Hidden Napa Valley

Stay off the main thoroughfares and follow locals to their favorite stomping grounds.


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It's easy to imagine that Napa Valley has no secrets left. After all, it's one of the most celebrated tourist destinations in America. Yet it's also an agricultural valley, and like other such pastoral places has a private side known only to its residents. Finding that part of Napa Valley is surprisingly easy if you know where to look.

Your first move is off the main thoroughfares, Highway 29 and Silverado Trail, and onto secondary roads. The Napa Valley appellation spreads far beyond the valley floor and its name-brand wineries, and much of its official acreage consists of mountains, side canyons and sister valleys accessible only via winding back roads. Napa's other back roads aren't really "back" at all: they're the crossroads that connect 29 and the Trail more than a dozen times up and down the valley. Use them well, and you'll increase your chances of encountering a whole new Napa.

Up, Up and Away
One of the first things you'll notice when you climb the mountains and prowl the canyons of Napa is how little they look like, well, what you think Napa Valley should look like. Forget verdant carpets of vines, and alluring, imposing tasting rooms every half mile. The upland areas of Napa Valley—Atlas Peak, Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder and Spring Mountain—all have their own subappellations now, yet they remain mostly rugged, natural and empty.

Napa City Gems

Long bypassed by visitors on the way upvalley, the city of Napa is a work in progress hoping for a renaissance. Halfway through an ambitious project to end periodic flooding by the Napa River, the city has many new and old attractions for visitors with many more just over the horizon.

The most obvious attraction is COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, a must for any visitor to wine country (500 First Street, 888.512.6742). Likewise, the restored 1870 Napa Valley Opera House offers a wide range of performances in a unique setting (1030 Main Street, 707.226.7372).

The Napa Mill, in the old Hatt Building at Main Street, houses three worthy restaurants, all of which boast outdoor seating: French Angèle (540 Main Street, 707.252.8115), informal Vietnamese and pizza at Napa General Store (540 Main Street, 707.259.0762) and Asian-fusion Celadon (500 Main Street, 707.254.9690). The complex also contains pastry and candy shops, and the upscale Napa River Inn (500 Main Street, 707.251.8500).

A walk along Napa's Main Street north from the Mill turns up many shops, galleries and restaurants. First of note is Pilar, the restaurant owned by two prominent local chefs, Pilar Sanchez and Didier Lenders (807 Main Street, 707.252.4474). Wine bar Zuzu serves tapas, and is always filled with locals—including employees of other restaurants (829 Main Street, 707.224.8555). Just down the street are Cole's Chop House, one of the area's best steakhouses (1122 Main Street, 707.224.6328), and the new Annalien Vietnamese Restaurant (1142 Main Street, 707.224.8319).

Off Main Street at Clinton is Kelley's No Bad Days Café (976 Pearl Street, 707.258.9666), run by chef Kelley Novak, whose family owns Spottswoode Vineyards and winery. Nearby Uva Trattoria Italiana, a Napa locals' favorite, has a friendly atmosphere, low prices and live jazz and dancing (1040 Clinton Street, 707.255.6646). n.v., Napa's new hotspot and the city's only lounge with a big-city feel, is minutes away, on First Street (1106 First Street, 707.265.6400).

Napa winemakers also frequent three out-of-the-way restaurants: Zinsvalley is hidden in a shopping center across the freeway—and doesn't charge corkage (3253 Browns Valley Road, 707.224.0695). Even harder to find is Foothill Café (2766 Old Sonoma Road, 707.252.6178), while Fumé Bistro hides behind John Muir Inn on the freeway frontage road (4050 Byway E., 707.257.1999). All specialize in hearty fare that goes well with Napa's big red wines.

And if you've got a taste for Sicilian food, Belli Arti at the Depot serves authentic cucina in a funky atmosphere with adjoining cabaret entertainment (806 4th Street, 707.252.4477). For an Italian picnic, Genova Deli is the place to stock up (1550 Trancas Street, 707.253.8686). Still, the best Italian food in the Valley comes from Bistro Don Giovanni, where Napa city meets up valley (4110 Howard Lane, 707.224.3300).

Napa has many places to sample local wines. The Bounty Hunter, a local wine shop full of amazing vinous treats, also has a limited bistro menu (975 1st Street, 707.255.0622). Back Room Wines (974 Franklin Street, 707.226.1378), Napa Wine Merchants (1146 First Street, 707.257.6796), Wineries of Napa Valley (1285 Napa Town Center, 707.253.9450) and Vintners Collective (1245 Main Street, 707.963.8931) are shops that offer carefully chosen, wide selections and frequent special events.

Napa offers a host of interesting shops, antique stores and art galleries, but one destination is a must for the food lover: Shackford's Kitchen Store. Looking like an old-fashioned hardware store, it contains an amazing collection of kitchenware, most of which is cheaper than it is at big-name stores (1350 Main Street, 707.226.2132). — Paul Franson

 

Take Howell Mountain above St. Helena: It has turned into one of Napa's hotter mountain areas due to its massive, concentrated Cabernets and Zinfandels. The entire appellation has just 600 acres of vines on a 14,000-acre dome of rocks and trees. The non-touristy tone was set long ago by reclusive winemaker Randy Dunn, who prefers to let his big reds do the talking…somewhere else.

So don't head for the hills expecting to find inns, restaurants or even tasting rooms, in many cases. Instead, plan ahead and create your own adventure. Schramsberg Vineyards, for example, is justly celebrated as one of America's finest sparkling wineries. Yet few people know that you can sign up for a "crush camp" at harvest time or a "blending camp" in spring and find out firsthand how Schramsberg does it.

Many visitors to Napa have heard of restaurateur Pat Kuleto, and plenty will dine at his Martini House in St. Helena. But it takes a more adventurous spirit to climb up through Sage Canyon to find Kuleto Estate, a ridgetop aerie where Kuleto built his home, vineyards and winery. While you're there, you can get a view of the vineyards at Bryant Family, Colgin and other estates that rarely welcome the public.

A good strategy for exploring upland Napa is to pick one of the mountain AVAs and research it before visiting. It takes you much longer than you would think to drive up mountain roads, so you won't want to be traipsing from peak to peak. Once you pick your territory, look for contrasts like the ones you'll find on Mount Veeder. Mayacamas Winery dates back to 1889, and some vineyards in the appellation have been continuously farmed for even longer. A century later, new producers such as Wing Canyon Vineyard are giving the words "mountain grown" a whole new meaning.

If you're in the valley for just a brief visit, don't miss the picnic area at Diamond Oaks on Oakville Grade a few minutes' drive up from the valley floor. Under shady oaks you get a bird's-eye view down to Oakville and Rutherford and along the forested hillside to the vineyards of Harlan Estate. You'll also get to taste some of the better "Cal-Italian" wines made in Napa, and you are sure to find something that will go with whatever you've brought for lunch.

Perhaps the most hidden part of Napa lies well outside the valley proper: Chiles and Pope valleys to the east. Living legend Carl Doumani (whose well-hidden Quixote Winery in Stags Leap District will finally open to the public next year) fondly recalls the days when he would hop on his motorcycle, zip out Sage Canyon and then roar up Chiles Valley and Pope Valley roads into Lake County for breakfast in Middletown.

"There are a few more vineyards out there now," he allows, "but you can still have the road to yourself on Sunday mornings. And in spring, the fields of wildflowers go on forever. It's like leaving Napa Valley and entering a different world."

Climb the Ladder
You don't have to leave Napa to look for hidden gems, however. Simply start traversing the valley via its crossroads, which link 29 and Silverado Trail like the rungs of a ladder. Locals use them regularly, calibrating their routes up and down the valley based on the traffic the rest of us are creating. For example, Napa residents don't dare travel through downtown St. Helena during rush hour or busy weekends. Instead, they hop onto Lodi Lane or Zinfandel Lane, take it over to the Trail, and continue on, unimpeded.

Napa residents use these roads to save time. You should use them to see the Napa Valley most tour buses never reach.

Start with Oak Knoll Avenue, which courses through one of Napa's newest appellations. Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley won its AVA status in part because it's the home of some of the valley's best Chardonnay grapes. They benefit directly from the district's southern location, and have become the secret ingredient in the elegant, ageworthy Chardonnays from such notables as Chateau Montelena and Stags' Leap Winery.

At the western end of Oak Knoll Avenue is the entrance to Trefethen Vineyards. For most people this true Napa landmark is just a glimpse as they fly by on 29, because they don't see a welcoming entrance gate off the highway. But it's a fascinating peek into how Napa's nascent wine industry came down from the hills to the valley floor in centuries past.

The winery at Trefethen was designed by Hamden McIntyre, one of Napa's earliest and most influential architects. His best-known buildings include the Rubicon Estate (formerly Niebaum-Coppola and Inglenook) and Far Niente wineries and the Culinary Institute of America (built as a winery called Greystone). All these gravity-flow wineries were set into hillsides. At Trefethen, McIntyre created his first (and only remaining) free-standing wooden version in 1886. Wineries have been built on the valley floor ever since.

Near the other end of Oak Knoll Avenue lies Oak Knoll Inn, one of Napa's most low-key luxury inns. It's disguised as a private home, so you have to know where it is or you'll miss it. Once there you'll understand why locals recommend it to visiting friends and overflow houseguests. It's just minutes from the new hotbed of winetasting and fine dining in downtown Napa and offers views of the Stag's Leap palisades and surrounding vineyards. Innkeeper Barbara Passino offers only-a-local-would-know advice that can turn your weekend getaway into a lifelong memory.

Yountville Cross Road

 
 Photo by Steven Rothfeld
Moving north, the next major rung of the ladder is Yountville Cross Road. This indispensable road slips out of Yountville north of the downtown restaurant district and runs across the valley floor to the Silverado Trail at the northern edge of Stags Leap District. Wine tourism guides rarely mention that Yountville Cross passes a nature preserve along the Napa River. It's a great spot to walk the dog (or the kids), birdwatch and catch some shade in the trees lining the riverbed. Stroll up to the levee that the river breached when it flooded last New Year's weekend, and you'll see why future floods are inevitable.

Near Yountville Cross Road's western origin is Gordon's Café and Wine Bar, one of Napa's best-loved and most frequented cafés. It's hard to avoid rubbing elbows with vintners here, especially at the large, family-style table. Sally Gordon serves tasty food all day, has a strong wine selection, and—unbeknownst to most outsiders—offers dinner on Friday nights, but you've got to reserve in advance.

At the other end of Yountville Cross Road is the growing empire of Canadian construction magnate Cliff Lede. In a five-year spending spree, he bought S. Anderson winery, the DePuy vineyard and residence, Richard Chamberlain's vineyards on the hillside across Silverado Trail, and the old B&B above that. He then renamed the winery after himself, remodeled it and extended its wine caves, built expansive new state-of-the-art winery buildings, and transformed the rickety old B&B into the ultraluxurious Poetry Inn.

While Lede's empire is hardly "hidden," there's a secret waiting in the tasting room. Lede acquired substantial stocks of perfectly cave-aged sparkling wine when he bought S. Anderson, and is now selling off older vintages for a song. It's not too late to snag a few prizes for your own cellar or celebration.

Across Oakville and Rutherford
Oakville Cross Road, the next rung north, is one of the most heavily traveled crossroads because of the wineries nearby, which include Groth, PlumpJack and Silver Oak. If you know when to take it, however, you can have it to yourself and experience it the way Napa residents do.

The best plan is to start early. Silver Oak is the rare Napa winery whose tasting room opens before 10 a.m., and the 9 o'clock hour is when long-time fans and locals drop in to avoid the crowds that pour out of the tour buses later. But you'll want to get started even before that, by picking up coffee and pastries at the Oakville Grocery on Highway 29 and motoring east to the far end of Oakville Cross. There, you can pull over along a fieldstone wall and gaze into the vineyards of Screaming Eagle and Rudd Estate.

Later in the day, pull into PlumpJack and discover the elevated pavilion outside the winery courtyard. Set on granite rocks shaded by spreading oaks, and with views in all directions, it's generally uninhabited except for the occasional squirrel. It's a great place to rest for a few minutes and take in your surroundings. While you're at PlumpJack, nip down to the tasting room, which consistently offers some of the best background music and most amusing gift-shop selections in the valley.

Rutherford Road is the next crossroad north. On this trail, you can savor one of Napa's finest Sauvignon Blancs and organically grown Cabernet in a style that's largely vanished from the valley. Instead of a bar, the newly opened tasting room at Honig has a casual table and chairs in a bright room the size of a cozy kitchen, which is where many early Napa vintners entertained visitors. You need a sharp eye to spot the winery's driveway, however, because Napa has tightened up signage and visitor limits for all new tasting rooms. The result, laughs Honig family member Regina Weinstein, is "an invisible winery sign."

Quintessa is a winery that needs no sign. It's on Silverado Trail near the west end of Rutherford Road. Both its architecture and opening were much celebrated three years ago. Insiders know, however, that Quintessa's real debut is taking place now, with the release of the 2002 vintage. It's the first truly estate vintage for this estate producer, so don't be surprised if the wine steps up a notch in quality and collectability.
As you get comfortable using Rutherford, Oakville Cross and Yountville Cross Roads, remember to look out for locals in your rear-view mirror. All three roads have long, straight stretches that once allowed passing, and locals may chafe at slower-moving vehicles. If you sense impatience in the car behind you, just pull over and let it by.

The Lanes of St. Helena and Calistoga
Once you get north of Rutherford, the valley narrows, the rungs of the ladder shrink to a mile or less in length, and they

 
 Photo by Gerald L. French
are called "lanes" rather than "roads." You can be sure you've found one when you see a sign near Silverado Trail saying, "Narrow Bridge." The roads passing over the Napa River and its tributary creeks, such as Conn Creek and Bale Creek, were built decades ago, when the commercial vehicles of the day were the size of today's SUVs.

Because of proximity to St. Helena and Calistoga, the valley's northern lanes tend to be more residential than their highway-sized sisters to the south. The charms include sleepy houses, older orchards between the vineyards, and the occasional wine discovery.

Take Kelham Vineyards, a once-unsung agricultural operation that fed fruit to a slew of top Napa wineries, including Opus One. This spring, Kelham becomes a quintessential family winery with the opening of its tasting room on Zinfandel Lane. Brothers Hamilton and Ron Nicholsen handle winegrowing, winemaking and building construction without skipping a beat (and, when no one's looking, use the winery's reflecting pond as a lap pool). "Our whole business is based on word of mouth," Hamilton says. "If people take the trouble to find us, we take the time to visit with them."

Across the lane, you might never notice Shady Oaks Country Inn. If you want to know what it was like for the Nicholsen brothers to grow up in Napa among vineyards, woodsy meadows and camellia bushes, stay at this B&B and pretend you've come home to visit your folks.

All the way up the valley, the lanes hold hidden pleasures. On Dunaweal Lane, Clos Pegase owner Jan Shrem gives an entertaining multimedia presentation on art and wine once a month. On Tubbs Lane, not far from the "Old Faithful" geyser, you can get a good view of what appears to be a sumptuous Palladian villa, created by artist Carlo Marchiori using painted facades on a tin barn.

For these and other delights, ask around, talk to your innkeeper, and keep your eyes peeled. The reality is that Napa is ever evolving, and you can still make discoveries even on the most well-beaten of paths. These would include Trancas Street, which runs from 29 to the Trail along the northern edge of Napa city. It's unattractively lined with anywhere-in-America malls and shops. Yet this is where you'll find HdV Winery, an historic partnership between the Hyde family, which owns one of Napa's greatest vineyards, and the family of Aubert de Villaine, co-director of Burgundy's iconic Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

You may shake your head at finding such luminaries hard by such urban sprawl, but don't let that stop you from going inside and giving your taste buds a discovery of their own.

Contact Information
Cliff Lede Vineyards
473 Yountville Cross Road, Yountville
800.428.2259 

Diamond Oaks
1595 Oakville Grade, Oakville
707.948.3000

Gordon's Café & Wine Bar
6770 Washington Street, Yountville
707.944.8246

HdV Wines
588 Trancas Street, Napa
707.251.9121

Honig
850 Rutherford Road, Rutherford
707.963.5618

Kelham Vineyards
360 Zinfandel Lane, St. Helena
707.963.2000

Kuleto Estate
2470 Sage Canyon Road, St. Helena
707.963.9750

Oak Knoll Inn
2200 E. Oak Knoll Avenue, Napa
707.255.2200

Oakville Grocery
7856 Highway 29, Oakville
707.944.8802

PlumpJack
620 Oakville Cross Road, Oakville
707.945.1220

Quintessa
1601 Silverado Trail, Rutherford
707.967.1601

Shady Oaks Country Inn
399 Zinfandel Lane, St. Helena
707.963.1190

Trefethen
1160 Oak Knoll Avenue, Napa
707.255.7700

Wing Canyon Vineyard
3100 Mt. Veeder Road, Napa
707.265.8798

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