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Rain was a thing in California this past winter. Not the lack of it, for once, which is good news after several years of drought in turn fueled several increasingly bad wild fire seasons, threatening the future of the Napa Valley’s famous crop. The rains boded well for a bountiful juicy fall harvest, Napa’s busiest season for visitors eager for the thrill of the fall grape crush. If the number of new tasting rooms and experiences are anything to go by, Napa, which lies some 65 miles northeast of San Francisco, is far from over.
There are around 55 tasting rooms, wine bars, and wine experiences within walking distance of Downtown Napa, at the valley’s southern tip, and the Napa River Inn on Main Street is a great base camp.
Located on the promenade by the Napa River in the Riverfront District, and set within the historic red brick Napa Mill, rooms here are romantic and have fireplaces to cozy up by. A flower framed balcony overlooking the river is a wonderful effect in some (rates from $250 per night).
At the time of writing, the biggest Napa news was Robert Mondavi Winery opening a hospitality experience, Arch & Tower, at 930 Third St., echoing a trend in wineries offering a downtown outlet.
First Street is where the main action lies. At the Napa County Historical Society, 1219 First St., hear how the indigenous Wappo and Patwin peoples once prospered here.
At the new rococo-splendid Chateau Buena Vista tasting salon, 1142 First St., set in a super-glam room in one the city’s gorgeous turn-of-the-century buildings, savor four distinct Napa Cabernet Sauvignons accompanied by four exquisite chocolates from the onsite Earth and Sky Chocolates. Crisp dark choc enhances a Yountville Cab’s tart cherry notes; a cardamom truffle opens up a sooty, tangy St. Helena; vanilla praline syncs with an earthy Coombsville; and a blackberry thyme choc highlights a fresh juicy fruity Oakville.
Nearby, Acumen Wine’s lounge, 1315 First St., blends art and wine pairing, including live painting from an artist in residence. Tailored tastings — add charcuterie, cheese, or veggie boards — from the Acumen estate, which comprises 116 sustainable and organically certified acres of vines, ranges from a 2013 blend of Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec; while the 2021 Sauvignon Blanc showcases the drought’s affect in intense pineapple and apricot notes before a classic lemony finish.
The new stacked to the rafters Compline Wine Shop, 1300 First St., is a logical next step for Compline Restaurant, a sleek bistro with a contemporary minimalist vibe a few doors away in a courtyard off First. Compline imaginatively showcases the valley’s tastiest produce — almond gazpacho with cucumber and cilantro; strawberry salad with peas and frilly red mustard, for instance. Both shop and restaurant add considerable wine expertise and a great soundtrack. The shop’s curated tasting menus include a Napa & Nearby flight, enjoyed while tunes spin on the record deck.
Nearby, Scala Osteria & Bar, 1141 First St., is a local hangout with an international wine list matched with southern coastal Italian informed dishes — a tangy sole piccate with braised garlicky greens; laced with fresh valley chicory, poached tuna, and chickpeas, the insalata tonno is a meal in one bowl — and excellent pizzas, the latter handily served on the late night menu, too. Enjoy in the fresh blue and white interior, or at a coveted sidewalk table.
A new low-level modernist building expands First Street’s western edge with the spring-opened Serge Sorokko Gallery + Martin Ray Tasting Room, 1500 First St., marking Sonoma-based Martin Ray’s first-ever standalone tasting room. Here, contemporary art is paired with a variety of single vineyard wines in the main gallery, which is open to the public year-round. An adjacent salon hosts private tastings and gatherings, surrounded by another selection of artwork.
First Street’s eastern stretch includes the Oxbow District where the Napa spawned Gott’s Roadside diner, 644 First St. — a burger joint heads above most is a casual spot to enjoy a good bottle of wine with what might be the best Impossible burger ever. Next door, at 610 First St., among the Public Market various eateries, local provisions and bakery stalls, the valley’s incredible produce is displayed, showing what lucky chefs here get to work with.
The Napa Valley Wine Train’s clanging bell marks its progress from Downtown Napa, 1275 McKinstry St.. to St. Helena, trundling through charming towns like Oak Knoll, Yountville, and Rutherford. Near the Rutherford depot, the new Mathew Bruno Rutherford Estate, 1151 Rutherford Road, set in a renovated 1800s home, is a sleek boutique tasting lounge with a wraparound porch overlooking 125-year-old olive trees next to the neighboring Star Vineyard. Play bocce, add a picnic basket curated by the Oakville Grocery, and sip, say, a crisp Los Carneros Blanc de Blancs (méthode champenoise, 100% Chardonnay grape); a floral, mineraly Dry Creek Valley rosé; or a rich cherry accented 2016 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon.
Rutherford’s Sequoia Grove, 8338 St Helena Highway, offers tastings in a relaxing sequoia shaded courtyard and, more formally, inside the majestic Cambium room, where its Taste For Cabernet Wine & Food Experience explores the idea that Cab isn’t just for meat eaters, adding fish dishes paired, too. Each course is tailored to compliment single-vineyard and reserve red wines — such as a chocolatey vanilla noted 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon; or the 2017 Cambium with its rich back cherry and blackcurrant accents.
In St. Helena, flanked by two shaded patios, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ new tasting room, 5766 Silverado Trail, dispenses with its formal bar for a lounge vibe and comfy couches to take in the outstanding view of this noted vineyard’s namesake rocky mountain outcrop above rows upon rows of vines. With the original Fay vineyard, planted by Nathan Fay in 1961, and neighboring S.L.V. in sight, a current tasting flight of four 2019 wines — a Chardonnay and three Cabs — placed a Fay Cab (fruity, floral with a hint of spice) and S.L.V. Cab (honeyed plum-y fruit, chocolate) side-by-side to illustrate what a few feet of separation does for Napa’s intensely terroir driven wines. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars took top prize in the infamous 1976 Judgement of Paris contest, which put American wines on the map. The full contestant list is displayed in the visitor center.
Last year, PRESS restaurant, 587 St. Helena Highway, renewed Napa’s rep as a foodie haunt when it gained a Michelin Guide star. PRESS was also honored with a Michelin Sommelier Award for its all-Napa Valley wine list, reputedly the largest collection of Napa Valley wines in the world, some as old as 70 years.
Over either a four-course or seven-course tasting menu, it is clear the star is unarguably warranted. Where else might the humble turnip be tenderly grilled and graced with a green almond soffit and fava bean tapenade to become a taste spectacle? Of course, meats and fish are similarly thoughtfully treated — just wait till you get to dessert!
Three minutes walk away, the Harvest Inn is set among California redwood trees on eight-acres of grounds abutting Whitehall Lane Winery & Vineyards. An idyllic resort with Arts and Crafts styled “cottages,” some of which overlook Whitehall’s vines and have patios and enormous brick wood-burning fireplaces inside, creating two gorgeous spots to enjoy the complimentary Whitehall Tre Leoni placed in every room (rates from $299 per night).
Top of the Valley
Less than two miles from Calistoga’s center, Solage, Auberge Resorts Collection at 755 Silverado Trail, reflects the gentility of the northern, quieter part of the valley with a tranquil, au nature aesthetic. Sublimely designed studio rooms and suites pair functionality with understated luxury, and include enormous bathrooms with freestanding tubs, outdoor spaces with firepits, and even outdoor bathtubs and showers (rates from $799 per night, third night free).
Picobar is a new casual poolside bar, but the indoor-outdoor Solbar is where the cooking gets seriously good: baby lettuce with peas, radish, and a tangy green goddess dressing; soba noodles with tenderly cured king salmon in a Tsukuba sauce; and roasted cauliflower with chickpeas in a cashew tahini sauce, brightened by mint and cilantro are enjoyed overlooking the palm tree framed Olympic sized pool.
Solage’s adults-only Bathhouse has geothermal pools ranging from icy to 98 degrees, to 103 degrees, which perfectly compliment treatments at the adjacent spa, where a 90-minute deep tissue massage is added bliss.
Calistoga’s long history of spa therapy is due to its natural mineral springs. In Downtown Calistoga, the renovated Dr. Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort & Mineral Springs, now a contemporary take on mid 20th century motels, has a unique spa offering traditional mud baths.
Lying neck deep in squelchy, smelly thick mud and then in a post mudding Epsom Salt bath, and following with a massage is utterly detoxifying and super-relaxing. Follow with some mushroom tea or medicinal mocktails at the outdoor restaurant, House of Better. (Of course, there’s wine, too!)
Nearby Chateau Montelena winery was beautifully portrayed in the 2008 film Bottleshock, which told the story of the 1976 Judgement of Paris and captured this valley in the 1970s as it was launched onto the world wine stage.
Whilst tastings are usually held in the castle-like stone chateau itself, a new outdoor patio way up in the vineyard under a beautiful gnarled old oak tree is part of the new Hillside Terrace Experience, a three-hour grape to glass tour and tasting. Shaded by the noble tree’s wind tousled boughs, gazing over vines upon vines, taking in a 2019 Zinfandel accented with cardamon and juicy fruits; a soft, lemony 2010 Chardonnay; and a 2003 soft cherry and black pepper noted Cab is like time traveling and time standing still, all at once. Call it the Napa effect.
This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: America's most renowned wine country is just getting started