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When You Visit the Napa Valley - Visit It All
In the last few years, the town of Napa has emerged as a destination in and of itself, with numerous places to dine and taste excellent wine. This is a great boon to the economy of the town and the Valley, even while it brings concern to many wineries, restaurants, and other businesses in the upper part of the county. Not so many years ago the hotels and restaurants were for the most part in central Napa Valley (Yountville and St. Helena), with many small inns and spas in Calistoga to the north. Since visitors stayed in the middle of the action, all areas of the Valley were visited on a somewhat equal basis.
Now, as people arrive from the south (whether it be over Golden Gate leading into Carneros or over the Bay Bridge leading into American Canyon in south Napa County), there are numerous hotels, restaurants, and wine tasting facilities right in and around the town of Napa. Thus, fewer visitors make the longish trek north, and when they do, they rarely get to or past St. Helena before the libations and sun make them ready for a nap in preparation for the evening’s activities.
In our opinion, with the length of time it often takes to travel up and down Rt. 29 (where so many of the good wineries with tasting rooms can be found) these days, it behooves visitors to consider spending part of their visit in the northern areas, and part in the south. Besides making it easier and quicker to get around, there is an even more practical reason – police officers are out in force in growing numbers. Thus, the shorter the drive (especially in the evening), the safer it is all around.
There isn’t much doubt that most of the more famous wineries and restaurants are located from south Yountville (think Domaine Chandon) through the Culinary Institute of America in northern St. Helena. But there is so much to see in Napa to the south and Calistoga to the north that the visitor should make a point of spending time in these areas. We’ll touch on just a few of our favorite places in close proximity to the towns of Napa and Calistoga.
-Cuvee: Definitely the hottest new restaurant in Napa. Here you will fine a terrific atmosphere, friendly staff under the direction of Manager Aaron Diaz, wonderful wines chosen by winemaker and sommelier Lucas Henning, and darn good food for reasonable prices. There is a reason they are crowded most evenings.
-Pilar: You may have seen Pilar Sanchez on the Food Network. Her intimate restaurant on Main St. is the perfect place to dine in comfort on creative California cuisine.
-Uve: A spot more for the locals, we may be giving away secrets by listing them here. Uve reminds you of a neighborhood New York trattoria with all the action. We recommend you pay close attention to the specials each evening. If you enjoy music, they often offer it.
-Cole’s Chop House: It’s worth extra effort to get a reservation here. Owner/Chef Greg Cole makes sure that this establishment has top of the line beef, fish, wine, and service.
-Celadon: Another Greg Cole restaurant, this one is more intimate and “wine countryish” than most of the other modern rooms in town. Everyone we know agrees that the fried calamari here is the best in the world.
-General Store: Not California cuisine, but a welcome find. Sometimes good Asian food is the perfect ending to a day filled with imbibing. This Vietnamese entry is low cost and high quality. You can choose your wine from the store’s retail shop as well.
Napa Wine Opportunities:
-Napa Vintner’s: Among the collectives (stores featuring sales and tastings of wines from a limited number of wineries), this one probably offers the wines that have earned the most accolades. Most wineries represented have decided not to have a tasting room on their own premises (or don’t have a tasting permit). There are some real beauties here.
-Napa Wine Merchants: Anchored by the “under the radar” Gustavo Thrace wines, this store/collective offers a large array of tastings from small and relatively unknown producers. You can find some unexpected gems here for good prices. The shop also has a retail store. If you go on Monday you find a terrific pourer, Justin Preiser (in the interest of full disclosure we confess he is our son).
- Luna: On the Silverado Trail north of downtown by just a few miles, winemaker Mike Drash creates some of the best wines around, especially the line of Pinot Grigios, Sangioveses, and Blends.
-Judd’s Hill: Having just opened their new winery on Silverado Trail again just north of downtown, Judd’s Hill not only makes their own wines of distinction, but offers custom crush. Go see about making some of your own wine and enjoy meeting the entire Finkelstein family.
-Truchard: A few minutes west of town, Tony and Joanne Truchard grow some of the finest fruit in the Valley, and fortunately for all of us they ferment and bottle some under their name. The Chardonnay, Roussanne, and Cabernet Sauvignon are the flagships.
-Monticello: If the Corley Family were playing baseball, you might say they have had a break out season. This year their wines are better than ever, especially the Cabs. You will also enjoy the beautiful grounds modeled after those on the property of you know who. The winery is on Big Ranch Rd. about 5 miles north of downtown.
-Robert Biale: In the same area as Monticello, Biale makes many elegant Zinfandels, ‘Nuff said.
-Bar Vino: The newest endeavor by uber restaurateurs Mark Young and Ron Goldin, this is a place we can linger for a long time. Brilliantly offering tasting pours (as well as full) of some of the smallest and most boutiquish wineries around, and pairing them with delicious small plates, this place is a winner.
-Brannan’s: The most recognized and upscale restaurant in Calistoga, Brannan’s allows you to enjoy fine California cuisine while “people watching” through the windows and doors that open to the street.
-Buster’s: Our vote for best BBQ anywhere. You will find it just west of the main drag by watching for the smoke coming from the outdoor grill as it fires up delicious Tri-tip, ribs, and chicken. No frills here – just a unique experience. Trust us.
-All Season’s: Continental/California dishes are the specialties here, along with a retail wine room that carries the best selection of European wines in Napa Valley (no surprise that they are not easily found – it may be a bit of a surprise that they are not much in demand).
Calistoga Wine Opportunities:
-Bennett Lane: Relatively new, but already making a big splash, Randy Lynch’s wines have garnered high ratings from almost every critic. Their reds alone are worth the trip.
-Summers: Though Jim and Beth Summers are not newcomers, their wines get better every year, and they make your visit a fun one. Be sure to try the Summers Charbono, which was just named the country’s best in a blind tasting of all Charbonos.
-On the Edge/Hurd’s Candle Shop: More a shop than a tasting room, it may be that you have never seen such a beautiful selection of fine candles. In fact, the bees that make some of the bees wax actually live in a cabinet in the store and go about their daily business through a hole in the wall. The wines are good as well, but the most fun may be talking to Mary Sue, the proprietor (along with her husband Paul Smith). Note: Former NFL coach Dick Vermeil is a partner in the wine end of the business.
-Zahtila: Laura Zahtila is making some of the nicest Zins and Cabs around, and has been for a few years now. We actually like to take some of the aforementioned Buster’s BBQ to her place and enjoy these big reds with the food, but be sure to check with her first to see if tables are set up.
-Wine Garage: A great concept. In a land (Napa) where wines seem to get more and more expensive, and are, as we all recognize, prohibitive in price for many people, Todd Miller has an oasis of bottlings all under $25.00. He and his staff taste each and every one before they are permitted to reside on his shelves. His wine club is one of the best deals in the business.
So as you can see, there is little reason to leave out the most northern and southern areas of Napa wine country. Too often, veterans of the Valley are locked in a mind set favoring the places they have frequented for years, and guide books simply have not caught up. But you, valued reader, are up to date.
Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.