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Napa Valley Winter Trip
I decided to spend a week in the Napa Valley, the most famous wine growing region in America, in late January as I had not been there in many years. I knew the crowds would be less than in the summer and the fall crush season, the Valley’s two main seasons. Napa Valley gets about five million visitors each year. I was curious to see what was new. And I wanted to experience the golden mustard fields that blanket the Valley this time of the year.
Driving to the Napa Valley from the south I saw a proliferation of solar panels, once absent from the Valley. Many wineries, such as Fetzer, Frogs Leap, Keenan Winery, Grgich Hills Estate, Fosters Wine Estates, Far Niente and Trefethen Family Vineyards are at the forefront of this effort and are serious about this form of electrical power. After all, growing grapes is an agricultural endeavor so dealing with the elements is an important part of all this. So is the amount of rain. And I heard a lot about drought years and how the lack of water affects the final product.
Another change is the closing of COPIA, the Center for Wine, Food & the Arts. It was located in downtown Napa but could not sustain itself financially. It will be missed.
Years ago I remember reading that there were over 200 wineries in the Valley, that number has now risen to over 400 in 2009 but only 220 are open to the public. So I saw many new winery signs as I meandered up and down both Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. A few of the new wineries, or wineries new to me, are: Castello di Amorosa Castle & Winery, Ghost Block, Carrefour Vineyards and Antica Napa Valley.
The showplace of the new wineries is Castello di Amorosa Winery. Dario Sattui, fourth-generation Sattuti family member, who also owns V. Sattui Winery on Highway 29 one and one-half miles south of St. Helena, took 15 years to build this castle winery. Castello di Amorosa offers beautifully hand-crafted Italian style wines. They sell Pinot Grigio, Chardonnays, Gewürztraminers (Dry and Sweet), Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Super Tuscan Blends. They also have unusual dessert wines such as a Late Harvest Gewürztraminer, their popular La Fantasía, and a Muscato called Il Raggio del Sole.
Another showplace that was under construction when I visited last is Darioush. Darioush, a winery noted for its Bordeaux style estate wines, implements old world labor-intensive, micro-vineyard management and new world state of the art technology to craft fine wines from its estates located in the appellations of Napa Valley, Mt. Veeder and Oak Knoll. Under the direction of Darioush Khaledi and winemaker Steve Devitt, precision and quality are of the utmost importance at the winery.
My home away from home was the Napa Valley Lodge in Yountville. Styled after a Tuscan villa, the 55 guest rooms feature fireplaces and balconies. Their expert staff is available to book restaurant reservations, hot air balloon rides, and winery tours. They also are good at recommending a special picnic spot or the finest olive oil tasting room to complete your experience.
The lodge provides a complimentary champagne breakfast, garden, pool, spa, Cabernet vineyards, bocce ball court, outdoor fire pit, couples spa treatments, and a fitness room. You’ll even find a Soothing Pillow Mist on your pillow at night to mist the corner of your pillow for a peaceful sleep.
The Napa Valley Lodge is one of the 5 hotels that makes up the Woodside Hotels. Each property is distinctively Californian. The 4 others include: Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa in Monterey, CA; Stanford Park Hotel in Menlo Park, CA; Lafayette Park Hotel & Spa in Lafayette, CA and Bodega Bay Lodge & Spa in Bodega Bay, CA. Each of these five distinctive hotels offers California luxury and hospitality at its finest.
But I had gone to eat and that feat can be accomplished quite well. With a little planning and lots of money you can enjoy some of the best food in the United States. Over 85 restaurants have set the standard for world-class culinary experiences. Yountville alone, called the culinary capital of the Valley, has 4 two-star Michelin restaurants. They are Redd (1 star), French Laundry (3 stars), Bouchon (1 star) and Bistro Jeanty (1 star).
Here is the schedule I choose. So many restaurants, so little time. I visited some old haunts and some very new ones:
Lunch: Bistro Jeanty in Yountville: French bistro with excellent fried smelts, butter lettuce salad, crepe suzettes and many other country French choices.
Dinner: Armadillos in St. Helena (Mexican)
Breakfast: Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford (California Cuisine). Sit on the balcony for a marvelous view.
Lunch: Brannan’s in Calistoga: good food both lunch and dinner; live music some nights.
Dinner: Ad Hoc in Yountville: pre-fixe 4 course menu with every other Monday night being fried chicken; owned by Thomas Keller.
Lunch: Bouchon in Yountville: excellent French bistro owned by Thomas Keller that includes a raw seafood bar.
Dinner: Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa: fun shopping experience with some of the same vendors that are at the Ferry Building Marketplace. You'll find food, wine, coffee, tea, ice cream, meats, culinary antiques and much more.
Lunch: Swan’s Oyster Depot in San Francisco: best fresh seafood in San Francisco; no tables; marble counter tops and bar stools. Expect to wait in line at lunchtime.
Dinner: A/K/A a BISTRO in St. Helena: contemporary bistro aura, utilizing market-fresh and seasonal ingredients.
Lunch: SolBar at Solage in Calistoga: new Auberge du Soleil property Upvalley with rooms, a spa and restaurants.
Drinks & Dinner: Bottega Napa Valley in Yountville: Michael Chiarello showcases the foods of Tuscany.
Willie’s Seafood & Raw Bar in Healdsburg: excellent small plates of salads, seafoods, meats and desserts.
If you are interested in a very small inn consider the Oak Knoll Inn, set in the middle of 600 acres of chardonnay vines. Owner Barbara Passino has specially decorated her rooms. Sleeping accommodations include four huge rooms, each with private bath, king-sized bed, and sitting area. You can expect to find plush robes, a CD player, hairdryer, binoculars, and an iron and ironing board. Double stone walls, a private entrance, and wood-burning fireplaces contribute to the intimacy of your lodging at Oak Knoll Inn.
Breakfasts are also special as Barbara has just published her first cookbook, and the subject is chocolate: Chocolate for Breakfast: Entertaining Menus to Start the Day with a Celebration, from Napa Valley's Oak Knoll Inn. Many of the recipes in the book are served at the inn.
Wine Country has so much to offer. Infineon Raceway in Sonoma has weekend car races; if you are an early riser, consider the hot air balloon rides over the Valley, which are breathtaking; picnic bicycle trips to wineries are another fun experience, Woodhouse Chocolates salon in St. Helena offers chocolates handmade in the Napa Valley and I can go on and on. Be sure to pick up The Preiser Key to the Napa Valley . It is available at wineries and shops and includes all the wineries and restaurants in the Valley, including maps to help you navigate the area.
You might consider a trip to the Napa Valley in winter. I did and I can’t wait to return.
Top Three Photos from the Napa Valley Destination Council.