Napa Valley itinerary for first-time visitors

Members of various wine-loving and local Facebook groups, which I’m part of, often ask which are the best Napa Valley wineries to visit or bring foreign guests to. With more than 400 wineries in the small valley, there are of course many ‘bests’, depending on one’s taste. 

Here’s my (highly subjective) itinerary that I would recommend to friends a) who’ve never been to Napa Valley before and b) who are not yet sure what style of wine they like. I’d take guests to these particular wineries so that they can:

  • see how beautiful Napa Valley is;
  • experience how diverse the Valley is in terms of grape varieties, styles of wine, and terrain;
  • enjoy other adult activities, if someone in a party isn’t into a day-long wine tasting.

On a first visit, many people don’t want to make complicated arrangements. Great! My basic itinerary requires no reservations (unless it’s a larger group), and so offers maximum flexibility.  

Basic itinerary

The basic itinerary with just three wineries is suitable for late-risers, those with a longer drive in the morning, or those preferring a relaxed pace with time for an unhurried seated lunch. 

Sterling Vineyards

Start the day at Sterling Vineyards and enjoy beautiful views of the Valley from its northern part, a fun gondola ride up the hill, and a relaxed self-guided tour. While walking around, you will most probably taste Napa’s main varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. Instagrammers in the party will find many photo opportunities in open-air walkways, terraces, and balconies. Art lovers will enjoy Sterling’s art collection with lithographs by Renoir, Picasso, and Chagall, and photographs by Ansel Adams.

Insider tip: On the way to Sterling Vineyards, take a picture in front of the iconic ‘Welcome to Napa Valley’ sign to firmly establish that you’ve visited the Valley :). Skip the crowded sign in the south part of the Valley and head to the second one between Larkmead Lane and Maple Lane – it’s literally 5 minutes from Sterling. 

Mumm Napa

After the tasting at Sterling get on Napa Valley’s scenic Silverado Trail and make your way down to Mumm Napa. This is of course assuming you like sparkling wines, which in my head everyone does. I like Mumm for their vineyard views and rustic wooden architecture, sparkling rosé and their vintage DVX. Mumm also makes still Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, should anyone in a party not fancy bubbles. An added bonus is Ansel Adams’s original photo collection on display for those who like photography.

Hess Collection

After lunch in Yountville or Napa, see a different side of Napa Valley at The Hess Collection. First-time visitors often stay in tasting rooms on the Valley floor, along the two main highways. Yet, just minutes left or right, on the slopes of Mayacamas and Vaca mountains, you’ll find much more tranquil settings, dense forests, hillside vineyards, and amazing views. The Hess Collection is housed in a beautiful historic building on Mount Veeder and makes wines from varieties not often found at other wineries, such as Grüner Veltliner, Albariño, Syrah and Malbec. It also has an exciting art gallery with beautiful, evocative, and peculiar modern art.  

The Hess Collection, art gallery
The burning typewriter – ‘Hommage’ by Leopoldo Maler – is one of the art works on display in the Hess Collection

More ambitious itinerary

If you want to spend some time on planning, I highly recommend adding a cave or a vineyard tour, which typically has to be booked in advance.  

If you’re curious how bubbles are made, take a tour at Mumm

Or go to Antica for dramatic views of the vast Atlas Peak property, a beautiful cave, and well-made wines by Italy’s noble Antinori family. 

Or learn about Napa’s modern history, tour a beautifully designed cave at Stag’s Leap, whose Cabernet Sauvignon famously won against French wines in ‘the Judgment of Paris’ wine competition in 1976, and then taste their lineup of Cabs. 

I’ve had a good time at each of these wineries, and hope you will, too!

Before you go 

  • The best time to visit is on a weekday.  If that is not possible, go on a Sunday. Saturday crowds, especially during the busiest season from August to October, can be overwhelming. 
  • Arrange transportation or assign a designated driver. And please be careful when driving. 
  • Have a full breakfast and eat good lunch – you’ll appreciate wines more and stay sober!  Napa Valley has plenty of delicious restaurants and cafes. I’ll write about my favorites some other time :). 
  • Check opening times before you go. And check out these wonderful resources with a wealth of information on Napa Valley vineyards and wines, events, happenings and latest news: Visit Napa Valley  and Napa Valley Vintners.

One more thing...

If you are traveling with kids and looking for kid-friendly wineries, my friend and fellow blogger Tatiana has a compelling one-day itinerary in Napa Valley. She has two kids, so she knows. 🙂 And the cool thing, all the wineries are featured in the ‘Bottle Shock’ movie. By the way, that’s a great movie to watch before you visit beautiful Napa Valley!