Winter may seem like an upside down, backwards time to visit Napa & Sonoma counties. I'm here to argue it might be the best time of all.
True, the vines are bare of leaves and fruit. True, it gets downright cold at night. True, some restaurants and businesses may be closed for renovations or vacation. But these disadvantages are well offset by the perks. There is no one here. You have balloon rides, tasting rooms, and the streets of quaint towns to yourself. Hotels upgrade you because, heck, why not? They've got the space. Reservations are easy to get. Best of all, people in the winemaking and hospitality industry are laid back and relaxed when they aren't being mobbed by tourists. You are a welcome guest rather than a locust-like invading army.
In this review, I'll cover the first few days of our trip, which were spent in the Napa Valley. Included are: Bouchon Bistro, Mustards Grill, The Bardessono Resort & Spa, Napa Valley Balloons, Round Pond Estates, Frog's Leap Vineyards, and Morimoto Napa.
Our journey began in the Napa Valley, eating, drinking wine, and admiring the austerely beautiful winter landscape. Though wine country seems remote from New York City, we were able to get there quickly and easily. We flew out of New York at a civilized, mid-morning, hour and were zipping up the Saint Helena Hwy towards Yountville by mid-afternoon. Napa is only about an hour drive north of San Francisco, so we had our first glass of wine in hand by 4pm (a delicious Stolpman 2009 Sauvignon Blanc handed to us upon check-in).
We decided to stay in teensy-tiny Yountville because it's centrally located, putting both St. Helena and Napa in easy reach, and because it's a culinary mecca. Unfortunately, since we were visiting in January, many places were closed. Of Thomas Keller's 4 Yountville restaurants (French Laundry, Bouchon Bakery, Ad Hoc, and Bouchon Bistro), only Bouchon Bistro was open. Still, even with the Keller empire shut to us, there were plenty of great dining options.
Our first night, we hit Bouchon Bistro for pre-dinner drinks and appetizers. The place is small (read: crowded even in January) and very French. I think there were only two local wines on the menu; the rest were from France. I had Sancerre and Sid had an Autumn Capirhana. We shared a charcuterrie board (with a standout pate and gorgeous pickled veggies) and Sid slurped some oysters. Not a bad way to kick off our vacation.
Dinner was at the famous Mustards Grill, which we found inconsistent. We were welcomed warmly, but our server had an off-putting air about her and messed up our order, bringing my entree with appetizer course (I know, wtf?). The food was hit and miss, too. A Caesar salad was crisp, tangy, and hearty, but the pan-fried crab cakes were literally cold in the middle. The hangar steak, though, was blood-red and gorgeous, smothered in a silky red wine sauce. The wine list was, unsurprisingly, pretty exhaustive.
For accommodations in Yountville, we went for broke (literally) and shacked up at the Bardessono, a new eco-chic resort that is, hands down, one of the most beautiful, luxurious places I've ever been. Since it's winter and Napa is blessedly quiet, we got upgraded to an even larger, more ridiculous suite than we'd booked. The room was, quite possibly, bigger than our apartment in New York. There was a steam shower, a huge spa tub, a fireplace, an enclosed patio, sheets on the bed that made me realize (for the first time) why people care about sheets. Anyway, nice place. Very posh. Also: delicious room service:
As much as Napa is about wine, there are a surprising number of non-wine-related activities too. First up, hot air ballooning. This was something I'd wanted to try for a long time and it exceeded even my high expectations. Again, because it's winter, the usually crowded ballooning groups (8-16 to a basket) were empty. We got a private ride, which was incredible. Being in the balloon was literally magical. Lifting up (seemingly with the sunrise), weightless and without the sensation of motion, floating over the valley, drifting towards the mountains...it was just awesome. There are a bunch of balloon tour operators in the Valley. We chose Napa Valley Balloons because they work with Domaine Chandon and the package includes a champagne brunch at the winery after the flight. It was a good choice. The brunch was yummy, our pilot an interesting long-time valley resident, and the ballooning a singular, unforgettable experience.
Next up was a visit to Round Pond estates. A relative newcomer to the wine-making scene (though they've grown and sold grapes to other producers for years), Round Pond attracted us not for its wines, but for its olive oil. Thousands of Spanish and Italian trees have been planted across the Round Pond vineyards and each year they are harvested, milled, and blended into a variety of intensely flavored, extremely fresh olive oils. We went for a tour and tasting, in which the oils (as well as homemade red wine vinegars) were paired with produce fresh from the garden (yes, even in winter), bread, and cheeses. This tour was informative, interesting, and scrumptious. Our favorite tastes were their lemon and blood orange infused oils and their vivid and intense Merlot/Cab vinegar.
After Round Pond we drove past fields of silent vineyards, traveling up Conn Creek Road to visit the iconic Red Barn at Frog's Leap.
The wines here are solid, but the real attraction is the tour. Warm, friendly, and laid back, the winery staffers lead you around the gorgeous property, explaining the wine-making process and Frog's Leap's history and approach to bio-dynamic production. The tasting takes place en route - in the barrel room, out in the vineyard, and as you wander through the garden (beautiful even in winter). Brilliant yellow mustard luxuriates beneath the gnarled, bare vines, roosters crow, and the winery cat sprawls lazily on the sofa in the house, waiting to have his belly rubbed. This experience was a real highlight.
Dinner that night took us down to the relatively bustling town of Napa itself. After an abortive trip to Oxbow Public Market (closed for renovations), we finished the evening with drinks and dinner at Morimoto. First off, this restaurant is beautiful. Steel and glass are softened by polished wood and the walls are adorned with petrified merlot vines. For the food, we experienced some real highs (and one horrifying low). The cocktails were great - fresh, inventive, and highly (dangerously) drinkable. Dinner was more hit and miss.
The first two appetizers we tried were among the more delicious things I've eaten. Luscious, plump rock shrimp were enveloped in feather-light tempura batter and coated with spicy sauces (a riff on a buffalo wing sauce, which perhaps sounds gross but tasted awesome, and a wasabi mayo, which was the real standout). Next came a perfect cube of meltingly tender pork belly, glazed and sweetened with soy, served over soft kongee, and topped with crispy burdock. This was devoured instantly. The low was an Asian inspired bone marrow. Now, we are big bone marrow fans, but this was pretty much inedible. The marrow itself tasted funky and was topped with a thick crust of caramelized onions and panko that clumped and gunked up the whole works. A real disappointment. We finished the meal with sushi. It was good. Fresh, beautifully presented, and all that, but not as spectacular as I was expecting from a place like Morimoto.
All in all, though, a wonderful start to a great vacation. Click here to read about our continuing adventures in Napa.