No Left Turns

There’s no place in the world that’s more fun for wine tasters than Napa Valley.  So many wineries.  So many great wineries!  And they’re one after another after another, primarily on two main roads and the cross streets that connect them.  Of those two main roads, the one with the greatest concentration of top-flight wineries is Route 29, also known as the St. Helena Highway. However, the ability to choose from among such a plenitude means that lots of people want to drive along that road and visit.

Especially on weekends and holidays, traffic is so dense that it is difficult to get from one place to another.  If you only have the chance to travel to Napa Valley on a weekend of holiday, you’re pretty much stuck with a bumper-to-bumper crawl.  There’s nothing you can do to make it easy, but there are ways to make a voyage into this fabulous corner of Wine Country easier, less onerous.

  • Do your homework before you go.  Don’t expect to show up in Napa Valley on a gorgeous summer weekend (and they seem like they’re all gorgeous weekends) and go to a favorite winery in St. Helena, then down to Yountville, back up to Oakville and finish in Calistoga.  For one thing, the stretch of Route 29 with all the wineries is nearly 30 miles long.  Don’t plan to go back and forth all day long.  You’ll spend all your time in the car instead of in tasting rooms.  So get a map and plan your destinations before you get behind the wheel.  There are several good maps available on the web; try
  • No left turns.  One thing that the map won’t tell you is how difficult it is to get from one side of Route 29 to the other.  Even with all the traffic, it’s still a country road with very few lights.  So if, for example, if you’re at Heitz Cellars and you want to go across the street to Flora Springs Winery (you can see it from there),  it can take as long as 15 minutes for the flow of cars on the two sides to part long enough for you to get across.  So plan your itinerary so that you visit a few on the east side heading north; then go to an intersection with a light; turn around and go to some on the west side heading south.

Photos courtesy of Heitz Cellars

  • Some areas are easier than others.  There are certain strips of Route 29 where it’s easier to visit excellent wineries without having to drive very far between them…and not turning left.  For example, on the east side between the Oakville and Rutherford Cross Roads, there are Opus One, Nickel & Nickel, Cakebread, Sequoia Grove, Foley Johnson and St. Supery.  If you can’t find a few sips of wine that you like amongst all of those, you either have extraordinarily high standards or you’re just not trying.  And then at the end you have Rutherford Grill, where you can get something to eat.
  • Avoid Route 29 altogether.  There are great Napa Valley wineries elsewhere than this crowded road.  The roughly parallel artery running north and south is the Silverado Trail, which is wider and much less travelled.  Wineries along there are not to be sneezed at either, including Clos du Val, Chimney Rock, Regusci, Stag’s Leap, Stags’ Leap (watch that apostrophe), Pine Ridge and Silverado Vineyards.  Left turns are no joy here either so you can follow the same strategy as on Route 29.

The best advice, as always, is to prepare your trip in advance and to be sensible in both your selection of wineries to visit and the amount of wine to taste.  Don’t let “Oh, it’s so crowded” discourage you from visiting one of, if not the, best American winemaking region.  If so, go visit during the week, not on weekends.

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