California’s Napa Valley: Mustard Season

The first of a three-part series exploring California’s iconic wine country

While many travelers to California’s famed Napa Valley prefer the hustle and bustle of the harvest season in September, those in the know visit the valley during the lessor known mustard season from mid-January to March.

The allure of visiting the valley during the earlier part of the year is driven by the spectacular vistas of the vineyards filled with bright yellow blooms, contrasted against the pruned vines, all set against a perfect blue sky. However, there are plenty of reasons to plan the perfect wine country getaway during the mustard season beyond the natural beauty.

A Perfect Tasting

Since May of 1976, when the domain of wine was forever changed by the results of The Judgement of Paris, the Napa Valley has been known as one of the world’s premier wine-producing regions. In the 46 years since that transformational event, the valley has continued to refine the quality of its wines and has experienced a vast increase in the number of vineyards and wineries, leading to the great question of any wine country trip – how to have the perfect wine tasting experience.

The tasting room at Schramsberg Vineyard.

The first challenge in the perfect tasting is securing the tasting reservation, which has become increasingly difficult due to an ever-growing number of visitors annually. This is where the superior advantages of a visit during mustard season start to shine. From mid-January through mid-February, the Napa Valley sees fewer visitors than any other time of the year, especially during the week; this is the “off-season,” but you may find even on weekends yourself the sole visitors in some tasting rooms. Many wineries, even the more exclusive experiences, are likely to have reservations available with just a few weeks’ advance notice.

The second aspect of the perfect tasting is learning to refine your palate and to be able to savor each wine in the vineyard where it is produced. Whether you’re a budding novice or a seasoned enthusiast, having a private or nearly private sommelier guide you through their winery’s finest wines is a luxurious experience that will educate and delight you. Without the crowds of the busy summer months or the hectic harvest season, your wine educator can focus on you and your tasting experience. This personalized attention often leads to a four wine tasting scheduled for an hour, becoming a 5 or 6 wine tasting that lasts an hour and a half or even two hours, as your host helps you define which of their wines is best suited to your tastes.

Barrel Room at Opus One Winery

The third benefit from a mustard season visit is significantly fewer cars, bikes, and motorcycles traversing Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Without traffic to contend with, it’s possible to go from Yountville to Calistoga in around 30 minutes, making it possible to fit in one or perhaps even two additional tastings a day. If you’re planning more than two well-spaced tastings, consider hiring a car and driver for the day, and similar to the tasting reservations, you should have plenty of options during this slower season.  

Culinary Delights Abound

Napa Valley is almost as well known for its cuisine as it is for its wines, and with good reason, some of America’s most acclaimed chefs can be found in kitchens throughout the valley. While Michelin stars abound, you almost have to work to find a less than a remarkable meal. The Italian heritage of many of Napa’s pioneering winemakers, ample high-quality ingredients, residents and visitors alike who appreciate delectable food, and a thriving immigrant community have brought about a myriad of genuinely fabulous dining choices, from family-run restaurants to food trucks, to the deli counter at the Cal Mart grocery store in Calistoga; there is a world of culinary delights to explore throughout the valley.

The most celebrated restaurants in the valley are often completely booked several months in advance. During the peak of harvest, you may need to make reservations the prior year. However, the luxury of traveling in the mustard season again sparkles; many restaurants have open tables, even on the weekend, without making reservations months ahead of time. We’ve seen available tables at the celebrated The French Laundry even a few weeks prior, something that is unheard of any other time of the year. While we still strongly recommend advance reservations, you should be able to find an open table almost anywhere with a few weeks’ advance notice during the mustard season.

Late January is also the citrus season in California, the time of year when oranges are at their very best, be sure to grab a few at the Cal Mart in Calistoga or at Sunshine Foods in St. Helena. Don’t be surprised to find a half-dozen or more varieties to choose from.

TView from the deck at the Opus One Winery

Exploring the wineries

Every winery is unique; they each express the personality of the vintner or showcase the owner’s passions. Dario Sattui’s passion built a 121,000 square foot medieval castle using 700-year-old bricks from Europe to become Castello di Amorosa. Cliff Lede has named each block of his vineyards for his favorite rock songs and albums. Opus One is a masterpiece of modern architecture, just as visionary of a winery as its founders, Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothchild. Shafer Vineyards offers a premium red blend named TD-9® after the tractor that John Shafer used in the early days of the vineyard. In recent years, Jean-Charles Boisset has brought an incredible, flamboyant, and fantastical sense of style and panache to some of Napa and Sonoma’s most storied properties, reshaping the definition of the wine country.

Rows of mustard at Raymond Vineyards

Whilst each winery has its own personality, so too does each visitor. The only true means to find your perfect winery is exploring, visiting the large, small, historic, modern, extravagant, down to earth, and everything in between. The valley has more than 500 wineries to choose from, and from our travels, you’re sure to find one or more that is the perfect fit for you.

Insider Tips

Cabernet Sauvignon is the “king” grape of the Napa Valley; the soil and climate throughout the valley and surrounding mountains offer some of the most ideal growing conditions in the US. While there are other wines, many world-class, staying with Cabs is never a bad idea.

Always choose quality over quantity when it comes to wine tastings. Wine tastings are offered in levels from the basic to the supreme and priced accordingly. To experience the finest wines California offers, visit fewer wineries and partake in the best tasting you can afford.

Did you know there are two of the iconic “Welcome to Napa Valley” signs, the most photographed being on the southern edge of the valley, but there is also one on the northern just passed the renowned Schramsberg Vineyards. Taking photos at this northern sign will give you instant credibility as an insider on Instagram

Sunset from the tasting room at Robert Mondavi Winery

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