Northern California's Napa Valley is a great place for New World wine-lovers to visit. As well as over four hundred wineries, many of which are open to the public for touring and tasting, there are plenty of outdoors activities to get up to in the rolling Westwood Hills, fine dining and relaxing spas to unwind in after a hard day's wine tasting. A beautiful location for a grown-up holiday.
The history of winemaking in the Napa Valley goes back to the early nineteenth century, when settlers arriving in northern California noted the climate and geography of the region was ideal for viticulture. Commercial wine production began in the 1850s, with hundreds of wineries springing up in the area by the end of the century.
Prohibition in the 1920s, and the nationwide Great Depression in the 1930s slowed wine production almost to a standstill, but from the end of the Second World War onwards the Napa Valley recovered as an important centre of winemaking. In a famous blind tasting in 1976, nine distinguished French judges were surprised to find that a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay from the Napa Valley came top of their taste tests, the so-called Judgement of Paris gave Californian wines a new respect worldwide.
The Napa Valley has a pleasant, warm and sunny climate year-round (similar to the Mediterranean); June to September are the warmest months of the year, and December and January are the coolest. The best time of year to visit depends on what you'd most like to see: harvest takes place from September to October and is one of the busiest times of the year for visitors - you'll need to book accommodation and dining well in advance.
May is a great time to see young grapes growing on the green vines and enjoy spring blooming in the hills; the grapes change to their final colour around July. December and January are typically quieter months, meaning you can relax and spend more time at your tastings and enjoy lower room rates. Avoid national holidays such as Memorial Day and Columbus Day when many local visitors head to the valley. In general, mornings are a quieter time to visit vineyards than afternoons (if you can stomach a morning wine tasting!)
Take local advice when choosing which wineries to visit - your hotel or B&B may be able to get you into little-known and hard-to-book places. A little research ahead of your visit can help you get acquainted with the wide array of vineyards to explore - check out Napa Valley Tourism for inspiration.
If you plan to sample plenty of the local wines, taking a tour rather than driving is the safest course of action. Napa Valley Wine Tours offer full-day group tours and private itineraries. Hot air balloon rides are another popular activity in Napa, check out Balloons Above the Valley who offer scenic balloon and wine tours.
A visit to the Napa Valley is a grown-up pleasure everyone should experience once in a lifetime. Add it to your bucket list and find out why so many visitors find this region intoxicating!
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Written by Lise Smith, a former contributor to Lonely Planet's India guidebook - she's seen her fair share of hotel rooms (both grotty and glamorous!). She learned to walk in a hotel corridor in Tunisia, and at the age of three had been on more aeroplanes than buses. Lise writes for a number of local news, technology and arts publications.