California’s Napa Valley is a truly magical place. The summer months are the busy season, leading into fall’s harvest. While this may be the most appealing time to visit, we love to visit Napa in the winter months when it’s a little sleepier, a little easier on the wallet and still just as gorgeous. No, you can’t pluck a grape off the vine, but you can see sprawling fields of mustard plants, skip the traffic altogether, get into nearly any restaurant at the last minute, and sip some of the best wine you’ve ever tasted while chatting with the winemaker.
When I stumbled upon Milliken Creek Inn, I knew it would be perfect for a romantic getaway to Northern California’s wine country. And it was. We loved it so much that when we booked a return trip to Napa, we jumped at the chance to stay there again. This tiny, tucked away, 12 room inn is intimate, cozy and luxurious. Breakfast is delivered to your room each morning, a “magic hour” is hosted every evening with a wine tasting and an impressive spread of cheeses, and the turndown service includes French jazz on the Bose stereo, flickring tea lights and delicious chocolates.
Gott’s Roadside: With a nod to the classic American roadside diner, this gourmet burger stand is located at Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, with additional locations in St. Helena and San Francisco. While the burgers may be the main attraction, we love their fish and shrimp tacos. The garlic fries are life-changing.
Morimoto: The eponymous restaurant of Chef Masaharu Morimoto in downtown Napa features upscale Japanese cuisine and inventive cocktails. For a taste, sit at the bar and enjoy a drink and a sushi roll or two before checking out the downtown scene.
Pearl: Awesome oysters, delicious fish tacos, awesome dessert, and a local favorite. We sat at the bar and had a front row seat of the cooking action.
Mustard’s Grill: The landmark restaurant of Cindy Pawlcyn features an expansive organic garden that supplies fresh, seasonal ingredients. The food is classic wine country cuisine and the crowd is an eclectic mix of locals, winemakers and tourists.
UVA Trattoria: Recommended by our bike tour leader from Napa Valley Bike Tours, this local favorite provides a nice reprieve from pretentious foodies. Lively and packed with locals, live jazz, tasty pizzas and, best of all, no corkage fee make this a special spot.
Bouchon (Yountville): Can’t get into The French Laundry? Go to Bouchon. Thomas Keller’s French bistro features expertly prepared fare. Delight on fresh oysters, salmon rillets, steamed mussels and frites, scallops and a tasty cheese plate. Can’t make it for dinner? Grab some pastries from the bakery or enjoy a croque madame for lunch.
Rutherford Grill: Part of the Hillstone restaurant chain (Hillstone, Houston’s, etc.), Rutherford Grill dishes up killer BBQ (and a killer veggie burger). The signature grilled artichoke is a must-order.
Oenotri: Featuring fresh, seasonal Italian food (and authentic Neapolitan pizza), this downtown Napa restaurant received rave reviews by Food & Wine, prompting us to pop in for dinner. The pizza was excellent and the salad – mixed lettuces with a meyer lemon vinaigrette and parmigiano-reggiano – is something I’ve tried to recreate at home.
Clos Du Val: Gorgeous tasting room with delicious Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. We were able to taste the reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and it was excellent.
Baldacci: This tiny family winery offers delicious reds. We got a tour of the winery as part of Napa Valley Bike Tours and experiencing the wine cave was fun and really interesting.
Hopper Creek: Of all of the wineries we’ve visited during our trips, this remains our favorite.. It’s super tiny – just a barn out in the middle of a vineyard in Yountville. The winery’s production is really small and their wine can only be purchased at the winery. A sweet pup named Chili Dog reigns over the place and, if you’re super lucky, you’ll get to sit on the back deck, drink wine at the picnic table overlooking the vineyard and chat with new friends. The Zinfandel is a standout.
Domaine Chandon: While this sprawling winery falls into the “Six Flags Over Napa” category (see also: Sterling), it’s mellow and fun during the off-season. The tasting room is beautiful, with sliding glass doors that open up to the gorgeous grounds, bringing the outdoors inside.
Saintsbury: By appointment only, this tiny winery is known for their spectacular Pinot Noirs. The winery cat decided to join us at the tasting table and we loved the laid-back vibe and eclectic artwork in the tasting room.
Carter Cellars: We may be slightly biased because of the winery’s name, but this small production winery offers some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon we’ve tasted. The tasting room is shared with Envy Wines, so you get to taste both wines during your private tasting appointment. During our visit, we were fortunate to meet the winemaker, Mike Smith, whose wines have been praised by top wine publications, and even snagged a few bottles from his private label.