UNCORKING A DIFFERENT SIDE TO (THE CITY OF) NAPA
There are many wine country destinations throughout the world, but only a handful that will pop-up top of mind when thinking about an actual wine getaway. One such place is Northern California, Napa and Sonoma to be more specific. Each one of them has their pluses and minuses, and will appeal to a different type of visitor.
Before February 2019 I had never been to either place, which is kind of nuts, considering my entire extended family lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. But now I can say, I have been to Napa!
The Disneyland of Northern California
Southern California has Disneyland and Universal Studios. Northern California has Napa.
The thing with Napa is most people will pick a hotel “home base” and spend hours and days in the car, or in an Uber, driving up and down the 30 miles of the valley trying to visit all of the vineyards and wineries.
If you’re like me, and would rather have more exploring time, and more money in your wallet for all of the food and all of the wine, Downtown Napa is where it’s at!
At only 18 square miles Downtown Napa has all of the markets, boutiques, restaurants, bars and tasting rooms you could ever want. You don’t need to drive (or step near a vehicle), you can burn off all the calories you consume with walks, and the photo opportunities are endless.
First Street Gets a Modern Makeover
It’s not a new concept to visit Oxbow Public Market while in Napa, but now there’s a new player in town: First Street, which has recently gone under a makeover fit for the savviest of oenophile travelers.
The reinvigorated neighborhood features 40 shops & restaurants, world-class restaurants, live entertainment, a boutique hotel (The Archer), and dozens of walkable tasting rooms. This area is really a one-of-a-kind experience that is reimagining the whole “wine country lifestyle,” and really is redefining what a getaway to wine country can actually be. First Street is becoming the great Napa destination.
Shaking Up the Wine Tasting Experience
The ever popular, and no-brainer, tourist draw to Napa is wine tasting. I’m not going to lie, many of the vineyards up and down the valley are insanely gorgeous, but what if you’re like me? You don’t want to spend your entire afternoon in a car, you prefer walking to driving, and you want to taste all of the wine possible with easy access to a nap in your hotel bed.
This is where Downtown Napa has you covered! The city is lined with an impressive amount of innovative, and visually striking spaces, offering tastings for all budgets. You can completely avoid the traditional group tours and tastings excursions typical in the region and DIY the s*** out of Napa. Something you can also get to take your tasting to the next level, which is not available throughout the valley, is the Downtown Napa Wine Tasting Card (available for only $15) — which works at 9 of the more than 30 local tasting rooms and gets you 50% off the listed tasting prices.
The tasting rooms included on the card are:
(we visited the locations marked with “☼”)
Acumen Wine Gallery ☼
JaM Cellars ☼
John Anthony Vineyards
Stonehedge / Havens Wineries
Napa General Store
Vintage Sweet Shoppe
Wines on First
Let me be completely transparent when I say we had far more tasting rooms on our list to visit than we could actually (or realistically) make it to. This also makes for an important TIP TO NOTE (below):
Decide whether you want to structure your tasting experiences around, A) consuming as much wine as possible, or B) maybe consuming less wine, but engaging in longer, more personal experiences with your tasting ‘guides’ (usually because you’ve fallen into a deep conversation).
Our experience ended up being in the B) category, not because we weren’t on a mission to taste a bunch of wines (far from it), but more because we would connect with our hosts and get into long and fun conversations.
Before we knew it we had spent 2+ hours at each tasting room we visited. So we may not have tasted all of the options Downtown that we wanted to, but we left with even deeper memories. This is completely my personality – I am always the last person to finish a meal, because I talk more than I eat.
My suggestion would be to limit your tasting room visits to 3 per day, in order to maximize your wine tastings, get in a little exploring time, and not eat dinner at 10pm.
TASTING ROOMS YOU MUST VISIT
** The tasting rooms below that are also included in the Wine Tasting Card I mentioned earlier, along with the respective deals accompanying the card, are denoted with a ☼ **
ACUMEN WINE GALLERY ☼
This undeniably rustic-chic hip space with high ceilings, sleek marble-topped bars, leather accents, modern metals, a rose gold/copper accent wall, make Acumen Wine Gallery a tasting room that must be included on your list.
Acumen: keenness, depth of perception, and discernment
There are three flight options which will give you a general overview, a varietal overview, or a more premium estate experience. The wines that you taste come from The Estate on Atlas Peak, which unfortunately is not accessible to visitors, but this is why you visit this urban oasis. Acumen’s 116 organically certified acres of vines are spread across two vineyards on Napa Valley’s Atlas Peak — hence the reference in the tasting listed below.
There are two offering which complete capture the essence of its mountain terroir. The small-production PEAK wines are made as a selection of the best barrels from the best lots, and feature the elegance and structure that are necessary for long-term aging. The Mountainside wines, which my friend tasted, were introduced to appeal to a wider audience.
One thing that sets Acumen apart from the other tasting rooms in downtown is the high-end art gallery in the back which features rotating collections of art.
TIP TO NOTE: An exciting new 33,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art cave winery will be breaking ground on Atlas peak in 2019! I definitely need to come back for this!
MOUNTAINSIDE FLIGHT: $25
PEAK FLIGHT $40
(both of the flights above we were able to get at half price with our Wine Tasting Cards)
ESTATE VARIETAL FLIGHT $30
1315 First Street, Napa CA 94558
Thursday through Monday, 10am - 7pm
ALPHA OMEGA COLLECTIVE
Opening next month, aka in a couple of days, this is the new downtown tasting room for Alpha Omega Winery in St. Helena: Alpha Omega Collective (the umbrella brand for Alpha Omega). The wines being showcased in the space will be from Alpha Omega, Tolosa (located in San Luis Obispo’s Edna Valley) and Perinet (located in Spain’s Priorat) wineries. Each of these wineries showcases its deep regional roots – highlighting the influence of the combination of sea and rock-laden soils which are producing world-class wine, featuring unique accents. Although each of the individual personalities of the wineries are distinct, the Collective stands as one.
This will be the first tasting for Alpha Omega and will feature a tasting room and outside seating, perfect for those warm, sunny days.
My friend and I had the chance to visit Alpha Omega in St. Helena prior to arriving in Downtown Napa for our stay and let me tell you these wines are worth stopping in at the new tasting room.
Talk about breathtaking décor, this is another tasting room fully embodying a hip, industrial-style interior. One of the best things about the downtown tasting room is you don’t need to be a wine-club member to visit, like you do for their St. Helena property.
I’m not going to lie, Brown Downtown was kind of hard to find, and for some reason even though we tried to stop by during business hours for some reason was not open. But nonetheless the space is reminiscent of a speakeasy with its side street walk-in entrance (on Coombs Street), location on the second floor (which you have to take an elevator to get to), and retro brick wall feel.
FLIGHT BAR: Three available flights ($40-$50 per person)
BACK BAR: Formal guided tasting through 4-5 current release wines with individually plated small bite pairings ($65 per person)
CENTER TABLE: Parties of 6+ at 12:30pm and 3:30pm daily. Preset tasting menu $55 per person, includes five wines and a complimentary cheese board
1005 Coombs St, Napa, CA 94559
Open Daily, 11am-7pm
GUSTAVO WINES ☼
If for no other reason, a visit to Gustavo is a trip down Napa’s memory lane – with the added bonus of the location of the tasting room being across the street from Model Bakery. The tasting room is operated by long time valley winemaker, Gustavo Brambila, and currently focuses on Gustavo Wines. If you feel so inclined, you also have the option to taste Avinodos, which is run by Gustavo’s son Lorn and his business partner Dan.
The original tasting room, which opened in 2002, was the city’s first winery collective.
In 40 years Gustavo has said none of his wines have tasted exactly like any other of his wines.
Gustavo was also portrayed in the 2008 movie “Bottle Shock”.
Gustavo’s wines stay true to the varietal, made in the style of the ‘old world’, which don’t necessarily taste the same each year, because he is respecting the vintage variations based on the growing seasons, and wants to create the best possible wines from the fruit that is grown. Another thing that is key to note is this tasting room features more reasonably priced wines and tastings, which are often less than what you would pay from some of the more well-known wineries. The reason for this is because the location of the tasting room has less overhead, being that it’s located in a business park, so the savings on Gustavo’s excellent fruit sources are passed on to the consumer. Win-win!
CLASICO Flight of 4 - $15
(The Clasico Flight is honored on the Wine Tasting Card)
SIGNATURE Flight of 4 - $20
GUSTAVO Flight of 5 - $30
SELECT Flight of 7 - $40
Wines by the glass: Reds $9-$26, Whites $8-$15
1021 McKinstry Street, Napa, CA 9455
Monday-Saturday 12pm-6pm; Sunday 12pm-5pm
JaM CELLARS ☼
This is John Anthony’s second tasting room in Downtown Napa, ironically both of which hug the Andaz Hotel from either side. JaM Cellars is definitely the “cool kid on the block” when it comes to Downtown Napa. There is a disco ball in the ceiling, a Rolling Stones wall of album covers, and even a separate room that doubles as a recording studio! The couches and booths are where more of the music lounge space comes into play and every week they lower their projector screen for movie night.
A huge plus of JaM Cellars, especially for people who want to not feel like they are rushing to tasting room after tasting room in order to fit everything into normal business hours. JaM Cellars stays open late, turning more into a lounge with the best ambiance to hang out with friends after everything else has long since closed.
Pick 4 for $25
Full Portfolio for $35
Friends of JaM, 4 for $30
(you can choose any of the tastings for the Wine Tasting Card)
1460 1st Street, Napa, CA 94559
Sunday – Wednesday: 10AM – 10PM; Thursday – Saturday: 10AM – 12AM
ST. CLAIR BROWN WINERY & BREWERY
Near the edges of Downtown Napa is an urban stand-alone oasis, St. Clair Brown. The farm to table trend is alive and well here. There is a patio, raised produce beds across the street (which are used for paired seasonal tastings), a patio for tastings, and even a former greenhouse for those rain day tastings.
The space is divided between wine and locally crafted beer – which is a rare occurrence in Napa. Seriously. Have you ever heard someone say they are going to Napa for the beer? But there are those that prefer beer over wine, so St. Clair Brown is the spot for everyone! There are 3 beers available on tap at all times and then a selection that rotates each week.
If you really want to know which food items on the menu come from their garden watch out for the petunia flower icons. But rest be assured that the other products are sourced locally, from vendors they know personally.
WINE Tasting: $35
BEER Flight: $12
Weekly Tour & Tasting (Friday & Saturday 5:30pm): $55 per person
816 Vallejo Street, Napa, CA 94559
Thu-Sat 12pm-8pm; Sun-Mon 12pm-6pm; Tue & Wed by appointment
This is where you can truly experience a variety of wines from a select group of Napa winemakers. The whole point of a place like this is because most of them don’t have their own tasting rooms. Vintner’s Collective will have you coming back again and again because they change up their flights daily, with many of the labels being ones you’ve most likely never heard of. Unless you’re a connoisseur of boutique Napa wine producers. All of the wines at Vintner’s Collective are going to be from producers who have a maximum production of 1000 cases. So here you truly do get the local, intimate tasting vibes.
The cool thing about this spot is they are truly committed to showcasing the valley’s boutique vineyard. So if a winery either builds their own tasting room Vintner’s will often remove it from their tasting options, but in general they will have 20-25 Napa based vintners available for tasting. Because Vintner’s Collective offers tasting flights for all levels of interest and knowledge – a truly catered experience.
No. 1 TASTING (at the tasting bar): 5 wines at $40 per person
No. 2 TASTING (Private, seated upstairs): $75 for 90 minutes, features a custom selection of wines paired with artisanal cheese and charcuterie
No. 3 TASTING (Private): $110 for 90 minutes, features most exclusive and hard to find wines (including high end Napa Cabs) paired with artisanal cheese, charcuterie and chocolate by La Foret
1245 Main St, Napa, CA 94559
Open daily, 10am-7pm
When You’re Not Wine Tasting, You’re Probably Eating
I’m not saying you can’t wine taste all day, every day, but the responsible adult in me, and avid foodie, will tell you that you need to eat, and you can’t miss these amazing local hotspots.
RESTAURANTS YOU MUST VISIT
(and the accompanying foods you must consume)
We did not go out to eat for breakfast every morning. This is because we stayed at the Napa River Inn (more on that below), and they gave us the option to take our breakfast in bed. We obviously opted for this option. ;)
THE MODEL BAKERY
If Oprah says a place is good you go, right? Not everyone lives but this motto, but there is a reason this spot made it onto her ‘Favorite Things’ list, and why it is busy almost all the time.
This place has been a Napa Valley destination for almost 90 years. It is one of those spots that if you don’t go someone could truly say to you, “Did you actually go to Napa?” For the most part people will stop by the St. Helena location, but lucky for us Downtown Napa explorers there is a location at the Oxbow Public Market, right across the street from the Gustavo tasting room.
There are a lot of delicious things staring back at you from The Model Bakery’s cases, as well as the artisan breads lining the wall, but in truth there is only one thing you should be coming here for:
THE ENGLISH MUFFIN
Because let’s be real, if you are coming here, this is the only thing you should be coming for.
I’m sure you think you’ve had English Muffins before, that is, until you’ve had the one at The Model Bakery. Here they are done right, and this is the place that will ruin any other English Muffin for you – for life.
They are light, pillowy, amazingly fluffy, and slight fatties. I’m pretty sure they are a couple of inches think – yet not dense at all. Any other English Muffin you will have in the course of your life (that doesn’t come from The Model Bakery) is an imposter and doesn’t have the right to call itself an English Muffin. You may think I am over exaggerating but these are live changing. This is the truth.
Oxbow Market, 644 1st St., Bldg. B, Napa, CA, 94559
Monday - Thursday: 6:30am-5:30pm, Friday: 6:30am-6:00pm, Saturday & Sunday: 7am-6:00pm
NAPA GENERAL STORE
This is the go-to place for brunch. The options are endless, the food impeccable, and the ambiance is quintessentially Napa. The General Store also happens to be pretty much next door to the Napa Mill and Napa River Inn where we stayed, at the south end of Main Street.
Also within the store are a variety of wine related items, boutique artisan type gifts/souvenirs, and a sit down wine tasting bar. It’s a very convenient one-stop-shop, that should be on your list before leaving town.
540 Main St #100, Napa, CA 94559
Breakfast: Daily 8:00a – 12:00p
Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:00a – 3:00p
Brunch: Sat/Sun 8:00a – 3:00p
Shopping: Daily 8:00a – 6:00p
Wine Tasting: Daily 11:30a – 5:30p
OXBOW PUBLIC MARKET
Because you can never go wrong with a one-stop-shop! From shopping, to eating, to drinking the options are endless in the market. We dropped in for awesome blood orange mimosas from Oxbow Cheese & Wine Merchant, you can get some pretty delicious veg-friendly tacos from C Casa, super fresh juice (as soon as you walk in) to help cure your wine hangover, and for the classic diner experience the famous Gott's Roadside is just outside. A cool thing about Gott’s (besides it featuring some pretty amazing crispy Brussel sprouts) is they also have the meatless Impossible Burger. If you can’t find something to your liking in Oxbow Public Market then I don’t know how to help you.
610 & 644 First Street, Napa, California 94559
Open Seven Days a Week
Merchants start opening at 7:30am, and many stay open until 9:30pm
All tenants open between 9 am and 7 pm
Additional information and hours can be found HERE
(double check the hours of individual merchant)
EIGHT NOODLE SHOP
When it’s raining, or literally pouring, one thing that comes to most people’s minds is that they want to cuddle up with a warm bowl of soup. Or better yet, a warm, huge bowl of ramen. If you’ve never lived in a major city you may not fully understand the magic that is going to a restaurant for ramen, but I’m here to tell you nothing else compares. Especially when pared with pork buns.
Eight Noodle Shop is a tiny spot in Napa that packs a big punch. In typical Napa style all of Chef and owner David Lu’s cuisine is made with fresh local ingredients. The ramen may be slightly less than traditional with its larger udon style noodles and crazy add-ins, but it will live up to all your expectations.
1408 Clay St, Napa, CA 94559
Open Everyday – 11am to 9pm
The first thing I have to say about ZuZu is they had the best scallops my friend and I have ever tasted. No joke. These were melt in your mouth amazing.
Now that we have that out of the way, in the broader sense ZuZu is a Spanish-inspired tapas restaurant in the Old Town area of Downtown Napa. The rustic bi-level space has the best ambiance and is known for the amazing small plates – none of which will disappoint. You are most likely going to have the “eyes are bigger than your stomach” syndrome when you start tasting everything. We shared two orders of the Scallops, Flat-Iron Steak, Spaghetti Squash, Paella and Basque Cake for dessert – it was Galentine’s Day after all.
ZuZu’s interior design is perfect with the Spanish-style tile floors and pressed-tin ceiling which completely give off an old-world vibe. The funny thing is I kept reading how popular this place was, but my friend and I walked in on Valentine’s evening and got a table without a reservation without any problem. Maybe it was the fact that it was pouring rain outside, or we went at an hour that Grandma’s eat (although there were still a decent number of people inside). Either way there was no epic wait like I have heard can happen.
829 Main Street, Napa, California 94559
LUNCH: Monday through Friday 11:30am - 2:30pm
DINNER: Sunday through Thursday 4:30pm - 10pm; Friday and Saturday 4:30pm - 11pm
BOUNTY HUNTER WINE BAR
BEER CAN CHICKEN.
The only three words you need to know when it comes to Bounty Hunter Wine Bar. Funny enough this place is slightly confusing when you walk inside. Are you in a wine bar? At a local bar? At a BBQ place? Where are you? The answer is simple, all of the above!
If you don’t like chicken, then my recommendation is that you give it a little try (ok, a big try) at this spot. Why? Because it’s ‘effing delicious. Ya, sure a can of beer has been shoved up a small chicken’s butt, but this is why it’s so tender and juicy and just plain delicious. It’s perfectly seasoned, almost a little spicy even, but I swear you will never have a better tasting chicken. The whole chicken is also only $28, which for something that can feed a minimum of 2 people is a pretty good deal!
We went all out and got the chicken (it’s more than enough for two people to share), and a couple of sides including cornbread, potato salad, and half sour pickles. Let me just tell you, if you are still unsure about the chicken, a whole table of guys watched us eat it in envy and even asked to take a photo of it.
Bounty Hunter also offers an 18-page wine list, after all it is also a wine bar. So in addition to getting your chicken on, you can choose from 40 wines by the glass, 400 wines by the bottle, and wine tasting flights. Also if you start to get those midnight munchies, Bounty Hunter has got you covered as their BBQ served til 12am on weekends.
975 First Street, Napa, CA 94559
Sunday - Thursday 11am - 9pm; Friday - Saturday | 11am - 11pm
Tacos and margaritas – the two main food groups of California. That may or may not be an exaggeration, but these are two things done right in The Golden State.
With an indoor-outdoor ambiance, a second back bar, 50-person patio, and a mural by Bay Area based artist DJ AGANA, you can’t go wrong at Gran Electrica. But it’s not just the ambiance and the décor that makes this spot a must-stop on your Downtown Napa adventure, they’ve also got some pretty delish margaritas (such as the Rhubarb and Prickly Pear).
1313 Main St, Napa, CA 94559
Monday - CLOSED; Tuesday to Thursday 5pm to 9pm; Friday 5pm to 10pm; Saturday 4pm to 10pm; Sunday Brunch 11am to 3pm; Sunday dinner 5pm to 9pm
BAR HOURS: All day Sunday, open an additional hour past the closing hours above
HAPPY HOUR (at the bar only): Tuesday to Friday 5pm to 6:30pm
I assume you’re exhausted, or have been nursing a multi-day hangover, by now. But if not…
OTHER PLACES TO ADD TO YOUR LIST
DOWNTOWN NAPA RIVER WALK
As I mentioned earlier, the Napa General Store and the Napa River Inn are located in the same area, adjacent to the river walk. This is one of the cuter areas of town because you can either stay in the Inn and take your breakfast there, or visit the Napa General Store for brunch and take a little walk along the river afterwards, which wraps around the building. Farther down the river walk is the River Promenade & Plaza which also connects nearby outdoor restaurant patios. There are a couple of bridges in this area which cross over to the east side of Downtown Napa and are also great photo spots.
SKY & VINE ROOFTOP (AT THE ARCHER HOTEL)
This is one reason you should try to time a visit when there will be nice sunny evenings (although Mother Nature can’t always guarantee that). Besides the fact that the hotel is completely gorgeous featuring rooms complete with robes, slippers, and complimentary caramels (giving guests exclusive access to the rooftop pool and private cabanas), there is also a 360-degree view up on the roof, complete with some pretty awesome specialty cocktails, fire pits, and games such as Connect Four, Jenga, and Corn Hole.
The Napa River Inn: Your “Power Nap” Oasis
There are a handful options of places to lay your head at night in Downtown Napa, but I am going to be highlighting the cutest of the cute, the Napa River Inn.
I think you all have figured out by now, I tend to gravitate towards accommodation options that have some unique twist to them. I also love staying places, whether it’s a B&B, hotel, glamping, etc. that feels homey.
This is everything Napa River Inn is, and more. Many people may gravitate towards the Andaz or The Archer when choosing a place to stay in the city of Napa, I get it, the rooftop pool at The Archer is pretty awesome, but I encourage you to consider all your options. Especially when the Napa River Inn is the highest Michelin rated hotel, and the only four-star Forbes rated hotel in Downtown Napa.
The Napa River Inn overlooks the Napa River and also features an on-site day spa and live music venue (which intimately seats only 50 couples). There are three buildings that comprise the hotel, and we were lucky enough to get a room overlooking the river.
Impeccable luxury service is what this hotel does best. From the moment we arrived for check in, and were handed welcome glasses of wine, I knew that our experience would be personal and unforgettable.
OUR COZY HOME AWAY FROM HOME
We stayed in a Plaza Deluxe Room which was the most comfortable and cozy room ever. The room featured a working fireplace (we all know I am obsessed with those), a pillowy soft king bed (making for the best sleeps), a built in headboard around the bed which also featured a shelf with outlets near your head (who needs a side table), a private balcony, and a refrigerator with complimentary water and creamer! You don’t realize how amazing complimentary bottle water is until you experience it. Something we clearly all take for granted. Another fun surprise was to discover that all of the bath products were wine infused (of course) and also smelled amazing.
Even though I don’t have a dog (I wish!) I was so happy to find out that the hotel has a “Very Important Pet Program,” which welcomes all of the pets with fuzzy customized blankets, gourmet dog bones, and biscuits that are always at the ready for guests’ fur babies.
As I previously mentioned Napa River Inn includes breakfast during your stay, but what I failed to mention is that you have two different options of how you want to take breakfast. Breakfast is provided by Sweetie Pies bakery, located downstairs next to the lobby, which you can either head downstairs and enjoy, or have delivered to your room, all complimentary! Because neither of us have stayed in a hotel where room service, or complimentary breakfast, can be delivered to your room free-of-charge we fully took advantage of this amenity (each of the mornings we were there)!
Fresh squeezed orange or grapefruit juice, or tea, or coffee
An assortment of fresh baked pastries
The FRESHEST orange or grapefruit juice (it was literally the best orange juice I’ve ever had)
Coffee or tea
I was even able to request almond milk each morning to add to my coffee, and it came in the cutest little glass bottle.
If you thought the service couldn’t get any better than this, this would be when I (but really the hotel) will continue to ‘wow’ you. Also a part of the Napa River Inn experience is, evening wine tastings showcasing a featured winery, complimentary "driver hosted" jaunts in town, bicycles available to borrow for exploring the neighborhood, complimentary daily newspaper available Monday through Friday, and nightly turndown service.
The more I travel, especially as I become more and more eco-conscious, the more important it becomes to stay in places that also share this value. Napa River Inn is one such place. They have been committed to the environment from the very beginning, and some of the ways they have remained eco-friendly is by having battery operated candles, featuring locally sourced bath amenities, and recycling their cooking oil into bio-diesel. It’s obvious that the hotel not only treasures the land of the Napa Valley, but is doing what they can to help preserve and protect it.
Are you convinced?
Downtown Napa is truly the gateway to Napa Valley
All of the reasons above are why Downtown Napa is not only the place to make your home base on your next visit, but should be the main place to spend your time. It is the good life. The city fuses local tradition with the modern world, all the while providing an authentically Napa experience.
Sure you can come to wine country and spend your days driving around trying to see everything. But in reality who wants to do that? Discover the new urban energy that’s redefining the valley. Downtown Napa is the gateway to this region, less than 90 minutes north of San Francisco.
Come to Northern California and experience the nouveau Napa Valley destination, all within an arm’s reach of your hotel front door.
This post was written in partnership with the Downtown Napa Association. All opinions are my own, but it was truly a memorable experience you all should experience for yourselves. BIG thank you to Downtown Napa and the tasting rooms we experienced!