The first time I visited Napa, I was a 20-year old college sophomore at UC Berkeley. It was a Saturday morning in the fall, and my friends and I had left the house to pick up a greasy take-out breakfast, when we ran into some acquaintances who invited us up to their parent’s house in Napa for the day. Throwing caution to the wind – and ourselves into the car – we hopped onto the highway and headed up to wine country in our sweatpants. I don’t remember wine tasting (pretty sure we were drinking Natural Light beer), or having a gastronomical experience of any kind, but I do remember the landscape, the warm temperature, and the house on the hill with a hot tub surrounded by fragrant eucalyptus trees.
I have returned to northern California wine country (Napa and Sonoma Valleys) many times since. To be clear, my idea of experiencing wine country does not involve visiting five tasting rooms a day, the wine train, or even hiring a driver. When I go to Napa and Sonoma, my stay is all about waking up when I want, taking in the views, eating wonderful food, drinking good wine, exploring the slow roads, and taking time. I have become this kind of visitor to the area thanks to a dear friend who has a small house on the Napa River, where magical sunrises, long walks, and home cooked wine dinners come easy. Don’t get me wrong, I also love the high-life where breakfast comes to my room, the spa is world class, and a waiter delivers my cocktail to me in the pool (a glass of wine at sunset on the deck of Auberge du Soleil isn’t a bad way to go either!). After all, there are two sides to every coin!
So with all of that in mind, here is my take on a visit to wine country, and whatever you choose to do, don’t try to do too much.
LAY OF THE LAND
Located approximately 1-hour north of San Francisco and Oakland (depending on traffic), Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley have different landscapes, produce different varietals of wine, are just far enough from one another that they can’t be confused, and just close enough that they can both be visited in a long weekend, depending on how much you want to accomplish.
Meadowood Napa Valley: A full-service luxury resort in the heart of Napa Valley, Meadowood is a world renowned wine country mainstay, due in large part to the success of The Restaurant at Meadowood, which has received three Michelin stars. Whether you are a foodie or a wino, if you want to be based in Napa and are looking for a high-end retreat with an incredible spa and world-class golf, then Meadowood is the place for you. FYI the pool decks at Meadowood are currently being remodeled and will not be re-open until 2019. $$$$$
Carneros Resort & Spa: Carneros Resort & Spa (formerly Carneros Inn) is perfectly situated for those who want to conveniently experience both Valleys. Perched off of Highway 12 that connects the southern ends of Napa and Sonoma Valleys, Carneros Resort is a beautiful cluster of farm-style cottages and homes. Spread over a large expanse of rolling hills, the landscape of Carneros Resort has matured over the years to blend with the low-rise architecture and accentuate the killer vineyard views. Grasses, trees, vines, and fragrant herbs create privacy for guest rooms, and are a beautiful framework for the trails and paths that wind through the sunny property. Having just completed a full renovation of the Spa at Carneros, Carneros Resort is the perfect place to stay if you want to incorporate some spa / pool time into your wine country itinerary (Carneros has one of my favorite hotel pools!). $$$$
Hotel Healdsburg: Located right off the square in downtown Healdsburg in Sonoma Valley, the Healdsburg Hotel is a boutique wine-country retreat with large contemporary rooms, grand bathrooms, and beautiful entertaining spaces. Hotel Healdsburg is perfectly located if you want to stay in central Sonoma Valley, with front-door access to excellent restaurants, wine bars, and shops. $$$$
EAT - NAPA VALLEY
The Charter Oak: This amazing farm-to-table restaurant from Meadowood chef Christopher Kostow opened last year in a refurbished space (the former restaurant TraVingne) in downtown St. Helena. With soaring ceilings and a grand open hearth, The Charter Oak welcomes diners with a family-style menu featuring simply grilled meats, seasonal vegetables from the farm, and of course, an excellent and deep selection of wine. Not to be missed: halibut crudo, raw vegetables from the farm, cauliflower from the hearth, and the incredibly juicy cheeseburger. $$$
Ashes & Diamonds: Ashes & Diamonds, while a winery, not a restaurant, serves one of the best weekend lunches I have had in a long time. I fell in love with this place the second I walked in the door. Mid-Century modern architecture, with impeccably sourced interiors, Ashes & Diamonds is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the palate. Book the five-course lunch with wine tasting and be ready to eat, drink, and hang out. A great value, lunch at the winery is heavy on salads and wood-fired dishes made with ingredients sourced from local producers. And the wine isn’t bad either. While the food is paired with recent releases – which are exceptional – don’t be surprised if your server pulls something from the vault to show how the wine holds up. Next time I’m indulging in the Vintage Experience, which includes rare vintages and a classic steak dinner. Yes, I have been hooked. $$$
Gott’s Roadside: Gott’s is the place to stop in downtown Napa if you are just craving a burger, fries and a milkshake. I think the photo speaks for itself. Gott’s has several locations in Napa Valley and the greater Bay Area - including SFO. $
Oxbow Public Market: Located in downtown Napa, Oxbow Market is a huge open air warehouse space where independent local purveyors sell everything from coffee, produce, and groceries to wine, cheese, and olive oil. In addition to the individual shops, take-away restaurants serve up a variety of local foods ranging from oysters to wood fired pizza to sushi, all which can be enjoyed at picnic tables inside or outside on the sunny patio. If you are interested in a traditional sit-down meal, Kitchen Door is a full service restaurant located adjacent to the Market. Whatever you do in Napa, be sure to check out Oxbow! $$
EAT - SONOMA VALLEY
Single Thread: A meal at Single Thread is a culinary experience for discerning food lovers. I had the pleasure of enjoying the 11-course tasting menu last August, when the summer’s bounty was full and the sun was up long into the night. The evening began with a cocktail on the restaurant’s rooftop terrace and was followed by dinner in the elegant, contemporary dining room on the main floor. A meal at Single Thread is not for the faint of heart. The menu changes daily depending on what produce is fresh from the Single Thread Farm, and what meats local farmers and fisherman make available. While the restaurant will happily accommodate dietary preferences, this is kind of place where you really want to go with the chef’s whims if you can, because the dishes are crafted and presented as an experience. Every morsel of my meal was exceptional, but the best part was the amazing presentation of pre-dinner bites plated as part of a floral arrangement (pictured above). In addition to the food, the wine program at Single Thread is quite exceptional. Since I was dining alone and had to drive (big mistake), I indulged in a glass of 21-year old Pinot Noir from the Santa Ynez Valley that hadn’t skipped a beat. Prepare to spend the evening at Single Thread, and do your best to avoid having to drive after the long, indulgent meal. Plan ahead and book one of their luxurious guestrooms upstairs, or take a stroll around Healdsburg Square before bunking into one of the other great hotel options within walking distance. $$$$$
Healdsburg SHED: Sonoma’s answer to the Oxbow Public Market in Napa is the Healdsburg SHED. A new contemporary space on the edge of Healdsburg Square, SHED is a more refined version of Oxbow, featuring a cafe, larder, coffee bar, and fermentation bar. In addition to food, SHED is a lovely place to shop for fine kitchenware, pantry items, cookbooks and flowers. If you are looking to sit down for a meal, SHED Cafe has a lovely menu of beautifully crafted dishes cooked in restaurant’s open kitchen with fresh, organic produce and meats from Sonoma County’s top producers. $$
El Molino Central: Say hello to my favorite place to eat in Sonoma Valley. This incredible roadside Mexican restaurant in Boyes Hot Springs serves some of the best Mexican food in the Bay Area. Order inside, grab a picnic table outside, or take your meal to go. Everything on the menu is amazing, and if you can’t decide, order it all and take home the leftovers. You won’t be sorry! $
WINE TASTING - NAPA
Ashes & Diamonds: The brain child of proprietor and creative executive, Kashi Khaledi, this new beautiful mid-century modern property features a state-of-the-art wine production facility producing world class Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet Franc. Located at the southern end of Napa Valley, a visit to Ashes & Diamonds is a must, not only because their single vineyard wines are delicious, but because of the fresh, contemporary experience that this tasting room brings to Napa Valley. See above for more details on their food and wine tasting experience.
Stoney Hill Vineyard: Stoney Hill Vineyard is one of those special properties that you really have to know about in order to find. Perched high above Napa Valley on Spring Valley Mountain, Stoney Hill Vineyard is a beautiful residential estate separated from the highway by acres and acres of state forest service land. Family owned and operated since the 1940’s, Stoney Hill was recently acquired by Long Meadow Ranch, another Napa Valley family owned winery. Producers of impeccable Chardonnay, Stoney Hill also grows the only Gewurztraminer grapes in the valley. for an atypical tasting experience, be sure to add Stoney Hill Vineyard to your short list. Tastings by appointment.
WINE TASTING - SONOMA VALLEY
Auteur: This lovely boutique wine maker has a beautiful tasting room just off the square in Sonoma. Stop in to taste some of their single vineyard Pinot Noirs, or simply enjoy a glass of their lovely rosé on the backyard patio. Tasting by appointment.
J. Rochioli: I was introduced to Rochioli years ago by my husband who discovered their wines while living in San Francisco. Somewhat of a cult favorite in the Russian River Pinot Noir world, the waiting list to join their wine club is at least five years long, but well worth it once you get in. The beautiful winery has a lovely view of the Russian River Valley and is a great place to enjoy a picnic while tasting wine. Don’t overlook their Sauvignon Blanc – one of my favorites. Tasting room is open daily.
When to Go: Anytime! Weather in wine country is great all year round, though hot in mid-summer.
How to Arrive: Napa and Sonoma Valleys are about an hour from San Francisco International Airport and Oakland International Airport (drive from Oakland tends to be a little quicker). Unless you plan to hire a driver, renting a car is essential. Uber is available in wine country, but distances can be far, making trips expensive.
Whats to Come:
Montage Los Cabos ★ 12.18
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