Ultimate Guide to Napa Valley

These ripe Napa Valley Pinot Gris grapes will soon be picked to make a tasty wine with delicate fruity flavors. See our collection of wine pictures. ­
These ripe Napa Valley Pinot Gris grapes will soon be picked to make a tasty wine with delicate fruity flavors. See our collection of wine pictures. ­
iStockphoto/Ralph Oechsle

­If you're looking for really good wine in the United States, head to California. Napa Valley is arguably the nation's premier winemaking region. Located off the Pacific Coast in north central California, Napa County's vineyards produce more fine wines, in more varieties, than anywhere else in North America does. California ha­d been cranking out delicious wine without any accolades until 1976, when a French judge recognized Napa Valley wine as better than French wine in a blind taste test [source: Gray]. Since then, California vineyards have been recognized as a force to be reckoned with.

Geography and a temperate climate have fostered Napa County's reputation for great wines. The fertile river valley is located just north of San Francisco. The region includes the communities of Calistoga, St. Helena, Napa, Yountville, Angwin, Deer Park, Lake Berryessa, Rutherford, Oakville and American Canyon [source: NapaValleyOnline].


Cooled by bay winds and a coastal fog bank, Napa Valley's topography favors winegrowing because the altitude gradually rises from the south to the north. This helps temper climatic extremes. Wooded western slopes provide afternoon shade in the valley, which benefits white grapes. Vineyards on the eastern slopes favor the production of red grapes [source: Stevenson].

­To designate that a wine comes from a particular region, worldwide wine industry labels usually include an Appellation of Origin. In the Uni­ted States, these are called American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). The name usually refers to a geographically based or climate-specific designation of a wine. Generally, this designation can be used in the United States when 75 percent of the wine comes from grapes grown in that particular area or state. In California, the wine must include 100 percent California grapes with 85 percent coming from a specific region. [source: Napa Valley Vint­ers].

In this article, we'll explore Napa Valley's grapes, famous wines and the Napa Valley Wine Train.


Napa Valley Grapes

California contains a whopping 107 American Viticultural Are­as (AVAs). Napa Valley received the very first designation and has continued to improve on its reputation ever since. Although Napa is best known for full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignons, other popular wines produced include Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel [source: Wine Institute].

The primary grape varieties of Napa Valley include:


  • Cabernet Sauvignon is rich in color, depth and aroma, which can make for a wonderfully complex wine.
  • Chardonnay is a classic, dry white wine grape, and is one of the three grape types used to make Champagne.
  • Chenin Blanc is known for its high sugar content, good acidity level and thin skin. It is often used for sparkling or sweet wines. However, some dry wines, such as Savennieres, are made from this grape.
  • Merlot is known for its fruity lusciousness and velvet quality.
  • Pinot Noir makes a rich, very smooth wine. Flavors can range from cherry to strawberry, depending upon climate and ripeness.
  • Sauvignon Blanc makes aromatic, dry wine, but it is also used in sweeter and fruity Sauternes and Barsac.
  • White Riesling makes a light-bodied, intensely flavored wine that is lower in alcohol.
  • Zinfandel has a berry-like character. Wine from this grape can range from light and elegant in white or rose to massive and tannic in red [source: Stevenson].

Napa Valley secondary grape varieties include: Aleatico, Alicante Bouschet, Barbera, Black Malvoisie, Burger, Cabernet Franc, Carignan, Early Burgundy, Colombard, Flora, Folle Blanche, Gamay, Gamay Beaujolais, Gewurztraminer, Gray Riesling, Green Hungarian, Grenache, Malbec, Malvasia Bianca, Mataro, Mission, Muscat Blanc, Palomino, Petite Sirah, Pinot Blanc, Pinot St. George, Ruby Cabernet, Sauvignon Vert, Semillon, Sylvander and Syrah [source: Stevenson]. Additional lesser-known grapes are also used to produce incredible wines in the region.

If you want to go to California to purchase the wine yourself, we can help point you in the right direction. Read on to learn about famous Napa Valley Wineries.


Famous Napa Valley Wineries

There are some 400 wineries in N­apa County -- too many to list here. Therefore, we've taken the liberty of narrowing the list for you. The following are generally considered the best wine producers in the area [source: Stevenson, Wine Institute, Napa Vintners]:

  • Acacia Winery, Napa
  • Barnett Vineyards, St. Helena
  • Beringer Vineyards, St. Helena
  • Caymus Vineyards, Rutherford
  • Chappellett Vineyards, St. Helena
  • Clos Du Val, Napa
  • Conn Valley, St. Helena
  • Corison, St. Helena
  • Dalla Valle, Oakville
  • Diamond Creek Vineyards, Calistoga
  • Dominus, Yountville
  • Duckhorn Vineyards, St. Helena
  • Dunn Vineyards, Angwin
  • Elyse, Napa
  • Franciscan Vineyards, Rutherford
  • Girard Winery, Oakville
  • Grace Family Vineyards, St. Helena
  • Havens Wine Cellars, Napa
  • Joseph Phelps Vineyards, St. Helena
  • La Jota, Angwin
  • Kent Rasmussen, Napa
  • Long Vineyards, St. Helena
  • Marcassin, Calistoga
  • Robert Mondavi, Oakville
  • Mumm Napa Valley, Rutherford
  • Newton Vineyards, St. Helena
  • Niebaum-Coppola, Rutherford
  • Opus One, Oakville
  • Robert Mondavi, Oakville
  • Saintsbury, Napa
  • Shafer Vineyards, Napa
  • Signorello Vineyards, Napa
  • Robert Sinskey Vineyards, Napa
  • Spottswoode, St. Helena
  • Staglin, Napa
  • Stags' Leap Wine Cellars, Napa
  • Turley Cellars, Napa

Before you head out to the vineyards, be sure to call ahead and make sure they are open to the public. Some vineyards are only open by appointment. If you want to skip figuring out all of the details of your visit, we have an easy fix. Read on to learn about the Napa Valley Wine Train.


Napa Valley Wine Train

Perhaps nothing is as cozy and romantic as an old-fashioned train ride. Maybe even better -- a train with wine. Home to the highest concentration of wineries in California, Napa Valley also has the Napa Valley Wine Train, which offers three-hour excursions though Napa Valley in beautifully restored old rail cars.

Trains leave from downtown Napa and travel to St. Helena and back. Packages include:



  • Vista Dome Lunch: The 1947 Pullman Vista Dome Car is a remarkable sight. With hits domed, glass ceiling, you'll enjoy the most incredible view of the valley -- all while dining on a four-course lunch.
  • Gourmet Lunch: Ride and dine on Pullman cars dating from 1915-1917.
  • Silverado Car: This is the car for the budget-conscious traveler. Ride in a refurbished (yet still rustic and gorgeous) car with the option to open the window and take in the fresh air [Napa Valley Train].

Winery Tours:

  • Raymond, ZD Winery Tour
  • Domaine Chandon Winery Tour
  • Grgich Hills Winery Tour

­You'll receive a little wine education at the station before boarding the t­rain. With each winer­y tour, you'll enjoy a gourmet meal as you travel to your destination [source: Napa Valley Wine Train].

The Napa Valley Wine Train can put together a custom event just for you, or you can choose from one of these fun options. Special events include:

  • Murder mystery dinner theater
  • Vinter's lunch
  • Moonlight escape
  • Appellation dinner
  • Varietal voyage
  • Family fun night [source: Napa Valley Wine Train]

The train has about 100 different types of wine on board and if that's not quite enough, the Napa Depot has a wine shop that stocks more than 250 wines [source: Napa Valley Wine Train].

Whether by car or train, Napa Valley is a beautiful and leisurely place to learn about and enjoy fine wine. If you can't visit the area personally, look for Napa wines at your local wine store, or shop online from one of the vineyards.

For more wine-related information, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • California Raisin Marketing Board. "California Raisins Advertising History & Fun Facts." (Accessed 02/02/09)http://www.loveyourraisins.com/presscenter/release.cfm?id=44
  • Gray, W. Blake. "The story behind the story that made wine history." The San Francisco Chronicle. 06/16/05. (Accessed 02/02/09)http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/06/16/WIGFFD8K231.DTL
  • NapaValleyOnline.com. "About the Napa Valley." (Accessed 02/02/09)http://www.napavalleyonline.com/directory/wsaboutnv.html
  • Napa Valley Vinters. "History of NVV." (Accessed 02/02/09)http://www.napavintners.com/about/ab_1_history.aspx
  • Napa Valley Vinters. "Napa Valley Wineries." (Accessed 02/02/09)http://www.napavintners.com/wineries/
  • Napa Valley Vinters. "Wine Labeling." (Accessed 02/02/09)http://www.napavintners.com/wines/wnv_1_labeling.aspx
  • Napa Valley Wine Train. "Events." (Accessed 02/02/09)http://winetrain.com/events.php
  • Napa Valley Wine Train. "Dinner." (Accessed 02/02/09)http://winetrain.com/dinner.php
  • Napa Valley Wine Train. "Napa Valley Wine Train." (Accessed 01/28/2009)http://winetrain.com/
  • Napa Valley Wine Train. "Winery Tours." (Accessed 02/02/09)http://winetrain.com/tours.php
  • Napa Wine Tours. (Accessed 02/02/09)http://www.napawinetours.net/
  • Stevenson, Tom. "The New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia." Dorling Kindersley. 2001.
  • Wine Institute. "An Insider's Guide to California Wine Country." Wineinstitute.com (Accessed 02/02/2009)http://www.wineinstitute.org/resources/consumerfeaturedstories/article332