According to The Wine Institute — who recently sent me and my friend Jen Miner to the Northern California wine country on a research mission to find great adventures for couples and friends — September is California Wine Month.
And while September is a gorgeous time to visit the Napa Valley, home to hundreds of wineries and the town of Calistoga…it’s now over. Fortunately, Napa should also be pretty darn stunning throughout October and November.
For a little travel-planning inspiration, here are some of the adventures that Jen and I enjoyed in the Napa Valley, from being cocooned in grapeseeds and mud, to pairing a local Zinfandel with a cheeseburger, to accompanying a second-generation winemaker on a drive through his hillside grapevines.
At the northern end of the Napa Valley, the sleepy town of Calistoga is just 15 minutes from St. Helena, but feels even smaller, sweeter and farther away. Calistoga’s vintage-1860s main drag, Lincoln Street, looks like a set from a Gold Rush era movie; however, rather than a steel-jawed sheriff with his hands on his belt buckle, you’re more likely to run into a musician, a fine painter, or a winemaker. Lined with art galleries and bordered by a quiet, leafy neighborhood of Victorian houses, this is the kind of town that invites you to slow down…and contemplate real estate prices.
One of my favorite things about Calistoga? Its name is a drunken mistake. When Samuel Brannan became the Gold Rush’s first millionaire, he set his 19th-century sights on turning the hot-springs-heavy area into a West Coast version of then-popular Saratoga Springs, New York. But after indulging in a bit too much booze, he accidentally dubbed the town he founded: “Calistoga of Sarafornia.”
Jen and I arrived in Calistoga after a half-hour’s drive from Rutherford, just in time to have spa treatments at the Mount View Hotel & Spa, our lodgings for the night.
In the small, clean and quiet on-site spa, I was indulged with a Signature Grape Seed Mud Wrap (50 minutes, $125); I was dry-brushed, painted with a blend of mud and crushed grape seeds (collected from area wineries), then wrapped up like a warm burrito and treated to a little foot massage action. After showering myself clean, I’d hoped to be rubbed down with post-shower moisturizer, but it isn’t included in the treatment; consider, as I did, asking your therapist tack on this service for an extra touch of softness. It felt healthy to detox my body amidst a hardcore wine-tasting trip.
Jen stayed in the Mount View’s cozy Bennett Lane Winery suite in the main building, while I stayed in the romantic Peju Province Winery Cottage across the narrow parking lot. This delightful little house had its own courtyard behind a locked gate, with a bistro table and chairs and an outdoor hot tub big enough for two. Inside, there was a small kitchen and a great big comfy bed (with the perfect number of throw pillows to delight a woman and yet not annoy a man). I was also happy to see a complimentary bottle of wine from Peju Province, and an easel with watercolors…y’know, in case you feel like re-creating that necklace scene from “Titanic.”
For me, the only drawbacks to staying at the Mount View were 1) not having time to lounge around the sexy, Deco-style outdoor pool, and 2) the hotel’s complimentary, room-delivered breakfast of weak coffee, a Red Delicious apple and a tasteless, powdery pastry. I’d definitely recommend staying at the Mount View, but you might want to forage elsewhere for breakfast: coffee at the Calistoga Roastery, baked goods at Calistoga Village Bakery, or a full repast at Cafe Sarafornia.
Our dinner that evening was at the lovely, whitewashed Calistoga Inn, which combines a hotel, micro-brewery, beer garden and restaurant, and has recently re-opened after a fire. Joining a lively crowd of 30-to-60-somethings, we sat out on the sweet garden patio beneath strings of lights, listening to the music of a pair of strings-playing locals and looking out over a green, woodsy stretch of the Napa River.
We lingered over the last of Napa’s grilled summer corn, a tasty Tillamook-cheddar cheeseburger and garlic fries, and followed it up with a sinful (and yet necessary) slice of chocolate peanut butter pie. I was almost going to skip wine for the evening, but happily relented when given the option of a rich, spicy Zinfandel from T-Vine Cellars, a local winery set just around the corner on Highway 29.
I’d love to go back and try even more of the Calistoga Inn’s dinner menu — and go tasting at T-Vine.
After a long and quiet night’s sleep, we arose early and went for a downtown stroll. We would have loved to have a few hours here just to putter through galleries and shops, but it was our last day in the wine country and we had places to be. We contented ourselves with reading some touching/hilarious handwritten tags on a bunch of “wish trees” outside the funky Indian Springs Art Gallery, and poking around the Historic Calistoga Depot, where one of the vintage trains has been turned into a massage parlor and spa…an idea with which I can certainly get onboard. (cue rimshot)
Tearing ourselves away, we headed a few minutes north of downtown and wrapped up our weekend at the gorgeous, friendly and family-owned Jericho Canyon Vineyard. At the end of a long country road, we parked beside a stream gully and asked a salty gentleman with a white beard who was tinkering with a tractor where to find the tasting room; rounding a bend, we were surprised to find a fancy barn with a soaring ceiling, gleaming steel wine tanks, and chairs made from repurposed barrels.
There we met Jericho’s second-generation winemaker, the wholly adorable Nicholas Bleecher, and were treated to a driving tour in a jeep-like contraption called a Polaris, tooling through Jericho’s hillside vines of Cabernet, Merlot and more. We went in search of history, grapes and the label’s signature gnarled oak tree.
Nicholas grew up in this idyllic canyon, swimming in the irrigation pond, playing in a hand-built treehouse and learning about winemaking from his parents, Marla and Dale, whose stunning home sits atop the a vineyard’s highest hill. Born to this work, the quiet, smiling Nicholas isn’t the kind of guy who sits still very often; he’s more likely digging rocks out of the chalky, volcanic soil or obsessively checking on his grapes.
Post-drive, he drew us each a glass of yeasty, half-fermented Chardonnay straight from the tank, which tasted like a cross between Champagne and beer.
We then repaired to Jericho’s wine cave and, while seated at a long dining table set beside stacks of barrels, compared this half-finished concoction with several of the winery’s bottled vintages, including a smooth, floral and elegant 2010 Chardonnay. (Polaris tour and tasting, by appointment only, is $75 US per person)
This was our last taste of Napa…and it had one heck of a lingering finish.
When you take your own wine country weekend in Northern California, remember two things:
1) There are two Bay Area airports, Oakland and SFO, so pay close attention to road signs upon your return.
2) If you want to bring wine home with you on a plane, you are required to pack it in your luggage and check your bag(s). You can’t put your wine in your carry-ons, or it will be confiscated at security.
And trust me, no one wants that. Well…except maybe the people who work at airport security.
This trip was sponsored by The Wine Institute,
including all travel, tours, meals and lodgings.
However, all observations and opinions are my own.