Napa Valley by Bus
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I have always wanted to visit Napa Valley and took a one day bus trip from San Francisco using Super Sightseeing Tours. The cost of a one day trip with three winery stops was $65.00, which included the price of tastings at three wineries. Super Sightseeing has an office at Fisherman's Wharf but this group will also pick you up from your hotel.
Our bus had about 55 passengers of all ages visiting from all over the world. The distance to Napa from San Francisco is about 60 miles but I would caution about visiting on a busy weekend. Traffic could be awful as cars, tour buses and limos all crowd into Napa. I would try to visit mid-week if possible.
The tour started by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. It was my first time crossing the bridge and the views across the bay were spectacular. The bridge is painted a bright orange because of the fog. If you are walking around San Francisco, sometimes it is diffcult to see the Golden Gate Bridge because of all the haze. With the clouds, you may only see the base of the bridge.
The drive to Napa was beautiful and it was incredible seeing vineyards and wineries everywhere. I was amazed at the number of wineries in Napa Valley, as apparently there are well over 300. Within the United States, California produces roughly 90% of all U.S. wines and Napa Valley is the heart of wine country. Some of the wineries in Napa have interesting histories as some survived U.
Madonna Estate Winery
Our first stop was at the Madonna Estate Winery, which I really liked. This winery was founded by a wine family from Italy in 1922 and is an organic winery (basically no pesticides on the grapes, etc). Because the winery is organic, we were allowed to walk through the vineyard and eat grapes right off the vine. I noticed that the skins on the grapes I sampled were really chewy. It was an interesting experience to be able to walk all through the vineyard and eat grapes at leisure.
The winery manager gave us an overview of winemaking and we were able to try four samples. My favorite was the Chardonnay, which had a buttery taste.
V. Sattui Winery
This winery was originally founded in 1885 and the grounds were pretty. Weddings are apparently popular and there were picnic tables scattered around the grounds. This winery also serves food (there was even a barbeque on the lawn) and we were warned that very few wineries in Napa have licenses to sell foods. Those that have licenses want to keep them at all costs as this is a big money-making venture.
I think because of the scenic grounds and the food options, V. Sattui was absolutely packed with visitors. I felt a little like being in a herd of cattle because there were so many tourists. Food was outrageously priced (U.S. $5.99 for a piece of fudge, U.S. $8.25 for three barbequed oysters and U.S. $10.00 for a mozzarella sandwich--any toppings like olive oil etc were extra which could put the price nearer to $20.00!) and lines to get food were long. Our tour only stopped at this winery for an hour for lunch and you had to basically elbow your way to the bar for two small tasting samples. The staff was grumpy because of the crowds and one cashier was upset with me for being in the wrong line. While the wine itself was good (prices were about the same as Madonna Estate), unfortunately, I would not recommend this winery.
If you find yourself at V. Sattui, I would instead walk a few blocks down the street to the next winery (Sutter Home) as they offered complimentary snacks and generous wine samples.
Sutter Home is a family-operated winery, which is very friendly. The history of this winery dates back to 1874 and the current owners have owned Sutter Home since 1947. It's one of the largest independent family wineries in the United States.
Sutter Home is well known partially because of the 1970s White Zinfandel craze. This winery wanted you to feel at home and offered each of us five generous samples. Snacks were scattered around the premises and I enjoyed munching on pretzels, chips, and bread while sampling wine.
The gardens of Sutter Home are also beautiful. Roses were in bloom and palm trees surrounded the gazebo in the garden. It was a great place to spend an afternoon.
Return to San Francisco
We headed back to San Francisco around 3:00 in the afternoon and unfortunately, I happened to pick a weekend when the Bay Bridge was closed for repairs. Because there were few ways to get into San Francisco, our bus trip back took four hours to go 60 miles. We spent two hours sitting in Sausalito just across from San Francisco trapped in a bus. Passengers were joking that they were beginning to see how prisoners at Alcatraz felt. Some passengers were laughing about possibly swimming across the bay. I felt a little sorry for our bus driver as he was nervous that the drive back took so long.
Overall, though, I would recommend a bus trip to Napa Valley--with a few caveats. Don't go during the weekend in high season (I happened to go during a holiday weekend), research what wineries you are visiting in advance to be sure it's not a tourist trap (like V. Sattui) and pack some of your own food and water.
Finally, there are also bicycle tours offered between the town of Sonoma and Napa Valley, which might be a more fun way of seeing Napa Valley.