4 ways to embrace winter in Napa (that don’t involve wine tasting)

Roadside view of dormant grapevines and fencing with colorful illustrated circles featuring a train, rolling pin and more.
A Napa Valley vineyard view.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, fellow Escapists. Winter is a mellow time in California wine country, a world away from the crush of midsummer crowds and the lively harvest season.

With more than 375 wineries open for tastings and 90 urban tasting rooms, Napa has no shortage of places to sip the valley’s famous Cabernets on a journey north. But wine isn’t the region’s only specialty. There’s plenty to do in Napa without stepping foot in a vineyard.

Where are your favorite places to go in Napa Valley? Let me know so I can pass your recommendation on to fellow readers in a future edition of Escapes.

Visit a ‘lighted art’ festival

I was dazzled by the Light at Sensorio exhibition in Paso Robles when it debuted in 2019. The undulating jewel-toned lights, imitating a natural meadow of flowers, captivated travelers to the Central Coast wine region, quickly becoming a must-visit destination.

Art and wine have gone hand-in-hand for millennia, and now a new illuminated-art event is beckoning travelers to wine country. Eight illuminated sculptures make up the Napa Lighted Art Festival, including a peculiar “cloud swing” as well as a set of angel’s wings.

This walkable outdoor experience can be viewed in downtown Napa Monday through Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. and Friday to Sunday from 6 to 10 p.m. The best part, especially in a community where wine tasting can get quite pricey: The art festival is free.

Care to continue your outdoor art tour of Napa during the day?

The Napa Art Walk will take you to 10 public art installations scattered throughout town, and the Rail Arts District — an outdoor contemporary art gallery with a 2-mile footprint — offers further immersion into the town’s creativity.

After dark, a woman stands with a sculpture of angel's wings behind her and a halo above.
OGE Group’s “Angels of Freedom” art installation at the Napa Lighted Art Festival.
(Downtown Napa; illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

Learn to cook from the experts

The Culinary Institute of America churns out some of the nation’s most talented chefs. Travelers to Napa can get a taste of what it’s like to be one of the world-class school’s pupils by booking a class.

At a “Bistros and Brasseries” class scheduled for Feb. 25, chefs from the institute will show attendees how to make an array of French cafe dishes, such as croqu- monsieur and chocolate mousse. (And, yes, you get to eat the food you prepare during class — paired with a wine.)

The institute also offers wine-centric classes, where guests have the chance to learn to expertly taste wine in 90 seconds and how professionals pair wine and cheese.

Book your class in advance; it looks like spots appear to fill up quickly.

If you’re more interested in eating delicious food than preparing delicious food, skip the classes and book a table at the Grove at Copia, one of the culinary institute’s restaurants. The downtown Napa eatery, presided over by institute graduate Sayat Ozyilmaz, specializes in Mediterranean-inspired cuisine.

Visitors to downtown Napa can further embrace their inner epicure at the Oxbow Public Market, a food hall included by Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds on his list of the 40 best autumn experiences in California. “This foodie acre is a healthy reminder that this wine country does more than make wine,” Reynolds writes.

Illustration of baking and cooking utensils and a glass of wine.
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

Bike the Napa Valley Vine Trail

Especially for first-time visitors, Napa Valley can feel like a dizzying array of vineyards, tasting rooms, spas and posh restaurants.

Biking the Napa Valley Vine Trail is one of the best ways to make sense of it all.

The path takes riders and walkers 12.5 miles from south Napa to Yountville, but its ambitions are grander. The trail’s founders plan for the trail to one day span 47 miles, connecting the full Napa Valley region from Vallejo to Calistoga.

The trail’s interactive online map, which comes with restaurant and vineyard recommendations, is a helpful tool for planning your ride.

Napa Valley Velo charges $30 for a two-hour bike rental and $45 for a full day. Additional bike rental companies can be found here.

Illustration is a GIF of a bike whose wheels appear to move.
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

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Ride the wine train

Traveling can be expensive but doesn’t always have to be. I try to include low-cost and free activities in this newsletter to keep Escapes as friendly as possible to all budgets.

That said, tickets to ride the Napa Valley Wine Train don’t come cheap. But there’s a reason Reynolds included it on his list of the 40 best outdoor experiences in California.

“If you’re going to fully appreciate Napa Valley and its globally admired vineyards, it’s better to skip the driving,” writes Reynolds. “On the Napa Valley Wine Train, you can dine in style while the miles and wineries roll past.”

Tickets start at around $165 for the three-hour “afternoon tea” ride and go up — way up — from there.

The “Romance on the Rails” package ($365) might appeal to those in search of the perfect Valentine’s Day gift, but the train’s “Murder Mystery” experience ($555) is high atop my California bucket list. The chance to play Nancy Drew while wearing over-the-top 1920s clothing and enjoying wine and a three-course dinner? I’m so in.

A plate of pasta and salmon sits on a table next to a small lamp and a train window with a view of mountains and sky.
The Napa Valley Wine Train carries passengers past many vineyards on its route from Napa to St. Helena.
(Los Angeles Times)

📰 What I’m reading

  • Heading to the Bay Area soon? Reynolds compiled a list of 10 tips to know before you go.
  • “The wine world is about to get a big shake-up,” reports Monica Prelle in Outside. “As the planet warms,” she explains, “wine regions like Napa are being forced to make some major adaptations.”
  • One Yosemite National Park campground is so popular that officials are trying a lottery this year. Forrest Brown explains how to apply for the lottery on
  • Speaking of national parks, Reynolds breaks down everything you need to know before visiting national parks in 2022.
  • One reason Truckee’s ski traffic is so horrendous? This narrow, 100-year-old tunnel, writes Julie Brown in SFGate.

    People in jackets sit outside a corner cafe with a curving canopy in a city setting.
    Café de la Presse in San Francisco.
    (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

📸 Photo of the week

A sculpture of a leaping rabbit is positioned above fencing and graoevines in a field.
The 35-foot-tall “Bunny Foo Foo,” a polished stainless steel sculpture by artist Lawrence Argent, at the Hall Winery vineyard in St. Helena.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

🎸 Road song

Song: “I Drink Wine by Adele

Favorite lyrics: “Sometimes the road less traveled is a road best left behind.”

Where to listen: Cruising Napa Valley’s famed Silverado Trail (just make sure to have a designated driver before visiting the tasting rooms).

Car drives down a road in Napa Valley, with the words "I drink wine" under the photo.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times; photo Illustration by Jade Cuevas )