A Day in the Napa Valley
Mon, Feb 6th, 2012 by Brook Meyer
I reside only a hop, skip and a taste away from California’s iconic Napa Valley, so to escape the hustle and bustle of San Francisco for a day – I set out to journey through the 30-mile-long valley made up of cute, small towns, wineries small and large with villa-like tasting rooms and tours among the grapes. Beginning at its southern most point in broadly agricultural Carneros to the quaint Main Street of St. Helena at the northern end, the valley is the kind of place I could spend days exploring – but one spectacularly clear, warm and sunny day seemed to stir my soul just fine.
Humming the tunes of UB40’s “Red Red Wine”, my first stop upon entering Napa Valley was the Carneros region, also known as Down-Valley.
DOWN-VALLEY: Carneros and Napa
Buffeted by the fog and winds off the San Francisco Bay, Carneros has the coolest climate in the valley. It is where much of the region’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes are grown. Many of these grape varieties are also used to produce the region’s sparkling wines. – And since it was still early in the day, I found it most appropriate to visit one of my favorite wineries, Domaine Carneros Château.
Specializing in sparkling wines, the Domaine Carneros Château is a classic 18th century château-style compound – a true landmark of the Carneros region. The exteriors leading into the grand entrance offered exquisite views of endless vineyard-covered hills. Once Inside after being promptly seated in their large family-room type salon – one of the various seating options available, I was highly entertained by the sommelier; an older woman with extensive wine knowledge and quite the personality! While enjoying a flight of their sparkling Brut, Brut Rosé and Blanc de Blancs selections, she shared that some glass manufacturers scrape the bottom inside the champagne flute to encourage the formation of bubbles for a better presentation, an interesting tid bit. In between introducing each glass, she told funny stories about past patrons that may or may not have had one too many samplings! I decided in order to avoid becoming the topic of her future conversations; I should take a quick wander through the gift shop and move on to the next stop!
Seven scenic miles north of Carneros, the valley’s largest town and the county seat, Napa – is a destination in itself. Boasting a refurbished riverfront and an architecturally rich downtown that is becoming the Gateway to the Napa Valley, the town puts an emphasis on food, art and music. I was particularly excited to see the specialty food purveyors, farmers’ markets, bakery/cafes and even my favorite ‘food truck’ take-out that featured what Napa Valley does best – serve up fresh and sustainably grown food that is vibrant with flavor. And did I mention the nearby Premium Outlet stores? Yes, I did skip wine tasting in Napa to shop. Be warned… One wine tasting does make all sales look even better!
MID-VALLEY: Yountville, Oakville, and Rutherford
Back on the road again, and a few more miles north of Napa, I travelled through the town of Yountville. A mecca for food connoisseurs – the town serves as home to the three Michelin star rated restaurant, The French Laundry, an American restaurant with French inspirations. At this point, to be honest, I did have to make a personal note to self: Find a date willing to accompany me to this restaurant – as the nine-course meal is $270 priced per person. Yikes!
As I passed through the next town of Oakville on my way to Rutherford for a late lunch I couldn’t help but stop at the Robert Mondavi Winery. I realize it’s a bit commercial or touristy and actually had a flashback of the headache I once acquired from their supermarket level wine, Woodbridge – but, Mondavi is the highest producing wine company in California so I had to see for myself what makes them so popular. And I must admit I was quite impressed. I was welcomed at the mission-style Robert Mondavi Winery by an imposing statue of St. Francis with his arms stretched out across the expanse of the entrance as if to bless the abundant vineyards of this legendary winery.
The bronze and mosaic-tile sculpture by San Francisco artist Beniamino Bufano wears a robe adorning colorful images of birds. That is just one of the few sculptures located throughout the picturesque grounds. The complex included a demonstration vineyard that allowed me to get up close and personal with the grapes – So at one point, I was literally hearing it through the grapevines as others wandered along. It was especially nice to have a glass of wine while strolling through the beautiful expansive gardens and art gallery featuring an eclectic collection of works. Oh and about the wine – I was pleasantly surprised when tasting the 2007 Chardonnay Reserve; good stuff.
Two tastings and a new Coach Bag later – I’m perished so I head into the hills of Rutherford to tantalize my taste buds at Auberge du Soleil Bistro & Bar. Nestled away in the acclaimed Auberge du Soleil Hotel and Spa, the ambiance as well as Mediterranean inspired cuisine was simply stellar. I must admit, I was a bit unsure about the Quail egg that topped my delicate piece of Halibut, but it turned out to be a rather delicious combination. The menu changes frequently so if an entrée intrigues you, try it. It might not be offered next time! And of course, as expected, they have an extensive wine list suitable for all likings. I requested seating on the wraparound deck overlooking all of Napa Valley and was fascinated by some of the most spectacular views from one of the best vantage points in the area. It felt as if the deck literally jutted out from the side of the mountain! After feeling re-energized from a superb lunch, the journey north continued.
UP-VALLEY St. Helena
St. Helena exuded a Main Street-like vibe, while also oozing a certain cosmopolitan glitz and glamour. The boutiques that stretched along the town’s Main Street offered a wide range of flavors suitable – for even the most experienced sweets (or shoe) connoisseur could find something intriguing. A heavenly example was Foot Candy, which carried the latest Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin and Jimmy Choos! And the fabulous Woodhouse Chocolate where white-gloved attendant’s handled chocolates like jewels, and made it feel more like St.-Honoré than St. Helena. Yet the down-home air was never lost, making a comfortable place to relax and enjoy.
St. Helena is home to the second most popular supermarket level brand (if you ask Mondavi); Beringer Vineyards – the oldest continuously operating winery in Napa Valley. Since this well-known label frequents many dining tables across the country, I was curious to see what the hype was all about. I stopped in. Featuring gothic style architecture and having been designated as a Historic District, the interior and exterior of this winery had great character. The main entrance opens into the gift shop and the tasting room bar was tucked away in the rear. As I made my way through to the tasting bar area, I noticed it was quite small and very busy so once served, I roamed the gift shop in between tastings of the wine in order to allow others to cram up to the bar. In an honest evaluation, my supermarket level opinion of Beringer still exists. I did enjoy a 2010 Red Moscato California, a blend of Moscato, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, but overall, the best thing I tasted in there was the $8.00 bag of potato chips I purchased upon departing. Maybe, I need to try it again next time?
My journey for the day is complete and it’s time to return to reality. With the golden reflection on the sunset to my side and the visions of grapes dancing in my head, I reflect on my day’s adventure and realized that there is so much to see and do in Napa Valley – I may need to return sooner rather than later.
Brooke Meyer is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, California (U.S.A.). As an avid traveler, hospitality sales & marketing guru and a Salsa dancing enthusiast, she publishes reviews and cutting-edge articles about travel, the travel industry and Salsa community. Meyer is a VIE contributor for the “Voyager” column.
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