Okay, this is the final post from our trip to Napa Valley — pinkey swear promise. I whittled the more than 300 photos down to these, but there are still A LOT of pics. So if you’re not the type of person who enjoys looking at other people’s attempts to capture their amazing vacation memories in waaaay too many photos of lots of the same things, sit this one out and check back in a day or two for regularly scheduled food-related content.
This was our first trip to Napa, and we planned it without a whole lot of research or notice. We just knew we wanted to get away for a few days of relaxation, cooler weather, spa time, good food and lots of wine. We ended up finding a hotel in Calistoga that met just about all of our requirements. If you’re not familiar with Napa Valley, it’s a valley (duh) about 30 miles long and made up of several small cities or towns off the main road, Highway 29. The city of Napa is at the southernmost end and Calistoga is the furthest north. Most of the wineries are located in between, all along Highway 29. We enjoyed Calistoga, but next time we would probably stay in St. Helena or Yountville, which are more centrally-located. We thought Calistoga was a quaint little town and it reminded us a bit of the downtown area in one of our other favorite places on Earth, Banff in Canada. Calistoga may not be the ideal Napa location for everyone — one of our waiters during the trip referred to it as “rustic,” and the look on his face suggested that he was being kind in choosing that word — but it was quiet, relaxing and more than met our needs for that particular trip. It is also known for its spas, which only adds to its leisurely feel and pace.
We loved our hotel in Calistoga — the Mount View Hotel and Spa. We booked one of the “winery artist cottages” and it was perfect. The cottages feature a private patio with a Jacuzzi tub (what better than a nice soak after a day of wine tasting), a small but nicely-appointed room (wet bar and mini-fridge came in handy), a complimentary bottle of wine selected by the winery after which the cottage is named (ours was Terra Valentine), and a little artist easel, canvas and paints (how cute is that?). We had excellent service at Mount View as well — everyone who helped us with various reservations could not have been nicer or more accommodating. In addition, two of the best restaurants in Calistoga (Jole and Barolo) flank the hotel on either side. We had wonderful meals at each of them.
This is the plant-tree-canopy-path from the main building of the hotel to the pool and cottages. It is lit up with little twinkle lights at night. So pretty.
Mount View has a really nice pool area with a glam, yet relaxing vibe. We spent some time lounging and reading there prior to our spa appointments one morning, with fuzzy bathrobes over our swimsuits because it actually gets a little chilly overnight during Northern California summers. (Our Texas and Oklahoma readers may have just shed a few tears (us too), trying to recall a day when the overnight low temp was anything under 80 degrees.)
We began each day at Mount View with complimentary pastries and fruit, delivered to our door and enjoyed on our patio. We also ate one of our new favorite-ever lunches there — the Tri-Tip Sandwich (so good it deserves capital letters) from Buster’s. We were so inspired by that delicious sandwich that we made smoked tri-tip almost immediately upon returning home.
We ended each night at Mount View with a soak in our Jacuzzi tub. Among the many nice touches at Mount View — a little rubber ducky sitting on the Jacuzzi and hotel staff who cleaned our room leaving a new “fizz bomb” of bath salts to use in the Jacuzzi every day.
In addition to relaxing and eating good food, we did our fair share of wine tasting in Napa Valley, as one does. After our V.I.P. treatment at Trinchero, we figured we were pros at this whole tasting thing and should check out the stellar views from the tall knoll where the Sterling Winery sits. Do not make the same rookie mistake of trying to do this on a Saturday afternoon. Turns out that most of the other touristas in Napa (and their children, which was just weird) had the exact same brilliant idea. The line for the tram that runs up to the winery was long, crowded and sweaty. Quite a change from our previous tasting experience. But the ride up was gorgeous.
And we were rewarded for our efforts by a nice glass of white wine once we reached the top.
Your reward for sticking with this post so far is a rare sighting of Mr. and Mrs. FoodieLawyer together in a picture. A photo in which my eyes are actually open.
One of the things we especially liked about Sterling was the self-guided tour, which allows you to stroll around the winery reading various informative plaques explaining the winemaking process, while stopping at strategically-placed tasting tables for a sample.
And the other thing was the view. Feast your eyes.
Speaking of feasting, we have to mention one of our other favorite meals from the trip — our lunch on the lovely patio at Tra Vigne in St. Helena.
Our friendly and incredibly knowledgeable waiter at Tra Vigne recommended the house-made mozzarella for an appetizer. It is called “Mozzarella Cheese ‘Al Minuto'” because it is made at the moment it is ordered. If you’ve never had mozzarella cheese this fresh, you’ve never tasted the best mozzarella cheese you will ever eat. We’ve had it one other time, when Dan’s brother Sean was
obsessing experimenting with amateur cheese-making and served us a batch. Tra Vigne’s was equally amazing.
I couldn’t decide between two of the pasta entrees, so our waiter said he would bring me slightly smaller portions of both. We loved that guy. The Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli was soft, light and fresh with subtle cheese flavor, a nice crunch from the asparagus and almost a whisper of red sauce. Really good.
The Rigatoni Alla Carbonara was a completely different flavor profile — rich, with hearty bacon flavor and just the right amount of bite to the pasta. After eating most of both plates, I think I finally concluded that the rigatoni was my favorite. Maybe. Who am I kidding — I would order both again, at the same time, on our next visit.
Dan had the Sage Infused Pappardelle tossed with braised rabbit ragu, wild mushrooms and cheese. He said it was rich with a subtle gamey and meaty flavor from the rabbit (which he likes — apparently that’s how Thumper is supposed to taste.) Our waiter friend gave us several other recommendations for the Napa experience, which we are sharing here because he hit it out of the park with our amazing lunch that day. Thanks to him, our list for future Napa visits includes: the winery Far Niente, the restaurant Bistro Jeanty, and either Oak Knoll Inn or Poetry Inn for lodging.
Guess who’s thirsty?! Time for more wine tasting. We decided to hire a driver for our last day in Napa, mostly because the choices of which wineries to visit can be overwhelming since there are so many. And a little because we wanted to get our taste on without having to worry about designating one of us as
sucker driver. The always-helpful folks at our hotel hooked us up with our new friend Said Jarrar — driver and tour guide extraordinaire. Said is a very charming gentleman who escorted us from the lobby of Mount View to his handsome black SUV, and began our journey by asking what kind of wine country tour interested us — quantity? quality? whites? reds? views? caves? etc? We told him that we wanted some beautiful views, maybe something off the beaten path, and we like pretty much all wine. He took us to four wineries that we likely would not have found on our own, and the day far exceeded our expectations. We highly recommend hiring a driver for at least one day in Napa (can be pricey – but so worth it), especially if you only have a few days there. And no, we did not get bowls of soup with those hats, but we also did not get sunburned, thankyouverymuch.
First up was the Frank Family Vineyards, with casual grounds that belie their sophisticated wines. We were lucky enough to arrive at the same time as a lovely couple who are club members at the winery. A couple of friendly remarks and jokes later, we found ourselves shown to a separate tasting area with our new friends, where we sampled several wines that weren’t listed on the tasting menu and wouldn’t have been offered to us otherwise. Membership apparently has its privileges. Plus, we really enjoyed sipping and conversing with these Sacramento natives who gave us a more “local” winery experience than we would have had on our own.
The next winery we visited was Vine Cliff. The tastings are by appointment only, but Said hooked us up while we were schmoozing with club members at Frank Family Vineyards. Because that’s how we roll in wine country. Wow. The pictures do not do this winery justice, partly because it was so sunny that day (poor me and my champagne problems, I know). Our guide for the tour was Mark of the Many Hats — tour guide, chef, event organizer, and other titles I forget. Vine Cliff is a small-er winery with not very many employees. It is owned and operated by the Sweeney family, who apparently purchased the property for a steal after the state of California had obtained it in foreclosure. The Sweeney’s certainly made the most of the land and soil, creating one of the most beautiful places we have ever been, in addition to high-end wines among the best we tasted.
I’m at a loss to describe how breathtaking this landscape is. Seriously.
But wait. We have yet to enter the wine caves.
The caves also defy accurate description. Imagine entering a quiet, rounded cavernous space with the most perfectly cool temperature and the faint scent of oak-y/wine-y aging barrels. Then add the soft glow of Murano glass sconces and beautiful, important works of art displayed at the end of each large corridor. But somehow make that all even better than it sounds.
This is the main room in the caves where they host events. I officially give up any further attempts to describe. I will just say that we thoroughly enjoyed our tour with Mark (and Dan officially wants his job), the Vine Cliff winery, the wines — everything. If you are in Napa, make an appointment and go there. Even better, have Said take you.
Here is Said, telling us about the historical history of this cart thing (yeah, I wasn’t listening) parked in front of the next stop on our tour — Silverado.
See? We’re not the only ones who enjoy that wine barrel aroma. We like it so much in fact, that we purchased some oak wine barrel smoking chunks for BBQ purposes. And, we used them for smoking the tri-tip when we got home from our trip. Apparently we really, really enjoyed our Napa Valley experience.
We told Said we were interested in a nice view, and he delivered. The Silverado Vineyards have a big, open patio with an expansive view of the vines and mountains.
Such as this, except with more of the same when you turn to the left and to the right. I could have stared at that view all day.
But Said had one more winery in store for us, and it was the perfect end to our tasting tour. Alpha Omega is country elegance on the inside…
…with valley vistas on the outside. There is a shaded patio with lots of comfortable seating to laze about, sipping your tastings while looking out at the infinity pond against the vineyards to the right…
…and the fountains to the left. As incredible as the more elevated views from the other wineries were, we really appreciated seeing things from this lower perspective too.
Overall, Napa was among our top 5 vacations and places to visit. It is comparable to Italy — with good wine, great food, gorgeous country and enviable lifestyle — but everyone (pretty much) speaks English and there is time enough for only one movie on the flights over and back. To quote our sister-in-law, it is magical. Well played, Napa Valley. We will be back.