Hang out in Napa in October, and you’ll see why locals brag that it’s always summer in California — it’s still picnic season.
With temps in the 70s and 80s, you just want to stay outdoors in wine country in fall.
Picnics are a more affordable way to play in Napa Valley.
Wait months or years for a reservation at Thomas Keller’s famous French Laundry restaurant, or get fresh salads, French-style sandwiches and sweets at his nearby Bouchon Bakery to eat on the bistro-style patio.
Keller’s lunch fare is so good, even a simple grilled cheese tastes special. And the macaroons are melt-in-the-mouth wonders.
Line-ups start early at Bouchon, so head across the street to V Marketplace 1870, to buy gourmet fixings (paté, baguettes, local cheese and Napa-made salami).
Or grab a picnic lunch that mixes French and Italian specialties with comfort food at NapaStyle Café. Here, “forever roasted pork” is a sandwich loaded with meat and cheese and mustard. Salads are generous.
We ate on a streetfront bench, a few blocks south of the French Laundry, and met Andy and Kim Woods, an engineer and elementary school teacher from Texas. They were enjoying a four-day mini-vacation in wine country, after driving a rental car from San Francisco.
“You can’t do this in Houston,” said Andy, digging into a Bouchon ham and cheese with kettle chips. “The bread here is just fantastic.”
Kim added, “It’s much more intimate than being in a restaurant and putting up with other people’s noise.”
Everywhere we traveled, people were feasting outdoors — especially at wineries. (Many Napa vintages are available only at the wineries, and aren’t sold retail, except through online wine clubs.)
While most wineries have patios — high-end spots have exclusive tasting areas indoors and out — one of the most popular is V. Sattui. It has so many picnic tables, that it operates one of the largest delis in Napa Valley, and offers weekend barbecues in summer and fall.
From grilled artichoke hearts and cheese-stuffed olives to hand-made artisan “salame”, the winery deli has something for almost every taste at decent prices. Local oysters are grilled outdoors too.
The terraced grounds at V. Sattui are lovely, although packed with tourists in summer. In fall, couples can enjoy a wine picnic amid flower gardens, ornate fountains, and 250-year-old giant oaks.
Wine collectors warned us to stay away from the place, because of all the tour buses.
But those crowds suggested there was a reason V. Sattui was popular, besides its stone buildings and expansive gardens — where we watched hummingbirds feeding.
Its winemaker, Brooks Painter, won “winemaker of the year” at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition this summer.
Napa Valley lesson: Tour buses aren’t always wrong.
WEST COAST WEEKENDS TIP: Start or end a wine country picnic at Kollar Chocolates at V Marketplace 1870 in Yountville, in the center of the Napa Valley.
Watch Chris Kollar and his staff make confections that defy the definition of “chocolate.” That might be the main ingredient, but Kollar truffles are miniature works of art. Kollar elevates the craft of show kitchens too.