With the kind of unstable weather we’re having in California, you may have to get a little creative when planning an outing. Finding places to explore that are somewhat near “shelter,” so that if the rain suddenly starts Niagara-falling, you can find somewhere to run-like-heck and go on with your day. My parents were joining the three of us on our outing, so getting stuck in the middle of a hike when the rain started pouring down was NOT an option. I also wanted to find something that all three generations of us would like to do. I had heard of a couple of wineries in Napa that were supposedly kid-friendly with outdoor areas to walk around in, so I thought it was a great activity on a ‘cloudy with a chance of showers’ kind of day. Of course, the adults had no complaints about wine tasting, but one of us had to be the designated driver, so there had to be more to visiting the winery than just sitting in a tasting room.
We spent the previous night in Napa checking out all the goodies at the Oxbow Public Market (highly recommend) and then having dinner at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro in Yountville (unfortunately the dishes were a hit and miss for us) to extend our trip, but Napa is close enough to the Bay Area for an easy day trip. There are numerous types of lodging available in Napa Valley, from fancy spa resorts to more budget friendly hotels. There is also a campground in Bothe-Napa Valley State Park (open year round) that has “restored historic cabins” and yurts along with the usual campsites.
We started the day leaving Napa and heading North on Hwy 29, the main road through Napa Valley. This road is considered one of the most scenic drives in Napa Valley and many big name wineries are located off this road. For these reasons, the road often times was very crowded, especially at the end of the day when the wineries close and everyone is trying to get home on the same road.
Bouchon Bakery (Yountville)
Our first stop was Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery to pick up some breakfast. We left early so that we could avoid the lines at Bouchon Bakery, but no such luck. You just have to be prepared to wait at anytime of day, but it is so worth it. The place really lives up to all the hype with its delicious pastries, but it’s the epi bread (in a wreath form) that was the best we’ve ever had…in our lives (sorry no pictures, they were so delicious that everyone just started tearing off piece after piece before I could get my lens cap off my camera -such savages :p).
V. Sattui Winery (deli shop)
Fifteen minutes north on Hwy 29 from the Bouchon Bakery, we made a stop at V. Sattui Winery where they have a great deli, and pretty grounds to walk around in and have a picnic (wine tasting is available, of course). It was too early and too cold for a picnic when we stopped here, but we enjoyed looking around in the deli and purchasing some delicious local cheeses and meats to go with whatever was left of the epi bread. We wanted to have food for lunch since we didn’t know what kind of food was available at the wineries.
Sterling Winery (Calistoga)
Leaving V. Sattui and continuing on Hwy 29 for 15 more minutes we reached Sterling Winery. We quickly found parking, and headed over to the tram loading area where we purchased our “tasting and experience.” The general admission is $29 (21 and under is $15, and 3 and under are free), which includes the aerial tram, self-guided tour of the lower portion of the winery, a tasting of five current release wines, and a souvenir tasting glass. We found a $10 off coupon (in a brochure at the hotel we stayed at) for every 21 and over member in the party which saved a ton! It would be worth looking around for discounts before you go (here’s one). You can upgrade to other packages which allow you to have more access to the winery with more tastings, but the general admission was just fine for us and still allowed us to have plenty of things to see and do. In case you’re interested weekend hours are 10 am – 5 pm.
We started off by riding an aerial tram up to the winery. Although the ride was short, the views were just beautiful and let us see Napa Valley, which we had just driven through, from up high. The building is a large brilliant white Mediterranean-style building (easily seen from Hwy 29).
Once we got off the tram, we were greeted by the friendly staff who handed us our complimentary glasses and gave us our first pour. With our wine glasses in hand, we made our way towards the beginning of the self-guided tour. The monitors were motion-triggered, so everytime we gathered near a monitor, it began a video explaining the part of the wine-making process that took place there. Between the information signs and videos we got a great introduction to wine-making. I loved that we could take the tour on our own time and allowing us to be able to talk to each other. All while passing by wine pouring stations (5 total pours) to taste the wines that they made there. I have to admit, I only liked 3 of the 5 wines I tried, but they were very different and I’m glad I got to try them (now you know which poor guy, aka hubby, was the designated driver, but he claimed he really enjoyed the tour). My daughter enjoyed taking pictures of the views, exploring the building, and learning about wine making much more than I thought she would.
There was food available to order on the terrace patio, and I could picture on a warm day the terrace would be filled with people having a snack as they drank their wine and took in the views. On this day it was just way too cold. I’m glad that we had food in our stomachs before we started this wine tasting/tour. Having our picnic foods from V. Sattui came in handy after the tour because there were no restaurants or places to buy food between Sterling Winery and the next winery. Definitely good to have food items for impromptu picnics (Bothe-Napa Valley State Park is close by).
Castillo di Amorosa (Calistoga)
Only five minutes away from Sterling Winery, heading back south on Hwy 29, we found our way to Castillo di Amorosa. If the parking lot was any indication of how busy it was, this place was going to be crowded. We hesitated at the front entrance because there were so many people milling about, but hubby braved his way inside and bought our General Admission tickets which were $25 a person (over 21) and allows roaming access to the upper levels of the Castello and 5 tastings (children 5-20 were $15). We roamed aimlessly all over the castle, wherever we could get access with our General Admission, and had fun imagining that we were in Tuscany visiting a castle. The website claims that this castle is an “authentically-built 13th century inspired Tuscan castle and winery.” They painstakingly used construction methods and materials that were used 1,000 years ago.
For our wine tasting they have a tasting room where everyone goes to get a pour, but it was so crowded that we couldn’t even get close to the bar. The staff noticed our group (we must have looked pretty shell-shocked) and led us to another wine tasting room across the courtyard and up some stairs where we were all seated for our tasting. The hand-crafted Italian wines were delicious, but because the time between each pour was too long (one person appeared to be pouring wines for the entire room), we left after three tastings. My daughter got a tasting of the Muscat grape juice, which is a non alcoholic drink they make at the winery. We wanted to spend the rest of our time exploring more of the castle instead. Although we only had access to certain areas, the castle has 121,000 sq ft. of interior space with 107 rooms, the majority dedicated to wine making and storage. There is an impressive two-story Great Hall which you can walk into part way. We didn’t see the dungeon and torture chamber, but now I’m assured that this castle is authentic :).
Although we had some nice wine tastings, our day in Napa Valley kept us moving and enjoying the outdoors. It was more about exploring the wineries than sitting down and tasting the wines. All of us, even my non wine tasting daughter, had a wonderful time and would agree with the kid-friendly reputation of Sterling Winery and Castello di Amorosa. So even if the weather is kind of iffy, there are places to check-out and still have yourself a great day. Cheers!