Napa Sojourn

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. An hour’s drive across the Golden Gate bridge 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 the rows of grape vines that rule this skinny valley glow in a tapestry of golds and rusty reds. After 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.

THE FOOD

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 poshest 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 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 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 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, take a short walk from Napa’s Main Street to the Oxbow PublicMarket 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 local lemon liqueur and sampling cheese with names like Fat Bottom Girl, Holey Cow and Midnight Moon. All under one roof.

THE WINE

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 stored for another year, leaving a faint tang in the air.

The first time I drove north from Napa to Calistoga, I was thrilled to see signs for the valley’s famous cellars. Names like Cakebread, Beringer, St. Supery and Robert Mondavi, who opened his winery 51 years ago, convinced that the 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 a few new boutique wineries that are as proud of their art collections, event spaces and eco-friendliness as they are of their premium wines.

Brasswood Cellars is a sprawling wine village built on the site of a former outlet mall on the St. Helena highway. It’s owned by a former software engineer who returned to school to study winemaking, and her aerospace engineer husband. 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 centre 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. We toured a  vast underground cellar used to age wine—some in handsome red concrete tanks—and host events.

THE SPA

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 a treatment, 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. Before arrival, guests fill out health and lifestyle questionnaires so staff can draw up a plan to improve their overall health. “We want to get to know the guests,” says spa and wellness director Michael 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. Clad in a plush bathrobe, I was escorted 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 then lower myself into the mud with my head on an inflatable pillow.

First surprise, I didn’t sink! It felt like lying on a warm bed. Anna proceeded to pick up gobs of mud 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, then 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 of grey ash that’s mixed with hot water to form the thick paste.

Another attendant guided me to a shower to rinse off the black mud, then to a white room of long claw-footed porcelain bathtubs with sloping backs. I slipped into the clear hot water and drank the glass of cold water 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.

First published in Dreamscapes magazine, winter 2017. For more information, check out VisitNapaValley.com.

We stayed at relaxing Chateau de Vie B&B outside Calistoga, surrounded by vineyards, and the completely gluten-free Inn on Randolph a short walk from downtown Napa.

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