USA: West Napa Valley, CA
Destination: Napa Through the Grapevine
You heard it here first: hidden wineries, secret spas and backroads scenery in prime California wine country
BY JAMES VLAHOS | PHOTOGRAPHY BY AMANDA MARSALIS
WINE TO GO, BY PAUL ABERCROMBIE
The medieval-style Castello di Amorosa, at a winery north of St. Helena, has lookout towers, a drawbridge
and even a torture chamber; winding down at Barnett Vineyard.
The directions to Barnett Vineyards begin with confident precision—“5.3 miles up Spring Mountain Road”—and lead a visitor from the Napa Valley floor into a shady canyon. From that point, however, the vineyard-issued instructions become vague. You’re to make a right at some mailboxes. Small, easy-to-miss signs will indicate an unspecified number of turns onto ever-narrower lanes, which you’ll drive for unknown distances. At last, if you’re lucky, you’ll pull up to an entrance, and tall gates will part to reveal the terraced slopes of a mountaintop vineyard. You might be the only visitors there.

Retreats like Barnett Vineyards are elusive in California’s Napa Valley, one of the world’s most beautiful—and popular—wine-growing regions. Only 35 miles long by four miles wide, the valley has five main towns—Napa, Yountville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga—and more than 400 vineyards, which lure thousands of visitors daily. Napa is only an hour’s drive from San Francisco, and occasionally it feels like the Hamptons of the West, privileged and precious, jammed with luxury SUVs and flooded with $300 Cabernets. At its best, however, Napa has an unequaled combination of charms: the golden, manicured valley floor flanked by the forested Vaca and Mayacamas mountains; world-class restaurants, spas and small hotels; and superb wines, many produced by artisanal vintners, awaiting tasting.


Case in point: the Spring Mountain district. Just west of St. Helena, the valley’s upscale tourist hub, this region is still rarely seen by outsiders. Their loss. Some 30 small vineyards are set in high, rolling terrain reminiscent of Tuscany. At Barnett, tastings are often held on a wooden deck overlooking the grounds, where parallel rows of vines trace the hillsides like contour lines on a topographic map. Continual erosion weakens the mountaintop soil, which in turn stresses the plants so that they produce small grapes with notably intense flavor. Try Barnett’s Cabernet Sauvignon, then sit back and enjoy the view: a cleft in the hills framing the Napa Valley floor, 2,000 feet below. Few tourists are fortunate enough to see wine country from this perspective.


THREE-STAR FOOD, RETRO HOT DOGS
The top name in Napa Valley restaurants is Yountville’s French Laundry, which received three stars in the hallowed Michelin Guide. (Chef Thomas Keller has been called one of the most talented cooks of his generation.) But visitors seeking superb food aren’t limited to this high-profile (and high-priced) restaurant. As Esquire food critic John Mariani recently gushed, “No wine valley anywhere has so many great restaurants.”


Consider the city of Napa. At the southern end of the valley,
it has long been overlooked by visitors rushing toward points farther north. But you’ll find the Mediterranean-style restaurant Celadon in its resurgent downtown, as well as Copia, a food-and-wine museum that also serves innovative California-French cuisine at Julia’s Kitchen, inspired by Julia Child. A secluded canyon east of St. Helena is the setting for Meadowood, the restaurant at the luxurious Meadowood resort. Recently reopened after a three-year hiatus, it has received widespread acclaim for such dishes as Petrale sole with toasted garlic and saffron, and veal tenderloin with sweetbread cannelloni. And nearby Taylor’s Refresher is a roadside takeout spot that manages to be both retro and upscale (on the menu: hot dogs and ahi burgers served rare).


Meanwhile, up at the valley’s northern end, barVino is an urbane new Calistoga restaurant that looks as if it belongs down some SoHo alley. Here wines from small-batch vintners are paired with plates like Sangiovese braised short ribs. And some of the best meals around are served at Redd, a relatively new restaurant in Yountville. Try the yellowfin tuna tartar served with avocado, chili oil and fried rice, or duck breast accompanied by quince puree and huckleberry sauce.

OFF-ROAD, OFFBEAT
The cults of wine and food are so dominant in Napa that most visitors are barely aware of the valley’s natural wonders. One of these is Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, named for the author of Treasure Island, who honeymooned on the slopes of 4,343-foot Mount St. Helena. (“Gladness seemed to inhabit these upper zones . . . to climb out of the lowlands seems like scaling heaven,” he later wrote.) And just a 30-minute drive north of Yountville is the trailhead for Bothe-Napa Valley State Park. As you follow a peaceful creek-side trail up Ritchie Canyon, ferns brush against your ankles, and Douglas-fir and redwoods tower overhead.


North of the park is one of the valley’s newest, and certainly oddest, attractions, the Castello di Amorosa. Napa is a place where the extremely wealthy pursue their quirkiest passions—which describes Daryl Sattui, owner of the V. Sattui Winery. Fascinated by medieval Italian castles, he spent more than $30 million to build one for himself on his 170-acre estate on Diamond Mountain. Finally opened in April 2007, his 107-room Castello di Amorosa is available for tours and tastings (but no overnight stays). The castle has a drawbridge, moat and lookout towers; slits for archers to fire upon invading barbarians; a Great Hall with hand-painted frescoes; and a torture chamber with a beheading stump, rack, iron maiden and pit of despair. If the dungeon’s grisly devices make you nauseous, you can steady your nerves in one of the underground tasting rooms with samples of wines from the castle’s vineyard.


MUD COCKTAILS
Calistoga, with only 5,200 residents, is widely considered the region’s most charming town. Since visitors from San Francisco are more likely to overnight in Yountville or St. Helena, Calistoga isn’t as busy as those towns. Its down-to-earth vibe is partly due to its history as a center for healing and relaxation. Thousands of years ago the Wappo Indians were drawn to the region’s geothermal activity—they built sweat lodges over the natural steam vents and soaked in hot springs. Gold Rush entrepreneur Sam Brannan founded the first commercial spa here in 1862, and the tradition of Calistoga mud baths continues today.


At Solage Calistoga, a spacious resort and spa that opened last summer, you can pull up a stool at the Mud Bar to watch a “mudtender” mix your Mud Mojito, Lavender Mudtini or other concoction. Then you proceed with your pail of mud to a private sauna room, where you spread it all over your body and lie down to bake in the dry heat. After a rinse, you soak in a tub of cleansing water; then recline in a “sound chair,” purportedly developed with help from NASA. Afterward, as you float in an outdoor hot pool, you’ll wonder if you’ve ever felt more relaxed.


TASTINGS ON TWO WHEELS
Most visitors use busy Highway 29 to shuttle between the vineyards. Avoid it by taking the quieter Silverado Trail, which parallels 29 to the east. You can even cycle through one of its most scenic stretches on the Cool Wine Tour route set up by the Calistoga Bike Shop. A wristband from the shop gets you free tastings at six small wineries: August Briggs, Bennett Lane, Dutch Henry, Envy, Twomey and Vincent Arroyo. If you choose to buy a few bottles, they’ll be picked up for you to retrieve at the bike shop at the end of your ride.


Though not part of the tour, the Clos Pegase winery is worth a stop. It’s owned by one of the valley’s passionate and deep-pocketed residents—Jan Shrem, who held a competition in the mid-1980s to design “a temple to art and wine.” The winning architect, Michael Graves, planned a terra-cotta-hued, postmodern take on ancient Greek architecture. The first thing you’ll spot as you pedal up are the girders of a large Mark di Suvero work rising above the vines, part of the sculpture garden.


If you sign up for a tour at Clos Pegase, you’ll probably be asked whether you want to learn about the vineyard, the winery or the art collection. In a place like Napa, with its eclectic range of attractions, there’s only one correct answer: all of the above.

Wine to Go (home)

Since carry-on restrictions now prohibit liquids onboard planes, wine-lovers have two choices: ship or check.

Shipping
The U.S. Postal Service won’t ship wine, but UPS and FedEx will. (Check wineinstitute.org to see to see if your state permits direct shipment of wine from out-of-state retailers.) To ship home a case within the U.S., figure on paying upwards of $50— double that if it’s coming from abroad. If you want to move multiple cases, especially of expensive wines, you might want to go with a freight forwarder like Wine By Air International Inc. (winebyairintl.com), which specializes in wine collection relocation and international wine shipping. Kid-glove treatment doesn’t come cheap, though, with each case around $100 to $150 to ship. “Many of our customers care more about their wines than their pets,” jokes company director Mike Gillespie. Finally, avoid shipping wine home in the summer, because heat can damage wines. “Better to check it at the airport than have it arrive cooked,” explains Ralph White, shipping manager for Clos du Val in Napa.


Checking
Some wine geeks spring for snazzy insulated wine suitcases, but foam shippers in three- and six-bottle, and case-sizes—available at most wineries—work fine and are cheap (or even free). Just ask the experts to pack it for you so you don’t wind up with broken bottles and soggy luggage. Of course, hold off popping open a bottle right after you get your wine home. That peripatetic pinot noir may need a few days of rest to get over a phenomenon known as “bottle shock,” which can affect the taste. Instead open something already in the cellar, and toast a safe trip home for you—and your new wines.


PLAY

TASTINGS AND TO-DOS 

BARNETT VINEYARDS
4070 Spring Mountain Rd., St. Helena; 707-963-7075; barnettvineyards.com; tastings $25 per person, by appointment

CASTELLO DI AMOROSA
4045 N. St. Helena Hwy.,Calistoga; 707-967-6272; castellodiamorosa.com; tour and tastings from $25 per person

CALISTOGA BIKE SHOP
1318 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 866-942-2453; calistogabikeshop.com; full-day ride $79

CLOS PEGASE
1060 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga; 707-942-4981; clospegase.com; winery tours free, tastings $10

OLD FAITHFUL GEYSER OF CALIFORNIA
Eruptions, up to 75 feet, take place at least once an hour. 1299 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga; 707-942-6463; oldfaithfulgeyser.com; adults $8


EAT

CELADON
500 Main St., Napa; 707-254-9690; dinner for two, $90*

JULIA’S KITCHEN AT COPIA
500 First St., Napa; 707-265-5700; dinner for two, $90. Call for hours and reservations

TAYLOR’S REFRESHER
933 Main St., St. Helena; 707-963-3486; lunch for two, $30

BARVINO
Mount View Hotel, 1457 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 707-942-9900; dinner for two, $80

REDD
6480 Washington St., Yountville; 707-944-2222; dinner for two, $110

*Prices cover a three-course meal for two, not including drinks, tax or tip.


STAY

RCI®-affiliated resorts in the Napa Valley area include:

Shell Vacations Club at Vino Bello Resort,  Napa

WorldMark Wine
Country Clear Lake, Nice

Shell Vacations Club at Inn at the Opera,
San Francisco

For more information, visit www.RCI.com or call
Weeks: 800-338-7777
Points: 877-968-7476

OTHER NAPA VALLEY HOTELS:

YOUNTVILLE INN
Fifty-one rooms on Hopper Creek, with a Bouchon-baked breakfast. 6462 Washington St., Yountville; 888-366-8166; yountvilleinn.com; doubles from $250

MEADOWOOD
An 85-room luxury resort with tennis courts, a health club/spa and a visit-worthy vineyard. 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena; 800-458-8080; meadowood.com; studios from $475

EL BONITA MOTEL
Clean and comfortable, with a neon sign, 41 rooms and 1950s-style charm. 195 Main St., St. Helena; 800-541-3284; elbonita.com; doubles from $120

MOUNT VIEW HOTEL & SPA
Mission Revival–style boutique hotel, with 29 rooms, a spa and a beautiful pool. 1457 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 800-816-6877; mountviewhotel.com; doubles from $169

SOLAGE CALISTOGA
An 89-room studio-style resort with a 130-foot pool and spa. 755 Silverado Trail, Calistoga; 866-942-7442; solagecalistoga.com; studios from $425

Published: March/April 2008 Issue 
RCI® Subscribing
Members
Search Other Destinations to Suit Your Interests
play eat shop relax explore
See Also...
On Location: Napa Valley
March 1, 2008
Learn More
More Destinations
Popular
San Diego, CA Park City, UT Vancouver, B.C.
Washington, D.C. Cancún, Mexico
Browse
USA Northeast Southeast Florida
Midwest Southwest West Hawaii
Africa Asia Australia Canada
Mexico Caribbean Central/South America
Europe Cruise
Browse All Destinations
  • Advertisement
    By clicking on the ad below, you will be directed to a website not operated by RCI and you agree to be subject to the terms and conditions and privacy policy of that third party website.