Travel | September 2, 2022 6:46 am

An Insider’s Guide to Napa Valley, Courtesy of Winemaker Chris Carpenter

The one thing that annoys locals, a restaurant you can’t miss and other tips

Napa Valley winemaker Chris Carpenter stands by barrels swirling a glass of red wine
Before you head to Napa, read Carpenter's tips on where to stay, eat and, of course, drink.
Courtesy of Chris Carpenter

It only took one visit to Napa Valley, in 1993, for Chris Carpenter to know that he wanted to build his future there.

He went off to study winemaking, first earning his degree in viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis, then gaining hands-on experience in Italy. Five years later he made his way back to Napa, where he now serves as winemaker for an impressive collection of brands including Cardinale, Lokoya, La Jota and Mt. Brave; he’s become especially well known for his cabernet sauvignons. That’s on top of his two-decade-plus stint behind the bar at the Rutherford Grill. 

We recently spoke with Carpenter and got his recommendations for where to eat, drink, hike and more in his adopted hometown. If you want to do Napa like an insider, here’s how.

What’s the best time of the year to visit Napa? 

It depends on what you are looking for. If you want the energy and excitement of harvest, then make your visit between August and October. It’s one of the most special times of year in the valley. 

Alternatively, if you are hoping for some quiet, then visit during the wintertime between December and February. There’s an austere beauty to Napa Valley during the winter.

What restaurant can I go to really get a sense of the wine culture in Napa?

Farmstead restaurant at Long Meadow Ranch. It’s a place that attracts both people in the industry and tourists. It embraces local ingredients and is higher-end but also has a comfortable vibe. There’s live music on a regular basis and a beautiful garden area, so it encompasses so much of what Napa Valley has to offer in a single location.

What’s your favorite meal on the menu at the Rutherford Grill? 

The grilled Idaho trout with mushrooms, fennel and toasted almonds is delicious. It’s topped with a bacon vinaigrette that is off the charts. For something lighter, the lacinato kale salad is a great choice.

What wine have you recommended more than any other and why?

The Giant Steps Chardonnay wines from the Yarra Valley in Victoria, Australia. They are distinctive, cool climate Chardonnay wines and they’re bloody good!

What’s the last bottle you opened to celebrate a special occasion? 

For a special birthday celebration I opened a 2006 Vega Sicilia Unico. It comes from Spain’s most prestigious wine estate in the Ribera del Duero region.

What is your favorite Napa hotel?

Archer Hotel is always an exciting spot for its rooftop bar and restaurant that overlooks downtown Napa. It’s in a great location for those interested in exploring the scene there.

Where’s the best place to get a cup of coffee in town? 

Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Co. on Main Street in downtown Napa. They have another location in St. Helena. 

Best cheap eats in town?

Red Rock Cafe at the corner of Lincoln and Main streets in Napa — it’s regularly voted the best barbecue in Napa Valley. I recommend the French dip and pulled pork sandwiches with French fries.

Best place for a sunset cocktail?

Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford has one of the most spectacular views of the Mayacamas Mountains. Their deck is the perfect place to watch the sun go down with a drink in hand.

Where should I go in the area for a day spent outside?

Head to Robert Louis Stevenson State Park in Calistoga for a five-mile hike to the summit of Mount Saint Helena.

Where’s a good spot to snap an Instagram-worthy photo?

The iconic Napa Valley sign on Route 29 across from Cardinale Winery. It’s rare to drive by without seeing a few cars pulled over to snap a photo.

What’s a lesser-known cultural institution you love?

La Luna Market and Taqueria in Rutherford. This family-owned market and restaurant has been open since 1968, and the food is really good.

What’s something that tourists tend to do that really annoys locals?

Drive excessively slowly down Route 29.

What’s a great activity that locals love (and won’t mind me attending)? 

There are several great music opportunities that have emerged in Napa over the last several years, beginning with BottleRock festival and extending to other music events at local venues like the Oxbow River Stage and Blue Note.

I’m looking for a low-key brunch. Where to?

The Napa General Store located by the river in downtown Napa.

What are the best books to read about the area before I come?

For those interested in history, James Conaway’s Napa: The Story of an American Eden is a great starting point that adds historical context to a visit. 

Those most interested in wine should pick up local author Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible. It’s a brilliant book that describes the region’s wines and the process of the local wine business. It includes recommendations on wines and producers.

What’s something I can say or do to endear myself to locals?

The Napa Valley benefits from a strong sense of community and an openness to sharing knowledge, a meal and a glass of wine. If you decide to bring a bottle of wine out to dinner, it’s always a nice gesture to offer a taste to the server or others that might see the bottle and comment on it.