The Napa Lowdown
I have been in the restaurant business in San Francisco for over sixteen years, but only recently started going to Napa Valley to explore. Even though the Napa Valley AVA could be considered the most important domestic wine-growing region, I thought there was nothing to see. I couldn't understand why a great bottle of Barolo, a wine steeped in old world tradition and vetted over generations, could make it all the way across an ocean and a continent and still be cheaper than an average bottle of
I have been in the restaurant business in San Francisco for over sixteen years, but only recently started going to Napa Valley to explore. Even though the Napa Valley AVA could be considered the most important domestic wine-growing region, I thought there was nothing to see. I couldn't understand why a great bottle of Barolo, a wine steeped in old world tradition and vetted over generations, could make it all the way across an ocean and a continent and still be cheaper than an average bottle of Napa cab that someone could throw in the backseat of their car and drop off at the restaurant an hour later. I thought the whole valley must be overpriced and overrun with tourists crushing the soul of the place. And this is coming from a guy who lives in San Francisco.
So about a year ago I started to make some tasting appointments and some reservations at restaurants I wanted to try. I found some great spots along the way and the answer to the question: Who likes sunny weather, drinking on patios that overlook vineyards, and snacking on stuff from wood-fired grills and ovens? Turns out, this guy does.
The valley is about thirty miles long, leaving plenty of room to find some good values, but there will be lots of driving. When visiting a bunch of wineries, I recommend spitting when you taste. If you don't see a bucket, just ask for one. I know this seems counterintuitive, but if you want to make solid purchasing decisions and not be a nuisance on the road, save the chugging until you are parked for the night or someone (sober) offers to take the wheel for the day. And remember that this is big red wine country. Whether you spit or not you will get that ghastly purple veneer to your teeth that makes it hard to explain to the officer that the other car just came out of nowhere.
With a driving plan sorted, get ready for some beautiful scenery any time of year. In the winter, the valley floor is bucolic and orderly with the cold vines trellised above cover crops of flowering mustard. In the summer, the valley is green and expectant with the promises of harvest. And in the fall, after the grapes have been picked, this is one of the best places to witness the autumn show of color that is otherwise skipped in California.
When it comes to wineries, restaurants, and accommodations, here is a list of places that I think have good value and are (somewhat) off the beaten path:
Wineries By Grape
The Napa Valley AVA includes 16 sub-AVAs, and Chiles Valley is the most isolated of them all. It is a narrow, elevated valley that runs parallel to Napa like a thin scar. Because of its remote location, there are some really old zinfandel vines here. And because the higher elevation means big fluctuations between day and night temperatures, zin grapes here retain decent acidity.
Brown Estate Vineyards in Chiles Valley is a fun place to taste. The family here is super friendly and they are particularly well-known for their zinfandel. When you come back into Napa Valley, compare the Brown Estate Chiles Valley Zinfandel with the zinfandels of the Napa Valley floor from Robert Biale Vineyards. Trying these two zins grown on different valley floors, you'll get an idea about how the higher elevation and soils of Chiles Valley affects the wine.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the star grape in Napa Valley and for that the valley has a debt of gratitude to Beaulieu Vineyard. You have probably seen the BV label on dusty shelves in liquor stores and maybe you thought that it was all crap. It definitely is not. Original owner George Latour weathered the storm of prohibition by selling sacramental wine to the church; then he brought a guy named Andre Tchelistcheff back from France to be the winemaker; and he in turn brought old world wine-making techniques to the valley's Cabernet growers. Tchelistecheff coined the phrase "Rutherford dust" to describe that dusty, cocoa powder, brambly character of the fruit.
Beaulieu Vineyards makes a lot of wine, so go here and get the best you can afford, perhaps a couple bottles of the George de Latour Private Reserve. These have staying power, so you can lay them down for years if you want. Or drink them. Spring for the Retrospective Reserve Tasting ($50) and you will get an idea of what could be waiting for you ten years down the road.
If you are looking for a place with great Cabernet that's off the beaten track, drive north to Pride Mountain Vineyards on Spring Mountain. Spring Mountain is not so much a mountain as a mountainous area in the Mayacamas, and the property here straddles the Napa/Sonoma County border. This place has been a favorite of wine critic Robert Parker for years, and no matter what you think of Parker, there is no denying some great wine is made here.
It's all about blending at Pride. Each varietal, each lot, each separately-timed harvest, they are all fermented separately and later blended. This is a considerable task. You come away with great respect for the vision, because it really does take a lot of work to pull off. And the results are rich cabs that are enjoyable to drink on release but improve for a good ten years.
After tasting at Pride, drive east to Howell Mountain and compare the wines of CADE Estate Winery. Cade is a different type of winery altogether, outfitted with all the modern conveniences. The winery is LEED-certified and bold enough to make $100 bottles of cab with screw tops. This is one of the best views of the valley and you can drink it in while you mull over what makes Cade's Howell Mountain wines distinct from the Spring Mountain cabs at Pride.
If you weren't dissuaded by the movie Sideways and you like California Merlot, one of my favorites is from Blackbird Vineyards - in French patois, merlot means "little blackbird." These are Pomerol-inspired wines: blends of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. If you know somebody (or it doesn't hurt to ask!), you can land a private tasting in a little open barn at the vineyard. Otherwise, Blackbird wines are shown at the Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley in St. Helena.
The Ma(i)sonry is part art gallery, part wine bar, part sculpture garden. It's a cool place to have a sophisticated and curated picnic amidst manicured grounds. Here, I usually drink the wines from Aaron Pott(the winemaker at Blackbird) or Pahlmeyer while fountains trickle in the background.
After a long day of drinking mouth-coating cabernets and zinfandels, it's great to find a place that serves a lean, slightly frizzy txakolina. Half of what I love about La Taberna Napa is that you can get a good Spanish wine. But I also love the pinxtos. It's like snacking in Spain. Shishito peppers and nectarines, pickled fried smelt, squid a la plancha. And the pig ears. Get the crispy pig ears.
For a nice martini rinse or a classic Manhattan palate cleanser after a long day of wine tasting, check out downtown newcomer Torc. I'm not a big fan of new wave cocktails that have a dozen ingredients and creative names that give me no clue what the drink is, but Torc has a cocktail philosophy that I like: simple and straightforward. And chef-owner Sean O'Toole has some serious bona fides. He's worked with Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Michael Mina, Laurent Gras, and Ron Siegel.
If you're looking for sushi, sake and lighter Japanese fusion fare and you want the Iron Chef experience without the huge bill, sneak into the bar at Morimoto Napa and order two items off the omakase tasting menu: the toro tartare and the bagna cauda. These two dishes are as much about the imagination of the chef as they are the specific ingredients. You are given specially designed tools, like a mini spade, with which to scrape up the paper thin raw fish and the accompanying sauces in one scoop. It's flashy, thought-provoking, and fun, but not particularly filling.
Before you head out from Napa to explore the valley, grab a quick sandwich at Melted on Pearl Street to hold you over on your drive. Grilled cheese on white bread waffles. It's where the high school kids hang out.
St. Helena And Yountville
With places like The French Laundry and The Restaurant at Meadowood, these towns are the gourmet and elite hub of the valley. But there is plenty to do that won't make you feel like a broke bumpkin. For one, look for Calder Charbono or anything from Calder Wine Company when perusing a wine list here. Charbono is a late-ripening grape that likes the heat of the northern valley, and winemaker Rory Williams is a man who does the grape right. He turns out a richly aromatic charbono with good acidity and tannin and notes of woodspice, forest floor, and leather.
The best outpost of the Gotts empire, Gott's Roadside is the kind of restaurant everyone who has been in the business has wished they owned at some point. There's simple fare that everyone likes - hamburgers - and friendly service that's not too fussy: they call your name sweetly when your food is ready. When I come I grab a cheeseburger with a glass of Turley Zinfandel and then sit on a picnic bench and watch as the entire valley comes here. Really, the entire valley does, including the maids who clean the hotel rooms, field workers, retirees, ladies fresh out of their spa treatments, degenerates, and the landed elite.
To taste Redd's food in a more casual environment, I love Redd Wood, where everything is available a la carte: wood-fired pizza, house-fermented vegetables, house-cured meats. This is the place you come to go old-school and get a pizza and a chopped salad. Remember chopped salads? It's like everything left over from an Italian deli thrown onto a plate: radicchio, romaine, salami, provolone, olives, pepperoncinis. It’s simple and awesome. There are a few well-chosen bottles and a good cocktail menu as well.
For a quintessential Napa experience, I love Farmstead at Long Meadow, a restaurant housed in an old barn. What they sell is what they grow, and they grow everything. They have their own wine (though I haven't had it), fruits, vegetables, olive oil, vinegar, chickens, beef, honey, and grappa. They have a full bar and some seating on a patio lounge - this is where I park myself. I get a negroni and whatever is coming off the wood grill and take in the smells and sights.
If you're looking for a nice place to accommodate a large group, check out Michael Chiarello's Italian place Bottega Napa Valley. This is simple food served in an upscale Original Joe's kind of setting: warm timbers, distressed leather, communal tables, fireplaces. I get the grilled branzino, the raviolo di uovo, the braised short rib and the shaved brussels sprouts salad. But what I really appreciate is the service. The managers here are pros, and I have seen them deal with drunk patrons, sunburned and irritable after a day not spitting, with disarming tact and efficiency.
Which reminds me: When bringing a special bottle of wine to a restaurant in Napa, expect to pay corkage, even if they never charge you corkage at your buddy's place in Turlock. Beverages are an important revenue stream in the restaurant business and you are not the first person that day or even that hour to bring in your own bottle.
Where To Stay
This place in Caligosta used to be a bit run down, but a recent renovation restored it and it's now a fun compound for healthy living on the hot end of wine country. This is a good place for families, spread out enough that everyone can do their own thing without getting in each other's hair. There are mud baths, spa treatments, free bikes to ride around, and a slew of lawn sports like boules (also called pétanque), shuffleboard, and croquet. Best of all, there is an Olympic-sized, geyser-fed pool that stays open until midnight. The water feels dense and it draws your muscles into relaxation as you float under the stars.
It's not easy to find a good bed and breakfast anywhere, and Napa is no exception. But Karen Lynch, the owner, is smart and sophisticated. She took her time to find the right Victorian located close to downtown and updated it. This is not a grandma's B&B with weird wallpaper, wicker furniture, or dusty bric-à-brac on the shelves. Expect clean, modern touches and high thread count linens (which are for sale for a reasonable price). It's worth noting that this is a gluten-free place, but it's hard to hold that against them.
Photo Credits: Welcome Home Brand, Mercury News, The Barrel Buzz, Calfire, FineArtAmerica, Bring Fido, Napa Tourist Guide, DoNapa, La Taberna