Posts Tagged ‘Napa Valley’

Napa Valley, California

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

Rows of Cabernet Sauvignon

Rows of Cabernet Sauvignon

Wine has been called the nectar of the gods, and there is no better place in the United States to celebrate this delicious juice than in Napa Valley. Although you could visit a different winery every day for eight months, the Napa Valley is not just about wine. It is a spectacular culinary destination, as well as, an exquisite slice of the American landscape. Having returned from my fifth trip to the Napa Valley, I continue to be amazed by the beauty of the countryside and the quality of its products.

Napa Valley is located a little more than an hour north of San Francisco. The

Vines at Pride Mountain Vineyards

Vines at Pride Mountain Vineyards

valley itself is a relatively flat strip of land that runs north from the town of Napa to Calistoga. The floor of the valley is composed of rows upon rows of grape vines, framed by a mountain range on each side. I find the symmetry of the vines almost mesmerizing, many times it is as pretty as a painting. In between Napa and Calistoga are the small towns of Yountville, Rutherford and St. Helena. I find these three towns to be the most centrally located, and the best area to stay.

Wine is the primary reason to head to the Napa Valley, and the number of wineries appears to be endless. Many of the most popular wineries are on either Rt 29 or the Silverado Trail, the two main roads that run north-south through the valley. As people ask which wineries they should visit, it really depends on what you are looking to accomplish. If there is a specific wine that you particularly enjoy, then be sure to visit that winery. I remember the first wine that really impressed me, it was a Stags Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet 1985. A couple years later on my first trip to the Napa Valley I visited the winery, and it was such a treat because I had the opportunity to taste all the current offerings, but also several older vintages. You will not get any discounts on wine when visiting this region, but you will have the opportunity to taste and buy many wines that are not available in your area.

If you have not visited many wineries, then you may want to visit one of the larger wineries like Beringer, Niebaum Coppola, or Domain Chandon for a formal tour that will educate you about the whole wine making process. Sterling is another interesting winery in that it sits atop a small mountain that is reached by a tram; this adds adventure to the visit and

Wine Cave at Forman Vineyard

Wine Cave at Forman Vineyard

provides beautiful views of the valley. You may also want to consider St Supery which has a nice mix of wines to taste, but also offers an opportunity to custom blend your own wine using barrel samples. Jarvis is a smaller winery built into the side of a mountain where I enjoyed visiting their caves. For a picnic lunch, V. Sattui seems like the best place, although I have no idea what their wines are like. If you visit V. Sattui, note that there is a fabulous gourmet take-out store, Dean & Deluca, located right across the street. Since I have visited many wineries in the past, I no longer desire the formal tours, or the larger wineries in the valley where the crowds can be excessive. I prefer the small wineries that specialize in Cabernet Sauvignon, and two great locations are Spring Mountain and Howell Mountain. This past trip I really enjoyed my visits at Pride Mountain Vineyards and Forman Vineyard. Pride is located about 5 miles up Spring Mountain Road on the west side of the valley. After a tasting of the wines you can take a tour of the vineyards on a horse drawn carriage. Forman is on the other side of the valley on Howell Mountain. When Ric Forman first bought this land it was solid rock, and dynamite was used to make the vineyard usable to plant grape vines. This gravely soil results in some delicious full bodied reds.

Another way to enjoy wine tasting is on the Napa Valley wine train which runs up the valley starting in the town of Napa. There is even a separate car for

Hot Air Balloon

Hot Air Balloon

the kids. For a little more elevated view of the valley, I would recommend the popular hot-air balloon rides. By 7am the sky is filled with balloons floating above the vineyards, giving you a perspective only a bird could appreciate. I would suggest that you wear a hat since your head will be only a few inches from the flame that keeps the balloon afloat. If you have not done it, then I would certainly add the balloon ride to your list, expect glorious views however don’t anticipate a thrill ride – the balloons move very slow.

Bike riding and hiking are two other activities that will allow you to enjoy the great outdoors. Biking along the gentle rolling hills of the valley floor is beautiful, and can be done at a pace that matches your fitness level. My last trip I saw a biker riding up Spring Mountain, I would not recommend the mountain roads unless you are training for the Tour de France. But not all non-wine activities require exercise, a crowd favorite is visiting the mud baths in Calistoga. I have heard many people rave about the experience, but I must admit that I have not partaken in this activity. If wallowing in the mud is not your thing, perhaps window shopping is more your speed. My favorite town in the Napa Valley is St Helena, just south of Calistoga. It is very quaint and is filled with antique stores, art galleries, and cute shops. A few favorites are: Olivier for Olive oil, the Model Bakery, Woodhouse Chocolates, and Fideaux, a pet emporium with treasures for your pet.

The activity that was on the top of my list for this trip was a visit to Copia, the new cultural center and museum dedicated to wine, food, and the arts. I love food and wine, and therefore thought that this would be a real treat, but I was quite disappointed. Although there are wine and food demonstrations all day long, they were very basic. The garden at Copia was interesting and rather unique. The plants were sectioned into different categories, for example all the herbs and vegetables that had the scent or taste typically associated with Cabernet Sauvignon were together. This plant exhibit would have been more effective if all the plants were at a stage so that you could sample, for example tasting the red currant so you knew what aroma and taste to associate with this fruit. Copia is located in the town of Napa, which is my least favorite in the valley, being much larger and more commercial than the other towns.

Perhaps my favorite activity in Napa Valley is eating, and those that know me will not be the least bit surprised. There are so many great restaurants, all with solid wine lists, and a casual atmosphere. The hot ticket in town is still Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, exceptional food, but certainly more formal than most restaurants. I hear La Toque is another great restaurant trying to compete with French Laundry, but I have not eaten here. A newer restaurant that I loved was Martini House , a grand old building with a beautiful outdoor seating area. I had a dish of of trumpet mushrooms and artichokes with a hollandaise sauce served with a side of frisee that was to die for. I also ate a braised rabbit with a side of scalloped potatoes that was exceptional. For a beautiful location combined with a great dining experience, consider the deck at Auberge du Soleil, which is spectacular during sunset. I had a six course tasting menu paired with wines that was fun, educational, and delicious. Another jewel was Thomas Keller’s second restaurant Bouchon. It is a classic French bistro, and every dish was executed perfectly. The oysters were plump and luscious, the pate although simple was just bursting with flavor, and the onion soup was another fabulous appetizer. For entrees I tried the lamb, mussels in white wine and saffron, roast chicken, and the hanger steak, and all were exceptional. Pilar is a new restaurant which has been receiving outstanding feedback, but it was closed during my visit. On the simpler side, Taylor Refresher is a ’50s diner with great food, Bounty Hunter is a wine bar with tasty dishes, and Gillwood’s Cafe is a real treat for breakfast. Note that a few of the classic restaurants that shined ten years ago have been receiving less than favorable reviews, and they are Mustard’s, Tra Vigne, and Pinot Blanc.

There is a wide range of accommodations in the Napa Valley, and you can skew your selection toward your budget. I feel the gem is Auberge du Soliel, which

Sculpture at Auberge du Soliel

Sculpture at Auberge du Soliel

has beautiful rooms, a full spa, fine dining, and a swimming pool. Behind the spa is a splendid sculpture garden mixed amongst the olive trees. Calistoga Ranch is a new hotel that was just opened by the same owners. Meadowood is a touted high end resort owned by Bill Harlan of the cult winery Harlan Estate. Milliken Creek Inn is a quaint new resort with a little more affordable price tag; it’s small with only 10 rooms, but very chic with fireplaces and spa tubs in each room. There are also a few other hotels that are quite reasonable, but still offer amenities like a pool: Napa Valley Lodge, Villagio Inn & Spa, and the Harvest Inn. Lastly there are dozens of quaint bed & breakfasts scattered throughout the valley, therefore it should be easy to find a nice room to fit your budget.

If you enjoy wine, good food, and beautiful landscapes then you must visit Napa Valley the next time you are on the west coast. It will awaken your palate and warm your soul.