Napa Valley residents can afford to be smug.
The weather is gorgeous. You can live in a cottage with a rosemary hedge and a lemon tree out front, cycle past world-famous vineyards and sip fairy-tale pumpkin soup. One chef calls it a Disneyland for adults.
An hour’s drive from San Francisco, Napa is also the perfect place for a food, wine and wellness getaway.
Late fall is an ideal time to visit, and not just because rows of grape vines that criss-cross this skinny valley glow in a tapestry of golds and rusty reds. Following the mad rush to complete the harvest, the pace slows, making it easier to nab a restaurant reservation and a behind-the-scenes winery tour. Chefs offer heartier dishes to pair with the valley’s prized Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, locals call November to April Cabernet Season, and kick things off with the Napa Valley Film Festival in celebration of film, food and wine.
Our first dinner in the 80,000-strong city of Napa set the bar high. Chef/owner Sean O’Toole of TORC may not be Italian, but he’d make any nonna proud with his hand-cut tagliatelle noodles tweaked with lemon and shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano or his house-made strozzapreti (strangled priests) warmed in a deeply delicious lamb jus shot through with soft licorice fennel, a hit of sweet, unctuous black garlic and a spritz of satsuma mandarin.
O’Toole named his Main Street restaurant for the wild boar, the scourge of winemakers whose meat is beloved by chefs. The spacious room’s impossibly high ceiling, stone walls and polished wood floor and tables add to the rustic, casual feel you’ll find even in the valley’s most posh restaurants. Yet the service is invariably excellent; the most junior server can explain exactly how your cocktail was made and describe every wine in the cellar.
Menus here are also defined by the foragers and farmers who bring fresh seasonal produce to the restaurant’s back door, which may explain why we ate a year’s worth of charred Brussels sprouts in three days. At Michelin-starred La Toque in Napa’s Westin Verasa, chef/owner Ken Frank served a five-course squash-centric dinner from the hotel’s garden, each with a carefully chosen wine. The refined, satisfying menu opened with fairy-tale pumpkin velouté garnished with walnut, celery and green apple, and ended with donuts and squash ice cream.
Along with happy, locally sourced meat, poultry and seafood, vegetables also feature prominently at Harvest Inn down the road in St. Helena, one of the newest restaurant/inns in star chef Charlie Palmer’s empire. Guests are invited to stroll through the culinary gardens before or after dinner, and most menu items feature estate-grown ingredients. The signature dish here is the generous truffle chicken for two, served with butternut squash, risotto and truffle butter. You may even get a chance to meet the personable chef himself.
For a change of pace, head to the Oxbow Public Market, a short walk from Napa’s Main Street, and mingle with the locals. I could have spent hours eating oysters at Hog Island and fresh crab and duck tacos from C CASA with a glass of local wine, sitting at the Ritual coffee bar with a smooth cappuccino, checking out California olive oil and Napa Valley Distillery’s local lemon liqueur and sampling cheese with names like Fat Bottom Girl, Holey Cow and Midnight Moon. All under one roof.
Once the grapes have been crushed and the juice transferred to tanks and barrels to ferment and age, winery floors are scrubbed clean and the equipment is stored for another year, leaving a faint tang in the air.
The first time I visited Napa, I was thrilled to see signs for the valley’s famous cellars as we drove north from Napa to Calistoga. Names included Cakebread, Beringer, St. Supery and Robert Mondavi, who opened his winery 50 years ago, convinced that Napa’s warm, dry climate could make world-class wines. His vision put Napa and California wines on the map forever.
While the legends live on, it was time to meet the upstarts, new boutique wineries with state-of-the-art cellars that are as proud of their art collections, event spaces and eco-friendliness as they are of their premium wines.
Brasswood Cellars (formerly Cairdean Estate) is a sprawling wine village built on the site of a former outlet mall on the St. Helena highway. It’s owned by Stacia Williams, a former software engineer who returned to school to study winemaking, and her aerospace engineer husband Edwin. Both believe wine should be shared among friends, and they’ve made their tasting room and eateries as welcoming as possible.
B Cellars, located at Napa’s northern tip near Calistoga, installed an open kitchen and an executive chef in its modern, airy hospitality house to teach guests how to pair food and wine. The guided wine tasting comes with perfectly matched bites of seasonal food, much of it sourced from B’s gardens. The chef even raises chickens to produce eggs for his homemade pasta.
A short walk past eerily lifelike bronze sculptures created by artist Seward Johnson brings visitors to the winery itself, which includes an elegant 1,394-square-metre underground space used to age wine—some in handsome red concrete tanks—and host events.
The new spa at the famous Meadowood resort in St. Helena seems lost in the woods, its quiet taupe exterior blending perfectly with its environment. Even the picture windows in the cosy, comfortable suites provide a soothing outdoor view. Book treatments, ranging from a massage to a milk-and-honey bath, and the therapist will come to you. The chef will even deliver a light lunch or a bottle of bubbly while you relax and unplug for a few hours. Michael Conte, director of spa and wellness, says guests fill out health and lifestyle questionnaires before arrival so staff can draw up a plan to improve their overall health. “We want to get to know the guests,” says Conte, “not just what muscles are hurting.”
At Indian Springs resort, a short walk from downtown Calistoga, everyone knows the best treatment for sore muscles is a mud bath. Thanks to a volcano that erupted nearby millions of years ago, locals and visitors can swim year-round in naturally heated pools.
I must admit I was anxious about my first mud bath as I donned a plush bathrobe and waited my turn. A woman in a purple shirt took me down a long white hallway to a noisy industrial room where four long rectangular concrete tubs awaited, one filled to the top with glistening jet-black mud as thick as pudding. Anna beckoned me to sit on the edge of the tub and slowly lower myself onto the mud, placing my head on a pillow.
First surprise, I didn’t sink! It felt like lying on a warm bed. Anna proceeded to pick up gobs of mud on either side and roll them expertly over my body until I was evenly covered, which took several minutes. I’d lie there 10 to 12 minutes, she said, before she disappeared.
The mud felt like a heavy blanket, making it a little hard to breathe. As I dug my hands and heels deeper, the temperature rose. Water dripped continuously from spigots in the other tubs. I tried to relax but couldn’t. How long has it been? What if they forget me?
Of course, they didn’t. Anna says her regular customers believe the volcanic mud is good for arthritis. It takes two hours in the morning to prepare the tubs, she said, pointing to a bucket full of grey ash that’s mixed with hot water to form a thick paste.
Another attendant guided me to a shower to rinse off the mud, then to a white room of long claw-shaped porcelain bathtubs with sloping backs. I slipped into the clear hot water and drank the glass of cold water she offered. Next stop, the steam room, followed by a brief nap in a Spartan room, cucumber slices covering my eyes. I finally began to relax, and thought how delicious a glass of Napa wine would taste right now. Cabernet season, indeed.
Throughout our Napa Valley trip, we were treated to wonderful accommodation, culinary delights, amazing wines and relaxing spa treatments. For more information, visit:
Chateau de Vie B&B, Calistoga: cdvnapavalley.com
The Inn on Randolph, Napa: innonRandolph.com
Harvest Inn by Charlie Palmer, St. Helena: harvestinn.com
La Toque, Napa: latoque.com
Oxbow Public Market, Napa: oxbowpublicmarket.com
TORC, Napa: torcnapa.com
B Cellars Vineyards and Winery: Bcellars.com
Brasswood Cellars: brasswood.com
Robert Mondavi Winery: robertmondaviwinery.com
Indian Springs, Calistoga: indianspringscalistoga.com
Meadowood Napa Valley, St. Helena: meadowood.com/spa
Plan your visit at VisitNapaValley.com.