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Free and Affordable Foodie Experiences in the Napa Valley

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Springtime in Napa is a different world from the high tourist seasons of summer and fall. The once-lush grapevines are stripped down to their branches and gardens are just beginning to sprout. The high stress and round-the-clock operation of crush season give way to a quieter, more serene atmosphere. Touring the Napa Valley in spring offer a laid-back, uncrowded, and yes, even more affordable experienceyou just have to follow the locals.

Dining at The French Laundry in Yountville is a bucket-list experience for most food lovers. If splurging on a 3 Michelin-starred restaurant isn’t doable on this itinerary, walk down the street to Bouchon Bistro for a starter and a drink, and end up at the adjacent Bouchon Bakery for a supersized macaron.

Then, cross the street to visit the garden where The French Laundry chefs source much of their produce. Fine-dining chef-turned-garden manager Aaron Keefer tends to more than 300 varieties of produce year-round, from simple organic carrot to exotic oyster-leaf spinach. Right now, the vegetables, herbs and edible flowers are showing glimpses of their summer glory, and anyone is welcome to stop by and take a tour.

Want the Michelin experience without being intimidated? Solbar, inside Solage Calistoga, has a cool lounge with an Asian-inspired, California-local menu. Think delicately fried Chinese longbeans and a light shredded green papaya salad. Appetizers and cocktails range around $9 to $13. If you’re with a group, order the $38 slow-roasted pig shoulder.

Look for happy hour deal geared toward drawing in local crowds. In Yountville, the upscale Lucy Restaurant & Bar at Bardessono, where Napa Valley icon Victor Scargle is executive chef, offers happy hour Monday through Thursday 4:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. with half-priced appetizers and reduced price wine, beer and cocktails. Napa’s Fume Bistro & Bar has $5 Fume Burger every Monday night, and Tuesday through Friday from 4 pm to 6 pm, appetizers are $4.50 and drinks are $3.50

Food and wine lovers come to The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone to take part in immersive, weeklong courses in cooking, pastry and wine education. But for those with less money to spend, the CIA’s Boot Camp experience is only 2 days long and offers intensive, hands-on lessons in topics like basic knife skills and grilling.

The CIA also offers shorter, less hands-on experiences for those who want a quick lesson. Try a 2-hour cooking demo over the weekend or just drop into the Flavor Bar inside the Spice Islands Marketplace for short courses that only cost $10 or $15, like chocolate making and olive oil tasting.