By Jim Ferri
I’ve always been amazed by Napa.
It’s not only one of the best-known wine regions in the world but, at 27 miles long and only 5 miles across at its widest, is also one of the smallest.
More amazing is that it also has more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any other wine region on the planet, eight in all.
And one can’t forget the remarkable beauty of its countryside, picture-perfect with tidy rows of trees and vines all standing straight and neat like little arboreal soldiers.
It’s little wonder Napa attracts several million visitors every year, although its location – only about an hour north of San Francisco – certainly helps fuel innumerable weekend getaways.
Napa: A Four-Season Getaway
Any time of year is a good time to visit Napa, since there’s always something to do, and great food and wine always rewards you throughout the region.
While many travelers opt for the summer months or the fall harvest season, both spectacularly beautiful, winter and spring also have much to offer since the mountains keep the region a bit warmer than San Francisco.
During the so-called Cabernet Season (November-April), when the harvest is complete, and the wine is in the barrel, the vines go dormant, and the pace slows down. It’s then that another variety of activities comes into bloom, with such events as Restaurant Week, “Arts in April”, and the Napa Valley Marathon.
Spring soon follows, bringing a kaleidoscopic carpet of yellow mustard blooms, purple lupine and crimson clover across the valley floor.
I enjoyed a three-day getaway there recently, after grabbing a rental at San Francisco International, and then heading directly for the town of Napa at the southern end of the valley.
Napa is a good place to start a tour since it has plenty of hotels, inns, B&Bs, and numerous restaurants. Napa is also where you’ll find the Napa Valley Welcome Center, where you can stock up on plenty of info to organize your stay.
I stayed two nights at the Napa River Inn in the town of Napa, and a third night at the Mount View Hotel & Spa in Calistoga further north in the valley, since I wanted to sample both ends of the valley.
The Inn was an excellent hotel with exceptionally comfortable rooms that have (at least in my room) a fireplace at the foot of one’s bed. The staff was first-rate as was the location; the inn’s small historic building also contained two excellent restaurants. My meal and wine pairings at the restaurant Angele, just a few doors away, was exceptional.
St. Helena Wine District
The following morning I headed north to the St. Helena wine district, up Highway 29, which isn’t as beautiful as the pastoral Silverado Trail to the east but it is faster.
Shops, boutiques, and restaurants line the sides of St. Helena’s Main Street, with plenty of tourists and travelers grazing along the sidewalk, poking into boutiques and tasting rooms along the way. Some of the town’s buildings are historic, with the pièce de résistance being the Beringer Brothers Vineyard’s 1884 Rhine Mansion, which looks as if it’s been plucked from the European countryside.
It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and the vineyard hosts tastings in a few rooms on the ground floor, the only areas guests can visit. Be sure and stop in for a visit; it’s located next to the Culinary Institute of America, across from the Charles Krug Winery.
Napa’s 350+ Wineries
There are more than 350 wineries open to the public throughout Napa, 95% of which are still family owned, and many serving world-class vintages. They are ground zero for the millions of people who come to taste the valley’s most popular export.
As you drive along the valley’s roads you see the names of many vineyards you know well, and it’s a good feeling, almost like visiting the home of an old friend.
Their names read like a Who’s Who of wineries…Stag’s Leap, Cakebread, Hall, Krug, Clos du Val, Mondavi…it’s a fantasyland for oenophiles as well as gourmets, since the focus on many tastings is the pairing with food.
Years ago tastings at these vineyards were free to all visitors. Today, however, there are charges for all tastings, usually starting at $25-30 per flight and increasing based on the quality of the wine. All wines are available for purchase.
Yountville in Napa
Driving through these little towns in Napa, you leave the urban experience behind. Traffic can get heavy at times but it’s rare to hear any horns, save that of the Napa Valley Wine Train on its daily run up and down the valley.
You also don’t find neon in your face, roadside signs, and fast-food restaurants lining the byways. Instead, you find a place where wine and slow cooking are almost a religious experience. One of its culinary altars is the town of Yountville, home to about 2,900 people and nearly two-dozen restaurants, three of which are Michelin starred.
The most famous is the highly touted three-star The French Laundry (the other three-star is The Restaurant at Meadowood). Thomas Keller, its owner, also owns the one-star Bouchon, both known for their French cuisine, and the Ad Hoc Restaurant, which serves comfort food.
If you can’t get into one of his restaurants, you’re welcome to wander about his restaurant garden across the street from the Laundry, where he cultivates Tuscan Kale and a variety of other vegetables for his culinary creations. Farm to table has never been simpler.
North to Calistoga
On my third day in Napa, I drove north to the Mount View Hotel & Spa, further up the valley in the town of Calistoga. Another National Historic Landmark hotel, it also was quite charming and comfortable.
Each of its rooms is individually decorated to provide a feeling of old Hollywood charm. My room was in one of the small adjacent cottages, with a private outdoor Jacuzzi and sitting area on a private patio.
I relaxed for a while at the Mountain View, too short on time to enjoy the spa facilities, unfortunately, before taking the Silverado Trail back towards Rutherford, about a 20-minute drive. It was a beautiful time of day in Napa as the setting sun painted the mountains behind me a sweltering red.
My destination that evening was the Auberge du Soleil Restaurant, a Michelin-starred restaurant rated as one of America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants. In addition to having the most extensive wine list of any restaurant in the Napa Valley, it also provides spectacular vistas along with its spectacular meals.
I had been looking forward to returning to the Auberge since I had dined there with my sister for her birthday lunch five years earlier. Tomorrow was my birthday, and although I was alone, I wanted to relive that earlier experience.
For the next two hours, I enjoyed an exceptional four-course dinner with wine pairings. From the fresh scallops appetizer and the tenderest beef I have ever tasted as my entree, right through to dessert, it was an incredible dining experience, all made even better with the pairings of exceptional Napa wines.
Morning came too early, of course, and not long after dawn I was on the Silverado Trail, headed southward and back to San Francisco. As the morning sun scattered its rays across the vineyards and mountains, I drove the near-deserted road, watching the beautiful and ever-changing tableaux.
A half-hour later, back on the crowded freeway once again, I soon found myself plotting my return.
If you go:
Napa Valley Welcome Center
600 Main Street
Napa, CA 94559
Tel: (707) 251-5895 / (855) 847-6272
Napa River Inn
500 Main Street
Napa CA 94559
Tel: (707) 251-8500 / (877) 251-8500
Mount View Hotel & Spa
1457 Lincoln Avenue
Calistoga CA 94515
Tel: 707.942.6877 / 800.816.6877
Auberge du Soleil Restaurant
180 Rutherford Hill Road
Rutherford, CA 94573
Tel: (707) 963-1211