Fall is the perfect time to visit Napa Valley and enjoy the bounty of the harvest and the autumn colors.
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Napa Valley’s name derives from a Wappo Indian word that means, among other things, "plenty." It’s a word that might have forecast the cabernet, pinot noir, and chardonnay grapes that thrive famously in the volcanic soils, or the 4 million visitors who drop by tasting rooms each year to sip the new vintage.
"Plenty" might also have foretold the valley’s bumper crop of food purveyors—stylish gourmet shops, homey country markets, and roadside farms that supply local five-star restaurants with the finest of ingredients. For budding cooks and food aficionados, they offer the chance to sample, snack, and shop your way from San Pablo Bay to Mt. St. Helena, experiencing all the flavors of the world in a single 30-mile stretch.
We’ll tell you where to gather Napa’s finest, from the artisan cheese and exotic condiment to the barrel-aged vinegar and plump organic berry; from locally pressed olive oil to imported charcuterie. Find impeccable "designer" greens or pick your own earth-caked produce. Shop elbow-to-elbow with world-class chefs in manicured food emporiums or come face-to-face with growers on Napa’s rural backroads. It all awaits you amid the vines.
VINES OF DISTINCTION
Quality, not quantity—
Compared to that of the San Joaquin Valley, Napa’s (and Sonoma’s) wine grape yield is much lower. But its wines are considered higher in flavor and quality. Napa’s 32,000 acres of grapevines include the acclaimed varietals, cabernet, pinot noir, merlot, and chardonnay.
Eclectic vintage—The valley’s hot summer days and fog-chilled nights allow grapes to retain the acidity that makes for fresh, lively, and intense wines. From cool San Pablo Bay to the hotter Calistoga, a distance of 25 miles, vintners produce within three major climates. The main winegrowing districts include Carneros, the Rutherford Bench, and Stag’s Leap. "In France, you’d have to travel from Avignon to the Chablis region, 240 miles, to get the same dramatic climatic changes," says Meadowood’s Wine Center Director, John Thoreen. Napa’s wines are as eclectic as its cuisine, which makes them hard to generalize. "I can find local wines for any menu in the world," says Thoreen.
Food and wine pairing—Two guiding principles can apply, says one Napa connoisseur. First, consider the sauce—before the color of the meat. The white meat of chicken enriched with a dark sauce might be better with a red, whereas veal, pork, or pasta dressed lightly might benefit more from chardonnay or sauvignon blanc. Second, let wine perform one of two functions—either contrast with the food or blend with it. For example, sparkling wine is a good complement to calamari, refreshing the palate after the oily fish. However, a coq au vin matched with pinot noir is a nice blend, rather than contrast, of richness.
From the Good Earth
The wine grape may have a virtual monopoly on local soils, but a few folks still plant crops for the common man. You’ll find most of these friendly farmers along Silverado Trail, parallel to Highway 29, selling the seasonal fruits of their labor at terrific prices.
Boyd’s Napa Valley Berry Farm, 1945 Silverado Trail, at Hagen Rd., (707) 255-5505. Open May to Oct., daily 10:30 to 6. Hand-lettered signs announce this tiny Trail-side stand, where the Boyd family sells organic, burst-in-your-mouth berries picked fresh from the farm. Choose from baskets of blue, black, ollalie, rasp, straw, and even boysen, the hybrid berry created here in Napa by Rudolph Boysen.
Big Ranch Farm, 622 Trancas St., at Big Ranch Rd., (707) 224-0611. Open July to Oct., daily 9 to 6. A quick detour west on Trancas brings you to this covered stand edging a broad, furrowed field. Veggies, fruits, and plants are sold, but the highlight is the chance to pick a colorful bouquet for your dinner table. Just grab a bucket and clippers and snip your way through the rows of fluttery pink cosmos, sturdy zinnias, and cheery sunflowers.
Hoffmann Farm, 2125 Silverado Trail, (707) 226-8938. Open Aug. to Nov., daily 9 to 5. Head down the flower-lined driveway and you’ll find longtime farmers John and Margaret Hoffmann selling sweet sugar prunes, persimmons, Bartlett pears, and three varieties of walnuts. Visitors are encouraged to venture into the 23-acre orchard and hand-pick the cream of the crop.
If it’s between April and mid-July, continue a quarter mile farther north on the Trail to the cheerful, white strawberry stand at the edge of a ripening berry field. These big red bruisers practically beg to be dipped in chocolate; buy them by the flat, half flat, or basket.
Stewart’s Farm, Silverado Trail at Deer Park Rd., (707) 967-8360. Open May to Nov., daily 10 to 6. One of the valley’s larger stands, Stewart’s sells produce grown on the adjacent swath of earthy land and nearby farms. Folks swear by their plump tomatoes and sweet summer corn; you’ll also find sun-ripened zucchini, green beans, cherries, apricots, pumpkins, and squash in season. Across Deer Park, a small stand tempts passersby with fresh, juicy peaches, July to mid-August.
Forni Brown Gardens, off Lincoln Ave. in Calistoga, (707) 942-6123. About as high-end as you can get for down-to-earth farmers, these folks provide the nation’s finest restaurants with everything from leeks to arugula. About 99 percent of business is wholesale, but if you’re a diehard gourmet or, say, planning a state dinner, give them a call. Otherwise, pick up unusual vegetable varieties for your garden at their April plant sales.
Three lively farmers markets bring a sense of community to the local food scene, gathering the finest growers from the valley and beyond. In addition to fresh (often organic) fruits, vegetables, edible flowers, and leafy greens, you’ll also find art displays, music, and the balloon-tying Popo the Clown. Locally crafted products also make appearances, like Northwest Connection’s excellent alder-smoked king salmon from Bodega, or Round Pond Olive Oil, made from stone-crushed, Napa-grown olives.
Chef’s Market, Napa Town Center, off First St., (707) 255-8073. Fri. 4 to 9 p.m., May to Sept. The largest of the valley markets, with live entertainment and chef-led cooking demos.
Napa Downtown Farmers Market, West St. Parking Lot, between First and Pearl Sts., (707) 252-7142. Tues. 7:30 to noon, May to Oct.
St. Helena Farmers Market, in Crane Park; Grayson Ave. off Hwy. 29, (707) 252-2105. Fri. 7:30 to 11:30 a.m., May to Oct.
Oakville Grocery Co., Hwy. 29 at Oakville Crossroad, (707) 944-8802. Open daily 9 to 6. Once the place to mail a letter or buy bread, eggs, and barbed wire, this country store is now an upscale world of specialty foods, take-out dishes, fine wines, and espresso drinks. "Taste-drive" condiments like pepper and ancho chile jam, Tibetan barbecue marinade, fire-roasted pepper tapenade, or their fruit-laden preserves, which have a devoted following. Squeeze down narrow aisles past arborio rice, teas, local Tuscan Pepper oil, and Sonoma balsamic. A counter with tawny wheels of aged cheese, ripe Bries, and Camemberts is delectably fleshed out with crocks of cracked green or oil-cured olives, cured meats, and smoked fish.
Dean & Deluca, 607 So. St. Helena Hwy. (Hwy. 29), (707) 967-9980. Open Mon.-Sat. 8-7, Sun. 10-7. Cheese producers here claim they "could tell by the taste of the milk where an animal has grazed." Thus these purveyors of fine food, wine, and kitchenware (from New York’s SoHo) comb not only Napa, but the world for specialties like caviar and truffles, charcuterie from Italy, Spain, and France, oils, vinegars, jams, mustards, and French copperware. Bright, spacious aisles are full of artful displays, including sculptured vegetables bottled in clear marinades. Everything looks carefully picked to fit the "hautest" of cuisines, from locally grown Forni Brown greens and fresh porcini to the Belgian chocolates, pastries, and deli-encased polenta cakes, roasted garlic, and rotisserie corn.
Tra Vigne Cantinetta, 1050 Charter Oak Ave., off Hwy. 29, St. Helena; (707) 963-8888. Open daily 11:30 to 6 (Fri. and Sat. until 6:30). Step into this tiny gourmet deli and you’ll be hit by an aromatic wall of baking butter and sugar pastry. Its source lies behind the tall counter, where chefs whip up creamy cakes, chocolate tortes, and daily specials like chilled strawberry soup, polenta-stuffed peppers, and cheese-laden Sicilian pizza. While you wait for your order, sample the latest flavor-infused oils and dressings from Tra Vigne chef Michael Chiarello, who launched his Consorzio line here four years ago. This fall, the Cantinetta will be sampling the newest of Napa Valley Kitchen’s chef-inspired lines: Molly Katzen’s Vegetable Heaven.
V. Sattui, 1111 White Lane, St. Helena, (707) 963-7774. Open daily 9 to 6. Driving up Highway 29, you might see what looks like a raucous family reunion sprawled across a tree-shaded lawn. Welcome to V. Sattui, theplace to assemble and consume a gourmet picnic. The secret of this picnic popularity is the winery’s cavernous deli, home to everything from goose pâté and Westphalian ham to salty Mytzithra sheep cheese and California smoked jack. Round out your basket with marinated garlic bites, cranberry apricot mustard, and chocolate-dipped macaroons, then grab a bottle of strawberry-sweet Gamay Rouge from the wine store and head outside toward gastronomic hedonism.
Genova’s, 1550 Trancas St., Napa, (707) 253-8686. Open Mon.-Sat. 9-6:30, Sun. 9-5. This archetypal Italian deli is hidden in a bland strip mall on a busy thoroughfare. But inside, Little Italy thrives with friendly staff, Italian music, hanging cheeses, garlic braids, pepperoni, and other cured meats. Genova’s has a good selection of Italian wines, a well-stocked deli case with prepared meats, marinated foods, and sandwiches. Everything quintessentially Italian can be found here—from mozzarella, cannoli, and torrone to sausage and roasted peppers. Dawdle at an espresso bar or tables out front.
Pometta’s Deli, Hwy. 29 at Oakville Grade, (707) 944-2365. Open daily 9 to 5 (closed Sun. from Nov. to Jan.) No far-out condiments here, just an affordable, down-to-earth alternative to the glitzy places. Pometta’s does carry its own Muffaletta Garlic Salsa, hand-cranked pasta, and a few packaged goodies, but the best reason to stop here is to relax al fresco on the back patio with a homemade deli dish or Sicilian sandwich. Horseshoe pits are also here for your pleasure. Call ahead for a picnic basket or to have anything from your breakfast to your wedding catered.
Gordon’s Cafe & Wine Bar, 6770 Washington St., Yountville, (707) 944-8246. More restaurant than market, this friendly country café has one wall stacked with locally crafted condiments, jams, pastas, wines from small wineries, and a "Gordon’s great find"—a 3-liter can of California extra virgin olive oil for about $27. Expect to leave with some of Gordon’s savory tarts and salads in your picnic basket.
Vallerga’s Market, 3385 Solano Ave., 1525 Imola Ave., 301 First St.; Napa; (707) 253-2620. Open daily 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. For the past 51 years, Napa’s homegrown supermarket chain has been featuring local produce and products, like Napa Valley Pantry’s lemon pecan waffle mix, Wine Country Kitchens’ chili garlic vinegar, spices from Herbs of the Napa Valley, Biscotti Nucci, and more. Their hearty deli sandwiches will keep you going through a day of shopping.
Sunshine Foods, 1115 Main St., St. Helena, (707) 963-7070. Open Mon. to Sat. 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sun. 8 to 8. Stop here for anything from sunblock to sandwiches. A sea of green aprons greets you upon entering, their wearers happy to help you select the sweetest cantaloupe or the creamiest Brie.
Palisades Market, 1506 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga, (707) 942-9549. Open daily 8 to 7. The kind of quaint little grocery that makes you wish you lived in a small town. If Martha Stewart came to Calistoga, she’d shop here for bath products, wicker baskets, marinades, flowers, Forni Brown produce, and maybe even a gourmet deli sandwich to go.
Look who’s cooking
With so many world-class chefs drawn to Napa Valley and a bounty of good raw ingredients at the ready, cooking classes and seminars abound throughout the year. The following are some of the most notable—call or write for upcoming schedules.
Cakebread Cellars, P.O. Box 216, Rutherford 94573; (707) 963-5221. Offers its annual American Harvest Workshop, September 13-16, featuring guest chefs from around the world.
Trefethen Vineyards, P.O. Box 2460, Napa, 94558; (707) 255-7700. Four of America’s finest chefs demonstrate annually for a small class at Trefethen. Ask about the summer/fall ’99 series.
Napa Valley College, 1088 College Ave., St. Helena, 94562; (707) 967-2930. Some of California’s best—Carlo Middione, Alain Rondelli, Nancy Oaks, John Ash—have taught here. Request a brochure of the many classes—food/wine pairing, cuisines of the world, baking, holiday menus, and much more. Classes range from $50 to $75, a real bargain.
Robert Mondavi Winery, P.O. Box 106, Oakville, 94562; (707) 968-2100. The Great Chefs program offers two- or three-day "gourmet retreats" in spring and fall. This fall’s guest chefs include Michel Trama, owner of the two-star l’Aubergade restaurant in France, and Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton, owners of Campanile in Los Angeles. Fees are rather steep, but include classes, lodging, all meals, wine tasting, side trips, table-setting seminars, and many amenities.
"WEST" POINT OF CHEFS
Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, St. Helena, (707) 967-2320. The CIA, which trains professional chefs of the highest caliber, couldn’t have picked a better place to link farm, vineyard, and chef in this historic 1889 building built of locally quarried tufa stone. You’ll agree as you stroll the Cannard Herb Garden in front of Greystone, with seven terraces of herb, onion, and garlic beds; an edible flower and herbal tea garden; and a seasonal salad greens plot. Vegetables, fruits, and flowers—many from rare and heirloom seeds—are grown at the Organic Garden across Highway 29.
The CIA’s Campus Store, open daily 10 to 6, offers an array of packaged ingredients from around the world, as well as high-quality cookware, more than 1,500 cookbook titles, and tools and accessories for the professional chef. To tour the building, show up in the atrium Monday to Friday at 10:30, 1:30, or 3:30; $3 per person.Cooking demo tours begin at the same times on Saturday and Sunday; $7.50 per person.
STRIKE IT RICH IN OIL
Napa Valley Olive Oil Company, 835 Charter Oak, off Hwy. 29, St. Helena, (707) 963-4173. Open daily 8 to 5:30. Step inside this dimly lit barn and you’ll enter a world rife with Italian market smells. The Tuscan owners have been bottling and selling olive oil for 32 years, long before the mad upscaling of Napa. There’s nothing slick about this place except the oil: Salami links are strewn over an old oil press, bargains prevail helter-skelter—dried beans and fruit in barrels, shelves of pasta, pancetta, pignoli, roasted peppers, meats, cheeses. Outside, picnic in a tree-shaded area next to a red Coke machine.
St. Helena Olive Oil Company, 345 La Fata St., St. Helena, (707) 967-1003. Open daily 9 to 5. From Hwy. 29, go east on Dowdell Dr., right on La Fata. Everything about this company reflects the care and integrity of founder Peggy O’Kelly—from the purity of the locally pressed, extra virgin olive oil to the vanilla beans that are used instead of processed sugar to sweeten their berry balsamic vinegars. Stop by the new, Italian-style tasting room and sample their barrel-aged cabernet vinegar and lemon-infused oils.
EAT YOUR DAILY BREAD
Sciambra French Bakery, 685 S. Freeway Dr., off Imola Ave., Napa, (707) 252-3072. Open weekdays 10 to 4, Sat. 10 to 3. Step into this family-run bakery and you’ll be greeted by a motherly Barbara Sciambra and a bounty of rosemary loaves, focaccia bread, croutons, fruit pies, and cookies. Peek at the bottom of their specialty loaves and you may find brick-shaped imprints—the mark of their huge, 1920s oven, brought brick by brick from the Vallejo bakery where Carl Sciambra got his start 50 years ago.
Alexis Baking Company, 1517 Third St., Napa, (707) 258-1827. Open weekdays 6:30 to 6 (Thurs. and Fri. until 8), Sat. 7:30 to 3, Sun. 8 to 2. "The ABC," as locals have christened it, serves triple duty as a premier caterer, bakery, and café. Their baked goods selection reflects Napa’s trademark mingling of American and European flavors—you’ll find French pastries next to Asiago bread, German tortes alongside russet potato hamburger buns. The café fare is equally eclectic—everything from Thai beef salad to homemade carrot ginger soup.
The Model Bakery, 1357 Main St., St. Helena, (707) 963-8192. Open Tues. to Sat. 7 to 6, Sun. 8 to 4. This building has housed a bakery for the past 75 years, and the Model Bakery continues the tradition with temptingly decadent desserts, morning pastries, and their specialty white and whole wheat sourdough. Everything here is made from scratch, including the daily salad, soup, sandwich, and pizza specials perfect for a quick, reasonably priced lunch on your way up valley.
Napa Valley Ovens, 1355 Lincoln Ave., (707) 942-0777. Open daily 7 to 3. The place to get hearty, super-crusty bread like you’d find on Old World tables. Keeping local customers, restaurants, and groceries stocked with the stuff is a 24-hour job—baking is done round the clock, with two bread shifts each day. Pick up a fresh loaf for home or stay and enjoy a flaky pastry, a latte, and prime window-side people-watching.
Photography courtesy of Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published in September 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up Pick up AAA's Wineries of Napa and Sonoma Counties map.
- Bring empty containers for u-pick produce and fresh flowers.
- An ice-filled cooler is a must if that gourmet Gorgonzola is going to survive the trip home. It’ll also keep fruits and veggies from wilting in the car.
- Wear sturdy shoes if you plan to visit produce stands—gravel shoulders and earthy fields can wreak havoc on a pair of pumps.
- Carry cash—many roadside stands aren’t equipped to handle credit cards or checks.