Exploring the Unexpected of Napa Valley

While Napa Valley is known for great wine, it offers so much more. Experience bike trails, state parks, live music, restaurants and historic winery caves.
Photo by Gary Crabbe/ Almy

It might seem like Napa Valley is all about wine, but it offers a whole lot more. Outdoor activities abound, as its beautiful mountains and lowlands await exploration under sunny skies. Meanwhile, unique wine and food options indulge serious gourmets. The best way to get the most of your visit involves a balance between epic adventures and epicurean delights.

The Valley by Bicycle

When it is finished, the Napa Valley Vine Trail will offers walkers and cyclists a 47-mile route through the valley, from the ferry landing in Vallejo to the foot of Mount St. Helena in Calistoga. The first major stretch is paved, a 6.5-mile path from Napa to Yountville that travels through the Oak Knoll District’s vineyards. The Napa County Bike Coalition recommends a relatively flat 25-mile loop from downtown Calistoga, and it also lists places for bike rentals.

Don’t Miss

Guitar and Amp
Illustration by Trisha Krauss

In late May, three days of live music hits several stages at the Napa Valley Fairgrounds during Bottlerock, an emerging rock festival that also stars local food, wine and beer. The Foo Fighters, Stevie Wonder, the Black Keys and Florence & the Machine are some recent headliners. Tons of up-and-coming acts play, too.

Blending and Barrels

Tent Illustration
Illustration by Trisha Krauss

Visitors have several opportunities to play winemaker for the day. Conn Creek Winery makes Cabernet Sauvignon from most appellations within the Napa Valley. Its Barrel Blending Experience is a way to taste them all and discern the differences, and even allows participants to create their own custom blend. At Joseph Phelps Vineyards, you can sample four Cabs aged in different barrels to taste various oak influences. At the Insignia blending sessions, guests experiment with six components to create their own blend, which is then compared to the winery’s current release. Franciscan does a hands-on blending seminar based around its Magnificat Bordeaux blend.

What’s Cooking?

One of the world’s premier cooking schools, the Culinary Institute of America runs two campuses in Napa Valley: the long-established Greystone location set in a grand 19th-century former winery in St. Helena, and the new CIA at Copia American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in downtown Napa. Both offer full-service restaurants, shops and a regular calendar of events, demos, classes and tastings.

Wine and Food Pairings

While Napa-area wineries cannot operate restaurants due to zoning limitations, many provide substantial food-and-wine pairings that are educational and enjoyable. Domaine Carneros does sit-down sparkling wine pairings with cheese, smoked salmon or caviar, while B Cellars focuses on goodies from its culinary gardens for a four-course, farm-to-table experience. At Signorello Estate, the winery’s chef prepares five-course meals. The Bistro at Inglenook is a place to relax with wines by the glass and café fare. At Hess Collection, locally grown products are paired with wines in the Tour of the Palate.

Hills and Mills

Those in search of majestic views should tackle Robert Louis Stevenson State Park in Calistoga and hike to the peak of Mount St. Helena. Bothe-Napa Valley State Park in St. Helena has 10 miles of trails through coastal redwoods, as well as historic cabins and yurts for camping, a Native American garden, pioneer cemetery, picnic sites and a swimming pool. It adjoins the state park of Bale Grist Mill, a water-powered facility built in 1846 that’s been fully restored and is now open for tours. The granary gift shop sells stone-ground whole wheat, polenta, spelt and other flours.

Historic Caves

History dwells deep at Schramsberg, where the caves date back to the 1870s, the gritty work of Chinese laborers. The sparkling wine producer still stores and riddles its wines in these caves, where it also offers daily tours and tastings. Nearby Beringer also has historic tunnels, built in the same era. Legacy Cave Tours are offered daily. For a modern take on subterranean design, visit Palmaz Vineyards (by appointment only), which built a Bauhaus-inspired, gravity-flow cavern winery that extends 18 stories under Mount George.

Where to Stay

Hotel Illustration
Illustration by Trisha Krauss

Bardessono is walking distance from Yountville’s desirable dining destinations, including the on-site Lucy. At this LEED Platinum Certified hotel, beds are made with organic linens and rooms feature whirlpool tubs. Guests can stay active at the rooftop pool and fitness deck, or borrow bicycles to explore. El Bonita proves how the most modest accommodations in the Napa Valley can also be among the most convenient. Centrally located on Highway 29 in St. Helena, it offers a small pool and Art Deco-inspired rooms.

The Corner Napa Valley
The Corner / Photo by Jeremy Portje

Where to Eat

Dustin Falcon, the executive chef at The Corner , spent three years at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc and The French Laundry, where he forged relationships with local purveyors whose riches inspire his globally influenced cuisine. Similarly, one of the region’s largest wine lists showcases Old World classics and California innovators old and new.

Valentina Guolo-Migotto calls herself the “un-chef” of Ca’ Momi. Instead, she sees herself as a caretaker of classic and lesser-known Italian recipes, which she obsessively researches and recreates with the best local ingredients. She also runs Ca’ Momi’s all-Napa winemaking arm with fellow Italians Dario De Conti and Stefano Migotto.

Cook Tavern Napa Valley
Cook Tavern / Photo by Brent A. Miller

This bustling gastropub shares an Italian slant with its next-door neighbor, Cook St. Helena. It serves up dishes like pesce fritto, Époisses-filled arancini and phenomenal pizzas. A short-but-sweet list of easy-drinking, mostly local wines rounds out the welcoming vibe. Night owls note: Cook Tavern offers a late-night menu (until 11 p.m. weekdays, midnight Friday and Saturday).

Located in the romantic new Las Alcobas resort (next to historic Beringer Vineyards), Acacia House is the latest from Top Chef Masters winner Chris Cosentino. Like his San Francisco restaurant, Cockscomb, Acacia House balances hearty nose-to-tail cooking with vegetable-forward small plates, all designed to complement the comprehensive list of Napa wines.

Daniel Ha of DMH Napa Valley
Daniel Ha of DMH Napa Valley

Tips from Local Experts

Daniel Ha, President/founder, DMH Napa Valley

Daniel Ha, President and founder of DMH Napa Valley, curates personal hospitality experiences throughout the valley, serves as an estate ambassador for luxury producer Pulido-Walker and guides other high-end wineries in marketing and sales.

After college in Oklahoma, he worked for a large wine distributor in Texas and as a restaurant sommelier before he headed to Napa Valley in 2005.

“The Napa Valley is special because you can feel a true sense of a small community, yet experience world-class entertainment and hospitality at the same time,” says Ha. “It’s as big city as rural living gets.

“I prefer to stay close to downtown Napa these days, since so many more great restaurants have opened, and there’s more diversity in the cuisine than anywhere else.”Ha’s favorites include Bui Bistro for modern Vietnamese; Miminashi, a Napa-style izakaya (Japanese gastropub); and The Corner Napa , which he loves for its innovative menu and killer wine list. Cadet Wine Bar is where Napa’s young movers and shakers hang out after hours.

5 Places to Visit in Calistoga

“For an elevated dining experience, I highly recommend Torc, on Main Street,” says Ha. “Sean O’Toole is a very talented chef. His menu is eclectic and offers dishes with flavors that cross the globe, made with some of the freshest local ingredients. There are plenty of small plates to share [and] experience the range of his cuisine.”

In Yountville, a pair of restaurants, Redd and Redd Wood, are on his list, as are a few other spots.

Atelier by JCB has the best selection of cheeses and meats and imported specialty foods, and the taco truck outside Pancha’s is good for lunch or a late-night bite,” he says.

Ha offers suggestions about two places in St. Helena. At Press, “order the carrot hot dog from the bar menu as a starter,” while he says Bar Terra “has the best ramen in Napa.

Joe Harden, Winemaker, Robert Mondavi Winery

Joe Harden Winemaker Robert Mondavi Winery
Photo by Stian Rasmussen

Originally from Lodi, where his family grows Cabernet Sauvignon, the 6-foot-7 Harden, winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery, played college basketball at Notre Dame and UC-Davis. After he earned a degree in viticulture and oenology, Harden played pro ball for the Golden State Warriors’ squad in the NBA’s Developmental League and in Australia. After an internship at Mondavi, he’s now in charge of the red-wine program under Geneviève Janssens.

“My wife, Hannah, and I take our French bulldog, Franklin, and our Akita, Sampson, to Alston dog park [Napa] to romp. On a clear day, you can see the entire Napa Valley.

“A lot of winemakers start their day at Kelly’s Filling Station & Wine Shop [in Yountville]. I often stop here for a morning coffee on my way to work.

Coral Brown, Director of brand development, Brown Estate, Chiles Valley

“What’s special about the Napa Valley is its unbelievable food scene, the combination of country and city living—we have everything we need, and nothing we don’t—and the beautiful scenery. You can’t beat the rolling vineyards, forested mountainsides and the mustard flowers in February.

Coral Brown of Brown Estates
Photo by Stian Rasmussen

Brown is one of three siblings that run Brown Estate, a Zinfandel-focused winery started by their parents. She says that many of her guests appreciate tips about things to do in the Napa Valley that don’t directly involve wine, especially after a long day of tasting.

“The Napa Valley reinforces the rhythm of life, and in so doing, it gives a sense that everything is going to be okay,” says Brown. “From bud break in spring, to bloom in early summer, to the scents of harvest, we all know these seasons will happen again and life goes on.”

A favorite spot for Brown is Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch in St. Helena, “where you can listen to live bluegrass music under the stars. Keep an eye out for my favorite dish: Dungeness crab with chili butter, garlic, paprika and lime.”
Brown also has a preferred spot for a little nightlife.

“At Goose & Gander [St. Helena], catch a band under the patio [beneath] the hanging lights, or venture to the basement bar for a dark and burning atmosphere,” she says

 

Published on June 4, 2017
Topics: Napa Travel
About the Author
Virginie Boone
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

Contributing Editor Virginie Boone has been with Wine Enthusiast since 2010, and reviews the wines of Napa and Sonoma. Boone began her writing career with Lonely Planet travel guides, which eventually led to California-focused wine coverage. She contributes to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Sonoma Magazine, and is a regular panelist and speaker on wine topics in California and beyond. Email: vboone@wineenthusiast.net



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