“We’re going to Napa!” I enthusiastically told one of my Bay Area friends, intoxicated by the thought of long afternoons picking out favourite wines in one of California’s most famous sun-kissed counties.
“You’re leaving the girls with your parents, right?” she asked cautiously. She wasn’t the first to question my intentions. It seemed to be a reigning theme: Wine country and kids don’t mix. The kids will be bored at the first pour and drive the adults mad asking when they can leave.
Napa catapulted to the world wine stage with the famous 1976 Paris Tasting where a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Cabernet beat their French cousins in a casual blind taste test. One French judge was so horrified by the results that she tried to change her scores! In the nearly 40 years since, the annual value of Napa’s wine industry to the US economy has grown to more than $50 billion. That’s a lot of wine and a lot of tourists.
Known more as a couples destination, Napa is growing in popularity with families too. If you are visiting from abroad, leaving the kids with the grandparents isn’t an option. So why not bring them?! For years our holidays have centred around what would amuse the kids. I wasn’t about to let a little thing like the kids feigning boredom stop me!
So off I went to research the options. A key was to find a family friendly place to stay with lots of facilities. That would give the girls something to look forward to after a winery visit. The Meritage Resort and Spa ticked all those boxes – with a family swimming pool/water play area, bocce ball and a 6-lane bowling alley!
The next task was to find wineries that have a welcoming attitude to families (some wineries don’t even allow children!) I found quite a few (see my full Napa family friendly winery list here) but was on a mission to find a mix of wineries that had interesting things for kids with some world-class ones with fantastic vintages. I also thought a cross of small wineries and larger establishments would give us a wider perspective.
I think I came up with the perfect balance! On the itinerary I included a few activities that involve eating (always popular with my crew) and some fun physical activities too. Take a look and let me know what you think.
Suggested Itinerary: Napa with families
Day 1: After a night at the Meritage Spa and Resort, start the day with a big breakfast at IHOP (South Napa Market Place, 201 Soscol Ave, Napa, CA 94559), an American style pancake house the kids are sure to love. Then head out on the 50-minute drive to Calistoga and stop at Sterling Vineyards (1111 Dunaweal Ln, Calistoga, CA 94515) who go the extra mile to make families welcome. Take the tram 300 feet above the valley to arrive at this incredible winery high on the hill. Adults are greeted with a glass of wine, and kids get a pack full of treats to keep them busy on a self-guided tour. There are 5 pouring stations scattered around the grounds, most with stunning views and an educational video. Kids can get a slushy while parents taste quality wines (their Rutherford Cab was recently scored 92 by Wine Spectator). During harvest (also known as Crush) do a grape stomp and take away a souvenir t-shirt.
Then head over (five minutes) to Chateau Montelena (1429 Tubbs Ln, Calistoga, CA 94515), made famous by the Judgment of Paris and subsequent film Bottle Shock. Its 1973 Chardonnay helped catapult California wines to the world stage when it beat French classics in the famous 1976 Paris blind tasting. Now wine enthusiasts pilgrimage to the small, intimate tasting room to try the Chardonnays and Cabs. Kids can keep themselves busy with the wifi and popsicles made from estate Cabernet grapes. Then roam the grounds as a family and check out the koi fish in the Japanese gardens.
On the way back to Meritage stop by V. Sattui Winery (111 White Ln, St Helena, CA 94574) for an alfresco lunch. The deli has a wide range of charcuterie, cheeses, rustic breads, made-to-order sandwiches, fruit and everything you need for a picnic on the grounds. Grab one of the picnic benches outside and enjoy.
Then head back to the hotel and recoup with a swim in the family pool and water play area or try your hand at the bowling alley (which conveniently has retractable lane guards for beginners). Have dinner at Gott’s Roadside (644 1st St, Napa, CA 94559). You’ll like it and the kids will LOVE it.
Day 2: Start the next day with a breakfast burrito at the Model Bakery (644 1st St, Napa, CA 94559) then head out to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (5766 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558), whose 1973 Cabernet beat French reds in the 1976 Paris Tasting (don’t confuse this with Stags Leap Winery which is down the road). Kids can jump on the wifi or read/relax in a gorgeous outdoor patio that overlooks the vineyard. Then make the short drive to Frog’s Leap Winery (8815 Conn Creek Rd, Rutherford, CA 94573) like owner and winemaker John Willams did. Williams worked at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars helping to bottle the famous 73′ Cab before buying the former frog farm and starting his organic, dry farmed winery. While you enjoy a Signature Seated Tasting on the peaceful plantation deck overlooking the vineyards and gardens, the kids can get involved in the experience and do a DRY soda tasting (organic sodas from Washington State). Younger kids get a custom colouring book and juice box. Then wander the grounds as a family and enjoy the gardens, chickens and pond.
Have a late lunch at one of the many foodie options at Oxbow Public Market (610 & 644 1st St, Napa, CA 94559) then for a treat have dinner on the Napa Valley Wine Train (1275 McKinstry Street, Napa, California 94559). This 3-hour journey from Napa to St Helena and back gives up-close views of the vineyards while serving a multiple-course meal on a restored vintage rail car, echoing the glory days of train travel.
My 13-year-old on the Wine Train
We started off our trip in the train depot, where there was a gift shop, cafe and wine! When our boarding number was called we climbed onto the train and were welcomed by our waiter, Josh, who was really friendly.
After looking at the menu we decided what we wanted, apart from my youngest sister, but fortunately our waiter suggested a few alternatives that she approved of. We ordered some drinks (with no alcohol). We had virgin Pina Coladas, which were very tasty and came with a mountain of whipped cream! After a starter (salad) we got ice cream! Well it was sorbet but it was still cool to have it before our dinner. It was coconut (my favourite), mango and mixed berry to cleanse our palate (whatever that means).
Next was our main. It was fancy but very good! Our waiter wasn’t sure if we would like the sauce so he put it on the side which was a good call on his part. I had salmon with potatoes. Afterwards we walked around the train and moved to a different area to have dessert and relax. Overall we had a very good time. Tip: bring a game! (we played Clue).
My 11-year-old on Oxbow Market
I love the Oxbow Market because it pretty much had every food you could think of! It had cupcakes, pizza and even sushi. We chose to have pizza from Ca’Mimo, which was very tasty and cupcakes from Kara’s Cupcake which were SO GOOD. There were a ton of flavours, including key lime pie and banana caramel. YUM. Next door to the market is Gott’s burgers. They were delicious and they even had sweet potato fries and really good fresh lemonade. I would definitely go there again.
Day 3: For a morning to remember, start with a 6 am hot air balloon ride with Napa Valley Aloft Balloon Rides (V Marketplace, 6525 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599). International travellers will especially want to pick up some bargains at Napa Premium Outlets (629 Factory Stores Dr, Napa, CA 94558). Then cultivate little foodies and catch a cooking demo at the Culinary Institute of America (2555 Main Street, St. Helena, CA 94574). Make sure to get a treat in their cafe and then check out the shop which has a kid’s culinary corner. If you are too tired, in the afternoon kayak the Napa River with Getaway Adventures where locals use their knowledge to guide the tours – a big plus for travelling families. Dinner at BurgerFi (967 1st St, Napa, CA 94559) then back to Meritage to play bocce ball, more swimming, a soak in the jacuzzi and s’mores by the fire!
My 11-year-old on the Culinary Institute of America
On our way to wine country we went to a cooking demo at the Culinary Institute of America. Every month they choose a different cookbook to show you how to make a recipe! We made a Thai recipe and watched Chef Josh Andersen make Spicy Thai Chicken and Coconut Soup (Tom Kha Gai). We watched him make the soup, learning tips (such as you should peel ginger with a spoon). Along the way we also got to smell some strange ingredients! Before, Chef Josh prepared a large serving so everyone could try some (you also got a glass on wine or sparkling apple cider). I was worried that I wouldn’t like it because I hate mushrooms and coconut, but it was really tasty! I would definitely do it again.
A word on family winery etiquette
Nobody wants to hang out next to loud obnoxious kids – not even other families! This is just a little reminder that just because you are taking the kids to a family friendly winery, don’t forget to respect those around you. Young children cannot roam unattended, many of the wineries are working farms/entities and it can be a safety issue. Encourage your kids to keep their voices down and use their manners. Everyone will appreciate it.
Where we stayed: The Meritage Resort and Spa
I don’t think this trip would have worked if we didn’t have such a fabulous resort to come back to! Though located slightly on the periphery in the southern end of Napa, Meritage is an excellent choice for families. It’s a large property (322 rooms) with all the facilities: Two swimming pools (one for adults and one for families), a water play area, BBQs, bocce ball court, 6-lane bowling alley, three restaurants, an award-winning spa, winery, tasting room and chapel (I assume for Napa weddings). There are lots of nice sitting/lounge areas with big comfy sofas and outdoor fireplaces throughout the property and kids are allowed to use the three large outdoor whirlpools with water features. The resort has sister hotels in Santa Barbara, La Jolla and the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach where we stayed (and loved) last summer.
Rooms are classically styled and large with big bathrooms which have luxury toiletries. There’s a small fridge stocked with two complimentary bottles of water and a bottle of (very good) Trilogy wine for the adults :D. There’s very reliable wifi throughout the property, a complimentary coffee station in the lobby, and friendly valets that offer bottled water for the road. You also might want to consider staying in the adjacent Vino Bella Resort self-catering apartments (which have kitchens and washer/dryers).
My 13-year-old on The Meritage Resort and Spa
The Meritage was really fun. There was a swimming pool for kids and one for adults and bocce ball courts and a bowling alley! I loved swimming in the pool and there was also a sprinkler area – which was great because it was 100 degrees! In the evenings we tried out the jacuzzis and made peanut butter cup s’more in the fire pit by the pool. But the best was bowling, which was a blast! I won (:D) and I even got a strike. It was really cool to be able to bowl anytime we wanted.
IF YOU GO:
Visit Napa Valley Visit this site for all the info you need to plan your trip to Napa Valley.
The Meritage Resort and Spa 875 Bordeaux Way, Napa, CA 94558 +1 (707) 251-1900 meritageresort.com Large resort near Napa that has a separate kids pool and water play area, bocce ball court, 6-lane bowling alley (really), winery and tasting room and the Lady of the Grapes chapel!
Sterling Vineyards 1111 Dunaweal Ln, Calistoga, CA 94515 +1 (800) 726-6136 sterlingvineyards.com Sterling goes the extra mile to make kids feel welcome and parents at ease. Take the gondola 300 feet above the valley to the gorgeous winery (with English connections). Parents are greeted with a glass of wine and kids get a “tram pack” full of treats to keep them busy on the self-guided tour. There are 5 pouring stations around the property (all with stunning views and an educational video). During harvest you can do a grape stomp and bring home a souvenir T-shirt. But the piece de resistance is frozen slushies for kids.
Frog’s Leap 8815 Conn Creek Rd, Rutherford, CA 94573 +1 (707) 963-4704 frogsleap.com winery has beautiful gardens and spacious areas to relax as well as explore. In addition to the kid-friendly grounds and atmosphere, they’ve got farm animals and even special treats and activities for children. Children (depending on age) can enjoy either; a custom coloring book & crayons, with a juice box or a Dry Soda tasting.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 5766 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558 +1 (707) 944-2020 cask23.com Their 1970 Cabernet beat French reds in the 1976 Paris Tasting (don’t confuse this with Stags Leap Winery which is down the road). Kids can jump on the free wifi while parents peruse the wines.
Chateau Montelena Winery 1429 Tubbs Ln, Calistoga, CA 94515 +1 (707) 942-5105 montelena.com Made famous by 1976 Paris Tasting and subsequent film Bottleshock, Chateau Montelena is a lovely late century stone winery set in Japanese gardens with lake and koi fish. Book a tasting and the kids can log on to the wifi and try popsicles made from the estate Cabernet grapes.
V. Sattui Winery 111 White Ln, St Helena, CA 94574 +1 (707) 963-7774 vsattui.com Great deli for family friendly picnics outside on the grassy grounds (good for cartwheels too) everything you need for a wine country picnic!
The Culinary Institute of America 2555 Main Street, St. Helena, CA 94574 +1(707) 967-1100 enthusiasts.ciachef.edu. Cultivate your inner chef by visiting this famous campus. The Enthusiasts programme offers demos and more. Don’t miss the Bakery Cafe by illy and fabulous shop with a kids corner.
Oxbow Public Market 610 & 644 1st St, Napa, CA 94559 +1 (707) 226-6529 oxbowpublicmarket.com A fantastic collection of Artisanal and local foods and wines. Kids will love Kara’s Cupcakes.
Model Bakery 644 1st St, Napa, CA 94559 (707) 259-1128 themodelbakery.com Artisanal bakery serving breakfast & lunch eats plus cakes, cookies & an array of specialty breads.
Napa Valley Wine Train 1275 McKinstry Street, Napa, California 94559 +1 (707) 253-2111 winetrain.com What could be more cool than having dinner on a vintage train and sightseeing at the same time. It’s fun to walk the entire train and take photos from the back (and wave to the people on the street!)
Napa Premium Outlets 629 Factory Stores Dr, Napa, CA 94558 +1 (707) 226-9876 premiumoutlets.com Kids, teens and parents will like Adidas, Gap, CAbi Factory Store, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, J Crew, Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers, Gymboree, Skechers, Coach, and more!
Napa Valley Aloft Balloon Rides V Marketplace, 6525 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599 +1 (707) 944-4400 nvaloft.com Get a unique perspective from above!
Getaway Adventures getawayadventures.com Go on a wine country adventure – like Bike & Kayak, Farm Fresh Bike, or a Peddle ‘n Paddle tour.
Gott’s Roadside 644 1st St, Napa, CA 94559 +1 (707) 224-6900 gotts.com Inventive burgers & more, plus beer & wine offered at a chill, self-serve joint with picnic tables.
BurgerFi 967 1st St, Napa, CA 94559 +1 (707) 927-5373 burgerfi.com Stylish, eco-minded chain serving grass-fed beef burgers, plus hot dogs, craft beer & wine.
IHOP South Napa Market Place, 201 Soscol Ave, Napa, CA 94559 +1 (707) 265-8248 Chain serving a wide variety of pancakes & other American breakfast & diner fare.