Napa Valley is one of the most gorgeous places on earth. But its traffic congestion can put a damper on enjoying all that gorgeousness. As such visiting Napa Valley means we need a plan, so that we spend less time inside a car and more time soaking up the local (wine) culture.
Let’s start by trying to understand why there are so many cars on the road. There are two Catch-22s that can help explain this. The first is that Napa wine is good, and it’s hard to make. Which means it needs a lot of hands-on people to keep things flowing, from vineyard workers to winemakers to cellar rats. Plus there are the people who come to taste what all the fuss is about. And there are the people who work in the restaurants and hotels to accommodate those visitors. It adds up.
As for the second Catch 22? Napa’s got a set of environmental regulations called the Agricultural Preserve that aim to keep development in check. That means there’s more green space that is protected for, like, forever. It also means there’s less room for wide roads that visitors can use, and lots of multi-family housing for locals. These factors dump a whole lot of traffic – both commuters and tourists – onto not a whole lot of roads.
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Now that we know why all the traffic is there, we can look at how to avoid it.
Here’s your five-step plan.
As in, the off-season. Which is January and February. But even if you’re going at another time of the year…
Avoid The Commuting Hours
This is not rocket science, and it probably won’t be a problem in the mornings anyway since tasting rooms don’t open until after 10 am. It’s the afternoon and early evenings when you’ll want to be more strategic about your schedule, and steer clear of Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, the two main (and two-lane) thoroughfares running north to south through the Valley.
Off The Beaten Path, Option 1:
Visit wineries in Coombsville. It’s east of the town of Napa and it’s been there – providing top-notch fruit for some of the Valley’s iconic wineries all the while – for a generation or two. What’s amazing is how few people seek out its small, family-owned properties. You just have to do a little planning and call ahead, as visiting its tasting rooms is usually by appointment only.
Off The Beaten Path, Option 2:
Head for the hills. As in, the mountain vineyards and wineries that stretch so bucolically up out of the Valley floor, which you can access without much time at all on Highway 29 or the Silverado Trail. Love Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay? Head toward the Atlas Peak AVA. How about Merlot and Zinfandel that ages well, plus Cab and Chard? You’ll find them in the Mount Veeder AVA. The Spring Mountain District AVA has all of those plus Cabernet Franc.
Off The Beaten Path, Option 3:
Stay low, as in the southern-most part of the Valley in Carneros. Here you’ll find the Napa wineries that are closest to San Francisco. Stick to the Carneros highway (State Route 121) and the backroads, and you’ll be good to go.