Napa Valley is definitely not a typical family vacation destination, but my husband and I did not want to pass up the opportunity to enjoy a few wine tastings while in Northern California visiting San Francisco and Yosemite. We tacked on two nights in Napa and hoped that the wineries would be as much fun for our two and four year old boys as wineries in Ohio’s Grand River Valley. While we definitely all enjoyed our time in Napa, our experience visiting California wineries with kids was not what we expected after our regular trips to Ohio’s wine country.
We thought our kids would have the chance to drink grape juice served in wine glasses and eat delicious meals at wineries in Napa. However, we discovered that Napa wineries do not make grape juice because their grapes are too expensive to “waste” on juice. Only one winery we visited offered my boys juice, and it was served in Capri Sun pouches rather than fancy glasses. Because it is expensive for wineries in Napa to obtain food permits, most stick to serving wine and the occasional free snack. While my boys enjoyed frolicking in vineyards, touring wineries and watching some grape stomping, we did not find any vineyard in Napa where we could relax for an entire afternoon or fly a kite like we regularly do in Ohio.
We stayed at the Meritage Resort and Spa, a large resort that offers both rooms and suites. We booked a one bedroom suite with a full kitchen, living room with a pull-out couch for the boys, a whirlpool tub in the bathroom and a washer and dryer, which was so helpful after a weekend in San Francisco and a few days in Yosemite.
This 2012 trip was before Airbnb had its reached its current widespread popularity, and we really had not yet stayed in many condo-style accommodations when traveling with kids. It was so convenient to feed the boys breakfast at a full dining table as we were getting ready for the day and also have the option of watching television in the bedroom after they went to sleep. When we found the weather a bit too chilly to enjoy the outdoor pool, adding shampoo to the whirlpool tub made a fabulous bubble bath alternative. Our kids simply loved this hotel.
We arrived in the late evening and ate dinner at the hotel. When we decided to venture out the next morning, the concierge was helpful in directing us to more family friendly wineries, even though we honestly felt our kids were tolerated rather than welcomed wherever we went in Napa. Of the more than 500 vineyards in Napa, the concierge recommended only a handful.
Napa wineries are each unique but typically open from about 10 am to 5 pm daily. Some offer simple tastings with some free snacks, others have tours of the facilities and vineyards. While reservations are required at some wineries, we were able to drop in at each of the wineries we visited during our mid-week visit in October. Obviously, drinking and driving is a concern in Napa, and so we took turns tasting wines and driving.
Here are our five favorite Napa Valley wineries:
#1: Sterling Vineyard
Sterling Vineyard has a beautiful setting. It was our first stop in Napa, and the tree-lined approach was so spectacular that we stopped to take a picture.
The main draw for kids at Sterling Vineyards is the aerial tram used to transport guests from the parking area to the hilltop winery located in a stucco building that looks like a monastery. It is the only aerial tram in Napa and offers amazing views of the surrounding area. Our family of four fit into one gondola and thoroughly enjoyed the ride up and down.
As part of our general admission package, we enjoyed a tasting and a self-guided tour of the lower portion of the winery. Because we visited during the Fall harvest, humongous containers of grapes were arriving at the winery. Our boys were at the height of their truck enthusiasm and were thoroughly mesmerized watching the carts move these containers around.
After our tour, we sat on the terrace to sip some wine and soak in the scenic rolling hills surrounding the valley. Even a quick call from a colleague couldn’t dampen this gorgeous day.
We were surprised that bottled grape juice was not available for the kids and honestly a bit taken aback when the boys were offered CapriSun pouches, but it turned out that this was the only winery that had any sort of juice available. If the aerial tram and grape vats were not enough to keep the boys happy, they created their own excitement by “decorating” their shoes with wine corks.
#2: V. Sattui
V. Sattui Winery is a family owned winery that dates back to 1885. It is unique because of its onsite Artisan Deli that offers amazing homemade food that is perfect for picnicking. Unlike the Ohio wineries we frequent, very few Napa Valley wineries serve food. We picked up some amazing paninis at the deli and found the perfect picnic spot in the shaded grounds. The wine barrels were an appropriate choice for garbage cans.
Outside food and wine are not permitted, but this was definitely our favorite meal in Napa.
- Kid Facts: V. Sattui was established by Vittorio Sattui, an Italian immigrant from Genoa in 1885. The winery closed during Prohibition but was reopened by Sattui’s great-grandson in 1976.
#3: Andretti Winery
Andretti Winery was established in 1996 by retired Kmart CEO Joe Antonini and retired race car driver, Mario Andretti. The Tuscan architecture and exudes the feeling of Italy. The grounds were superb, and the boys loved running in the vineyards and playing near the stunning fountain.
- Kid Facts: Mario Andretti is Vice Chairman.
#4: Grgich Hills Estates
Grgich Hills Estate is distinctive because it does not use artificial fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides in its vineyards and has relied on solar power since 2006. Formerly known as Grgich Hills Cellars, the winery changed its name to Grgich Hills Estate in 2007 when it started producing only “estate grown” grapes grown at its own private vineyards.
One of the draws of visiting Grgich was to witness grape stomping, a seasonal activity offered at the winery. Guests can stand in a barrel of grapes and stomp to make juice. When completed, they step onto a new white t-shirt to imprint their grape juice footprints onto a very unique souvenir. We neglected to take any pictures of videos of grape stomping, but this promotional YouTube video provides a great view.
We did forego grape stomping in favor of a tour and a tasting but thoroughly enjoyed watching stomping in progress.
- Kid Facts: Owner Miljenko “Mike” Grgich surprised the wine world in 1976 when his 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was named as the world’s finest white wine.
#5: Beaulieu Vineyard
Beaulieu Vineyard was our last stop in Napa Valley before heading back to San Francisco. This winery was established by Georges and Fernande de Latour in 1900. Fernande named the vineyard “beau lieu” meaning “beautiful place.” The de Latours were French immigrants who sold their crème de tartar business to enter the wine making business. BV is the oldest continuously producing winery in Napa.
We did a simple tasting, but our two year old was clearly done with wineries and literally fell asleep in my arms. My husband couldn’t resist snapping a commemorative photo of the winery nap. BV turned out to be our favorite wines of the trip and the one we most often purchase at home.
- Kid Facts: Prohibition did not wipe out BV’s wine making business; instead, the winery continued making wines to fulfill their contract for sacramental wines for the Catholic Church.
While we definitely felt that our boys were tolerated rather than welcomed at Napa wineries, they still really enjoyed our two days. I’ve heard rumors through the grapevine that Napa’s wineries have become more family friendly in recent years but have doubts after finding that the website, NapaValleyKid.com, The Go-To Guide for Families in Napa Valley, has no posts in its listing of Family Friendly Wineries. Even if it is not a “must do” with kids, there is no reason to skip it during a family vacation to Northern California. We’d certainly jump at the chance to go back to check out wineries again to compare experiences. To find out more about the area see our posts on San Francisco, Yosemite and Monterey.