6 Napa Wine Tours for Adventurers

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With over 400 wineries in Napa Valley, planning a tasting trip to the famous wine country can be a bit overwhelming for newcomers. That’s why so many of us opt for pre-arranged shuttles with catch-all routes.

But there’s another way to look at the cluttered map of wine destinations – something more like a choose-your-own book than a checklist of must-have brands.

If you’re looking to fit wine tasting into a larger itinerary for your day, there are plenty of options. Some include wine pairings or full meals. Others cater to a more intrepid brand of wine drinkers and organize trips around biking, hiking, hot air ballooning, off-roading and more.

“Most of these tours show a completely different side of Napa,” says Angela Jackson, spokeswoman for Visit Napa Valley. “If you’ve been here before or like to do things a little differently, this can be a great way to go.”

Recently, we’ve been scouring the valley for quirky wine experiences that appeal to visitors looking for a more adventurous excursion through Wine Country. So here, in no particular order, are six of our favorites.

Pilot a falcon

A new experience at Bouchaine Vineyards in Carneros pairs wine with birds of prey, namely owls, hawks and hawks. The 1.5-hour offering, dubbed the Falconry Vineyard Tour, combines a seated tasting and up-close interaction with a raptor made possible by West Coast Falconry, which specializes in hands-on experiences with birds of prey.

The experience begins outside the cellar on a terrace with stunning views of the bay. Here, falconers give each guest a rubber glove to protect their hand, then teach guests how to call the birds from afar. Finally, the falconers descend the hill with the birds and send them to the guests on command.

The demonstration is followed by a wine tasting in the garden, where guests taste a total of five different Bouchaine wines. When guests are done, they can reunite with the falconers and birds for Instagram photos. Available on select Sundays throughout the year. Bouchaine.com. Price: $200 per guest. www.bouchaine.com

Winery Tour at Bouchaine Winery in Napa, Calif., on Feb. 17, 2019.”/>
Elaine McCann with Mariposa, a Harris Hawk during the Falconry Winery Tour at Bouchaine Winery in Napa, Calif., on Feb. 17, 2019.John Storey / Special at the Chronicle

Explore on e-bikes

Napa & Sonoma Valley Bike Tours’ latest offerings are half-day rides on Pedego e-bikes – the first e-bike tours in Napa Valley.

After a 30-minute assembly and orientation (e-bikes are surprisingly different from regular bikes), guests hop on their bikes and fan out from downtown Napa to the Carneros area, stopping at two wineries in the group of Starmont, LE Wines, McKenzie Müller and Etude. The tours cover approximately 25 miles in total, mostly on paved roads that border vineyards and farmland.

The outfitter offers on-call assistance, which means that anything customers buy is picked up and brought back to the starting point. At the end of the tour — around 2 p.m. — guests are given $25 in “Oxbucks” to spend real money on lunch at the Oxbow Public Market. Tours start around 9:30 am and accommodate up to 10 people at a time. Price: $189 per guest. Napavalleybiketours.com.

Napa & Sonoma Valley Bike Tours offer tours that cover approximately 25 miles - mostly on paved roads that skirt vineyards and farmland.
Napa & Sonoma Valley Bike Tours offer tours that cover approximately 25 miles – mostly on paved roads that skirt vineyards and farmland.Courtesy of Napa & Sonoma Valley Bike Tours

get off the road

Sure, the Hess Collection is renowned for its art gallery that’s open to the public, but some of Mount Veeder’s most intimate winery experiences take place among the vines.

This two-hour tour, offered daily at 11 a.m., begins with a ride in an all-terrain vehicle around the estate. Guides share a bit of the property’s history and provide a crash course in sustainable Napa Green practices such as growing cover crops and water resource management. Weather permitting, you can get off the mountain bike and taste grapes right next to the vines. There is also a chance to taste the finished product.

From the vineyard, the tour returns to the winery, where guests disembark and proceed to the private dining room for a lunch prepared by Hess Collection Executive Chef Chad Hendrickson. Lunch menus vary, but each is a three-course meal that showcases produce from the cellar’s culinary gardens, paired with wines from the estate’s vineyards. Each tour can accommodate up to five people. Price: $185 per person. hesscollection.com

Gondola cruise

Venice comes to Napa with this fledgling outfitter that operates a Venetian-style gondola down the Napa River off the main downtown wharf.

Gondola Servizio operator Sean O’Malley runs two basic tours: 30- and 60-minute loops around the Napa River in the heart of downtown. Along the way, he offers a basic history of the river and the riverfront, including details of the long-term efforts of the US Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the river and mitigate flooding. O’Malley even serenades guests with tunes in Italian.

Tours can accommodate up to six people per boat, and guests can bring their own wine and snacks or purchase treats from Basalt, a modern American restaurant just off the dock. Basalt even provides wine glasses upon request. Later this spring, Servizio will add two additional tours: a 90-minute birding tour and a historical tour that overlaps with a similar tour (by kayak) organized by the local historical society. Prices start at $60 for 30 and 60 minute tours. www.gondolaservizio.com

Gondola Servizio offers 30 and 60 minute loops around the Napa River in the heart of downtown.
Gondola Servizio offers 30 and 60 minute loops around the Napa River in the heart of downtown.Courtesy of Gondola Servizio

Get a bird’s eye view of the vineyards

This four-hour hot air balloon tour requires an early morning wake-up call, but is well worth it, especially considering the sweeping views of the valley at 2,000 feet.

The tour begins with check-in at V Marketplace in downtown Yountville. From there, guests are led into the parking lot where the balloons take off. After a safety briefing, guests board the balloon baskets and take off. Each basket can accommodate up to 12 people at a time; once the balloon takes off, guests typically spend around an hour in the air. The views from the air are spectacular; giant oaks look like bushes below, and vines stretch out like corduroy. He is also completely silent in the balloon, except when the furnace explodes to heat the air (it sounds like a whale surfacing to breathe).

The balloons land in different places on each trip. Once the balloons descend, guests disembark and are transferred by van to Yountville for an optional Champagne breakfast at Ottimo Napa Valley in Yountville. Prices start at $200 per passenger. www.nvaloft.com

Hike in the valley

Be prepared: during these visits, customers are working for their wine. Owner Sorel Klein offers four different excursions that revolve around moderately strenuous hikes in forests and open space reserves across the valley. Hikes range in length from 4.5 to 6 miles – Klein won’t reveal his exact routes but notes that most follow lesser-known trails.

Excursions are suitable for groups of two to four people. Most start early in the morning, when Klein picks up guests in a luxury SUV and transports them to the trailhead himself. Carrying a backpack with snacks and water, he then leads guests into the woods, telling the local story when and where appropriate. Because the hikes leave early, temperatures tend to be cooler than they are later in the day. During the summer, some of the hikes rise above the fog line, giving guests the opportunity to rest and watch the fog lift and the valley appear below.

After the hike, Klein moves on to the second part of the excursion: food and wine. If guests want a picnic, he pulls out Oakville Grocery-caliber sandwiches near the trailhead; if customers prefer to go to a local restaurant, he takes them there instead. Lunch is followed by a wine tasting at a small family winery, after which Klein drives guests back to their hotels. Prices start at $135 per person. Activewineadventures.com.

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