NAPA VALLEY, Calif. — As I floated 2,500 feet above this storied wine-producing valley in a hot air balloon, all I could see below was a vast mosaic of greens. Greens in every shade — from palest lettuce to soft sage to vivid emerald. Soaring over the Mayacamas Mountain Range, a tantalizing view of Mount St. Helena (not to be confused with Washington state’s Mount St. Helens) loomed in the distance — a green silhouette pasted against a blue sky.
What I did not see was any visible reminder of the devastating wildfires that ravaged much of the region last October, leaving 41 people dead, 2,800 homes burned and 220,000 acres at least partially consumed.
If it can be said that a tragedy of this magnitude has any bright spot, it is that the area’s 450 vineyards were minimally impacted. This was primarily the result of two factors, I was told.
First, the high maintenance required of commercial vineyards means there is virtually no dry brush surrounding them, and second, due to an unusually hot summer in 2017, 85 percent of the grapes had already been picked before the fires broke out. Those that remained were primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, which have the most resistance to contamination from smoke.
While I had originally considered postponing my trip for at least another couple of months, I’m glad now I didn’t. From what I saw, Napa is once again ready to fully welcome wine-loving visitors.
If the best way to see the valley from above is on a balloon ride such as the one I did with Napa Valley Aloft (the hour-and-a-half ride is followed by a traditional champagne brunch), one of the best ways to see it on the ground is a journey on the Napa Valley Wine Train.
The sleek train – with all the accoutrements of the Golden Age of rail travel — offers several itineraries, but I chose the six-hour Legacy Tour. Now, if you’re thinking six hours is a lot of time to spend looking at grapes, just know that the Legacy Tour combines tastings at three wineries with a multi-course lunch aboard the train, with each course being served in between winery stops.
Our first stop was at Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville for a tasting of their excellent Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Our second was at Charles Krug Winery, the oldest commercial winery still in operation in Napa, having been founded in 1861. Sipping a glass of Reserve Cab Sauv, I found it hard to believe this winery opened the same year the Civil War started. Our final stop was at V. Sattui where our tasting took place at picnic tables in a grove of trees.
In addition to a good meal (the honey-fennel cracked mustard-glazed Pacific salmon main course was mouthwatering) and some exquisite wines, a trip on the Napa Wine Train will give you a better understanding of Napa as a wine destination. It’s one of the world’s most well-known wine regions, but it’s also one of the smallest at just 30 miles long and five miles across between the main arteries of Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Interesting side note: of the 450 wineries, approximately 95 percent are still family-owned.
WINE TASTING IN UNIQUE SETTINGS
Over the centuries, wine has served as a muse to many of the world’s greatest philosophers, poets and writers. Greek philosopher Diogenes exhibited a sense of humor when he penned “What I like to drink most is wine that belongs to others.”
Benjamin Franklin took a unique approach to deism when he stated that “wine is constant proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
But perhaps Robert Louis Stevenson put it best when he wrote, “Wine is bottled poetry.”
It’s easy to think of a good wine as liquid poetry in Napa — not just in the wines themselves; there is also something poetic in the elaborate ways the wines are showcased. Most of the wineries have exquisite tasting rooms in unusual settings emphasizing ambiance as well as grapes, but some take it to a whole other level.
Tamber Bey in Calistoga offers a wine and cookie pairing in a courtyard overlooking the stables where the owners keep their prize performance horses trained for endurance racing. The wines may be the prime attraction, but the beautiful horses and savory cookies with intriguing names such as cherry pepper popper and cardamom crunch come in for their share of attention.
At Round Pond, you can first do a wine tasting on the expansive terrace with a sweeping vista across the vineyards, and then cross the road to taste the fragrant olive oils they also produce.
B Cellars puts out an impressive spread of custom food courses selected by the chef de cuisine, and paired with their signature wines in a tasting room that could grace the cover of Architectural Digest.
VALLEY OF CULINARY DELIGHTS
Nothing goes with good wine like good food, and there is no shortage of that in Napa Valley, a foodie destination on a par with San Francisco, New York and New Orleans.
On past trips I’ve dined at two 3-Michelin starred restaurants — Meadowood and the French Laundry, but I can honestly say that my dinner this time at Solbar at Solage was the equal of them both. There was Maine lobster and asparagus salad; seared scallops with minted pea; roasted chicken with horseradish celeriac cream and wild mushrooms and a strawberry tart with fresh cream, strawberry jam and cassis sorbet. I am still dreaming of that meal.
Another favorite meal was at PRESS, known for steaks prepared on an almond and cherry wood grill. I opted for the filet mignon, accompanied by a creamed spinach with ricotta that just might have been the best version of that dish I’ve ever eaten.
At Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch, the emphasis is on sustainability and farm-to-fork food. If the filled-to-capacity crowd was any indication, it’s a philosophy that diners have fully bought into.
Accommodations in Napa are just as diverse as restaurants, from luxurious standard-bearers such as Meadowood and Auberge du Soleil to charming throwbacks from another era and newly opened properties destined to take their places among the Valley’s elite hotels.
In the latter category, I had a chance to stay at a new property, Las Alcobas, and a refurbished old favorite, the Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa.
Las Alcobas in St. Helena occupies what is surely one of Napa’s most attractive locations — right next to the famous Beringer Vineyards (my room had a balcony overlooking the vineyards, complete with a fire pit perfect for comfy evenings relaxing over a glass of wine.)
The property has 68 rooms and suites in a 1907 farmhouse with an expansive wraparound porch, lovely grounds and a signature restaurant, Acacia.
If Las Alcobas is a testament to casual elegance, Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa is an homage to the famed motor courts of the 1940s and 1950s. Surrounded by biking and hiking trails and with pools fed by underground geothermal springs, the motor court looks as if it could be the setting for a film noir movie, although spruced up with amenities for 21st century travelers.
Chief among those amenities are the three mineral pools on property and the wonderful MoonAcre Spa and Baths.
For those thinking that the quenching of last year’s fires might also have put a damper on area tourism, you needn’t worry. Go ahead, book your trip and raise a glass to one of America’s most vibrant regions.
IF YOU GO TO NAPA VALLEY
Where to Stay
Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa, 1880 Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga; calistogamotorlodgeandspa.com
Las Alcobas, 1915 Main Street, St. Helena; lasalcobas.com
Where to Eat
Solbar at Solage, 755 Silverado Trail, Calistoga;. solage.aubergeresorts.com
PRESS, 587 St. Helena Hwy South, St. Helena
Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch, 738 Main Street, St. Helena; longmeadowranch.com
What to do
Napa Valley Aloft Balloon Rides, email@example.com
Napa Valley Wine Train, 1275 McKinstry St., Napa. winetrain.com
Wine & Cookie Pairing at Tamber Bey, 1251 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga; tamberbey.com
Wine & Olive Oil Tasting at Round Pond, 875 Rutherford Road, Rutherford; roundpond.com
Tasting & Food Pairing at B Cellars, 703 Oakville Cross Road, Oakville; bcellars.com