One day is clearly not enough to thoroughly enjoy the Napa Valley. But with several kids and non-drinkers in the group, it seemed like the sensible alternative. And it turned out to be just enough. Enough to decide that we’ll be back for a more adult-oriented outing. And enough to build a solid list for “next time”.
Just 40 years ago, there were only 25 wineries in Napa Valley. Today, with over 400 wineries and tasting rooms (600 if you include Sonoma), deciding which ones to put on the list – given the limited time – was an impossible chore. Ditto for the restaurants. But we were able to see just enough to determine that a more “romantic” trip will be on the books soon.
Starting up on the North end (Calistoga), the first stop was Castello Di Amorosa. Nothing great about the wines (although a couple of whites were pretty good) but the setting – an authentic medieval castle built to very strict specifications – was quite original, and the kids enjoyed it.
Passing through St Helena, the next stop was just before Oakville, at Peju – a much smaller winery, but with higher quality wines, a true “family-owned” atmosphere, and exquisite taste for arts. I enjoyed their Cabs, Merlot, and the Provence rose blend (crafted specially for the owner’s wife, who did not care much for reds, but loved this one!). We should have bought more than 4 bottles to enjoy later; it was gone in 2 days!
From here, crossing over to the Silverado Trail (a less traveled road through the valley) we stopped briefly at Cliff Lede, but only to admire the setting. Got a chance to try their wine at dinner later on (great Cab). Also stopped at Stags’ Leap, but we lacked the required appointment (yes, some of the smaller or high end ones require an appointment).
Following the Silverado Trail, it eventually leads to downtown Napa, and a must-do lunch stop: the Oxbow Public Market: several top-notch restaurants covering the entire gastronomical palette.
After a short stroll through the quaint downtown area (frankly, I was expecting a bit more class) we headed to Domain Carneros (a top destination based on my earlier research) and quite majestic, as we took the stairs up to the main building. Unfortunately, we encountered a very rude, unprofessional, unaccommodating hostess who seemed bent on driving us away in record time. She succeeded, marking a dark spot on an otherwise enjoyable day.
By contrast, we drove from there straight to Robert Mondavi, where despite the late hour, the fact that our group was large, and the last tour of the day was just starting, they gladly accommodated us right away. Domain Carneros should take some lessons in customer service from this place!
Sure, Robert Mondavi is not one of the best (in terms of wine quality… unless you go to the top end of the price scale) but it offers a very nice (and short) educational tour. And when you consider he was one of the pioneers of this whole winery visit/tasting room concept (when he started there were just about a dozen in the area) it’s worth a stop just for that aspect alone.
Surprisingly – however – most wineries close at 5 (a few at 6 during the summer). I’m sure there’s likely both a legal and economic reason for it, but it goes against every rule of American commercialism. And maybe that’s the idea. It just means that one has to kill some time before dinner…
And speaking of dinner: any self-respected foodie will appreciate the options in Napa and Sonoma. And the whole buzz around farm-to-table-all-organic-California-fresh-just-picked-from-my-back-yard myriad of choices… I did a lot of “homework” and compiled a list to keep one busy for a few days (details below if interested) but in the end, we settled on Bistro Don Giovanni (recommendation from a friend who spends a lot of time in the area). Great food, good service, but not much intimacy (fairly crowded and loud, actually).
As I was planning this trip, I looked into several places that are worth a visit. Here’s a quick list to get you started:
Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch, Goose and Gander, Market, Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, Rutherford Grill, La Luna (Market & Taqueria), Mustards Grill, Zuzu, Celadon, and Gott's Roadside (burgers)
And of course, there are the well-established spots, like the French Laundry, Auberge du Soleil (arguably the best view/outdoor dining in the area, but very expensive), Morimoto, The Restaurant at Meadowood, Bistro Jeanty, Allegria, Tra Vigne, as well as a few great newcomers: La Toque, Redd, JoLē, Angele, Solbar, or The Farm at Carneros Inn. Oh, and special mention for The Girl and the Fig (this one in Sonoma, but something I definitely want to try some day).
While we’re on recommendations, here’s a few more vineyard suggestions as well, aside from the ones already mentioned earlier: Schramsberg (for a tour of authentic champagne caves), Artesa (apparently great views as a bonus), Frog's Leap, Vincent Arroyo, Pride Mountain, Mumm, Silver Oak, Hamel, Stag’s Leap, Robert Mondavi, Cakebread, Clos Pegase, and Chateau Montelena.
You get the point. So many choices… Obviously can’t wait to get back for an extended stay. And hire a driver ;-)