Wondering if you should visit Napa Valley in the the winter months? The answer is YES! and the Napa Valley Winter in the Wineries Passport should be one of the top reasons. I love collecting passport stamps and getting a great deal on wine tasting is the cherry on top.
Just North of San Francisco, Napa Valley has long been on my list to visit. It is best known for its luxurious vineyard estates, Michelin-starred dining, and charming historic towns. The most popular time to go is during Spring and Summer, when the weather is just perfect and the vineyards have come back to life. I have a penchant for winter trips, which comes with its own perks (see below). I spent 2 days in Napa Valley, with my Winter in the Wineries Passport in tow, enjoying the region without rush or crowds.
Napa Valley vs Napa
Before we proceed, I would love to talk about the difference between Napa Valley and Napa. Before planning for this trip, I used to think it was one and the same. However, Napa Valley is name of the wine region which is between two mountain ranges, and Napa is specific town within the Napa Valley. Knowing this helps a great deal when navigating the region as a beginner. The most popular towns within Napa Valley are downtown Napa, Yountville, Calistoga and St. Helena.
Visiting Napa Valley in the Winter
From mid-fall to Spring (November-April) is a period known to be Cabernet season. This is when wineries release their cabernets, and iykyk. This season follows their main Harvest season (August-October). Some insiders like to call it “secret season’ but most of us know it better as the low season. This is the time when crowds diminish, reservations are easier to attain, and experiences get more intimate.
Although Napa Valley has a mild winter, it’s still a good time to cozy up near the fireplace. Not to mention, if you are a foodie like me, you’d enjoy the Napa Valley Restaurant Week (in January). Best of all, it’s during the winter months that you will find wine tasting passports and deals available, put out by individual towns in the region. I went for the town of Calistoga’s Winter in the Wineries Passport on this visit. (see also St. Helena’s Little Big Book of Experiences “passport”)
What is the Winter in theWineries Passport?
A typical wine tasting fees range from $15-250 per person, depending on the winery and type of tasting within Napa Valley. Each year, the town of Calistoga puts out their Winter in the Wineries Passport. This is such a great deal if you plan to visit more than one winery for tastings. The passport is valid from December to February and includes free tastings at 14-16 participating wineries. Last year, the passport costed $75 per person and it is valued at $400. Besides the free wine tastings, the passport also gives you discounts at designated shops and free corkage at participating restaurants.
We ordered the passports online and it arrived via mail. The size and shape looks just like the travel document, but the pages inside are filled with general information, winery profiles, map of participating wineries and additional deals from local businesses. There is also an area on the passport pages to receive stamps from each winery that you visit.
Making Reservations for the Winter in the Wineries Passport
This is a very important point! Once you know your travel dates, start making reservations for all the tastings at the wineries that you wish to visit. From our experience, things get booked up really fast, so get on top of that ASAP. I feel 2 wine tastings a day is a good amount. It gives you enough time take in the scenery, get a lunch break and travel between the different locations. Pushing 3 wine tastings in a day is possible, but I feel like it would be a rushed experience. Keep in mind that you’ll be trying 4-5 wines at each tasting and exploring the grounds either before or after your reservations.
Now without further ado, I present to you our 2 day itinerary in Napa Valley with the Winter in the Wineries Passport.
2 Day Itinerary: Napa Valley Winter in the Wineries
Driving in from Southern California
Day 0: Getting to Napa Valley & Hotel Check-In
Getting to Napa Valley by Car
Napa Valley was the first stop of a longer Northern California road trip for us (San Francisco, Sacramento, Lake Tahoe). We were based in Orange County, California at the time of traveling, so we drove up North over night. It was approximately an eight hour drive straight through. We arrived into Napa Valley in time for an early morning check-in.
Driving Time By Major California Cities
Sacramento: 1-1.5 hours
San Francisco: 1.5-2 hours
Los Angeles: 6.5-7 hour
Orange County: 7.5-8 hours
San Diego: 9-9.5 hours
*Orange County technically isn’t a city, but since the county is small and comprised of many cities, I decided to group them together.
Besides driving from within state, you can also fly into San Francisco and rent a car. Other ground options include bus tours, coach bus shuttle, ride share and taxi services from San Francisco. You can also take public transit or a ferry to Napa Valley!
Where to Stay in Napa Valley?
With so many wonderful hotels and resorts to choose from, it was hard to pick one. I really loved the Meritage Resort & Spa but I think it’s better for a summer girl’s getaway. The great thing about Napa Valley, is that there are options from luxury to budget and everything in-between. I ended up booking the highly-rated Cambria Napa Valley Hotel in downtown Napa for our home base.
Cambria Napa Valley Hotel
320 Soscol Avenue, Napa, CA
The reviews are great at the Cambria Napa Valley Hotel. It is located in downtown Napa and within walking distance to many shops and restaurants. Food and wine pairs perfectly together, and we are happy to be close to so many eateries.
Not to mention, I had such a pleasant stay here. I love the upscale modern and sleek design style of the place. The staff was wonderful and the bed oh-so-comfy! The bathroom was lofty and the bathroom mirrors features bluetooth connectivity.
One of the best amenities of this hotel are the fireplaces! When you travel during the winter season, it really adds to the coziness factor.
Day 1: Winter in the Wineries Passport
After an early check-in in the morning, I took a mini nap before heading out to our first winery and tasting reservation. We planned to stop by two wineries today, Clos Pegase and Chateau Montelena. Both are located within the city of Calistoga and approximately 8 minutes apart by car.
First Wine Tasting Reservation
1060 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga, CA
Open daily, 10am-5pm
Clos Pegase has two wine tasting flights normally: Mixed Wine Estate Flight ($40) and Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Flight ($60). There’s also a Connoisseur Cave Tour & Tasting ($125) for those seeking a richer and more in-depth experience, which include paired bites.
With the Winter in the Wineries Passport, the wine tasting is included. We were seated in a very open and spacious tasting room surrounded by gigantic barrels. I loved that our tables were also wine barrels with a tabletop. The vibe here is very relaxed and the staff were extremely knowledgeable. We learned about the history of the winery and its mediterranean-inspired estate.
After such a wonderful first tasting of the day, we explored the estate grounds. I had a fantastic time here. 10/10
If everything looked so picturesque during the winter, imagine when the vines are green and grapes are ripe!
It’s about time to get some food!
Lunch Break in Calistoga
We stayed within the city of Calistoga and decided to head to Sushi Mambo as recommended to us by our wine steward at Clos Pegase. You can’t beat a local’s recommendation. I love how friendly everyone has been on both our wine tasting trips.
1631 Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga, CA
Popular with the locals and visitors alike, Sushi Mambo was a great break from all the wine tasting we had done for the day. The owner, Jose Cazares learned everything from Hokkaido-native mentor Koichi-san in Japantown in San Francisco.
Second Tasting at an 100-year old Estate
1429 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga, CA
Open daily, 9:30am-4pm
Chateau Montelena was founded in 1882 and this winery is a feast for the eyes! The estate grounds is gorgeous. There’s a vine-covered stone castle carved into the hillside and peaceful Chinese garden to walk through. Chateau Montelena is best known for winning “Paris in Judgment” competition. You must try their Estate Cabernet Sauvignon! They really know the crafting of their wine varietals here, including their Chardonnay and Zinfandels.
Our wine tasting included four wines from the Monetelena vineyard with the Winter in the Wineries Passport. This was a standing tasting with other guests at the communal bar. We met another couple and had a grand time with them and the staff. We loved the experience so much that we decided to upgrade the tasting to include the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and it did not disappoint!
Chateau Montelena normally have three different levels of wine tasting outside of the passport. There’s the standard, A Taste of Montelena ($60) and upgraded experiences for vintages with Explore Ageability ($95) to The Montelena Estate Collection ($125) where you taste 4 vintages of the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.
This was a great finish to our first day of wine tasting! The time really passes by with good conversations and walking around the estates.
Day 2: Winter in the Wineries Passport
While the weather on day one was sunny and fabulous, the second day of wine tastings was cloudy and drizzly. That’s one thing about visiting Napa Valley during the winter season, the weather could get dreary on some days. I think it’s part of the charm of today’s experiences!
First Tasting Reservation at a Tuscan-Style Castle
Castello Di Amorosa
4045 St. Helena Highway, Calistoga, CA
Open daily: 9:30am-6pm
Castello Di Amorosa winery is a very popular and somewhat touristic winery. The drive into the estate and entrance was very grand with the iconic Cypress trees lining the road into the estate. Compared to the previous two wineries we visited the day before, this one was packed with people and was not as low key. Castello Di Amorosa is modeled after 14th century Tuscan castles, complete with a great hall, courtyard, dungeon (& torture chamber!), chapel, wine barrel room and towers you can tour.
They also have an award-winning Il Barone Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, scoring 94/100 points on the Robert Parker chart. Coming here felt like touring famous European sites. They have recreated a lot of medieval rooms available for tours or self-guided tours.
After receiving our wine tasting tickets, we were ushered to the wine barrel room for the experience. We were able to select the wines to try and encouraged give a rating on the tasting sheet. Toasted bread sticks (the skinny kind) accompanied our tasting, which was a nice palate break. Our wine educator was fantastic and overall a great time in a full bustling room.
Castello Di Amorosa standard seated tasting experience ($60) includes 5 wines and self-guided tour of the castle. For a more intimate experience there is the Diamond Estate Tour & Wine Tasting ($75) which included a guided tour of areas not available in the first tasting experience like the production area and armory. The Cheese & Charcuterie Wine Pairing Tour ($115) includes 6 wines, local cheese and cured meats, guided tour and sampling of reserve wines. For an all Cabernet Sauvignon experience they have a Cabernet is King ($195) tasting which features a private tour, tastings and bites. Reservations are needed for all levels of tastings.
After our tasting experience, we walked through the banquet hall, courtyard and gift shop before heading up the towers for a rooftop view of the estate.
Final Stop for an Authentic Wine Country Experience
Our last stamp in our Winter in the Wineries Passport was reservations up in Pope Valley. The drive from Castello Di Amorosa is about 25-30 minutes up a winding hill. It was quite fitting to spend our last hours in Napa Valley driving the scenic route.
Pope Valley Winery
6613 Pope Valley Rd, Pope Valley, CA
Open daily, 10am-5pm
If you love hidden gems and going off the beaten path, then you will love Pope Valley Winery. East of Calistoga, the region and community hosts many private wineries. Pope Valley Winery is the only one that is open to the public! The family run winery has its fair share of history. Founded in 1897 as a Burgundy winery and olive oil factory, it was one of the few wineries to stay “opened” during the The Prohibition Era.
Today, the Pope Valley Winery is owned by the Eakle family and welcoming visitors to their property. The vibe here is relaxing and unpretentious. There’s plenty of outdoor and indoor space for picnics and bocce ball. During our visit, it was a chilly and foggy winter day, so we cozied up by the fire.
A standard Burgundy Winery Indoor Tasting ($45) includes access to their hand-dug cave cellar. Enjoy vineyard views and a cheese board in the Covet-Marketplace Experience ($70). For reserve tastings, go for the Farmhouse Private Tasting and Cheese Pairing ($75). Upgraded tastings with lunch are part of their Private Experiences ($150). They also have seasonal tasting availabilities and wine passes booking options. Check their website to see current options.
Wrapping Up Napa Valley with Dinner
The next stop on our Northern California roadtrip was San Francisco. Before we set off towards that trip, we headed back to downtown Napa (where our hotel was) for dinner and one final sleep.
We wanted to end our Napa Valley trip in a big way and decided to dine at the nearby Brazilian churrascaria restaurant. Having been to numerous steakhouses of this style before, we knew this was the place to feast!
Galpao Gaucho Brazilian Steakhouse
1990 Trower Ave, Napa, CA
If you’ve never been to a Brazilian steakhouse, you’ll be in for a treat if you love meat. Sometimes, you’ll see it labeled as a churrascaria aka barbecue in Portuguese. The experience entailed a red and green sided card given to you at the beginning of your seating. Red side means stop, and green side means go! You’ll notice an array of freshly grilled meats walked around by the servers. When you flip the card from red to green, it will signal the servers to start bringing the various meat skewers over.
This is an all you can eat style experience with an open salad and cold appetizer bar available. You can expect a different steak cuts, poultry, lamb, sausages, seafood and a dessert cart at the end. It’s good to come hungry and go light at the salad bar to maximize your stomach space to try all the grilled goodness. Once you’re stuffed, flip the card back over to red to end the meal.
That’s a wrap on my Napa Valley Winter in the Wineries Passport trip! Will I do it again? Absolutely! There’s still a few more wineries on the list that I would love to visit next time.
Mini Vlogs: Napa Valley Winter in the Wineries Passport Trip
Some video shorts from the trip! I’ve been making more of an effort to get back to documenting everything in video format for better coverage of each trip.
I joked to my best friend that I want to make wine tasting trips my whole personality. Little did I know, I’ve already started to accumulate many wonderful experiences at various wineries. See more wine tasting trips HERE. I will be added more blog posts soon.