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Free and Affordable Foodie Experiences in the Napa Valley

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Napa vineyard morningSpringtime 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.

With more than 400 wineries to choose from, picking the best ones to visit can be dizzying. There’s also no faster way to ruin a vacation than getting a DUI, and county officials are notorious for keeping a close eye on potential drunk drivers. Skip the hassle and possible expense by hiring a driver and guide. Verve Napa Valley is known for its private tours in a plush van, operated by a long-time Valley resident who can customize tours based specifically on your time frame and interests.

Most wineries charge a tasting fee, but will waive it if you purchase a bottle of wine. Make a day of it and choose a winery where you can drink that bottle on the grounds over a picnic lunch. Frank Family Vineyards in Calistoga has a picnic area overlooking the vineyards, and Clos du Val in Napa has reserved picnic tables for $5 per person.

The Napa Valley is also an artist’s haven, so take advantage of all the wineries that double as art galleries. Markham Vineyards in St. Helena currently has a photography exhibit by the first chief photographer of Rolling Stone, showcasing some of the most legendary magazine covers. In Napa, di Rosa has a spectacular collection of works from Bay Area artists, with a main gallery, an outdoor sculpture garden, and the more intimate Gatehouse Gallery. A docent-led tour is $15, and entrance to the Gatehouse Gallery alone is only a $5 suggested donation.

The Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park (now operated by local authorities), has a working grist mill that dates back to the mid-19th century. You can still see how the mill operates using water power and pick up a bag of freshly milled, organic flour, spelt and other grains for a suggested donation of $10.

No trip to Napa is complete without a visit to the Oxbow Public Market. You’ll see just as many locals as tourists wandering around this artisan food and seasonal dining hub. The Olive Press has a free tasting bar—everything from classic, grassy extra virgin olive oil to funky infused oils. Anette’s Chocolates, which also has a shop in downtown Napa, has free samples of their chocolates and brittles (including wine truffles and beer brittle!). And on the first Thursday of every month, from 5:30 pm to 7 pm, The Fatted Calf has a “butcher’s happy hour” that gets you samples of sustainable, locally produced meats paired with wine—and it’s free.

Oxbow is also the place to find indulgent treats. The Model Bakery produces out the most decadent English muffins on the market, which are fried in hot clarified butter; Ca’ Momi makes classic Napolitana-style pizza—strict standards require that the pizza be baked at a blistering 900 degrees for only 90 seconds.

Harvest Inn exteriorThere are a few mid-priced hotels in the area, including a Motel 6 with rates as low as $89 a night in spring, and a Holiday Inn Express in American Canyon starting from $144 a night.

However, savvy travelers can find great value in luxury hotels by going off peak and mid-week.The Harvest Inn, a classic vineyard hotel complete with wood-burning fireplaces and gorgeous vineyard views, offers exceptional value when you travel in the off season: winter rates are about $259 a night and spring rates are from $319, compared to $529 in fall.

For more can’t-miss destinations in the Napa Valley and surrounding areas, check out:

Text and photos by Sarika Chawla for Visit her online at and follow her on Twitter