The Napa Valley is synonymous with world-class wine. It has been since its firm and famous debut onto the global viticultural stage at the Paris Tasting in 1976. A panel of judges, skeptical that the upstart California wineries could compete with old-world vintages, shocked the world when they awarded two Napa-based vineyards top marks in a blind tasting. The rest, as they say, is history.

Since then, Napa and Sonoma wine cultures have grown and diversified. Tourists who visit the valley will find a veritable flight of caves, bars, vineyards, and novelty trips to suit every palate. But not all are created equal, and it’s easy for new travelers to fall into tourist traps, or otherwise suffer expensive, overplayed, and disappointing experiences. 

So, whether it’s your first time in Napa or you’re a veteran viticulturalist looking to find some new valley favorites, it’s worth digging a little deeper to find a wine tour that ticks all your boxes. Here are a few ideas from us at Old Vine.

What to look for in a wine tour

There are rules upon rules that instruct interested wine drinkers on how to properly taste their beverage, to understand and appreciate the complexity of the vintage in front of them. There are also rules and concepts that illustrate what a “good” wine should taste like – things like balance, body, tannic structure, and palate. And these are important instructions that help us to set standards of quality within the wine industry. But if you’re looking just to have a good time on a Napa Valley wine tour, the most important thing is that you enjoy the wine you’re tasting.

And that’s exactly what a wine tour should offer – there is no play book that tells us what separates a “good” wine tour from a “bad” wine tour (although we have some opinions about where you should be spending your hard-earned money.) What matters is whether the tour you select offers the kinds of experiences you most want to have.

From food-forward fairs to architectural promenades, and from farming experiences to urban wine caves, the Napa Valley has everything you could ever hope to see on a really good wine tour. So before you book, think about your dream wine tour, and shop around for it – chances are, it exists.

Pre-formatted or bespoke: Which is better?

One easy way to find the ideal wine experience for you and yours is to seek out a company that specializes in tailoring tours to suit your wants and needs. 

Pre-formatted wine tours can be fun for generalists who just want to kick back and be whisked off to many must-see wineries around the valley. All you have to do is sign up, show up, and enjoy the tour – typically this will involve a bus ride to a number of popular destination wine experiences, including several tastings and a curated meal. 

A pre-formatted tour is guaranteed to give a similar experience every time. But for the adventurous among you with specific tastes, a bespoke tour offers so much more. 

Whatever you want to get out of your Napa Valley visit, going bespoke offers a convenient way to both find and see the special spots you might otherwise miss. For couples, birthday parties, bridal showers and more, a bespoke tour offers private and personalized experiences like:

  • Pinot-only experiences.
  • Boutique wine tastings.
  • Farm and vineyard visits.
  • Music-inspired wine bar visits.
  • Landmarks of viticultural history.

And more.

Musts and misses: Napa wine experiences to definitely see, or definitely skip

If you prefer to take a self-guided tour across the counties, allow us to steer you in the direction of a few really fabulous wine experiences in the Napa Valley – and away from others.

Must: Inglenook Estate

For a really classic winery experience that’s rooted deep in Napa Valley wine history, Inglenook is required viewing. 

Established in 1879, the Inglenook vineyards have navigated blight, war, prohibition, and more to bring the world the celebrated vintages of today. 

Offering original architecture, old-growth vines, and a variety of edible experiences including standard wine tastings as well as curated dinners, Inglenook transports visitors back to another time while providing a wholly contemporary experience. 

If you want to taste the quintessential Napa Valley vineyard, Inglenook is the place to do it.

Must: The Donum Estate Outdoor Art Gallery

Rather ride an ATV with a glass of Chard in your hands? Look no further.

About as modern as they come, the Donum Estate is pioneering the future of Napa Valley wine culture with sustainable farming practices, and an experience that combines adventure, wine, and contemporary art.

Visitors can enjoy a sip of their single-appellation Pinot Noir or Chardonnay in their futuristic tasting room, which is already plastered with gorgeous works by world-famous artists. 

If you want to upgrade your experience, the Donum Estate also offers a culinary experience including a walk in their on-site edible garden and a selection of curated snacks. 

Another step up, and visitors can tour the land from the back of an all-terrain vehicle and take in the estate’s collection of outdoor sculptures (including a Yayoi Kusama gourd!)

Miss: The Wine Train

It may sound fun, but the Napa Valley Wine Train is one of the most over-priced and underwhelming wine experiences one can have on their visit. In fact, this tacky tourist activity has earned a reputation as one of the “biggest tourist traps” the US has to offer.

On paper, many of the experiences you can have aboard the historic rail-bound vehicle sound okay: long round trip journeys offer food and beverage service, sometimes with seasonal events such as Santa Clause encounters or the classic 20s-themed murder mystery.

But take it from us: save your money. Expensive, slow, the train fare pales in comparison to other culinary experiences available in the valley, and wine doesn’t taste any better moving at a snail’s pace.

If you want to drink wine aboard a train, buy a bottle from a local wine shop and ride Amtrak home. Or if it’s views you’re after, skip the train and visit one of these vista-vineyards instead: Napa wineries with the best views.

Old Vine Wine Tours Can Help!

Old Vine Wine Tours offers bespoke wine experiences in the Napa Valley and beyond, for life events big and small. Let us help you celebrate in style, whether it’s a birthday, a bridal shower, a wedding, or a mental health weekend! We offer unique tours that take you behind the scenes and allow you to experience Napa Valley’s hidden gems, like these Boutique Wineries.

Ready for a delicious adventure? Get in touch with Old Vine today.