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Is Napa America’s Best Vacation Spot?

A Napa vacation isn’t just for wine fanatics, writer Benjamin Wallace discovers, as he and his moderation-minded wife experience everything else the valley has to offer, from kayaking and tennis to artisanal cupcakes and charcuterie.

Before we were married, my wife and I spent a week in Paris. Months in advance, I booked tables at a series of cele-brated restaurants, Michelin-starred and otherwise. But once we got there, we hit only three places before Jessica said, “Enough”: There were other things to do in Paris besides eat and drink. (The last straw for her was when, after an hours-long lunch at L’Astrance, we were too sluggish to climb the Eiffel Tower and instead spent the afternoon beached on the grass beneath it.) Personally, I could have kept eating my way down the Seine. Jessica has accused me, with good reason, of having the mind of a morbidly obese person.

And so, when we recently went to Napa Valley on the eve of our first wedding anniversary, I knew that my more moderation-prone wife would want to enjoy Napa in a balanced way, as neither a wine-soaked blur of tasting-room visits nor a gastronomic hajj to The Temple (French Laundry). I would limit myself to a single winery, I reassured her; we would treat Napa like any other prime vacation spot and even be a little active—we’d go kayaking, play tennis and take a painting lesson (well, at least Jessica would).

From the moment we landed in San Francisco, on Earth Day as it happened, the omens for a guilt- free visit were propitious. Our most affordable car-rental option also turned out to be environmentally conscious—a hybrid. Then there was our eco-minded hotel, Bardessono (photo, above), a low-slung complex of eco-friendly wood, stone and concrete buildings. Bardessono takes its greenness seriously: 72 geothermal wells heat and cool the place; 900 rooftop solar panels supply electricity; motion sensors turn off lights when visitors leave their rooms. The property’s great feat is that, while being greener than green, it still feels like a first-rate hotel. You would never guess that the materials are salvaged or recycled. The bathrooms are huge, with giant soaking tubs and massage tables.

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The luxury continues at Bardessono’s restaurant, where choices include haute organic dishes such as roast cod in a lemon-caper brown butter. The wine list is filled with biodynamic and organic options, plus more traditional ones, including a 2006 Jean-Pierre Grossot Chablis, a classic Burgundian Chardonnay that’s fruity, crisp and stony all at once.

For my one winery excursion, I chose Quintessa, a 280-acre estate that makes an elegant but powerful Bordeaux-style Cabernet blend. I’d visited Europe’s greatest wine regions while researching my book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar, but no estate I had seen—even in Bordeaux and Burgundy—came close to distilling the wine life as richly as Quintessa does. The winery building is sleekly modern, with a massive curved stone facade that looks like the sliver of a new moon. My guide’s explanation of biodynamic winemaking methods was compellingly occult (including the use of stinging-nettle tea to combat leaf hoppers, and the “tranquil energy” of cows), and I learned that some of the workers claim the cellar is haunted by a ghost. (I unhelpfully suggested that perhaps the ghost is just a scapegoat that thirsty cellar workers can blame for inexplicably disappearing wine.)

The tour led me to a copse of trees where I could get a sweeping view of the property. With its long finger of a lake, five rolling hills (which give Quintessa its name), dramatically intersecting vineyard lines and expansive vistas of much of the Napa Valley, Quintessa is what all those people who dream of retiring one day and buying a vineyard see in their mind’s eye.

cupcakes

Bottega. Photo © Bill Reitzel.

The plan was that while I was off doing the wine thing, Jessica (who spent a year studying sculpting in art school before trading in her acetylene welder’s torch for a writer’s laptop) would take a painting class. Fortunately, she was able to do it right at Quintessa—the teacher we contacted, Gretchen Kimball of Alla Prima Studio, is an artist who used to work in the estate’s tasting room and sometimes teaches classes at the vineyard. Gretchen proved adept at helping Jessica see like a painter, teasing out nuances of color in the landscape (the sky wasn’t just blue, it was also lilac) and showing her how to frame what she was seeing (Gretchen supplied a cardboard viewfinder to help). Jessica didn’t even miss out on the wine experience, because Gretchen had brought a picnic and a bottle of Illumination, the small-production Sauvignon Blanc that Quintessa makes with neighboring vineyards.

That evening, we headed to Bottega, Napa prodigal chef Michael Chiarello’s new rustic Italian restaurant in Yountville. The warm pecorino pudding with spicy rapini and grilled bread topped with oozing burrata cheese and artichokes are the kind of homey, lusty cooking that almost begs for a glass of wine to accompany them. Bottega’s wine list is a mix of bottles from California and Italy (we had a lively Rivers-Marie Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir), and the extensive selection of wines-by-the-quartino and unusually low pricing invite experimentation.

cupcakes

© Mitch Tobias

Another day, we walked around the indoor Oxbow Public Market and checked out the newest branch of Kara’s Cupcakes, a Bay Area cupcake mini empire that relies on local ingredients. My favorites were the banana cupcake with cream cheese frosting and a ganache-topped chocolate cupcake sprinkled with fleur de sel—because, well, both also contained caramel in the middle. “My attitude,” I explained to Jessica, “is, why get cupcakes with just frosting when you can get cupcakes with frosting and filling?” (In the interest of being rigorously scientific, we tried three new Napa cupcakeries; Kara’s was the best.)

While we were at the market, I convinced Jessica to make a stop at the Fatted Calf, a charcuterie selling house-made sausages, salumi, pâtés and rillettes. Once inside, it seemed inexcusable not to leave with at least a small sampling of their wares. I recommend the molasses-rich beef jerky, the fennel-y finocchiona salami and a bag of the paprika-dusted chicharrones, which occasioned my first and last ever use of the word “ethereal” to describe fried pork rinds. My wife said I was allowed to eat three.

kayaking

Photo courtesy of Getaway Adventures

We made up for all of this indulgence by going kayaking one afternoon. Randy Johnson of Getaway Adventures runs cycling and paddling trips all over the region, and for our trip, he took us out on Lake Hennessey, which also happens to serve as a reservoir for the town of Napa. Nobody else seemed to know about it (we saw only one other boat), and as a wine-country water source, it wasn’t like any other lake I’ve ever been on: It’s surrounded by hillside vineyards and has a movie-location-worthy spillway (imagine a waterslide for giants), where we disembarked to explore the area on foot for awhile.

When Jessica and I travel, I also like to squeeze in a little tennis. Though many Napa resorts have their own courts, a friend recommended the public courts at Crane Park, just off the main St. Helena drag. Centre Court at Wimbledon it wasn’t—the adjacent high school apparently specializes in training America’s next generation of car-horn abusers—but these tennis courts, too, seemed undiscovered. We had all six to ourselves, plus a view of Hood Mountain.

Our last night in Napa was strictly low-key. We went to Azzurro Pizzeria e Enoteca, the downtown Napa thin-crust specialist that had relocated to a larger, light and airy corner spot on Main Street. On the recommendation of a staff member at Quintessa, we ordered the relatively healthy Verde pizza (spinach, hot pepper flakes and ricotta), and I limited myself to just one of the two dozen craft beers on the menu. Oh, and we shared a soft-serve vanilla ice cream (albeit with both the chocolate and caramel/sea salt toppings; again, why choose when you don’t have to?).

The rest of the evening was wholesomeness incarnate. We drove up to St. Helena and watched a movie at the Cameo Cinema. Under its current owners, this 94-year-old Art Nouveau valley institution (it still includes love seats in the back two rows) has added a 3-D digital projector and live concerts to its usual indie art-house mix.

Before the film began, one of the owners stood onstage and announced the Cameo’s upcoming U.S. premiere (for free; first come, first served) of local resident Francis Ford Coppola’s latest movie, Tetro. The night we were there, the offering was Earth, a gorgeous narrative spin-off of Planet Earth, featuring the poignant migrations of polar bears, elephants and humpback whales.

Our smugness knew no bounds: We were watching creatures great and small, God’s green earth, etc., and had restrained ourselves from smuggling in a bottle of red wine and paper cups, as one winery staffer had advised us to do. I even felt confident that I had gotten away with sneaking a few over-my-quota chicharrones when Jessica left the hotel room, although she insists that she was on to me all along.

Benjamin Wallace is the author of The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine.

Published August 2009
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