Many moons ago, when I was a penniless grad student kicking it up in the midwest, wine seemed like a strange concoction meant only for those with refined tastes and wine country was a land unheard of to my tundra-frozen mind. Cut to one balmy October day in 2009 when I gingerly boarded a flight out to California for my first (and only) job interview that year, I found myself raptly listening to this conversation around me abuzz with words like wine tasting, Napa, Sonoma and the likes. At that moment, my curiosity piqued and it felt like I was at the verge of discovering a whole new world, something hitherto unknown and something that was down here in California which clearly was a hot-spot destination for my fellow passengers. A year later, I had found my groove firmly in San Francisco, a city that I so warmly call home but the allure of wine country still remained a tad distant, partly due to my new found love for this potion where I was still trying to figure out the nuances of the grapes and in part due to this misplaced belief that wine country is only for those with money, i.e. the creme de la creme of society or at the very least, those who are wine connoisseurs. A brief honeymoon in Sonoma, followed by several short trips to Mendocino, Calistoga and Sebastopol to dip my toes in this wine mania, and many goblets of Pinot Noir later, I finally mustered enough liquid courage to plunge deeper into this fascination of mine and decided to explore wine country in a much more structured way. I chose the beautiful city of St. Helena, north of Napa, as our destination for a weekend getaway and this blog post is about my experience, some tips for novices like me on wine tasting and finally, dining recommendations, which formed my favorite part apart from roaming in some very beautiful wineries. With so much to cover, let’s get started!
St. Helena is world famous for its beautiful wineries, rolling hills and bold red cabernets. Being close to Napa and Yountville, St. Helena is also very expensive city to stay at and so it may be difficult to find a reasonably priced accommodation since there are no hotel chains around. This trip of ours was a one off indulgence for sure and so we stayed at the Shady Oaks Country Inn, right on Zinfandel lane (yes the lanes are named after wines in this part of the world) bordered by beautiful wineries. Shady Oaks, St. Helena, has a wine and cheese reception in the evening in their beautiful patio and a champagne breakfast in the morning in the parlor (you have to notify in advance if you want to opt out). We stayed at the “winery retreat room”, adjacent to the main building and loved the classic decor inside with a high bed and a beautiful bathroom where there were guest books with previous guests having scribbled their experiences and recommendations. Breakfast included poached apples, Belgian waffles with walnuts, syrup and butter along with chicken sausage, but if you are like us and not a big fan of gulping down a sugary meal first thing in the morning, then simply skip the breakfast and head to one of the many amazing cafes in and around the city (read on for recommendations). Shady Oaks also has helpful brochures and provides coupons for several events in and around St. Helena, i.e. Napa valley.
Napa and the adjoining towns of St. Helena and Yountville are a food lovers paradise because of the culinary heavyweights like Thomas Keller and Michael Chiarello calling these towns their home. Thomas Keller practically owns Yountville with his legendary French Laundry, Ad-Hoc, Bouchon Bakery and Cafe (go to the bakery before 8 AM to get your breakfast fill or prepare to wait in a line later which is also worth it) and Chiarello’s Bottega, serving Californian-Italian fare, is right across from Bouchon. Even otherwise, the elegance of the wine industry has beckoned several famous eateries in this area, notably Farmstead and Gott’s Roadside and everyone’s perennial favorite Archetype, where we had lunch in St. Helena. Archetype, with a very inviting enclosed outdoor space and a spacious interior, bowled us over with its Californian-American fare and service. The menu has several vegetarian options and S chose the avocado smeared toast with salad and fruits while I opted for some fish and chips. I highly recommend this spot for at least one meal while in St. Helena and if possible, do have it in the well lit outside patio.
Our dinner was a trip to deliciousness and definitely was one of the best meals that I’ve ever had in St. Helena, all thanks to the amazingly creative dishes fused with Japanese flavors (California inspired Yakitori dishes) at Two Birds One Stone, the restaurant in St. Helena that has taken Napa by storm. Portions are small and so its best to share 4-5 dishes between two people and there are several vegetarian and vegan options on the menu. We chose mostly vegetarian dishes, such as spicy Japanese forbidden rice, Japanese pan cakes, silken tofu immersed in a rich miso broth and a side of chicken meat balls. Dinner ended with the sweetness of black sesame soft serve. Everything was finger licking good and I cannot wait to dine here again! The interior was spacious and adorned with dark toned wood for that rich, regal feeling with light reflecting off the glass lamps hanging off the ceiling. Service was friendly and swift as well. All you food lovers out there, this place is a must visit if you are in St. Helena! Reservation are recommended to guarantee a table.
On our way home the next day, we could not pass up the opportunity to stop by Bouchon Bakery in Yountville and if possible, you should not as well. Be prepared to stand in a line (I am a San Franciscan who is not deterred by a mile long line because I’ve had enough practice living in this food-crazed city for 6 years) but at the end you will be rewarded with baked goodies of all kind. We had our lunch shortly after at Bottega but wolfed down our eclair haul in the picnic lawn of the nearby Napa cellars.
Bottega, Michael Chiarello’s long standing restaurant in Yountville, and one where had accidentally dined before when I had no idea of anything in wine country, continues to be my favorite via its subtle California kissed Italian fare. No lathering of cheese or tomato sauce thank you, this cuisine is light on the stomach and amazing on the taste buds thanks to fusion of myriad flavors in the pasta, salads and the sinful dessert. The service is impeccable here as well and they have an outdoor dining area for those wanting to enjoy their food in the sun. The lunch menu is a good mix of vegetarian and meaty offerings and we went for the an vegetarian meal. If Napa is not on your cards, then definitely visit Chiarello’s Coquetta, his nod to Spain, in San Francisco along the Embarcadero.
Note: I have not talked about the wine selections at each of these restaurants because frankly that is a redundant point to make. Napa valley’s restaurants pride themselves on their wine list, so be morning noon or night, you are sure to find an envious selection of libations to go with your meal and taste. Barring lunch at Archetype, where I had the pomegranate punch, all other meals were paired with a delicious Pinot Noir for me.
Finally, putting the wine back in wine country, here is a synopsis of my wine tasting experience in St. Helena. This was a learning experience because when it comes to scouting wineries and plucking out the good ones from the touristy places, I am still learning. Just so that first timers like me can benefit from the wisdom of my experience, do stay with me till the end where I have compiled some of my do’s and don’ts and tips for how to navigate this whole winery shebang in style and without feeling overwhelmed. Typically, most wineries have one or more tasting rooms surrounded by vineyards and sometimes beautiful gardens. The wineries we visited were as follows:
A) Beringer winery: Beringer is California’s longest continually operated winery and was established in 1876 by brothers Jacob and Frederick Beringer to rival the vineyards in Europe. Bringer now has 1600 acres of land for their grapes in Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles and is known for their bold, red cabernets. There are two separate tasting rooms, one for the light and medium bodied and the other for the their full bodied reds. Tasting is three wines of your choice/per person with $25 per head. They are open to the public as a result of which the tasting rooms are extremely crowded. The property is vast and you can stroll along their lawn, stop by to listen to some live music and admire the centrally located manor. They also have a part of their other tasting room (where the full bodied cabs are served) reserved for their wine club members and patrons.
B) Frog’s Leap Winery: A darling small batch winery in Rutherford, this is known for its charming red barn, beautiful gardens and their novel dry irrigation vineyards where the grapes have to dig deep in their roots to tap the ground water. This winery has tasting by reservation only and we were lucky to get one at 11 AM by calling just the day before. The tasting comprises of four wines, mainly reds which are cabernets fused with some petit Syrah, merlots and chardonnay ($ 20/person). Being a reservation only place, you will not be jostling with others for a space at the pouring table and can get to know quite a bit about each wine as they are being poured. The friendly ladies doing so where very knowledgable about each pour and the grapes and best of all, we could stroll around in leisure to soak in the beauty of the space. The towering red barn, a beautiful vegetable garden, a koi pond with lotus flowers and surrounding flowering bushes made the scenery very beautiful. Highly recommended for getting the serene vineyard experience along with wine tasting.
C) Artesa winery: Our final stop for wine tasting was Artesa winery in Napa, blessed with an incredible view since it is perched at an elevation. Wine tasting is$27/person that comes with 4-5 pours, again mainly cabernets. The wine was OK but the view was fantastic.There is an enclosed space for patrons but the general tasting room is open to all.
Finally here are the much promised tips to navigate wine country with some flair, and without seeming like a bumbling bee or a clueless tourist.
1) This may seem obvious, but a trip to wine country needs some planning and definitely will affect your purse strings because a) accommodation is expensive and b) tasting does come at a price and is not free, specially in Napa. If you have a growing interest in wine or are curious to try some of California’s offerings, by all means do visit. If you are a lover of nature, photography or simply want to have a good time dining, then too wine country is an excellent destination. The best time to visit is early fall, i.e. August-late September when it is harvest time and you will still see the grapes hanging off the vines. At many wineries, you might witness grape crushing as well and some places even have fun grape stomping exercises for visitors. Finally, take some time to figure out the kind of wine you have an appetite for. I love the light Pinot Noirs and French Gamays, so bold reds are not for me. Anderson Valley and Sonoma have the best Pinot Noirs while St. Helena is definitely for cabernet lovers.
2) Always visit wine country with a designated driver. S is a teetotaler and although I sometimes yearn to have company for a drink or two, I am so glad that we didn’t have to worry about transportation. DUI is a huge offense in USA, plus it is dangerous and reckless. So please rent a limo if everyone in your party plans to imbibe and have a good time. Buzzed driving is drunk driving and the penalties are severe. For your peace of mind and to enjoy a trip to wine country unsullied by bad memories, book one of the many wine country trips from San Francisco. There are several packages and custom tasting tours, so try one that suits your taste and budget. Finally, you have to be of legal drinking age to participate, which is 21 in USA.
3) Beringer and V. Sattui are big, impersonal wineries where you will be going elbow to elbow for wine tasting. To avoid crowds and to get a more exclusive experience, do some research and make appointments before hand for small batch wineries. You will love the quiet, leisurely experience of sipping wine much more than being stuck in a crowd of rambunctious people. Newton vineyards is one such place that has fantastic views and has tastings by appointment only, so is Frog’s leap.
4) Wine country has sunny, mediterranean climate and gets pretty hot in Aug-Sep. Check the weather and dress accordingly, specially if you are visiting from cooler, foggier San Francisco. I lived in cotton/linen dresses while at St. Helena, which is a rarity because of SF’s weather.
5) Napa valley is one the busiest tourist destinations from spring-fall. Unless you are planning a day trip, its best to plan way ahead to book accommodations for an overnight stay to get a relatively more economic rate. Most places are boutique hotels or inns, so prices go up drastically during peak season.
6) Last tip: Grab some food at Dean& Deluca or the Oxbow Market in Napa or get some goodies in a basket to have a picnic in the acres of lush greenery in some of the wineries that allow meals on their lawn. Napa cellars is definitely one of them.
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