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A First-Timer's Guide to Visiting Napa Valley

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Napa Valley is only about 30 miles long and a mile wide, but this beautiful region in Northern California is packed with more than 400 wineries, plus divine restaurants and elegant hotels. If you’re visiting for the first time, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the options.

Caroline Horwitz, Allianz Global Assistance’s Director of Customer Experience, USA, has been to Napa 10 times — she even got married there. Here are her best tips for visiting Napa Valley if it’s your first visit. We’re pretty sure it won’t be your last.

When You’re Visiting Napa Valley, You Have to Pace Yourself

Many first-timers try to cram seven vineyard visits into each day. That just doesn’t work, Horwitz says — the Napa experience isn’t about rushing from place to place. A better schedule looks like this: Start with a hearty breakfast, then hit one or two wineries in the morning. Take time for a nice lunch, whether picnic-style or at a local restaurant. Then visit two more wineries in the afternoon. Four to five in a day should be the maximum. You may want to visit fewer and instead spend time taking a tour or enjoying a guided tasting. Have dinner at a Napa Valley restaurant and go to bed early: “You’re exhausted from the day, and ready to go again the next day.”

Consider Hiring a Driver When Visiting Napa Valley Wineries.

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Whether you plan to visit three wineries in a day or five, a designated driver is a must to carry you safely from place to place. If no one in your group is keen on being the DD, hire a driver! For an hourly rate of $25-$50, you’ll get an experienced driver who can recommend great wineries. Also consider group tours or the Napa Valley Wine Train.

The Best Wineries Don’t Always Have the Fanciest Tasting Rooms.

Part of the pleasure of visiting Napa Valley is seeing beautiful architecture. Domaine Carneros, for instance, is known for its stunning chateau. Sip wine on the terrace and you’ll feel like you’re in France. But don’t overlook the more modest-appearing wineries. One of Horwitz’s favorites is Caldwell Vineyard, which specializes in Bordeaux-style reds. Its tasting room is in a cave 90 feet under the ground, which keeps the wine at 59 degrees right now. The cave may not be as elegant as a castle, “but the wines are pretty phenomenal,” Horwitz says.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Recommendations.

Once you find a winery you really enjoy, ask the tasting room manager for recommendations for other, similar places. They’re happy to do it! This will help you develop a unique Napa wine tour built around your personal tastes.

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Plan Tours and Guided Tastings Ahead of Time.

Don’t expect to waltz into Napa Valley wineries on a busy Saturday and get personalized tours or service. Research your destinations ahead of time to see if they require appointments, and make reservations well in advance for tours or special tastings with food pairings. If you enjoy learning about wine, definitely plan for at least one guided tasting. Horwitz particularly likes Swanson Vineyards’ salon tastings for small tables of 8-10 people, with caviar and chocolate.

Enjoy Some Effervescence.

Whether you’re a fan of reds, whites or both, make time in your Napa Valley vacation for at least one winery specializing in sparkling wine. This cleanses your palate, Horwitz explains, and is just plain fun. A few of her favorite Napa Valley vineyards for sparkling wine:

Give Sonoma Its Own Day.

On a map, Napa Valley and its sister region, Sonoma, look like they’re really close together. There’s a mountain range between them, however, so don’t plan to dash over to Sonoma to visit a winery and then zip back to Napa. Instead, spend some time exploring Sonoma. You’ll find the same excellent wines, but fewer crowds and lower costs.

Napa is Lovely in Any Season.

Most Napa Valley vineyards are open year-round, but may close for a few days during the busy fall harvest season. The scenery’s most beautiful during the fall, Horwitz says, when the grapes are ripe and ready to pick. In the winter, the vines are dormant and look like brown sticks, but the weather’s still pleasant. During a recent February visit, temperatures hovered in the 60s and 70s. In the spring, yellow mustard blooms in the vineyards; in the summer, everything’s lush and green. Whenever you go, don’t forget to protect your Napa Valley vacation with travel insurance from Allianz Global Assistance.

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Aug 18, 2016