Sip and sample your way through Napa
There was no wine at the halfway mark of my Napa wine hike. As Sorel Klein and I pulled up at the picturesque shore of Marie Lake, surrounded by mountains in the Skyline Wilderness Park, we sat on a bench, sipped water and he offered a bag of trail mix.
“I think there’s a growing awareness that there’s more to do here than (enjoy) great wine and food,” he said. A longtime resident of Napa Valley, Klein has now parlayed his love of hiking, art, food and yes, wine, into a new business: Active Wine Adventures.
Napa is replete with options to assist in drinking, eating and sightseeing through California’s most storied wine country. Klein believes he is the first to offer a brisk walk through lovely landscapes as a prelude to the tasting room.
“After that kind of exhilarating experience, working up a good sweat, you’re really ready for some nice wine and food,” he rightly observed. True to his word, he drove me back into the city of Napa for lunch followed by a visit to the Vintner’s Collective, where several smaller wineries showcase their products. Seven glasses later, I was sold on the concept.
There are several similar tasting rooms within a short walk of each other in the city of Napa, which means you can actually ingest the wine rather than spit it out and still be within safe stumbling distance of your hotel.
In my case, it was the Napa River Inn, a restored mill in the centre of the city, with my pleasant room overlooking the river.
Tasting No. 2 was the recently opened Outland, just a couple of blocks away, where I was joined by Angela Jackson of Visit Napa. As we sampled a flight of local chardonnay, rosé, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon she advised that Canadians should consider travelling to California wine country between October and April. It is less crowded, prices are lower and the temperatures are still temperate. Summer season can be scorching hot.
Taste buds now thoroughly lubricated, dinner was at Miminashi, a popular new spot where local chef Curtis Di Fede offers food in the Japanese Izakaya style — a casual setting where Asian-influenced offerings are presented in small plates to be shared. All the choices were excellent and the place was packed with locals — always a good sign.
Downtown Napa is bustling with new development, thanks in part to recently completed flood protection measures to keep riverfront properties dry. I also had a terrific meal at Copia, the restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America (otherwise known as the other CIA).
A 30-minute drive to the north is the more rustic Calistoga. Calistoga Ranch on the edge of the town offers a series of guest lodges scattered up a hillside — luxury accommodations that make you feel close to nature. The restaurant stresses the local in its elegant fare.
Local food and drink is also featured at the Michelin-rated Solbar restaurant at the Solage resort, where the new chef, Italian-born Massimo Falsini, stopped by my table to rave about the wealth of produce and vino in the region.
It seems Napa has an abundance of vineyards and wineries owned by former finance executives, eager to escape the rat race for a simpler life of backbreaking labour and fickle weather. Dale Bleecher and his wife Marla made the leap in 1989, trading his stockbroker job and long days glued to a phone for even longer days carving terraced vineyards out of the hillside in Jericho Canyon, near Calistoga.
At one point in the early days he saw several of his terraces swept away in a heavy rain after he followed some questionable advice on the proper grading.
“Definitely a learning curve,” he said as I sampled a selection of his Jericho Canyon wines, now an established small brand.
Calistoga’s other claim to fame is the hot springs that have drawn wellness-seekers for generations. On the main street of the town, a classic neon sign welcomes visitors to Dr. Wilkinson’s, established by an enterprising chiropractor back in the ’50s. It has proudly retained its retro bath house decor, a departure from some of the swanky spas in the region.
For its signature mud bath treatment, you strip down and gently lower yourself into a hot, springy mixture of volcanic ash, spring water and peat imported from British Columbia — a special concoction developed by the late Dr. Wilkinson and his wife.
“It’s kind of like Col. Sanders,” said their daughter Carolynne, who is the current co-owner. “The basic elements are not a secret. It’s just how you put it all together.”
The effect is a bit like soaking yourself in dirty porridge — pleasantly relaxing, but difficult to find a wine pairing.
Visitors to Calistoga Ranch in Napa Valley will feel close to nature.
Carolynne Wilkinson Clair is the coowner of Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort.
The centre of the city of Napa is booming, thanks to new flood protection measures.