branch beyond big boys like Beringer and Beaulieu Vineyard in favor of precocious mavericks such as Darioush, Quixote and Behrens & Hitchcock. They're all located along a conveniently compact 30-mile stretch of vine-covered valley floor and hillsides. Many showcase architecture, household gift items and art for browsing, while others let nature's views speak for themselves as the backdrop to a picnic.
In perfect harmony with the wines, and an equal draw, is the cuisine. Various culinary masters make Napa Valley their headquarters. While Thomas Keller may act as chancellor with his tough-to-secure-a-reservation at The French Laundry, many other top-tier chefs and restaurateurs stand prepared to tantalize. Seek out Christopher Kostow's extraordinary, curated cuisine at The Restaurant at Meadowood, as well as many other top-notch contenders such as Michael Chiarello's Bottega and Hiro Sone's Terra. Echoing vineyard philosophy, they frame meals around seasons and local sources of ingredients. In Napa Valley, the rule of thumb tends to hold true whether you're having a five-course feast or a simple burger from a stand.
Spas fit right into Napa's luxurious lifestyle. Calistoga, the Old West hamlet at the northernmost end of the valley, boasts natural geothermal mineral waters for soaking — whether in mud at a rustic bath house or at an elite retreat. Down valley you'll find a smattering of luxury resorts and spas built around relaxation and rejuvenation, from the glorious Auberge du Soleil to the intimate Milliken Creek Inn and Spa. Other lovely lodging choices throughout the valley, still within reach of the vines, include: Blackbird Inn or Napa River Inn in the town of Napa; Lavender, Oleander House or Vintage Inn in Yountville; Harvest Inn in St. Helena; or Solage Calistoga or Chateau de Vie in Calistoga.
NAPA VALLEY DAY 1: Silverado Trail, Darioush Winery, Round Pond, Auberge du Soleil
A proper, early breakfast is a key strategy to prep the palate for sipping and swirling, since many wineries open for tasting by 10:30 a.m. On your way in from the south on Highway 29, detour to the Boon Fly Café, a folksy barn that's casually hip inside. Pause for green eggs and ham with leek cream, cinnamon-apple griddle cakes and chilaquiles with chipotle salsa, or grab a dozen warm housemade mini donuts to go. From there, cross over to the Silverado Trail that parallels the 29; this less traversed, equally scenic, route is chock-full of outstanding wine-tasting experiences.
Begin at exotic Darioush Winery with its towering columns, imported Travertine stone façade and fountains. Owner Darioush Khaledi grew up in Shiraz, Iran, a wine-growing oasis for more than 7,000 years until the prohibitions of the Islamic Revolution of the 1970s. He left for L.A. and built an independent grocery empire, which eventually enabled him to fulfill a long-held dream of producing wines. Taste his complex and rich Cabernet, Chardonnay and Shiraz in royal surroundings.
Continue north to Round Pond in Rutherford, which has been producing artisan olive oils from its family-owned estate for two generations. Everything is hand-harvested, blended and bottled, though the stone mill is state-of-the-art. Plan a tour that culminates in a tasting of their Italian and Spanish varietals including organic blood orange and Meyer lemon; then, try the oils with food pairings. Or, book an intimate lunch featuring gourmet cheeses, charcuterie, bread, seasonal produce from the gardens and, the highlight, an olive oil dessert cake. While there, make sure to try the other house liquid. Round Pond's winery features sweeping 360 degree views; tasting their Estate Cabernet and Nebbiolo can be integrated into your visit.
Casual lunch options include Oakville Grocery, founded in 1881. It's usually elbow room only as would-be picnickers peruse the fantastic cheese and deli cases and nibble toothpick-speared bites. Go for the aged cheddar and oven-roasted pressed panini. A bit farther up the road, the Dean & Deluca gourmet marketplace serves a similar purpose. Or consider retro Gott's Roadside in St. Helena for a burger; no greasy spoon, this longtime popular walk-up puts a Napa spin on fast food, whether it's a classic bacon cheeseburger or a seared rare ahi burger with wasabi mayo.
There's room for at least one more winery before check-in time. Keep heading north on Highway 29 and look for Castello di Amorosa's driveway. The winery itself is hard to miss — the 121,000-square-foot, medieval-style castle is impressive in size and comes complete with a moat, drawbridge, dungeons, torture chamber, gargoyles, a labyrinth of passageways, frescoes, turrets and an underground wine cellar. The fantastical tour ends with a tasting, naturally.
It's time to take the quick cross back to Silverado Trail to unwind before dinner. Head north to Solage Calistoga and take advantage of Spa Solage's soothing spa packages and afterwards indulge in signature cocktails and munchies on SolBar's mountain-vista luxe courtyard. Or dine in the open-air Chef's Atrium with a 5-course, wine-paired culinary adventure.
Another option is to refresh with bubbly on the sweeping vineyard-view deck at Auberge du Soleil, or unwind at the Auberge spa with themed treatments. And even without an ooh-la-la spa-resort stay, you can still book decadent treatments at Health Spa Napa Valley in St. Helena.
Once rejuvenated, cap your day with a splurge for dinner at Redd in Yountville. The popular restaurant's streamlined and sleek modernist décor echoes the pristine flavors and ingredients of the inventive, urbane cuisine. Or get a taste of über-chef Thomas Keller's food at ad hoc, where he offers a single, family-style four-course prix-fixe meal du jour.