Two Views of Napa

One car. Two travelers. Two different takes on Napa Valley in the heart of California's wine country.

mustard growing in Napa vineyards, image

Mustard brightens the vineyards in Napa Valley in spring.

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The crowded Napa Valley? Never mind those 4.7 million yearly visitors who make it one of California’s busiest destinations—up there with Disneyland and Universal Studios. I’m thrilled every time I crest the bridge over the Napa River and peer up along what in 1883 Robert Louis Stevenson called the valley’s "long green strath." Above it rise the volcanic crags at Stags Leap, the conifer-clad Mayacamas range, and far to the north the looming bulk of 4,343-foot Mount St. Helena. And of course the 45,000 acres of prim and pampered vineyards, source of the best wines made in the United States, some say in the world. My pal Jennifer and I picked a day to cover the valley and compare notes—to the extent that in a single outing you can get a feel for a region with five towns, 400 wineries, as many restaurants and cafes, 100 inns, 45 galleries and museums, three state parks, 10 golf courses, and shopping opportunities beyond number.—DW

I have nothing against Napa. I love its burnt umber landscape, I’m always game for a luxurious meal, and Lord knows I enjoy a good glass of wine. But while I live just an hour from this beautiful piece of Tuscany in California, I almost never seem to make it up for a visit. Why is that? Because on a busy weekend scoring a table at one of the many remarkable restaurants, like Kuleto’s Martini House, can require reserving weeks in advance? Because I can’t afford $480 for a night at the Carneros Inn? Or is it because my trips to Napa always seem to boil down to a long, sunbaked crawl along congested Highway 29, nursing a mild hangover while looking for a place to buy a Diet Coke?—JR

Our Saturday began with doughnuts—fresh, warm minidoughnuts tossed in cinnamon sugar. We found them at the Boon Fly Cafe on Highway 121 at the valley’s southernmost end. Sipping dark coffee while scanning our itinerary in the bright restaurant, I noted that we were due promptly at Havens Wine Cellars. Up a narrow lane south of Yountville, Havens is an old-style Napa gem renowned for its mouth-filling reds—cabernet, merlot, syrah—and for its albarino, a crisp, apple-scented white from a little-known Spanish grape. After swirling, sniffing, and spitting several pours with genial weekend "wine informant" Peter Robichaud, then basking in the alluring vanilla scent of French oak barrels stacked five high, I walked out $90 poorer but richer by three special-occasion bottles.—DW

After the Boon Fly’s steamy, pillowy pastries—doughnuts this delicious always merit a detour—I was still in a buoy- ant mood when we pulled up at the diminutive tasting room at Havens. "We have some new tasting fees," said Robichaud as soon as we stepped inside. I know some visitors abuse tasting privileges. But fees, which are less common in other wine areas, have become the rule around Napa. Choosing wines to love means judiciously sampling the wares. Should you have to shell out $15 for a few sips, as you do here in the "reserve" tasting?—JR

I was still regaling Jennifer with the merits of the beef daube I planned to serve with the merlot when we pulled up at Yountville’s Napa Valley Museum, a boxy 1990s edifice well endowed with small treasures: a million-year-old horse molar unearthed in St. Helena; shiny black arrowheads and knife blades knapped from local obsidian by the Wappo people, the region’s pre-European inhabitants; an iron-hinged tortilla press that saw rough service in the Mexican era, circa 1840. Antiquities also ruled down on Yountville’s Washington Street, where in the Antique Fair we ogled a soldered copper washbowl and tank imported from France and a towering walnut armoire before strolling down the street for lunch at Redd, the semi-eponymous restaurant of chef Richard Reddington, formerly of the world-class Auberge du Soleil across the valley.—DW

That rustic tortilla press and vintage shots of horse-drawn carts hauling wine grapes embodied everything appealing about Napa. And everything appalling was captured in a series of oversize glossy photos celebrating the area’s contemporary architecture. There was Opus One, where a tasting is $25, emerging like an alien spaceship from a preternaturally green lawn. There was Dominus Estate, a virtually windowless stone bunker by the same architects who designed London’s Tate Modern. Showy, intimidating, cutting-edge, chilly—they are what I expect from a maker of microchips, not merlot.

I’ve always had a soft spot for serene little Yountville, but I find the shopping in town is a bizarre blend of the stratospherically expensive and the utterly unappealing. That towering armoire? A towering $28,000. At least I could see its charm, which wasn’t true of the gaudy $5,000 speckled white lynx coat I found across the street, not to mention the six-packs of beef-flavored nonalcoholic beer for dogs on sale for $11 at a neighboring boutique.—JR

Redd’s gray-and-eggshell decor, dubbed "urbane" and "minimalist" by the Michelin Guide, seemed gauged to put the food at center stage. I had grilled quail served on lacy frisee and tangy green lentils, all dabbed with a silky, salty, smoky ham hock emulsion (yep, that’s pork foam, and it was divine). Caramelized scallops—my second course—arrived on a pale expanse of minced and pureed cauliflower, sliced almonds, and golden raisins on a platter whose wide rims were stippled artfully with black balsamico. It tasted operatic and vanished in no time, along with a racy glass of Joseph George sauvignon blanc, a wine so local that the grapes grew a mere quarter mile away, or so our waiter said as we paid up after splitting a dessert and beat it for Oakville, to Robert Mondavi Winery.—DW

My hamachi sashimi appetizer was as tasty as the quail—can a person ever get enough hamachi?—and it came in a generous, opalescent heap. For an entree, I ordered the fatty pork belly, my favorite cut of pig and a very, very guilty pleasure. Alas, the dish was almost inedibly salty, drenched in sodium-packed soy and hoisin sauces. As for Dan’s nice sauvignon blanc? A studiously light pour upped our bill by $10. I feel a diner deserves transcendence in a place like this, where a lunch for two with tip runs $120.—JR

There we joined a multinational tour group of 14 under the tutelage of 64-year-old Channing Rudd, who plied us with wine lore for well more than our allotted hour and a quarter. "Napa’s modern era began in 1966, when Bob Mondavi built this mission-style winery," Rudd said. We ambled past rows of vines and into the fermentation room. "It’s always 58 degrees in here," he said. "That’s the temperature at which you should store and serve all wines." We peered at the 5,000-gallon oak tanks, like 56 giant barrels standing on end. "Stainless steel tanks, what most wineries now use, they were Bob’s idea," Rudd said. "But his son Tim convinced him to go back to making our cabernet and merlot in these big oak tanks for more complex flavors." He led us through a dim room lined with 1,200 oak barrels branded with their manufacturers’ French names—Vicard, Ermitage, Boutes, Demptos—then sat us at a long plank table to sip and spit some of the winery’s latest: a fume blanc, a syrah, and a cabernet that fully deserved the sober consideration we gave them before scooting away through the gift shop, hoping we wouldn’t miss the olive oil tasting up at Round Pond.—DW

Mondavi’s man Rudd did his amiable wiseacre best to educate us about his boss’s noble introduction of high-concept winemaking to the Napa Valley. But after our three-course lunch, his well-rehearsed spiel on vine-row cover crops, Bordeaux varietals, and Brix levels began to drag a bit. Dan couldn’t stop asking questions; I couldn’t stop yawning.

Comparing pungent olive oils was a rich experience. But Meyer lemon olive oil? If you ever doubted that Napa is the world capital of outre condiments, just spend a few minutes browsing at the renowned Oakville Grocery, where you’ll find black fig and olive tapenade, sake wasabi mustard, chocolate pear cabernet sauce, and more. Yet after sampling the delicately citrus-scented oil at Round Pond, I shelled out for a tiny ampoule to try on a green salad at home.—JR

Standing with our host in the open air beside the huge Italian olive-crushing machine, its pair of one-ton granite milling rollers poised like massive skate wheels on a granite slab, we clutched little blue glasses to sip a piquant blend of oils pressed from coratina, frantoio, leccino, and pendolino olives plucked off the estate’s 2,200 trees earlier this year.—DW

St. Helena—adorable, jampacked—is indeed a perfect place for aspirational shopping. As soon as I put aside $545 for a pair of white patent leather Manolo Blahnik pumps, I’m heading straight to Footcandy. When I inherit a fabulous summer mansion from a long-lost great-aunt and require a $3,500 warped, stained, cracked, dirty—but French!—butcher block, you’ll find me, with wallet in hand, at St. Helena Antiques.—JR

We discovered yet more olive oil—along with carved olive-wood salad servers, spoons, and mortar-and-pestle sets—at Olivier Napa Valley, a kitchen emporium that’s one of some 50 specialty shops on or just off Main Street in St. Helena. The town is a spendthrift’s paradise: Woodhouse Chocolate, Model Bakery, St. Helena Antiques, River House Books, St. Helena Wine Center, and Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company, where you can pick up organic Timor or Celebes Kalossi beans and a T-shirt emblazoned with the chemical structure of caffeine.—DW

Bees? Bees! I am terrified of bees but liked seeing them through a thick pane of glass. The store’s merchandise, however, gave me an inkling of how valley visitors could spend a cool $63 million last year on goodies other than wine: heart-shaped candles, ceramic frogs, "pet mice" cat toys, jigsawed likenesses of James Dean and equally fetching Labrador retrievers.—JR

We had plans to indulge ourselves before dinner up the highway at one of Calistoga’s famous hot springs but couldn’t face steamy mineral baths on a warm afternoon. Instead we roamed Lincoln Avenue, the town’s main drag. Cheerful chatter and loud laughter flooded from the open windows of cafes lining the street between the art galleries and jewelry shops. I led the way into cluttered Hurd Beeswax Candles, which I’d heard keeps a colony of bees. Sure enough, they were there atop a slab of honeycomb in a hive fixed to the wall, visible through a glass window.—DW

The Calistoga Inn wasn’t putting on airs, unlike our lunch spot, and it won’t linger in my memory—except for its collection of vintage brown and white serving platters decorated with strutting barnyard turkeys. But the cheeseburger (nicely rare and a bargain at $11.75) did, in fact, hit the spot, as did the frosty glass of house-brewed ale. A burger and a beer: not exactly a glittering finale to a Napa Valley excursion. Must be why it felt just perfect.—JR

The buzz of the hive, the sweet smell of beeswax—I could have lingered, but Jennifer was pacing. We strolled over for dinner at the Calistoga Inn, Restaurant, and Brewery to the sound of hollers from the bar. In keeping with the place’s rustic feel—old doors tipped against the walls served for decor in our dining room—she ordered a cheeseburger (wonderfully juicy) while I chose the pot roast (less so). It felt apt: back down to earth after our flights of fancy. But did we taste the essence of the valley? We didn’t float in a balloon, see Old Faithful Geyser spout, spy art at the Hess Collection Winery, hike up Mount St. Helena, or indulge at Bistro Jeanty. But there’s time. I’ll even dine again at the Calistoga Inn—only next visit I’m having the burger.—DW

Sweet dreams among the vines

Overnight visitors in Napa Valley spend at least twice as much on lodging as they do on meals or wine or souvenirs, according to a 2006 study. One midsummer’s night at ultracushy Calistoga Ranch? Around $695. At Yountville’s Villagio Inn & Spa? About $340. Rates are steepest, naturally, in busy summer and fall. But there are less pricey sweet spots, even indulgent ones, in the heart of the valley. Here are a half dozen. Area code is 707.

Calistoga Village Inn & Spa From $79. Forty-one motel units, two mineral-water pools, hot tubs, and sauna. 1880 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga, 942-0991, www.greatspa.com.

Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort From $139. Four bungalows and 38 motel units, with mud baths and more. 1507 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga, 942-4102, www.drwilkinson.com.

El Bonita Motel From $135. A buffed-up 1950s motel with 42 rooms and a pool. 195 Main St., St. Helena, 963-3216, www.elbonita.com.

Ink House Bed & Breakfast From $179. Casual elegance in an 1884 home; seven bedrooms, private baths. 1575 Hwy. 29 S., St. Helena, 963-3890, www.inkhouse.com.

Maison Fleurie From $130. Stylish inn with 13 rooms. 6529 Yount St., Yountville, 944-2056, www.maisonfleurienapa.com.

Napa Valley Railway Inn From $140. Actual train cabooses converted to tidy bedrooms. 6523 Washington St., Yountville, 944-2000, www.napavalleyrailwayinn.com.

Photography courtesy of Emily Bryden/Wikipedia

This article was first published in July 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If You're Going: 

Pick up the AAA Northern California & Nevada TourBook, San Francisco Bay Region map, and Wineries Guide Map: Northern California. Area code is 707 except as noted.

EATS
Bistro Jeanty Meaty French cooking. 6510 Washington St., Yountville, 944-0103, www.bistrojeanty.com. Boon Fly Cafe Eggs with biscuits and gravy, sausage flatbread. 4048 Hwy. 121, Napa, 299-4870, www.thecarnerosinn.com/pj_boonfly.html. Calistoga Inn, Restaurant & Brewery 1250 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga, 942-4101, www.calistogainn.com [Editor's note: The Calistoga Inn is now the Sunburst Calistoga, thesunburstcalistoga.com.]. Model Bakery Rustic breads, pastries, sandwiches, salads. 1357 Main St., St. Helena, 963-8192, www.themodelbakery.com. Redd 6480 Washington St., Yountville,

944-2222, www.reddnapavalley.com. Taylor’s Automatic Refresher Burgers, shakes. 933 Main St., St. Helena, 963-3486, www.taylorsrefresher.com.

TO DO AND SEE
Havens Wine Cellars 2055 Hoffman Ln., Napa, 261-2000, www.havenswine.com. Hurd Beeswax Candles 1255 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga, 942-7410, www.hurdbeeswaxcandles.com. Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company Pick-me-ups from A to Z, beans roasted on-site. 1400 Oak Ave., St. Helena, 963-4491, www.napavalleycoffee.com. Napa Valley Museum Regional history, art, wine science. 55 Presidents Circle, Yountville, 944-0500, www.napavalleymuseum.org. Olivier Napa Valley 1375 Main St., St. Helena, 967-8777, www.oliviernapavalley.com. Robert Mondavi Winery Take a daytime winery tour or picnic on the lawn while sipping wines at evening performances by Dianne Reeves (7/7), Herbie Hancock (7/14), or Los Lobos (7/21). 7801 Hwy. 29, Oakville, (888) 766-6328, www.robertmondaviwinery.com. Round Pond Artisanal olive oils, wines. 886 Rutherford Rd., Rutherford, 963-7555, www.roundpond.com. St. Helena Antiques French wine tools, majolica ceramics in a former butcher shop. 1231 Main St., St. Helena, 963-5878.

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