In October, when tourists in Napa and Sonoma are as tightly clustered as harvest-ready grapes, I invariably do what most locals dostay home. But new restaurants, resorts and stores have prompted me to venture out, and have reminded me why so many travelers come here in the first place.
Luckily, downtown Napa's Pilar (807 Main St., Napa; 707-252-4474) is only five minutes from my house. Husband-and-wife chefs Didier Lenders and Pilar Sanchez prepare seasonal dishes like Alaskan halibut with mashed Peruvian potatoes. In the Carneros district, the Boon Fly Café (4048 Sonoma Highway, Napa; 707-299-4870) serves absurdly cheap and delicious American food like roasted chicken with bacon and mushrooms and killer beer-battered onion rings. When I'm in the mood for French-influenced comfort food, I head to Sonoma Saveurs (487 First St. W., Sonoma; 707-996-7007) for fluffy-rich foie-gras mousse to take away or eat in the back garden.
Not much changes in Napa Valley, so it was a big deal when Richard Reddington left Auberge du Soleil (180 Rutherford Hill Rd., Rutherford; 800-348-5406) to cook at Masa's in San Francisco; Auberge's new chef is Joseph Humphrey. I'm obsessed with Auberge's just-opened sister property, Calistoga Ranch (doubles from $525; 580 Lommel Rd., Calistoga; 800-942-4220), with 46 cottages tucked into a canyon. Guests can settle into cushy lounge chairs near their indoor-outdoor fireplaces, leaving only to eat dishes like crisped striped bass with ham hocks at the private restaurant.
For a quick indulgence, I visit Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort (1507 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 707-942-4102), a retro motel-spa with a new facial cottage and restorative mud baths. Next, inevitably, is Woodhouse Chocolate (1367 Main St., St. Helena; 800-966-3468), where Tracy and John Anderson, former owners of S. Anderson Vineyard, sell Napa Valley-made sweets in Tiffanyesque blue boxes. But my favorite candy pilgrimage is to the old-fashioned Powell's Sweet Shoppe (720 McClelland Dr., Windsor; 707-836-0808), for chocolate poker chips, a staple of my girls' blackjack night.