Who does not love a trip to wine country and I do mean ANY wine country. They are all beautiful! The terroir – the combination of climate, terrain, geology – whatever it is that helps grapes and everything else thrive is simply spectacular.
Of course, it helps to love wines, but that too is not a requirement. Waking up in the vineyards, watching the fruits plump, seeing the workers tend to the plants, and the farmer baby his crop, awaiting the perfect moment to harvest, always praying for the right amount of rainfall.
I think I, like many wine-enthusiasts, perhaps under-appreciated the wines from this region of California. There are so many mass-produced big box wineries that it frankly can be tiresome. What we opted for was more of a boutique approach and were so richly rewarded! We had the wonderful opportunity to walk through small family-run vineyards with the farmers/wine-makers themselves and then sit down at the kitchen table of Dr. Thorpe, a retired surgeon who makes an absolutely phenomenal 2007 Adastra Proximus Pinot Noir among several other notable Syrahs, Merlots, and Chardonnays. Dr. Thorpe is a real character with an incredibly witty and dry sense of humor who was glad to show us around the grounds, his gorgeous old barn, and even invite us into the cellar off a trap door in his living room floor!
Being a former hotelier myself, it was great fun having lunch with Stan Boyd, former VP of Sales and Marketing of Fairmont Hotels, and his wife, Joan, who left Qantas Airlines, and along with Stan built a lovely home on an idyllic vineyard. They entertained us along with their two huge English Labradors over sandwiches from the famed Oakville Grocery and we sipped Estate Grown Big Ranch Syrah and an absolutely luscious 2009 Zinfandel from Varozza in St. Helena.
The Madrid Family with Stan Boyd at Boyd Family Vineyards
Perhaps our favorite stop, organized on a whim by Gregory, our super-concierge at Calistoga Ranch, was with Dennis Zablosky at Frank Family Vineyards. Dennis has a wealth of knowledge, connections, and a quick wit that would be hard to replicate. A great time was had by all sitting around his desk, notwithstanding his sharing of some of the best wines of the entire trip! A chardonnay that was so perfectly balanced and elegant that it was best just barely chilled and a reserve pinot noir worth its weight in grapes, I mean gold. The grounds were beautiful and we had ironically stumbled upon them earlier that morning taking an off-road jogging route through the spectacular vineyards – a wonderful way to get the palate and body ready for the days work!
So enough about wine for now, lets talk lodging. I don’t care what anybody says, a hotel bed is not just a place to rest your head. Often it is the reason for going somewhere at all – it can easily be the destination in itself. So my philosophy on this is quite simple – splurge and enhance your experience in a way that is immeasurable and gives you pleasure just to open your eyes in the morning and remember where you are.
We started our journey in Carneros and the very quirky and wonderful Carneros Inn – http://www.thecarnerosinn.com. Just one hour from the Sacramento airport (by the way, a great place to fly into if heading to Napa, as it is small and much easier to navigate than SFO), we pulled off the road at the site of the Boon Fly Cafe, a California take on the classic American diner, and made our way through the Carneros Inn grounds which are on the site of a former trailer park. All of the sumptuous suites are stand-alone rooms in the shape of a trailer and named after their original residents. The grounds are vast and simply beautiful – with gardens, trails alongside the vineyards, and at the “Hilltop” a perfectly placed pool that seems to set in the midst of a field overlooking the vineyards of Carneros.
Reception and concierge are based at the Hilltop and we were greeted with a glass of Ceja Vino de casa and a large bowl of my favorite Italian chocolates, Baci (also the namesake of our first beloved Labrador retriever). The team could not have been more friendly and down-to-earth. Upon arriving at our “trailer”, the bellman started the fire and introduced us to all of the complimentary in-room amenities – a mini bar, estate-grown apples, and both an espresso machine as well as an automatic coffee brewer for those that don’t want to be bothered.
The highlight of the suite was our private back deck with a large claw foot soaking tub, fireplace, and lounge chairs. The property does not take itself too seriously and even nods to it’s former trailer park days by enclosing the deck in a corrugated aluminum privacy fence. For those that travel with children to Napa, this is definitely a fantastic option. In addition to the hilltop adults-only pool, there is a wonderful family pool and fitness club not unlike an exceptionally appointed private Country Club. One of the property stand-outs is Farm Restaurant, fully supported by the bounty of local Carneros farms and ranches. Definitely make time though for the expert healing hands of one of the therapists who take pride in their craft!
Other thoughtful touches – Salted Caramel Chocolate Ganache for our turn down chocolate! Heated floors in the bathroom are such a treat in the morning when it is 65 degrees. The weather warms up to a perfect 80 during the day though and at night time a fireplace to warm the soul.
GUESTS OF RESORT TO LAURA MADRID also receive:
– Upgrade on availability on arrival
– Daily breakfast credit of $40 to use in any of the restaurants
– $50 Spa credit
– VIP wine tasting for two at the Vinters Collection in Napa
– Early check-in and late check-out subject to availability.
One of the primary activities in Napa Valley is dining and a great deal of thought ought to go into which restaurants you can fit in (and get in to) while you are there. Yountville might be the food mecca of the U.S. as its large concentration of MUST-DO restaurants are all within a mile radius of one another. French Laundry, Bottega, Redd, Ad Hoc, to name only a few. So if you will be dining in Yountville, and don’t wish to drive in for dinner, I might suggest a stay at Hotel Yountville – http://www.hotelyountville.com/ or for those with a bit bigger budget, the Bardessono – http://www.bardessono.com. Both are within walking distance to dining heaven.
The prime location for being in the closest proximity to the vast majority of the wineries and also very close to much of the most anticipated dining is Auberge du Soleil – http://www.aubergedusoleil.com/. This is by far the best known and most elegant property in the valley and is also the rate leader. The property is very romantic, feels French, and has a restaurant that should not be missed by anyone visiting Napa Valley that wants an incredible dining experience with a view to match. Is there a greater lunch than a glass of Rose Champagne and the lobster salad I am enjoying below?
I always like to save the best for last, and in my opinion, ANY stay in the Napa Valley should include a stay in Calistoga which is the more natural, organic, and off the beaten path part of Napa wine country. You may find this a theme, but we were delighted to stay at yet another former trailer park up in Calistoga and actually I think the most special in the region, Calistoga Ranch: http://calistogaranch.com/.
This is the sister-property to Auberge du Soleil and for me the top pick of the trip! The 1200 square foot lodges, also reminiscent of the trailers they replaced, are dotted on the hillside, many with incredible views of the valley, lake and hiking trails that make up the grounds. In the one-bedroom lodges, the bedroom is a separate building from the living room building connected only by the deck which has an outdoor fireplace and Jacuzzi. This is the place to unwind after so much carrying on in Yountville. The service is over-the-top in a really convivial and relaxed way – they just can not do enough for you here but it is all so chilled and fun. The Lake House restaurant with a 4-course tasting menu, a roaring fireplace on the terrace, and a view of the lake is not to be missed! Part of the Auberge group amenities (and available at Auberge du Soleil, Calistoga Ranch, and Solage) is a range of Mercedes available for guests to take out and enjoy any time they like on an availability basis.
Other thoughtful touches – Each night finding a different surprise under our sheets – a lavender sachet, a bag of jelly beans. On departure from Calistoga Ranch, the valet parker left a dish of frozen Calistoga grapes for us to munch on the way out of town.
GUESTS OF RESORT TO LAURA MADRID also receive:
– Upgrade on availability on arrival
– Daily breakfast in your lodge or in the restaurant
– A bottle of wine and seasons gift on welcome
– A sweet delight and a bottle of sparkling wine the next night
– Early check-in and late check-out, subject to availability.
The other very important restaurant up in Calistoga is, you guessed it, at the other Auberge Resorts property, Solage. SolBar is a spectacular Michelin star experience but again in a completely under-stated environment. What Auberge does so well across the board provides a premium luxury food and beverage and lodging experience, but with a nod to the Harmon brother’s California background that keeps things casual and grounded.
Solage: http://www.solagecalistoga.com/ is a fantastic option for those wanting to stay in Calistoga but do not have the budget for an experience at Calistoga Ranch. The service and product are excellent with a concierge who can map out a unique and boutique Napa experience for the guests of Solage. But whether staying at all or at none of the Auberge properties in the area, I would recommend the dining experiences at each.
Alas, all things must come to an end. On the way out of town we stopped at Ceja and picked up two cases of the house white that we so enjoyed at the lobby of Carneros Inn and were fortunate to be invited to a lovely hilltop home in Green Valley with a fantastic couple we met last year in the Galapagos. Judy and Barry could not have been more gracious hosts and spending time with them and their family before an overnight flight home was the perfect ending to another wonderful trip! Collecting experiences are amazing, but what about all of the interesting people we encounter along the way? Cheers!