Napa Valley. It’s the Bordeaux of the New World and much more.
This strip of land is just 30 miles long and just a few miles wide. Sitting North of San Pablo Bay that brings the marine influence to the lower part of the valley, the valley is bordered by the Mayacama Mountains to the West that separate it from Sonoma and the Vaca Mountains to the East.
Within this 30-mile stretch that is the overarching Napa Valley AVA, you will find 16 nested AVAs.
Napa Valley and its AVAs
South of the city of Napa you find cooler climate appellations that are close to San Pablo Bay. These appellations benefit from the cool morning fog. Here you find Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. (Los Carneros AVA, Oak Knoll District AVA, Coombsville AVA, and Wild Horse Valley AVA)
Then there are vineyards that climb up the foothills into both the Mayacama and Vaca Mountains. These higher elevation appellations can be cooler due to their altitude. (Mount Veeder AVA, Spring Mountain District AVA, Diamond Mountain AVA in the foothills of the Mayacama Mountains, Atlas Peak AVA, and Howell Mountain AVA in the Vaca Mountains)
As you drive north through the valley and further from the marine influences and fog, things get warmer and more continental in climate. As you drive North from the Oak Knoll District AVA you pass by, the Yountville AVA, Stags Leap District AVA, Oakville AVA, Rutherford AVA, St. Helena AVA, and Calistoga AVA.
As you drive up Route 29, vineyards stretch out along both sides of the road. These valley floor appellations are home to some of the most famous names in Napa. Here, Cab is King.
When you think of Napa Valley Wines, you might think of high end or even cult Cabernet Sauvignon, and perhaps fancy hotels and restaurants.
Yes, those are there, but really Route 29 is mostly a 2 lane road driving through farm country that happens to have vineyards.
The City of Napa
We stayed near the city of Napa, which 10 years ago was not really a place people stopped. The city has revitalized the river front and has a section of restaurants, hotels and spas to draw people in. Morimoto has a restaurant here.
In addition there are great local restaurants just a few blocks away. We enjoyed a casual noodle dinner at Napa Noodles & Poke Bar. The Duck Duck Soup was phenomenal and Michael enjoyed Pancit.
Drive north through Napa’s iconic vineyards
As you drive North into Napa Valley take in the iconic tasting rooms, Robert Mondavi, Opus One, and Grgich Hills.
Stroll Through Yountville
Yountville provides an opportunity to stroll. We typically like to go early in the day to catch fresh baked pastries at Bouchon Bakery and stroll to the French Laundry Gardens. Art and Sculpture dress this small town and it is filled with high-end luxury.
St. Helena & Gott’s Roadside
Further North you come to St. Helena, whose main street is Route 29. On the southern end of this quaint town you find Gott’s Roadside, which is a “must” stop for both vacationers and locals. At the roadside you order at the counter and find a spot outside to eat, either out front or on the picnic tables out back.
Founded by Joel and Duncan Gott in 1999, you can think of the food as elevated Shake Shack. They pull their beef from Niman Ranch, and the bread is baked locally.
On the day we visited, Fried Cauliflower was on the menu as a side. I enjoyed the Ahi Burger and Michael had the Bacon Cheeseburger.
They have lots of local wines, organic shakes, hot dogs, tacos, and salads.
If you have been tasting, you can bring a bottle with you for a $5 corkage fee, they just ask that it not be a wine that is on their menu.
I remember our first visit. We had stopped at Grgich Hill and after our tasting asked for lunch recommendations. They recommended Gott’s and told us the Ahi Burger was sublime with their Chenin Blanc, and sold us a split to take with us!
After your lunch you will likely be in need of a walk and a stroll through St. Helena to take in the shops is the perfect way to walk off your lunch.
As you continue heading North the mountains get closer and greener, and you move into Calistoga. This town is really easy going. We stopped early one morning for breakfast and were greeted warmly and enthusiastically at the Calistoga Roastery, where we enjoyed coffee, breakfast sandwiches and smoothies.
Under the Calistoga region you find geothermal springs. These provide Hot spring pools and mud baths for multiple spas in the city, some high end, and some a bit more approachable and kitschy like Dr. Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort & Mineral Springs. This retro style wellness resort has been around since 1952.
But wait! We haven’t really discussed wine yet!
Our stop in Napa was just north of the city of Calistoga, where we would blend wine and horses.
Tamber Bey Vineyards created their winery and tasting room on the Sundance Ranch. Barry Waitte purchased this world class Equestrian Facility and marries his love of wine and horses here. It’s genius, I mean who doesn’t want to sit outside in a glorious garden, sipping wine and watching the horses?
Barry grew up in the Bay area and his family came to Napa in his childhood.
His family’s summer escape became the perfect place to escape Silicone Valley, completely. He had fallen in love with wine and with endurance horse racing and founded Tamber Bey in 1999 naming it after his two prized horses. He purchased vineyards in Yountville and Oakville and set about creating a line of Bordeaux inspired wines with winemaker Thomas Brown.
When the Sundance Ranch came on the market in 2012, he fused the two, turning the indoor riding arena into winery.
After spending the first part of his winemaking journey working in custom crush facilities, he not only had his own facility, but enough room to be a custom crush for 11 other winemakers.
We met Morgan Craft the Director of Hospitality, who while off to a staff meeting, put us in the very capable hands of Robert for our tour and tasting. We were also greeted by Rocket and Comet the two winery cats.
Robert from the tasting room gave us a tour of the winery and grounds. The grounds house not just the stunning Arabian Horses that Barry and his wife race with, but also retired horses, rescue horses and miniature horses.
The tasting room itself is the 16-stall barn and clubhouse designed by Architect Howard Backen. It was stunning in the morning light as we sat to taste, looking across the courtyard garden to the stalls where the horses were enjoying some shade.
They set us up with their very popular cooking pairing tasting. Each wine in the flight was paired with a shortbread cookie.
The French Stallion cookie with savory Herbs de Provence pairs with Hibiscus Sea Salt with their Sauvignon Blanc…
The Black tea, tart cherry, Ancho Chile and black lava sea salt cookie pairs with their Chardonnay…
An Apple smoked peppered bacon and sea salt savory cookie pairs with their Merlot…
A Bitterweet chocolate, and cocoa nib cookie with grey sea salt pairs with their Cabernet Sauvignon
And the Cardamom Crunch with cocoa nibs and black cardamom pairs with the Rabicano Bordeaux style red blend.
While the Valley is just 30 miles long, that does not mean you should try to experience it all in one day. Take the time to explore the AVAs and find the nuances.
Then take the Scenic Route North through more spectacular Scenery and vineyards on your way to Sonoma.
Our next episode takes us to Southern Oregon into the Rogue and Applegate Valleys.
Here we will visit Troon Vineyard and learn about Biodynamic and Regenerative Agriculture.
As always remember to take “The Scenie Route”
More Episodes of “The Scenic Route”.
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine and WSET 3 Certified. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.