Those of us who live in the Bay Area are blessed — for thousands of reasons — but just one being the accessibility of Wine Country in all forms, from Napa to Mendocino, for a quick day or weekend “escape” to sunny vineyards and olive tree groves, set against mountains and rollings hills. Tourists flock the world over to explore these regions and none gets more traffic than Napa Valley.
Some of my favorite wineries lie hidden up in the mountains on either side of the valley. And particularly in winter, when temps are a cool 50s and mustard flowers cover vineyard floors, its a quiet and mellow time to visit. In the sleepy-chic town of St. Helena, here are two great places to stay, four standout wineries and two notable restaurants, both new and established.
View from a Harvest Inn room/deck
Where to Stay
Salvestrin’s front porch
B&B-Style Inn: Salvestrin is run by a family who has owned the St. Helena winery since 1932, though the property and history goes back to the 1800s. Recently, they made available to guests three rooms in their historic 1879 Victorian house — where family members still live. This is the place for a warm welcome, a B&B style breakfast and a home where character and history shine, from a front porch with a vineyard view to original furniture and an 1800s piano in the living room (more on the wines below).
Hotel for Food Lovers: Set amid redwoods and vines, some rooms gaze over the vineyards and mountains, others have hot tubs on their decks, others offer real wood burning fireplaces. I’ve written about the joys of the conveniently located Harvest Inn before.
It was sweet to recently be back on the enchanted grounds lined with brick, cottages and gardens — and Harvest Table is a damn good restaurant and bar, too (the latest cocktail menu from Joel Pfeifle is stronger than ever and worth a stop alone).
The ongoing issue the 15 years I’ve lived in the area is finding worthwhile coffee in all of Napa. Crazy enough, third wave coffee is still difficult to come by across Napa Valley, though just about everywhere else in NorCal. Thankfully, Long Meadow Ranch opened a charming outdoor cafe in front of their winery serving Stumptown coffee prepared properly from a quality espresso machine, providing, if not one of California’s endless excellent local roasters, a much-needed resource for coffee geeks.
Lunch at Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch
Oh, those St. Louis ribs
I’ve written about and visited this great family winery and farm since it opened, where they farm everything from their own chickens and eggs to grass-fed cattle. I am happy to say Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch remains one of the great all-around restaurants of the region, buzzing with families and tourists, regulars and barbecue lovers, offering something for everyone, whether hearty salads or fresh, grilled fish with hearty sides.
Eat This: Portions are generous and cooked with care, from the straightforward comfort of chili ($9) laden with their own grass-fed beef, heirloom Rancho Gordo beans and Sonoma’s Vella cheddar, to maybe the best damn ribs, St. Louis-style ($29 for a rack) I’ve had on the west coast, accompanied by green apple coleslaw. I’m one picky barbecue fanatic, just returning from Memphis a couple weeks ago and with extensive road trips across Texas and the Deep South for BBQ over the years. But these juicy Farmstead ribs are smoked and grilled beautifully with just the right amount of crispy skin.
Drink This: Cocktails leave something to be desired (and can be big city pricey at up to $17), but there is a good local wine list and craft beers.
View over Fantesca winery valley up on Spring Mountain
Winery Visits: Spring Mountain to Calistoga
Charbay’s alembic still
Though in neighboring Calistoga, Massican’s wines are some of my favorites in all of Napa Valley and a short jaunt from St. Helena. Massican owner/winemaker Dan Petroski pulls inspiration from balanced Italian whites, growing grapes like Ribolla Gialla, Greco and Pinot Grigo alongside the obvious Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. He also makes a beauty of a vermouth from Tocai Friulano grapes.
Charbay’s coveted, rare (and costly) Release 1 through III whiskies and rum are among the best spirits made in the country. Returning for an overdue visit to their original winery and distillery location in the remote hills of Spring Mountain, the welcoming, family-run gem continues to shine with their Napa-meets-Old World brandies and fantastic ports and wines. Their gorgeous 2006 Distiller’s Port transports me back to Porto, Portugal, by way of St. Helena.
Fantesca’s hand-etched wine labels
Focused on upscale, pricey (typically $125-150 a bottle) Pinots (their elegant King Richard’s Reserve Pinot Noir) and Cabernet, Fantesca is a secluded, by-appointment-only escape on Spring Mountain where a tasting affords cave tours and your own private tasting rooms, including a library complete with animal heads and fireplace, overlooking a striking valley lined with their vineyards. At just 3000 cases annually, Fantesca is small production for fans of bold-yet-balanced Napa reds.
The aforementioned, family-run Salvestrin is also a worthwhile winery stop for tastings in cozy, upstairs tasting room. From a Super Tuscan-inspired, Sangiovese-dominant blend, Retaggio ($48), to a lush range of Cabernet Sauvignon ($64-145, including their refined 2012 Three D Estate Cab, Salvestrin’s wines are made by third generation son, Rich.
Two Birds One Stone’s historic space
Japan Meets Napa at Two Birds, One Stone
Two Birds’ silken tofu in chilled shiitake broth with furikake, sea grapes, salmon pearls ($11)
Open in June 2016, Two Birds, One Stone garnered plenty of attention well before opening due to the chef names behind it: Sang Yoon (Father’s Office and Lukshon in LA) and Douglas Keane (the great Cyrus, which I still miss and wrote about back in 2009). In the stone-and-steel, 1800’s Freemark Abbey space, the dramatic, massive restaurant is home to world class staff who know their food and drink. Serving California-inspired yakitori and Japanese dishes, they pull from a range of Asian culinary influences in true California form. With an outdoor yakitori grill and a patio lined with fountains and fire pits, this is one of the best NorCal restaurant openings of the year.
Eat This: Using Japanese techniques and materials — from a binchotan grill to yakitori’s traditional white charcoal — the dishes show influence from China to Korea, with Napa flair and ingredients. Trying a good 2/3 of the menu, there were numerous standouts. Salty pickled plum ‘chips n dip’ ($6) dipped in a kewpie mayo sauce are simple perfection (and a great bar snack), as is a black kale-black rice-black garlic chicken salad ($12) or above-average, crispy Brussels sprouts in an umami-laden garlic-chili vinaigrette ($12).
Lemongrass ginger meatballs
Then there is a vibrant, Southeast Asian-style, lemongrass-ginger glaze over green onion-ginger meatballs ($12) or spiced tamarind crispy Sonoma duck leg ($17) atop grilled persimmon. Dessert is no slouch. All four during my visit delighted, including Saikyo miso and black sesame soft serve ice creams ($7 each). But it was the Ko cream hot chocolate ($10) graced with a saké kasu (or saké lees) “marshmallow” that wowed.
Drink This: With master sommelier Kevin Reilly (Cyrus, Quince) at the helm, the drink program is one of the many strengths here, from a robust Japanese whisky selection (including some Chichibu whiskies) to vibrant cocktails. Besides a list of international bottles, wine offerings are particularly exciting with a unique draft system pouring regional wines that are an exclusive collaboration between Reilly/Two Birds and local “it” winemakers like Andrew Mariani (Scribe Winery), Steve Matthiasson (Matthiasson Wines) or Lisa Valtenbergs (Stonestreet Estate Vineyards). The collaborations change throughout the year and house/draft wines are offered in 5, 13 and 26 oz. pours.