I'm high, literally and figuratively, on my hilltop terrace, grinning idiotically. To my left is rampant bougainvillea. Below are olive groves and gardens, through which I've just watched a doe shepherd her two fawns. Far below, the sound of a woodpecker echoes like a demented sewing machine, and row upon row upon row of grapevines stripe the valley all the way down to the river, and up the other side. Ah, Napa. The Provence of America. The good life.
I'm living the wine country fantasy, as interpreted by Auberge du Soleil. In fact, Auberge was arguably the place that invented that fantasy just 21 years ago, by giving food fiends (not only wine geeks and nature lovers) a reason to visit this 30-mile-long valley. It was in 1981 that Robert Harmon and Claude Rouas opened Auberge as a restaurant--to immediate and unqualified acclaim, thanks to the brilliance of chef Masataka Kobayashi. A few years later, when a third partner, George Goeggel, joined the team, Auberge du Soleil matured into a hotel: 50 apartment-size rooms with terraces and terra-cotta floors, fuchsia-and-sunflower color schemes and bathtubs that could float a small yacht. Today these rooms are still among the most coveted in the valley.
I'm revisiting now, because a season of great ferment has begun for Auberge du Soleil and, in a way, for Napa as a whole. Two years ago, Robert Harmon handed the reins to his lawyer son, Mark, who is now in charge of development for Auberge Resorts--not just Auberge du Soleil, but six more properties, plus Calistoga Ranch, a second Napa place opening next summer, and Campagna, a Sonoma resort scheduled for 2004. Luckily for the guests, Mark Harmon is not your typical attorney, and his plans for the company are anything but conservative. In fact, George Goeggel, who is still the company's managing director, goes so far as to call him a visionary. Goeggel himself has an eye for talent: An excellent painter, he curates the sizable sculpture collection in Auberge's gardens. He is also responsible for hiring chefs, and here there's been another change. Auberge du Soleil's reputation had, frankly, slipped, but with the arrival, in mid-2000, of Richard Reddington from San Francisco's Jardinière, it is rising again--fast. This is just as well, because no Napa restaurant can rest on its laurels these days: Since Auberge's original heyday, the valley dining scene has changed beyond recognition, with a dozen incredible places competing for the vacationing epicures and the swelling ranks of resident vintners happy to pay $30-per-bottle corkage fees to pair their bottles with the kitchens' creations.
Not having brought my own wines, I relied on the Auberge's solicitous maître d', Tom Blix, to match all of Reddington's nine courses with perfect half-glasses of Napa's and Sonoma's rarest. Unlike so many other, overproduced, underwhelming Epicurean Menus, Reddington's was a paragon, an ebb and flow of flavor and texture, earth and ocean. Seated on the cedar-railed terrace watching an implausibly lurid sunset, I had citrus-dressed hamachi sashimi; foie gras three tiny, divine ways; wild salmon with sorrel; local squab with poached cherries and infant turnips; veal with a paper-thin, salty bacon crust and an extravagant mound of morels; and white nectarine sorbet. Reddington didn't go to culinary school--he learned at the range from such masters as Daniel Boulud, Roger Vergé and Roland Passot--and here in the land of artisanal growers and producers and ranchers, he's found a home, and it made me very happy.
That meal was a classic Napa peak experience, but multicourse tasting menus are not all the valley offers these days. On the plus side, Napa now has plenty of casual dining options, for younger travelers who have just visited six wineries and are in jeans and don't wish to Taste with a capital T. On the minus side, the valley offers more of a quasi-urban experience than it used to and is more traffic-laden than ever before. Twenty years ago, the Silverado Trail was just that: a trail. But today, fully paved, it carries the Highway 29 overflow too close to once-bucolic Auberge du Soleil. Even high on the inn's once-secluded terrace, the whine of 29 is clearly audible above the birdsong--not to mention above the string quartet at the wedding reception on the private terrace below the restaurant. In this way, Auberge is a victim of its own popularity, and guests are involuntarily serenaded several times a week by other people's revelries.
It was partly a desire to regain the original Napa dream of peace and escape that informed Mark Harmon's plans for Auberge Resorts' expansion--that and an understanding of the next generation's demands. "People are experiencing the best of everything at a younger age," he declares. "Now we've got the young guys here; we've got to take our properties in new directions."
Desperately Seeking Seclusion
I get a preview of those new directions when I visit the site of Calistoga Ranch, opening next summer a mile off the Silverado Trail, north of St Helena. Harmon had described the plans as representing "the subordination of design to nature," and when I see the 170 exquisite acres of Douglas fir forest with its petite lake, I see what he means. At Calistoga, Harmon intends to re-create the quiet seclusion of Napa's more innocent time, with nothing high-tech or jarring, no huge structures--not even tennis courts ("Ugh, tennis is so alien," George Goeggel says, shuddering at the thought). Instead there will be a vineyard in front and a spa hidden in the forest in back. Rather than occupying apartment-size bedrooms, as at Auberge, the 47 guests and 27 part-time residents will have their own mini-compound, a cluster of casitas around a courtyard with a hot tub and fireplace. It was the small (400-square-foot) size of the planned structures that enabled Harmon's team to construct on the plot, with its complicated entitlements, in the first place. Many have tried to get hold of this, the last Napa lot, but hardly any development has been allowed on open land since the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve was created in 1968. The Auberge team has a history in the valley and has proved sensitive to the three Napa "hot buttons" of traffic, sewage and water. So the Auberge team won.
Sensitivity to the desires of diners is also apparent in the Calistoga plans. The guests-only restaurant, Goeggel says, will satisfy both those tired of fussy food and those who crave a place for a special occasion. As he explains, "We don't look at food and wine as a necessity; they're elevated to entertainment. But we also don't want to be too serious about it."
Attack of the Four-Handed Massage
Not being too serious is important on vacation, one would think, but the appreciation of wines demands massive powers of concentration from the average oenophile--especially one who, like me, refuses to spit. Having an intelligent (or even intelligible) opinion on the 38th taste of the day demands serious brainwork. Hence the growth of the relaxing Napa spa, or, as I've heard it put by cynics, the attack of the four-handed massage.
Actually, there aren't as many spas in the valley as you might expect, since the vast majority of lodgings are B&Bs that can't support swanky health clubs with lots of treatment rooms. But the spas are coming as part of the new Napa, and, needless to say, Auberge du Soleil has a beauty. Spa du Soleil is as different from the quaintly '50s hot springs and mud-bathing establishments lining Calistoga's Lincoln Avenue and Washington Street as a Harlan Estate Cabernet is from a jug wine. (William Harlan, by the way, also owns Meadowood Napa Valley in St. Helena, Napa's other venerable, famous Relais & Chateaux hotel. And spa.)
Spa du Soleil opened in 2000, the year the Napa Valley Wine Auction sold a six-liter bottle of Screaming Eagle for half a million dollars. I can't help linking those two events. As Mark Harmon suggests, the young are more demanding these days, and surely it's the next generation of wine-buff-slash-epicure-slash-sybarite that is snapping up cult wines at auction and luxuriating in rose-petal-custard body masques in Spa du Soleil's $125-per-hour treatment rooms. These people must be the very same cultured urbanites who are quitting fine careers in banking or advertising to pursue their dream of owning a winery. Mark Harmon's generation is, in fact, the offspring of the founders of the wine country dream.
In one of the very Zen rooms restricted to Spa du Soleil patrons, I recline on a featherbed lounger hugging a sheepskin pillow filled with lavender, sipping delicious cucumber-mint-lemon-infused water, admiring the panoramic treetop swoop down to Rutherford, and I eavesdrop. The chatter all around me is wine-centric. These patrons are indeed friends of vintners and vintners manqués and vintners-to-be. Perhaps they are the same vintnerlike people who were dining at the table next to me the night before, who by the petits fours had lined up five empty bottles with obscure labels, the merits of which they were enthusiastically debating with the restaurant's wine buyer (who probably has her own label). There are more than 270 wineries in Napa Valley now, plus unknown masses of semi-winemakers piggybacking on other wineries to produce a few cases that they can name after themselves. My point is: Such is the level of wine obsession in Napa that it is not only the valley's fertile soil that is highly cultivated; to participate fully in the Napa fantasy these days, even as an enthusiastic amateur, it is necessary to be highly cultivated oneself.
Then again, it is absolutely unnecessary for anyone to take any of it too seriously.