Napa Valley’s world-class wine, food and landscapes draw some 3.5 million visitors a year to its wineries, restaurants and inns. But these days, a Napa visit doesn’t come cheap. With tasting fees climbing past the $40 mark and hotel rooms going for more than $300 a night, a wine country visit is fast becoming a spendy proposition.
Affordable Napa may sound like an oxymoron, but we have insider secrets on where you can eat, drink, play and stay on a budget — splurge-worthy steals that won’t break the bank.
Napa’s Michelin-starred restaurants may deserve all their starry glory, but at $275-plus per person, not including wine, that’s an indulgence for a very special occasion, not a casual weekend getaway. Instead of going to the three-star French Laundry, head for Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc restaurant, where the casual, summery Addendum takeout window offers upscale picnic fare at friendlier prices. Enjoy Keller’s awesome buttermilk fried chicken or barbecue pork ribs boxed lunch ($16.50 with two sides) under a pine tree canopy or amid the restaurant’s gardens and fruit trees. Details: Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursday-Saturday throughout the summer at 6476 Washington St., Yountville; www.thomaskeller.com/addendum.
Napa’s other Michelin three-star chef, Christopher Kostow, just opened a new restaurant, St. Helena’s Charter Oak, in the former Tra Vigne space. Here, a la carte entrees ($26) range from grilled beef ribs to pork shoulder, and there are seasonal prix fixe family-style menus as well. At $40 for lunch and $85 for dinner, it’s a bargain compared to The Restaurant at Meadowood’s $275 prix fixe. Psst: Charter Oak offers free corkage on up to two bottles of any Napa Valley wine. Details: Open for lunch and dinner daily and Sunday brunch at 1050 Charter Oak Ave., St. Helena; www.thecharteroak.com.
Looking for a steakhouse dinner? At Five Dot Ranch Cookhouse, you can get a grilled steak dinner and wine for less than $40. Buy a rib-eye or New York strip from the meat market’s “You Pick It, We Grill It” menu and, for $12 extra, the cookhouse chefs will grill it and serve it with two sides — mac and cheese, perhaps, or polenta and seasonal vegetables — and wine ($10-$14 per glass). Total tab: Under $40. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Oxbow Public Market, 610 First St., Napa; www.fivedotranch.com.
You can taste for $25 or less — and sometimes much less — up and down the valley. Sample the sauvignon blanc and cabernet at Whitehall Lane Winery for $25, or go sipping at the critically acclaimed, historic Freemark Abbey, where tasting experiences start at $20. Head to Markham Vineyards for the $20 heritage tasting and a peek at the winery’s extensive art gallery. Wine tasting at Franciscan Estate also starts at $20. And St. Helena’s Sutter Home Winery offers complimentary wine tasting, and not just of its famous white zinfandel.
More? Try the St. Clair Brown Winery ($25), Black Stallion Winery ($20), Etude Wines ($20), Kieu Hoang Winery ($15) and Madonna Estate ($25). Tasting fees at Rutherford’s Sequoia Grove Winery start at $25. And in Oakville, visit the famous Robert Mondavi Winery where walk-in tastings start at $5.
If you love classic rock and vintage vinyl, Napa’s JaM Cellars Studio is a must-see. You may know their Butter (chardonnay), JaM (cabernet sauvignon) and Toast (sparkling wine) labels; you can try them all for $15; a glass starts at $8. Background music is supplied digitally or via old-school vinyl, and you can request any song or artist off the playlist. Chill out in the rock-and-roll themed tasting room with its midcentury modern vibe and disco ball, and groove to free live music Thursday and Friday nights. Details: Open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and until midnight Thursday-Saturday at 1460 First St., Napa; www.jamcellars.com.
Napa and Yountville offer free art walks, where you can wander at your own pace and view sculptures by world-renowned artists, such as Napa’s Gordon Huether. Yountville’s Art Walk, for example, boasts 27 works, and Napa’s Art Walk is home to a new exhibit every two years. The current exhibit features works by nine artists. Free maps are available at city welcome centers and online at www.napaartwalk.org and www.townofyountville.com
Bocce ball and wine country go hand in hand, as in one hand holds the ball and the other holds a wine glass. Bring your own balls to play this lawn-bowling game at Yountville’s Veterans Memorial Park bocce courts, where four free courts are available on a first-come basis, as long as a bocce club or other group hasn’t reserved the space. Grab sandwiches or boxed lunches ($17) at the nearby Yountville Deli, or pick up tacos and burritos at La Luna Market & Taqueria so you can picnic while you play. You’ll also find eight free, illuminated bocce courts at St. Helena’s Crane Park, which also has picnic tables. Details: www.yountvilledeli.com and www.lalunamarket.com.
Nightlife? Blue Note Napa, the New York City West Village jazz classic, recently took over the historic Napa Opera House. Nab a bar seat during any show for $10-$15. Or head to Silo’s in Napa on Wednesday nights for free live rock, jazz, blues and Latin music concerts. If you’re lucky, you may catch jazz singer Wesla Whitfield and pianist Mike Greensill on stage performing Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Leonard Bernstein standards. Details: www.bluenotenapa.com and www.silosnapa.com.
Once you check into the Calistoga Inn, with its on-site restaurant and brewery, you may never want to leave. Napa’s first commercial post-Prohibition beer was brewed here, and free tours with brewmaster Brad Smisloff are available during your stay. The recently renovated hotel rooms offer an Old World hotel experience, with shared restrooms and shower facilities, ceiling fans and no phones or TVs. Rates average $169 on weekdays and $229 on weekends, no minimum stay required. Details: www.calistogainn.com.
The minimalist, midcentury modern Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa is another cool and funky overnight option. The recently renovated, former Sunburst Calistoga has a hot mineral springs-fed pool, wading pool and indoor whirlpool. You can rent cruiser bikes (two hours included in the $20 resort fee), enjoy coffee or head for the lodge’s MoonAcre Spa and Baths, with a mix-your-own mud bar with detoxifying muds sourced around the world. Take advantage of events such as Maker Mondays, featuring artist or chef demos. At night, make s’mores or popcorn at the poolside fire pit. Book 21 days in advance and you’ll save 25 percent on the best available rate (average rates are $275 per night with a two-night weekend minimum; off-season rates average $209 per night). Details: www.calistogamotorlodgeandspa.com.
Want free maps, guidebooks, Wi-Fi and two-for-one winery tasting passes? Make your first stop the Napa Valley Welcome Center (or check out www.visitnapavalley.com before you go), and take advantage of on-site concierge services to plan your visit throughout the valley. Or pop into the Yountville Welcome Center (www.yountville.com) for walking maps, and tasting room and restaurant recommendations. You’ll find welcome centers in Calistoga, St. Helena and American Canyon, too.
Park your car in Yountville for the day and hop aboard the free Yountville Trolley. This shuttle service roams up and down the picturesque town between tasting rooms, restaurants and shops. It will even pick you up at your hotel. Details: www.ridethevine.com.