Downtown Napa on the Cheap

“World-class wine,” “elegant bed and breakfasts,” and “culinary destination” are terms that come to mind when you think of Napa.  And between the lines, expensive.

But Napa can and has been done on the cheap.  I know, because we did it last summer. By camping, planning, and sticking to a budget, we were able to enjoy a week in one of the priciest tourist attractions in the world.  And we’re just a teacher and a substitute teacher/student.

Coupons for downtown tasting rooms

For today, I will focus on the city of Napa.  There is Napa the wine region, which incorporates several cities and specific AVAs, and Napa the city, which sits in the southernmost part of the region.  The most prestigious wineries and restaurants actually lie outside the city, making downtown Napa a relatively relaxed and uncrowded place to visit.

The best deal by far is the Downtown Napa Tasting Card, for $30.  That lets you into 12 tasting rooms, so you get 12 for the price that you’d normally pay for one tasting–many wineries charge $50 or more in Napa.  We managed to fit all 12 into our visit, and our favorites were:

Stonehedge Winery

Sitting quietly by itself towards the outer edge of the downtown area, this tasting room is shared by several operations, including Stonehedge.  Our pourer was generous with information, jokes and pours, and we went home with a luscious bottle of Havens Cabernet Sauvignon, a good example of what Napa does with that varietal.  I also enjoyed a luxe Carneros Chardonnay from Diamond Ridge.  In addition to participating in the tasting card, they pass out 2-for-1 tasting coupons.

Mason Cellars

This tasting room acts in bold defiance of the gentrification that has happened over the years.  Pours are complimentary, so you can go, even if you don’t have the card.  They sell several bottles of $10 wine, including a delightful Merlot that we went home with.  The owner wants to prove that wine in Napa doesn’t have to be expensive.  Take that, Screaming Eagle!


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Cheese plate: photo, courtesy Yelp

Downtown Napa is also a great place for foodies, especially foodies who can’t afford the French Laundry.  By eating early to make happy hour, we were able to go to some pretty good places.  Our favorite was 1313 Main, where the happy hour prices allowed us to order a king’s feast.  I remember a cheese plate with syrah-laced sea salt and pickled grapes.  Also a serious wine list with a generous by-the-glass offering.  The Gewurtzraminer was the best one I’ve had yet.

So Napa is not just for the Gatsbys and the Rockefellers of the world.  Certainly, you’ll probably have a better experience if you’re rolling in dough, but bohemians with a little imagination and a little planning can also have a great time.



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