"Every time I open a bottle of wine it's an amazing trip somewhere" ~ Jose Andres
It's time to uncork another insiders-look, into the world of high-end Food and Wine, an article written by regular guest contributor; Ilona Thompson. In this week’s article she will focus on her opinion about the superlative nature of the iconic Napa Valley. She's the Editor in Chief for Palate Exposure, a self-described believer in the Sustainability of Critical Thinking and Personal Responsibility. She is also a regular contributor to the Brenner Brief.
I have been visiting Napa Valley's 16 appellations for over 16 years; twice a month on average. One might say that it an anniversary of sorts, an odd coincidence. Napa was my first love, no doubt, and although one never forgets, not many of us marry their first love, do we?
As an independent journalist, not beholden to any entity or school of thought, and with no specific agenda, I've ventured to every wine country found in California; from Santa Barbara to Lake County. I've written about my spirited adventures in Sonoma, Anderson Valley, Paso Robles, etc. Each region offered an exciting, transformative, and exceptional experience. Richly worthwhile, but they were not the same as the experience of visiting Napa, which will forever occupy a very special spot in my heart.
At a dinner party, in another wine region, a couple of my colleagues started bashing Napa as pricey and elitist; offering poor value for their readers. Their comments caused my blood to slowly, but surely, come to a boiling point. I have heard the same sentiment expressed all too often for my taste.
It's time to contribute my two kopecks to the collective cup of kvetching on this subject.
Occupying an area of 788 sq. miles, the Napa Valley stretches from the Mayacamas Mountains to the foot of Mt. St. Helena, in Calistoga area. It is home to over a dozen grape varieties. It won a geographical lottery with the location delivering superb geological and climatic conditions ideally suited for grape growing.
Napa's first distinctly successful marketing efforts started after Prohibition, when Beringer invited Hollywood stars, the likes of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard to visit the winery. Today 4.5 million people visit Napa Valley's 450 wineries each year. It is the largest wine and food tourist destination in the country.
A lot of brands from other regions secretly wish to be Napa in terms of prestige and corresponding revenue. Yet they fail to grasp is that imitation is a form of flattery, not a formula for success.
How has the Napa Valley earned it well deserved reputation as one of the world's premier food and wine destination?
Let’s face it - every wine region offers fine hospitality; but what sets Napa apart is the level of guest experience. Wuthering heights would accurately describe it, when one is on the receiving end of the elevated customer service. Think of it as Four Seasons of the wine world. There are a lot of wonderful, well-run, even charming hotel chains, but there is only one Four Seasons.
Let's state the obvious. Napa is steeped in viticultural and winemaking talent, plus unparalleled technical and financial resources. The influx of capital (much of it from the Silicon Valley) into this small valley has insured that you will be drinking well. What happens when capital and skills meet? Good things for the consumer.
Yountville alone, which I refer to as "Magnificent Mile" has more phenomenal restaurants within one freeway exit than a large number of entire major US cities. It is a capital food crime to visit Napa Valley and not have a memorable meal. Whether you eat at Michelin star restaurants or a get in line at the outdoor Gott's Roadside casual diner which famously made Robert Parker's Favorite Meals of the Year you will be well sated.
Unlike many other wine regions Napa is geographically compact and easy to navigate. There are six major stops, Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga all of which are a just few miles apart. Spring Mountain, a wine tasting paradise is just a few minutes away from St Helena. Should you feel adventurous you can venture into the more remote Angwin and Lake Berryessa. They are in fact close by, yet feel quite secluded.
Within a few miles drive a visitor can experience various microclimates, terrains, views and landscapes. A small, modest, family run winery can have a palatial estate with all the attributes of ostentatious living as a neighbor. The Napa area offers rugged mountain estates and idyllic valley floor vineyards, festooned with postcard-worthy golden wild mustard.
Napa hosts a large concentration of some of the most upscale and the ultimate guest experience focused hotels and resorts such as Meadowood Resort, Calistoga Ranch, Auberge du Soleil, Bardessono, and The Meritage Resort. Napa Valley offers a discerning traveler some of California's best options for a five star experience.
You heard me right. Napa Valley had become a Mecca for great cocktails thanks to rock stars such as Scott Beattie of Goose and Gander, mixologists at Solage Calistoga, Redd, Ad Hoc (I dream of their Bloody Marys), Morimoto, Fagiani's, etc. For a fantastic (and inexpensive) Margarita, try La Condesa in St Helena.
Health and Wellness
Should your trip's motto be "healthy body, healthy mind and spirit" Napa offers a logical choice yet again. Most upscale hotels offer modern gyms, full service spas, yoga and wellness classes, some have phenomenal golf courses, tennis courts, etc. You can grab a bike and go for a ride along idyllic countryside or lay out by the pool. Charming Calistoga is famous for its hot springs, mineral pools; mud baths that should get you relaxed enough to forget the meaning of stress for a while.
Blend your own wine
Wineries such as Judd, District 4, Raymond, Mondavi, Franciscan, Conn Creek, and Paraduxx all offer a chance of being a winemaker for a day at the end of which you will boast your very own custom wine. Raymond Vineyards, for instance, will outfit you with a shiny lab coat and sit you in a stainless steel room with black lighting where you would use professional equipment to make as much wine as you want to take home.
Food and Wine events
Napa is home to some of the best food and wine events is the country, so you may consider planning the timing of your trip to coincide with one or more of them. This week is one of the most exciting weeks of the year when the largest Napa Valley fundraiser, Napa Valley Wine Auction, takes place. For all its glitz and glamour, it is really a charity event that raises funds for the local community, with a strong emphasis on healthcare for immigrant workers. Monumental effort goes into the event which set and broke many of its own fundraising efforts.
There is a very good reason why guests who have all the choices in the world are so eager to contribute to Napa community. Yes, there is a prestige by association, but dig deeper and you will see that the real reason is how unique and special they are made to feel. Great hospitality is an art form and combined with unparalleled food, wine and fellowship it is simply irresistible.
Some other festivals worth considering are The V Foundation Wine event, which is celebrating its 16th Anniversary of raising funds for cancer research; Flavor! Napa Valley, Mustard Festival, A Taste of Yountville, Justin Siena Wine Auction, Tour de Cure, Walk Through the Vineyards, Art in The Park, Festival del Sole, Mondavi and Staglin Music Festivals, Stag's Leap Vineyard to Vintner, BASH St Helena, and many, many more.
Or consider taking a course at CIA, Culinary Academy at Greystone and sharpen you knife and wine skills, be taught in a state-of-the-art facility by top notch instructions from one of the country's most prestigious culinary schools in a glorious wine country setting.
Napa Valley is what you make of it. You can take a safe route, hire a limo and be taken to some of the most obvious destinations. Or you can figure out what appeals to you and invest into a trip that will become a revelation and a lifetime memory. I have, and I haven't stopped coming back for more.