Historically, vineyard visits rank high on the eye-roll list for children. But California’s Napa Valley is trying hard these days to attract families, aiming to entertain visitors of all ages with hiking, biking, camps and non-snooty farm-to-table experiences. Even some vineyards are getting into the game, offering lawn games and grape juice tastings.
On a recent trip with my 13-year-old daughter, Brette, we certainly had fun there. I kept the itinerary simple: recreation-spliced days with foodie interludes to keep energy high and complaints low. Wine would be but a detail in an active mom-and-daughter getaway.
Here’s some of our highlights:
On the move
We kicked off the trip at Skyline Wilderness Park, hiking through wildflower and chaparral-speckled woodland where clusters of butterflies and hummingbirds made frequent cameos. Then, we zipped over to Clif Family Winery (of Clif Bar fame), which was of no interest to Brette until I mentioned their food truck. Over chive-dusted bruschetta and arancini balls, I had three sips (I was driving) of a perky viognier that elevated the carbs to heavenly heights.
Calistoga is famous for geothermal hot springs and I was thrilled when the no-frills Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort greenlit Brette to join me for a treatment. We showered in summer-camp like stalls, hopped into concrete mud tubs (secret ingredient: nutrient-rich volcanic ash) and finished with a 30-minute massage. (Minimum age for mud treatments, which start at $105, is 13 years old.)
Wine country by bike
One morning, Dave Brazell of Adventures in Cycling crafted a child-centric wine tasting itinerary that included a picnic lunch. Instead of driving to tasting rooms, we cycled through scenic backcountry roads, past the Old Faithful geyser (yes, there is also one here), where we paused to dip our fingers in steaming puddles.
Sterling Vineyards was fun, especially the aerial tram trip that transports visitors to the hilltop tasting room. Our favorite was wisteria-draped Bennett Lane, where I sampled juicy cabernets while Brette learned to identify bouquet. During the cellar tour, just enough technical verbiage was dispensed (“bung hole” was a favorite term) along with cool correlations between winemaking and math. Outside, children can also pick blackberries and play corn hole.
Ride through the vines
Another way to experience the spectacular landscape is by horseback. We signed on with Napa Valley Trail Rides for a 30-minute mosey through the rolling vineyards of Shadybrook Estate at Rapp Ranch (where there is also a tasting room). Our guides were hipster cowgirls and Brette got to visit the stables after the ride.
If you’d rather bike, the Napa Valley Vine Trail now offers 12 car-free miles, from downtown Napa to Yountville.
It’s important to teach children the origins of food. And, Napa, with its celebration of local purveyors (highlighted on practically every menu) is the perfect setting to do so.
Gott’s Roadside in St. Helena is filled with families for a reason, as its burgers, tacos, sandwiches and milk shakes make for an ideal lunch or dinner. In downtown Napa, the artisan food hall Oxbow Public Market is a crowd-pleaser for pizza, barbecue, charcuterie and baked goods.
Brette proclaimed Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch, which operates an organic farm, livestock ranches and vineyards, as “the best restaurant ever.” The food was glorious, but the storytelling and passion for farming is what resonated. With each dish, our server explained how soil, climate and coastal air impacted flavor.
A recommended last stop for all — as it’s key to end on a sweet note — is Calistoga Creamery, which serves salted caramel ice cream in a cinnamon waffle cone.