Arriving in the Napa Valley in the dead of night my sense of smell was heightened. The season was harvest time – and the aroma of the fermenting grapes was intense. In the morning the vibrant fall colors of grape vines lining the valleys and hills was brighter than any sunrise.
I wasn’t ready for the rural look and feel of the Napa wine country. My husband and I had visited here 27 years ago when there were a few dozen working wineries. After years of hearing about the ongoing explosion of wineries, I was expecting a much more commercialized, chaotic setting. But what I found was a couple of winding two-lane roads, with wineries lined up like dominoes, albeit very beautiful dominoes – all with their own unique look.
Hess, Quintessa, Jarvis, Chimney Rock, Grgich, Stag’s Leap, Joseph Phelps – a line-up of wineries to rival any list. In a valley of some 350 working wineries, the tours were as unique as the wines they served. How many ways can you make cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay, merlot or malbec? After wine tastings at each of these wineries, the answer is – A LOT!
Several decades ago local laws were set up to keep the Napa Valley focused on the wine industry with ecology first procedures. No winery is allowed to have a restaurant; no franchises allowed to be built; and even though over 80% are corporately owned now, most are organic in nature using local resources to grow some of the best wine grapes in the world.
The restaurants that have set up house in the Napa Valley stay within that same mindset of being organically unique. Most have their own on site gardens and obtain many of their ingredients from the local region. My husband and I decided to indulge in not only one, but two prix fixe dinners with wine pairings – as if we hadn’t already had enough of the latter!
Three words: The French Laundry. The name came from the business that used to be housed in the building this restaurant is in – which was a ‘french laundry.’ The room we ate in used to be the steaming room. But nowadays the only connection to that business is the ‘French’ part. The dinner is arguably the best French cuisine I have ever encountered – and I have tasted my share. Anthony Bordain – dubbed it ‘The greatest restaurant in the world, period.”
Although most dining venues in the valley are casual, attire at The French Laundry leans heavy on the sophisticated side. Servers are dressed in perfectly laundered navy blue suits. Although very knowledgeable about the dishes they are serving, servers serve with a restrained precision and a zipped lip. The chef’s tasting menu of eight plus courses reads like who’s who of the most tantalizing, decadent sensory overloaded recipes one could ever hope to encounter. The French Laundry is the epitome of a fine dining experience.
We stayed at Meadowood, in St. Helena, which happened to be the location of our second prix fixe dining experience, at The Restaurant. Similar in terms of attire, dinner jackets required, the atmosphere was a more relaxed and interactive social setting. The courses were plentiful, 13 in number and equally pleasing to the palette, but that is where the similarities end in comparing The Restaurant to The French Laundry. The creativity of the chef was not only evident in the quality of his dishes, but in the whimsical choices of serving ‘platters.’
The only thing the Napa Valley left me wanting for, was more time to spend in the Napa Valley. I only touched the outer reaches of what this amazing location has to offer. Alas, my stomach and liver need a breather. And my wine cellar is amply full. But – I will be back! Sooner than later!
Check out more pictures in the Global Gallery tab!
What wineries to visit: Get a good map of the valley, and randomly pick a handful – you can’t go wrong in my opinion. Open to the public or by appointment only; $15 or $60 for a tasting; large or small winery; valley or hillside winery. As was proved in the movie Bottle Shock (which every winery will recommend you see), you can’t go wrong with any wine from the Napa Valley.
Where to stay: If you are willing to splurge, you can’t beat the remote quietness of the Meadowood, with miles of hiking paths, a great couple of restaurants, attentive service and oversized rooms in dozens of cottages spread out over their heavily wooded 250-acre estate.
Where to eat: I think I covered that. But if you are looking for something a little more relaxed and less expensive, try Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen or her other restaurants, Mustard’s Grill or Pawlcyn’s.