Wine Enthusiast’s editors and writers recommend cherished places to see, wines to sip, foods to nibble and activities to pursue in America’s most exciting wine region.
You know how the song goes from The Sound of Music: “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens” and so on. It is not a list of the very best. It is not momentous. It is a list of Maria’s favorites, and generally they are modest, simple, intimate and personal (admittedly with a saccharine aftertaste).
If you’re planning to visit Napa Valley, there is no shortage of guidebooks that will help you plan your trip and point you to “the best.” What follows is more of a “whiskers on kittens” selection; we love the splendor of Meadowood and the thrill of a balloon ride, the Hess collection must be experienced to be believed, and who would deny that Silver Oak sipped at the winery is a sublime experience indeed? None of these are overrated. What we’re endeavoring to honor are activities and destinations that might fly under the guidebook reader’s radar.
What follows is not “better” or “more cutting edge” or anything else. It’s just our favorites.
You will enjoy great wine just about everywhere you go in the Valley. For fine wine (some poured exclusively on-site) as well as lovely grounds, friendly hosts and any number of other qualities, here are wineries well worth a visit:
Kuleto (707.963.9750; www.kuletoestate.com) and Long Meadow Ranch (707.963.4555; www.longmeadowranch.com) are complete agricultural estates patterned after the tenute (self-contained estates) of Tuscany: they grow grapes, vegetables and fruit, raise animals and produce olive oil and a variety of great wines…
Palmaz (707.226.5587; www.palmazvineyards.com) and Jarvis (800.255.5280; www.jarviswines.com) are both huge wineries built totally underground. Palmaz is the equivalent of 14 stories from top to bottom; Jarvis has an underground creek and hidden rooms full of giant amethysts…Daryl Sattui’s Castello di Amorosa (707.942.8200; www.castellodiamorosa.com) is an incredible Tuscan-style castle; the towers and ramparts look across the Valley at Sterling’s Cretan monastery. There are those who will see it as a step toward Disneyfication, but it’s really the inevitable culmination of the trend that began with the Beringer Brothers building a Rhine House to remind them of their homeland.
Want to try wine made by Heidi Peterson Barrett, the cult wine queen of the valley? No guarantees, but if you make an appointment you can determine whether they are pouring her “house wine” at Revana Vineyards (707.967.8814; www.revanawine.com) north of St. Helena…Wine lovers who also love art must visit Clos Pegase (707. 942.4981; www.clospegase.com) and Hall (707.967.2620; www.hallwines.com) with their impressive collections; the
separate Kathryn Hall Winery (aka Hall Rutherford) (707. 967.0700) above Auberge du Soleil is a gem built by Austrian stone cutters… Among sparkling wine producers, Domaine Carneros (800.716. 2788; www.domaine.com) offers tasting on a patio of a French- style chateau. Mumm Napa (707. 967.7700; www.mummnapa.com) offers tastes on a relaxing patio. Domain Chandon (707.944.2280; www.chandon.com) has the only winery restaurant in Napa Valley (étoile), and it’s a must-see, while Schramsberg (707. 942.4558; www.schramsberg.com) gives tours of its venerable and extensive caves. —Paul Franson
Any list of visit-worthy Napa Valley wineries has to include Rubicon Estate (707.968.1161; www.rubiconestate.com), which is at the grand old Inglenook property. Yes, you have to fork over $25 to enter the grounds, but Rubicon is far more than just a tasting room and gift shop. There are also exhibits, and a range of guided tours, some free, others not. —Steve Heimoff
There are many other wineries that boast architecture worth the visit. Minimalism works to maximum effect at Artesa, which is owned by the Spanish winemaking house Codorníu. Arching water jets, reflecting pools, and a main building topped with native grasses counterpoint views of San Pablo Bay (707.224.1668; www.artesawinery.com). Opus One hunkers into the hillside, its stark angles and curvy colonnade resembling a cross between a pharaoh’s temple and a James Bond-esque villain lair. The winery is a partnership between Robert Mondavi and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild of France (707.944.9442; www.opusonewinery.com). With 18-foot columns surmounted by bulls, travertine façade and amphitheater, Darioush reflects the Persian heritage of owner Darioush Khaledi, born in Iran’s Shiraz region (707.257.2345; www.darioush.com). —Risa Weinreb Wyatt
Napa Stave (707.259.5411; www.stavewinelounge.com) is a new pour-your-own-sip bar, offering more than 30 wines on tap. You buy a credit card, pour and sip to your heart’s content and pay the reasonable charges. The range includes wines from outside Napa Valley (including European and Port). Wines by the bottle and munchies are available. —Kathy Buckley/ Roger Voss
A driver and limo can make winery hopping more relaxing. To make it the realization of a fantasy, travel through time as well as space in a gleaming, meticulously-restored convertible 1947 Packard with chauffeur. You’ll feel like Clark Gable and Carole Lombard as you arrive in style at some of Napa’s small, exclusive wineries for private tastings and cave tours. $120-130/hour (707.226.9227; www.antiquetours.net). —Betty Teller
You can grab breakfast anyplace in Napa Valley, but if you happen to be in Carneros, check out the Boon Fly Café (707.299.4900; www.thecarnerosinn.com). It’s just a joint on the highway, part of the snazzy Carneros Inn, but it’s where lots of south valley winemakers and vineyard guys start their mornings. (There’s a wine bar, too, but that’s for later in the day…really.) Carbo-load on the homemade donuts and griddlecakes, or be a health nut with organic yogurt and housemade granola. —S.H.
Or if you’re closer to Yountville at breakfast time, seek out Gordon’s Café (707.944.8246); it’s the best way to rub elbows—literally—with Napa’s wine business bigwigs. Just get a seat at the communal table and watch the show. Your fellow newspaper-readers and Special Scramble-eaters are almost certain to include industry insiders gearing up for another day. And don’t miss the bathroom, hung with hilarious French posters illustrating in elegantly gothic horror all the dangerous things children should never do. —Thom Elkjer
Oakville Grocery is the quintessential downvalley pit stop for snacks-to-go. You can get anything from a little nosh of salami and cheese to foccacia sandwiches and BBQ, but my favorite is the sweet, delicious crab cakes. On a nice day, enjoy them while leaning on the wooden rail in the parking lot, watching the blackbirds skivvy through the vineyards. Ask the counterperson to nuke them for a few seconds (707.944.8802; www.oakvillegrocers.com). —S.H.
For a casual meal and friendly conversation, follow the tantalizing aroma of barbecue in downtown Napa to Bounty Hunter, a hip wine bar and rare wine retailer in a beautifully restored 1888 building. Roll up your sleeves and dig into beer can chicken—a whole roast bird that arrives still mounted on a steaming can of Tecate. The minuscule kitchen and large smoker outside the back door also deliver delectable skewers, salads, ribs and pulled pork sandwiches to pair with the 40 wines available by the glass and a whopping 400 by the bottle. Buy a case, or sign up for the wine catalogue while you’re there. Owner Mark Pope calls the place “my clubhouse” and frequently wanders down from his upstairs offices to grab a bite and chat with customers (707.255.0622; www.bountyhunterwine.com). —B.T.
Bouchon is Thomas Keller’s “other” Yountville joint, a European-style bistro with a wine country vibe, and one of the liveliest spots in town. The zinc bar sports tourists and local bon vivants on one end and a dazzling raw bar on the other. Bouchon offers Champagne and local wines, cordials, cigars and a smart tart au citron. While scoring a table on
short notice can be a challenge, a seat at the bar is divine. (707.944.8037; www.frenchlaundry.com) —Elizabeth Frater
The best burger in the Valley (and we all know burgers pair perfectly with $100 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon) is at Big D Burgers on Silverado Trail (707.255. 7188). It doesn’t look smart (and in fact is an old-time institution to locals) but the burgers, shrimp baskets and other trans fat-challenged dishes are great. It also has wonderfully battered fish and chips even a Londoner would love. —K.B./R.V.
Filippi’s Pizza Grotto (707.254.9700; www.filippispizzagrottonapa.com) serves pizzas that come every which way, and all inspire the senses. You’ll find delicious crusts, terrific toppings as well as good Italian comfort food. They don’t deliver but you can bring your own wine ($10 corkage charge). —K.B./R.V.
Taylor’s Refresher, or, more properly, Taylor’s Automatic Refresher—although we defy you to find anyone who calls it that—has become something of a St. Helena institution since its refurbishment by brothers Joel and Duncan Gott in 2000. This 1949-vintage hamburger stand brings us back to small-town America while reassuring us that fast food doesn’t have to be bad food. Place your order and leave your name at the walk-up window; the counter folks will call you when your order is ready. In the meantime, kick back at one of the picnic tables and watch the valley go by. Can’t-miss pleasures include the classic hamburger ($5.75) complete with secret sauce (a vinegary-mustardy counterpoint to the thick beef patty), the ahi burger served with ginger wasabi mayo ($14) and fish tacos made with mahi mahi and garnished with jalapeño-cilantro sour cream ($10). Libations include a rotating roster of milkshakes thick enough to be served with a spoon and a short but attractive wine list, often including several good half bottles from Phelps and Shafer (707.963.3486; www.taylorsrefresher.com). —Joe Czerwinski
For one of the best meals in Napa Valley, grab a seat at the bar of Bistro Jeanty, order langue d’agneau, an exquisite salad of potatoes and the most tender lamb’s tongue ever, and follow it up with petit sale aux lentilles, house-cured pork belly with lentil-foie gras ragout. House wine, always $19, may be a premium Zinfandel with a damaged label, the last bottle of a case, etc., poured into an earthenware pitcher. Ask (707.944.0103; www.bistrojeanty.com).
—Michele Anna Jordan
In the mood for a leisurely drive? Start up Silverado Trail to Deer Park Road, turn right to Angwin (www.angwinca.com), the only place in Napa Valley where you can’t buy wine. (It is home to Pacific Union College, a Seventh Day Adventist institute.) The local grocery store sells a wide range of vegetarian and vegan food and a terrific salad bar—no meat, and few herbs and spices for that matter. (Businesses are closed on Saturday, for the Adventist Sabbath.) You can make the twisty drive back down the valley; watch for the overlook where you can pull over and enjoy one of the most spectacular views of Napa Valley, looking over to the old Greystone Cellars-Culinary Institute of America. Or continue north from Angwin to Pope Valley (the road is incredibly steep and twisty; great for motorcyclists). At Pope Valley Road, step back in time and turn left to Pope Valley Winery (707.965.1246; www.popevalleywinery.com). Across the road, you’ll find Litto’s Hubcap Ranch, the world’s only hubcap museum (if it’s not the only one, it should be). If you’re still in the mood to explore, take Pope Canyon road north, east and then south, a meandering return route via Lake Berryessa which has the entire town of Monticello in its depths, flooded to make way for the Corps of Engineers lake. —K.B./R.V.
Bicycling is a great way to explore; the valley floor is flat and vineyards flank many roadways. One favorite route heads from Oakville Cross Road, along the Silverado Trail to Rutherford Cross Road via pretty, pastoral Skellenger Lane and Conn Creek Road. Cyclists can taste at wineries such as Caymus, Silver Oak and Frog’s Leap. Pinot-friendly pedaling awaits in Carneros, where a loop travels along Cuttings Wharf Road to Las Amigas, Duhig Road, and back along Highway 12, passing Etude, Acacia and Domaine Carneros. Several companies rent bikes including St. Helena Cyclery (707.963.7736; www.sthelenacyclery.com) and Napa Valley Bike Tours (800.707.2453; www.napavalleybiketours.com); they also offer group tours. —R.W.W.
From the elevated, oak-shaded sitting area at Plumpjack Winery, set up on large granite rocks outside the courtyard of the tasting room, you can see the vineyards of Harlan Estate, Dalla Valle, Groth, Screaming Eagle and Rudd—everything that makes Oakville Oakville, from one end to the other. It’s open even when the tasting room is closed, making it the perfect “I belong here” spot in one of the most insular, exclusive AVAs in America (707.945.1220; www.plumpjack.com). —T.E.
Great views of the Valley from on high: The only restaurant and hotel with Valley views is Auberge du Soleil (707.963.1211; www. aubergedusoleil.com); the restaurant itself is superb, though pricy, but you can sit on the deck outside the bar and enjoy a reasonably priced glass of wine and even a pizza or hamburger…Rutherford Hill Winery (707.963.1871; www.rutherfordhill.com) has a nice picnic ground as well as views…Diamond Oaks Winery (707.948.3010; www.diamond-oaks.com) has great views toward Opus and Mondavi on the impossibly steep Oakville Grade midvalley. It also allows picnics…The sights at Viader (707.963.3816; www.viader.com) above St. Helena are exquisite—even if Delia Viader isn’t at her winery—and the views from adjoining Burgess Cellars (800.752.9463; wwwburgesscellars.com) are similar…Few match those from the terrace at Sterling Vineyards (800.726.6136; www.sterlingvineyards.com) on a dramatic knoll in Calistoga (take the gondola to get to the top)…The best view of the upper valley is from Constant Diamond Mountain Winery (707.942.0707; www.constantwine.com), way up above Diamond Creek and other wineries near Calistoga. —Paul Franson
“A nine-hole course?” Yes, and at 2,929 yards, a short one at that. But regardless of length, the Vintner’s Golf Club in Yountville is paradise to all handicaps. To the west you’ve got the Mayacamas; to the east you’ve got the Vaca Range. All around you’ve got world-class vineyards. Be prepared for fast, subtle greens and holes that are more challenging than their yardage would indicate. Lunch on the patio features spicy calamari, a grilled albacore sandwich and the most inspired views imaginable. By all means play Silverado, but don’t ignore this unsung jewel in the heart of Napa Valley. (707.944.1992; www.vintnersgolfclub.com). —Mike Lynch
Dinner and a movie doesn’t get much better than Friday Night Flicks at Copia, where there’s a special prix fixe dinner ($29, includes a glass of wine and bag of popcorn) for moviegoers at Julia’s Kitchen. Copia exhibits often have an eat-this-it’s-good-for-you feel but the edible gardens, lectures, discussions, demonstrations and tastings offer interesting ways to wile away an afternoon waiting for, say, Now, Voyager or Picnic at Hanging Rock. Excellent bookstore, too (707.259.1600; www.copia.org). —M.A.J.
Overlooking Carneros—you see Veronica di Rosa’s “Sheep Herd” (1988) from the highway—the 217-acre di Rosa Preserve is unique among galleries, with more than 2,000 works of regional contemporary art in all media, many installed outdoors. The Gatehouse Galley is open for drop-in visitors but tours of the permanent collection, sculpture meadow and di Rosa residence require guided tours; reservations recommended. Expect the unusual, the whimsical and the exuberant from this nationally-renowned collection (707.226.5991; www.dirosapreserve.org). —M.A.J.
At Woodhouse Chocolate in St. Helena, former winemakers craft brilliant artisan sweets. Among countless temptations (like Thai ginger with coconut and lemongrass, and wild Italian cherry chocolates), Fiori di Sicilia is the real must-try. Imagine tiny chocolate cups painstakingly layered with orange-scented marzipan, milk chocolate ganache and Sicilian citrus vanilla extract-infused cream, with gold flecks and chocolate swirls lavished on top (707.963.8413; www.woodhousechocolate.com). —Janice Wald Henderson
The Cuban music will catch your ear, and it will be followed by the smell of cigars wafting in the early night air. You can’t help but dance, even if cigars are not your idea of fun. Baker Street Tobacconist (www.bakerstreettime.com) offers a wide range of cigars (no, not Cuban) and pipe tobacco with special monthly events. It’s near Napa’s Main Street, the most happening two blocks of restaurants and bars after 9 p.m. in the entire Valley. —K.B./R.V.
Did someone say “nightlife”? Party on—somewhere else. The vineyards run 24/7 but nothing else does, with the occasional exception of those Main Street bars. That said, a little bit of life-after-dark beckons. Built in 1879, the beautifully restored Napa Valley Opera House in Napa hosts performances ranging from stand-up comedy to Broadway musicals and jazz in its intimate, 500-seat theater (707.226.7372; www.nvoh.org). Get a kick from Champagne at the étoile Lounge at Domaine Chandon in Yountville. Saturday nights, an urban vibe comes to the vineyards with music spun by San Francisco’s best DJs along with sparkling wine cocktails and munchies such as lobster beignets and banana cream pie. The beat and bubbles burble until 1:30 a.m. or later (707.204.7529; www. chandon.com). —R.W.W.
Napa Valley is awash in spas, but steer clear of the recycled mud and mineral baths that dominate the scene. Opt for the luxuriant atmosphere at the Villagio Inn and Spa (707.944.8877; www.villagio.com) and its pristine sauna, pool and steam room, age-defying body scrubs and wraps, and products infused with sea salts and essential oils. Vinotherapists at the eco-friendly Gaia Hotel (888.798.3777; www.gaiahotelnapavalley.com) pamper clients with cutting-edge antioxidant treatments, grape seed exfoliants, and green tea infusions. Another tranquil retreat can be found at the Veranda Club Spa (707.944.1906; www.verandaclubspa.com) here the emphasis is on deep bodywork and spiritual rejuvenation. —E.F.
Napa’s newest luxury spa isn’t sited among grapevines—it’s under them. The Meritage Hotel placed Spa Terra underground, in a spacious cave beneath a vineyard at the southern entrance to town. The Italian-themed spa is surprisingly airy, with vaulted ceilings, wrought-iron fixtures and wall mosaics in muted earth tones. Large steam grottos, sunken heated plunge baths and trickling walls of water provide a backdrop for treatments like the signature Solo Vino, where grapeseed scrub, mud mask, body wrap and massage follow one another for two blissful hours, topped off with wine and cheese. Most Napa caves are for aging, but you’ll leave this one feeling younger—and as mellow as a fine Cabernet (707.251.3000; www.spaterra.com). —B.T.
Traveling with kids? A couple of times a month, the Wine Train converts its Silverado car to a kids-only space, complete with professional day care provider. Children (3-12) are entertained with games, videos, and child-friendly foods during the two-hour train ride, while grown-ups relax in another car, sipping wine with their multi-course lunch or dinner, prepared on-board by Chef Kelly MacDonald. For each paid adult, one kid rides free. Check Web site for dates (707.253.2111; www.winetrain.com).
Napa River Adventures’ guided cruise reveals a different side of the valley. As you motor past downtown, Captain Kevin Trzcinski explains Napa’s Victorian past as a bustling port. (The river feeds directly to San Pablo Bay; it actually flows upstream twice a day when the tide comes in.) During the leisurely (5 mph) two-hour trip on “Sweet Edith,” a quiet electric motor launch, the kids will spot hawks, falcons, curlews, avocets and more—some of the many birds flocking to Napa’s newly restored wetlands (707.224.9080; www.napariveradventures.com).
Back on land, check out the Copia Kids’ Garden, a small plot tucked into the south half of their Edible Gardens. A worm bin and hands-on activities attract younger children, along with the enclosures housing fluffy bunnies and brilliantly plumed chickens. Text explains how important their poop is for the garden’s organic compost. Be sure to go inside Copia as well: friendly staff offer demos and food tastes (and wine for the adults); older kids will enjoy the film clips and wacky food facts in the Forks in the Road exhibition. Closed Tuesdays (707.259.1600; www.copia.org). —B.T.
And what kid on earth can resist a castle? The previously mentioned Castello di Amorosa winery, with its period architecture and historic ambiance, fits the bill. Thus, we come full circle, from serious wine tasting to the indulgence of kids’ goofy whims. A few of our favorite things, with a saccharine aftertaste.