Falling For Napa
I have a crush on Napa. There’s no more beautiful place, with its golden hills and row upon row of grapes, not to mention scores of wineries and restaurants. This fall, spend a long weekend (or better yet, a week) dining and, of course, wining.
You might begin your trip at the Carneros Inn, a rustically elegant resort set amid 27 acres of vineyards along the Sonoma Highway leading to Napa. Linger in the alfresco lounge at the Farm restaurant or dine on wine country cuisine inside by the fireplaces. At the inn’s Boon Fly Café, don’t miss the “world famous” donuts (worth every caloric crumb) with your “cuppa Joe.” Close by is Tattinger’s Domaine Carneros, an elegant chateau, where you can sit on the terrace on a crisp autumn afternoon, sampling sparkling wine or Pinot, paired with small plates.
The nearby town of Napa doesn’t have the cachet of valley towns to the north, but is definitely worth exploring. Once a thriving river town, key to Native Americans and pioneer settlers, Napa is attracting tourists and residents with the Riverfront, a mixed-use development of condos, hotels, restaurants, and boutiques. Here, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto opened his first restaurant on the West Coast, a chic, crowded industrial space featuring such specialties as spicy king crab and angry chicken. Local faves include Azzuro Pizzeria & Enoteca, the Norman Rose Tavern, and Oenotri, for inventive Italian dishes like linguini neri with braised Monterrey Bay squid and fennel pollen. (We also were more than sated after a crusty pizza of lamb sausage with tomato, carmelized red onion, hot pepper, and arugula.) Or you can wander the food stalls at the Oxbow Public Market, sampling everything from charcuterie to oysters, washed down with your favorite wine.
There are a variety of places to stay, from the historic Napa River Inn to the hip AVIA Napa Hotel. The 5-star Westin Verasa is a handsome hotel with the acclaimed La Toque restaurant. On the outskirts of town, The Meritage Resort & Spa, recently expanded to become the largest in the valley. It boasts the underground Spa Terra carved out of a wine cave, the Siena restaurant, and Crush Ultra Lounge featuring big screens and even bowling.
Farther north in Yountville is Bardessono, a sleek, contemporary resort that proves you can be both eco-friendly and eco-chic. It is the only resort in California to attain LEED Platinum status for its commitment to environmental design that is both green and luxurious. High-tech suites have terraces, a fireplace, big bathrooms with his-and-her sinks, steam showers, and massage tables for a rub in the privacy of your suite. Blinds go up and down at the push of a button for both privacy and energy savings, and sensors turns off lights and control thermostats when guests leave the room. Lucy Restaurant & Bar, named after the late family matriarch, uses organic produce, much of it plucked from Bardessono’s own veggie garden, from 30 types of tomatoes, to rhubarb for cocktails. The resort offers biking, hiking and driving packages (they’ll give you exclusive use of a 2013 Lexus RX Hybrid 450H).
The resort is steps away from Yountville’s Washington Street, where tasting rooms and good restaurants are bountiful. Oceanside native Thomas Keller’s landmark French Laundry is here, along with his bistro-style Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, and ad hoc for family-style comfort food. Bistro Jeanty serves homey French classics. Celebrity chef Michael Chiarello’s always busy Bottega offers up Mediterranean cuisine with a Southern Italian flair. Sit outside on the Terrazzo on a fall evening and order fritto from the bar menu. Across the way is Chiarello’s NapaStyle flagship store, with a wine bar, café, and line of artisan foods, cookware, and home décor.
Up the road is Mustards Grill, the Napa Valley institution founded 29 years ago by Cindy Pawlcyn, (an institution all her own), known for “deluxe truck stop classics.” But make no mistake, this popular place is no truck stop, packing them in with such not-so-ordinary fare as the Mongolian pork chop, lemon-lime tart, and a huge wine list called “Way Too Many Wines.” Opt for the daily “Truckstop Deluxe” billed as “always meat, often potato, rarely vegetables.” Pawlcyn, a pioneer in the creation of wine country cuisine, is a chef, cookbook author and restaurateur who’s also launched Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, with a Latin flavor, and the recently opened Cindy Pawlcyn’s Wood Grill & Wine Bar (CP for short), for comfort food, both in St. Helena. Also notable in Yountville is Brix, serving California cuisine that is French-inspired. Dine on the patio with vineyard and mountain views or inside by the fire. If you’d rather do take-out, the Oakville Grocery is the go-to place for gourmet picnic fare — artisan bread and cheeses, salads, and sandwiches.
Nearby is Far Niente, famed for two things: a robust red and a fabulous white. The winery’s Oakville Cabernet and Napa Valley Chardonnay are consistent award winners. Book ahead, and you can tour a classic car collection, and one the valley’s original stone wineries, built in the 19th century by gold-seeker John Benson, uncle of artist Winslow Homer. Far Niente was abandoned during Prohibition, but history had a way of repeating itself. Sixty years later, the far-sighted Gil Nickel bought the property and returned it to its winemaking roots. The family has since branched out, founding Nickel & Nickel, producing single-vineyard, single-varietal wines in nearby Oakville. A bottle of Far Niente Sweet Muscat, found in a private cellar in Marin County, could be the oldest bottle of California wine — 1886 was a very good year.
St. Helena, filled with 19th century architecture, has plenty of boutiques for browsing and restaurants such as the new French Blue. Definitely worth a stop is the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, the cooking college with its own Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant, Vintner’s Hall of Fame, even a “Chocolate Lab.” Stroll the herb garden, watch cooking demonstrations, take classes, and learn to taste like a chef at the Flavor Bar. There’s also a marketplace filled with must-haves for your own kitchen. For a posh place to stay, Meadowood, off the Silverado Trail, looks like an East Coast country club, with its nine-hole golf course, golf performance studio, and croquet (it even has its own resident pro). The Restaurant at Meadowood was recently redesigned, along with the kitchen, where guests can sit and order Chef Christopher Kostow’s “Counter Menu,” a dining experience with 15-20 courses.
At the north end of the valley is Calistoga, known for mud baths and the Old Faithful Geyser. Check out Solage, a sort of younger, hipper, sister resort to the famous Calistoga Ranch. (There seemed to be lots of younger couples and women on weekend getaways.) Solage’s individual bungalows, with a pair of bicycles conveniently parked just outside the front doors, have been refreshed with a new color scheme, and soft carpets now cover concrete floors. Sink into an oversized wicker chair on your personal patio and soak up the sun on a fall afternoon, or stroll paths lined with lavender. There’s a very cool, palm-lined pool, and a 20,000-square foot spa, offering treatments such as the signature “Mudslide.” (After a rub with mud, soak in a tub filled with geothermal spring water, then relax in a state-of-the-art “sound chair.”) The Michelin Star-rated restaurant Solbar, with indoor-outdoor dining, has a menu that features “lighter dishes to nourish your soul and hearty cuisine to comfort your body.” We went for broke and ordered the 48-hour braised beef shortribs with roasted garlic and thyme risotto. We were in Napa after all, and on vacation. Our souls can wait.
Solage: Photography by Trinette Reed Additional Photography Courtey of Bardessono and Meadowood