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Insider's Guide to Napa: How to make the most of your visit to California wine country

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Hillside Riesling vineyards at Stony Hill Vineyards
Hillside Riesling vineyards at Stony Hill Vineyards. Photo by Jessica Dupuy
Patio at Solage Calistoga
Solage Calistoga is a young, hip hotel. Solage Calistoga/Facebook
Sparkling wine at Domaine Carneros in Napa
Start or end your day with some sparkling wine at Domaine Carneros. Domaine Carneros Winery/Facebook
Cliff Lede Vineyards in Napa
Cliff Lede Vineyards, a great drop-in winery, has a luxurious inn onsite. Cliff Lede Vineyards/Facebook
Ladera Vineyards in Napa
Make an appointment to visit Ladera Vineyards. Ladera Vineyards/Facebook
Hillside Riesling vineyards at Stony Hill Vineyards
Patio at Solage Calistoga
Sparkling wine at Domaine Carneros in Napa
Cliff Lede Vineyards in Napa
Ladera Vineyards in Napa

When it comes to wine regions in America, Napa is king. You can have that idyllic experience — driving winding roads along the sea of vineyards, stopping in for tastings and ending your day at a spa — but you better have your ducks in a row before you go.

Too many romantic weekend escapes or girlfriend getaways end in letdowns, thirsty palates and gripes — usually while frantically trying to hop from one winery to another along Highway 29 rush hour traffic.

There are a few keys to unlocking the beauty of Napa, and after a languid week of sampling some of the best of what this storied wine region has to offer, we’ve compiled them for you.

Level of interest
First question to answer: How into wine are you? If you aren’t too picky about which wines you try, you may want to stick to larger producers with open tasting rooms that don’t require reservations. You’ll still get to taste some great wines, but you won’t have to feel as committed to a particular schedule.

Some of our top picks for drop-in wineries: Cliff Lede Vineyards, Domaine Chandon and Sterling Vineyards. (You’ll love riding the tram up the mountainside.) If you’re a wine fanatic, you need to select the places you want to visit and arrange appointments at least a few weeks ahead of time.

Lay of the land
First-time visitors to Napa need to understand one thing: the map. Napa Valley is one long, linear strip of geography that runs north along Highway 29 from Carneros to Calistoga. It takes at least an hour to traverse the length of it, and that’s with no stops in mild traffic.

Your best bet is to look at a map of the region and plan your winery visits. Start either at the north end or south end, and move your way up or down the region accordingly. Otherwise, you’ll spend needless time in the car passing endless views of vineyards without actually tasting any wine.

A bit of advice: It’s always nice to start or end the day with a little bubbly. Domaine Carneros is a beautiful sparkling wine house owned by the French Champagne producer Taittenger. It’s on the southern end of Napa in the Carneros AVA. You’ll taste an array of beautifully made traditional-method sparkling wines. Don’t leave without a taste of the premier Frontgate Pinot Noir.

Be ready to buy
You may spend anywhere from $25 to $60 for a tasting, so you should keep in mind what an appointment means. Often it’s just you and your party led around by a winery manager, guide or the winemaker. It can be a rewarding opportunity to really learn about the wines and taste through some really special things.

But keep in mind that all Napa wineries are in business to do one thing: sell wine. When you take up someone’s time with a personalized tour, you need to be prepared to buy their wine. It’s just common courtesy.

That said, if you’ve paid a tasting fee at a larger tasting room and don’t like the wines, don’t feel obligated to buy. But if you’re really spending time at a winery to appreciate the wines being made, you need to be ready for a purchase. (Note: Signing up for a mailing list is not an appropriate “out.”)

Before you go, ask friends, restaurant sommeliers and wine merchants for suggestions based on what they know you like. Then you’ll know how to organize your time — and your wallet. Some of our top picks for appointments: Ladera Vineyards, Stony Hill Vineyards, Vineyard 29, St. Clement Vineyards and Rudd Oakville Estate.

When to go
Choosing a time of year for your trip to Napa is as important as selecting the wineries to visit. It’s exciting to see the wine country when clusters of grapes are hanging from the vines, which is usually from late July through most of the fall.

Although the idea of wine country during harvest season does sound romantic, it’s not exactly the time to go — at least not if you want a relaxed, tranquil experience with your appointment hosts. Harvest is often the most stressful time for grape growers, winemakers and vineyards managers, because the timing of harvesting grapes is measured in days and hours, depending on weather and climate conditions.

For this reason, they are often sleep deprived and otherwise focused on the grapes they need to make wine, not the overall customer experience. Can you blame them?

Vineyards are beautiful in the late spring, particularly when the vines have started to flower. Plus, you’re much more likely to get a laid-back, less stressed host.

Stay where you play
After a long day of wine tasting, the last thing you want to do is drive for miles to your end destination. Finding the right accommodations is key.

Keep in mind that if you’ve been overserved in your day of tasting, there are no easy ways to get a ride. Cabs are not plentiful, and there isn’t a bus system. So be smart. Consume wisely, and make sure you don’t have far to go when it’s all said and done.

Try not to stay anywhere south of the town of Napa. And although you will find a number of accommodations in town, it’s really better to stick to the outposts along the way, such as St. Helena, Yountville or Calistoga.

Our top picks include Villagio Inn & Spa (Yountville), Solage (Calistoga) and The Carneros Inn (near Napa). Our personal splurge-worthy favorite is The Poetry Inn at Cliff Lede Vineyards (near Yountville).

One final word: Don’t overbook your days. Trust us when we say you’ll likely be doing a lot of driving. And you should really leave yourself enough time to enjoy the wineries you visit. Try to stick to three wineries a day, with a fun lunch and dinner stop along the way.

Of course, Napa isn’t the only wine region in the world to visit, but it’s certainly a worthy experience for the best in American wines. You’ll find that if you just do a little bit of homework, you’ll get the best of what this beautiful wine country has to offer.

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