Napa Valley, California

Napa Valley, California

Napa Valley, California

The wines of the Napa Valley are considered among the best in the world, but that’s only one reason to visit. It’s also a beautiful place to explore, and a food lover’s dream. It’s just an hour from San Francisco and neighbors equally compelling Sonoma. Each winery offers visitors a unique experience, and each town—St. Helena, Calistoga, Napa City—has its own character. And the region’s still ramping up. World-class architects like Frank Gehry are toiling on winery projects, chefs make pilgrimages to visit the mighty Thomas Keller (and open their own restaurants) and new events are being added—Flavor! Napa Valley and the Napa Valley Film Festival launched in 2011.      

Where to dine:

There’s no better stop in the Valley for bread, pastries and Parisian-style sandwiches than Bouchon Bakery—not forgetting owner Thomas Keller’s signature chocolate bouchons. At Oenotri, an Italian eatery in downtown Napa, salumi, pasta and Napolitano pizza are house-made and are some of the best in the Bay Area. Solbar is part of Solage, a resort set on 22 acres in Calistoga. Non-guests are welcome for a poolside meal or drink.

Where to stay:

LEED Certified Bardessono in Yountville surrounds guests in eco-chic woods and offers swimming, seasonal cocktails, a restaurant and garden. The retro El Bonita Motel is affordable at $80–$280 a night, accomodations include a pool, garden, complimentary breakfast and pet-friendly rooms. For seclusion, Rust Ridge Ranch and Winery’s 450-acre estate is an ideal bed-and-breakfast, with sweeping vineyard vistas, ancient oak-flanked walks and pastures a-plenty.

Locals in-the-know:

Philippe Melka, proprietor of Melka Wines, describes his ideal outing in Napa: “My wife Cherie and I love to start the morning off with a hike up Mount St. Helena—it was our first adventure together when we first moved to St. Helena. And then following the hike, we like to invite our two children, Chloe and Jeremy, to Solage for Sunday brunch, where the outdoor eating space is gorgeous and the weather is always pleasant. After brunch, we play a few rounds of bocce, as a little family rivalry is always fun.”

Other activities:

The first leg of the new Napa Valley Vine Trail is now open in Yountville. It’s a safe walking and biking trail being built in sections that will eventually extend  44 miles along Highway 29 and existing Wine Train tracks from Vallejo to Calistoga, connecting the entire Napa Valley.

Budget tip:

Napa’s Oxbow Public Market offers most anything you could desire, from half-priced oysters at Hog Island Oyster Co. to $6 wines on tap at the Kitchen Door. Tuesday is Locals’ Night, with even more specials.

Where to taste:

B Cellars’ hip new tasting salon offers Winemaker Kirk Venge’s Rhône- and Italian-influenced blends and single-vineyard designated Cabernets. Its outdoor patio is surrounded by vineyards and a pond. With 24 hours notice, visitors can enjoy a picnic lunch prepared by Chef Christina Machamer, winner of Hell’s Kitchen Season 4. CADE Winery, owned by Gavin Newsom, Gordon Getty and John Conover—the partners behind PlumpJack Winery in Oakville—is a secluded mountaintop retreat on Howell Mountain. Its LEED Gold Certified building is made from sustainable materials. The winery connects to a 15,000-square-foot network of caves. Velo Vino, the Clif Family Wine’s tasting room and cycling hub in St. Helena, offers wine tasting, the sampling of new Clif Bar flavors, espresso drinks and cycling excursions. Private food and wine tastings on the patio can also be arranged, along with tours of the sensory garden.

Prominent wine varieties:

Cabernet Sauvignon is king, but Zinfandel, Merlot and Chardonnay also abound. Napa Valley Cabernet ranges in style from big and fruity to more restrained and classic, but overall, is considered the valley’s most buzzworthy variety, and fetches top dollar at auction and in regular retail scenarios. Valley Chardonnay is another standout and also tends towards the expressive side, though the traditional taste for prominent oak is giving way to an interest in unoaked, more mineral-driven wines, encouraging producers to offer more diversity.

When to go:

Summer is the traditional time to visit Napa, but for the excitement of harvest-time activity and gorgeous colors in the vineyards, fall is an excellent choice. If a one-on-one with a winemaker and minimal crowds are your focus, try February through May.
B Cellars:
Bouchon Bakery:
CADE Winery:
Napa Valley Vine Trail:
Oxbow Public Market:
Velo Vino:

Published on December 27, 2011