Once upon a time, the Napa Valley was a hot, dry region with a few straggling wine vineyards and a whole bunch of prune orchards growing in its lowlands. A few pioneering winemakers in the 1960s and ’70s started trying to make higher quality wines here, and they were generally sneered at by the French wine establishment. Then came the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, and everything changed.
Today, the Napa Valley feels like Disneyland… with liquor. Wineries  cluster along Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, each trying to outdo its neighbors to win the business of the thousands of visitors who descend on Napa every weekend to taste of the endless river of fermented grape that’s grown, aged, and bottled here. Tasting rooms boast souvenirs and logowear by the rack-full, tours sell out hours in advance, special events draw hundreds of people to wineries that can comfortably seat two-dozen.
Then there’s the food. As the wine industry in Napa exploded, top-tier chefs rose to the challenge, flocking to the area and opening amazing restaurants  in the tiny towns that line the wine trails. Even if you don’t love wine, a meal at one of the many high-end restaurants makes Napa worth a visit.
Think you’re going to enjoy a lovely weekend wine tasting tour at the height of harvest season, bopping quickly from winery to winery without a care in the world? Think again. Many thousands of visitors from the Bay Area  and all over the world will be plying the same two major Napa Valley wine routes.
Highway 29 runs through the center of the valley and becomes something akin to a 20-mile parking lot on weekend afternoons. It can take a ridiculous amount of time to get just from one winery to the next. The Silverado Trail isn’t much better.
To get the best experience with the least traffic headaches, make a few adjustments to your plans:
1. Take your tasting tour on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. These are the least popular days with the Bay Area weekend hordes.
2. Get going early. If you can stomach wine with breakfast, start your tour at 9–10 a.m., right when the tasting rooms start to open. If you can finish up with the wineries by noon or 1 p.m., you might be able to grab lunch in Calistoga and then go for a mud bath or a walk in the woods while everyone else is sitting in gridlock.
3. Consider postponing your Wine Country  trip until the rainy season (Nov.–Feb.). This is the least popular season in Napa, since the grape vines are hibernating and the dank weather doesn’t show off the valley to its most scenic advantage. But the wines still taste fabulous, and you’ll avoid the worst car traffic and crowding in the tasting rooms. Heck, you might even get a chance to talk to your pourer about the vintages you’re tasting!
The VINE bus (800/696-6443, www.nctpa.net/vine.cfm , Mon.–Fri. 5:20 a.m.–9:25 p.m., Sat. 6:30 a.m.–8:40 p.m., Sun. 8:30 a.m.–7 p.m., adults $1.25–2.75, youth $1–2) provides public transportation to the Napa Valley. Check the website for routes, stations, and fares. You can pay cash when you get on the bus, but you must have exact change.