Friends had raved about Northern California’s Napa Valley, so last summer my husband and I deviated from our annual family visit to San Diego and saw a bit of wine country before heading south. Problem was, we had only one night and the better part of two days to spend there; plus, I had no time to plan. Turns out, none of that was a problem. We had a fabulous time.
I downloaded Fodor’s California onto my iPad, the second time I have bought the Kindle version of a travel guide and also the last; it’s too hard to flip the pages back and forth online. The information was helpful though, in deciding what to see and where to stay and dine, as were the Open Table and Trip Advisor apps.
With less than two weeks to go, I had no idea where to stay, or how far anything was from anything else, so I winged it. Napa? Yountsville? Calistoga? Rutherford? We picked St. Helena (pronounced Hell-EE-na), where the Culinary Institute of America West is located, because Fodor called it “charming.” Couldn’t have chosen better. We booked a room at Vineyard Country Inn based on the number of Trip Advisor stars and the price ($263 a night, fairly cheap for Napa). I tried unsuccessfully for lunch or dinner reservation at the iconic French Laundry (you have to call three months ahead) but managed to secure a 5:30 dinner reservation at the also famous Auberge de Soleil, which I figured would work because we would be on California time.
Piece of advice: Fly into Oakland or San Jose, not San Francisco. It took us two hours to negotiate the crowded airport and ridiculous rental car area, only to emerge with our “bargain” ($600 plus-a-week) mid-size car. Luckily, the trip to Napa was a straight short hour and 40 minutes, so even though we were stuck on the Bay Bridge at 1 p.m., we still able to see two wineries before checking into our hotel at 4:30. First stop was Charles Krug, the oldest operating winery in the Napa Valley. We had heard you needed reservations, but for most wineries that seems to apply only if you want a private tasting. Instead, we stood at the attractive, not-very-crowded bar and ordered two tastings. (Tastings are three or four wines, usually three reds (a cab, a pinot, maybe a zin and typically a sauvignon blanc).
The cost at the tasting rooms we visited was on average $16-35 per tasting, and it seems you get a bigger or smaller pour depending on how busy it is and whether person behind the bar likes you). We enjoyed chatting with the winemakers/bartenders, some of whom have college degrees in wine-making. You can buy (and ship) wine by the case, but we selected one bottle of what we liked best and realized we probably could have shared a tasting, which we did in a couple of other places. We also stopped for a tasting at the Beringer Winery just down Route 29. That road and the sort of parallel Silverado Trail are dotted nonstop with wineries with both familiar (Domaine Chandon, Cakebread, Mondavi) and exotic (Del Dotto, Turnbull, Cardinale). Beringer is generally considered to be the most beautiful of the older wineries, with the family estate and the winery open for tour. We didn’t have time to tour the wineries we visited, but if you never have seen wine-making (we both had), it would be worth touring.
By the time we checked into the Vineyard Country Inn, a pink confection that looks like Renoir or Monet might have designed it, it was too late to make it to Auberge, so we cancelled and booked a 7:30 spot through Open Table at Archetype, right on St. Helena’s Main Street. Auberge seriously couldn’t have been any better. Owned and designed by an architect, the Archetype offered stunning décor and memorable food and service. The roasted fig salad was to die for, and there was plenty of beef for my carnivorous husband—short ribs were his choice. It’s sometimes easy to forget that California is cattle country.
Back at the inn, we enjoyed our “room”— actually a cottage with a small living room, fireplace, two vanities and a small porch. The next morning, we mingled with other guests at the tasty European breakfast served buffet style in a country French dining room. Then we took off for two more wineries—Hall, a newer family venture that locals recommended and in contrast to most is ultramodern in design and features an outstanding art collection, as well as bocce courts among the grapes. Our last stop was Round Pound, a small, quite expensive winery recommended by Mt. Lebo friends. It was the only place that demanded reservations, but my salesman husband managed to smooth talk us in, and I am glad he did, for their wines were a cut above some we had sampled.
We bought one or two bottles everywhere we stopped and headed for Carmel, LA and finally San Diego. Our only regret was that we had not had time to stop at our alma mater Markham winery. By the time we boarded the plane for Pittsburgh, every last bottle had been gifted or consumed (except one $150 bottle from Hall that we’re saving for a special occasion.)
We didn’t ride the wine train. We didn’t visit very many wineries. We didn’t shop other than at the winery gift shops. But we fit a lot into our two days—enough to see that Napa would be a relaxing place to spend much more time, especially if you like red wine (which I really don’t). Maybe we’ll go back, or maybe next time we’ll try Sonoma.