The three-bedroom, three-bath "Tuscan villa" (circa 1999) was stunning enough, to say nothing of the winery: a turnkey facility licensed to churn out 4,500 cases a year, the agent said. But it was the silver coyote that sold us on the place. It stole across the vineyard rows, Chardonnay and Merlot vines rippling into the valley in neat green ribbons, beneath a pool-blue California sky. The only thing standing in our way was a scant $9 million.
Perhaps it was brazen to go house-hunting just two days after we'd arrived in the Napa Valley, but we wanted to see Napa through the eyes of people who dream big. We had once fantasized about the Napa Valley the way surfers dream of Oahu's North Shore or gamblers of Vegas. When we were 15 and 17, hoisting bus pans in our uncle's Toronto restaurant in return for after-hours schooling in food and wine, a bartender poured us our first mind-blowing sips of Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon. She told us the story of how, in a blind tasting of American and French wines held in Paris on May 24, 1976, France's most esteemed wine critics rated Napa Valley wines higher than Gaul's own. It seemed so triumphant—so American!—and we never shook the David-and-Goliath story of this food and wine mecca.
Related: Insider’s Guide to Napa Valley
By the time we traveled there several years later, the Napa Valley seemed to be more Goliath than David. The current of growth and expansion had taken a toll; Napa had become synonymous with brash, overextracted wines, the weekend traffic on Highway 29, and tipsy herds in tasting rooms. As it gloried in success, Napa lost its edge.
And then, last year, we started to hear the rumbling of change. The "dentists"—local slang for the well-heeled dreamers who bought wineries only to discover that growing grapes is hard work—have, for the most part, departed, leaving behind the diehards, the iconoclasts, the characters. Overzealous development has mobilized preservationists so that the buzzword now is sustainability, and nascent appellations, like the Diamond Mountain District and Oak Knoll, are focusing attention on the terroir that makes Napa unique. At the same time, several noteworthy resorts have opened, placing a premium on style, intelligence, and good value, and encouraging the valley standbys to sharpen their acts.
If the boom Napa of the late nineties was a Hummer, the new Napa is the electric-hybrid Toyota Prius, so we booked one of the rakish hatchbacks for our journey through the 30-mile-long valley, from its southernmost point in broadly agricultural Carneros to the funky spa town Calistoga at the northern end. And we planned our trip to coincide with the Napa Valley Wine Auction—crucible of wine country exuberance, whose symbolic pinnacle was surely the day in June 2000 when a bidder paid $500,000 for a six-liter bottle of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon. We reserved rooms and booked tables at the new places and the old worthies, set up appointments with many, many wineries, and made certain the driver was always desig- nated. We organized our trip around the three major whistle-stops on Route 29, proceeding more or less from south to north.
Buffeted by winds off San Francisco Bay, Carneros has the coolest climate in the valley and is where much of the region's Chardonnay grapes are grown. These open plains would seem to be a curious location for the Carneros Inn, a hip resort and spa that in many respects exemplifies Napa now. Indiscernible from the highway, the inn is a collection of cottages with corrugated tin roofs, galvanized stovepipes, and shady front porches with rocking chairs. Little would seem to separate cottages here from modest farm buildings in Iowa, except their pitch-perfect khaki color and what's on the inside: hardwood floors, leather club chairs, wood-burning fireplaces, plasma-screen TV's. Mayberry has met Miami in a John Steinbeck landscape, but somehow it all makes sense.
Our cottage had a private terrace with glorious views of the Mayacama Mountains in the distance. Each terrace has an outdoor shower with a head the size of a record album. If you don't have time for the paprika facial at the resort's spa, a hot outdoor shower on a 60-degree morning can be equally invigorating.
Seven miles north of Carneros is Napa, the valley's largest town and the county seat. Until recently this place was considered a backwater; these days it's more likely to be the center of the action. We arrived on Tuesday morning to find the farmers' market in full swing, jammed with people buying cinnamon caps and maitake from the mushroom ladies, or tasting the Royal Blenheim apricots proffered by the heirloom stone-fruit farm and the beef jerky from a young guy selling Napa Free-Range Beef. On a dry-erase board we found a reminder of the valley's small-town vibe: "Robert partied all weekend and couldn't get it together this morning. No strawberries till next week."
The market is held in the parking lot of COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts, a community center for foodies and one of the most appealing legacies of Napa's boom. The airy, light-filled museum, which offers daily lectures and tastings, encourages visitors to learn about every aspect of the food they eat. Exhibits never stray too far from the message that food is a source of amusement as much as it is nourishment, a sentiment perfectly captured in Will Cotton's painting of a melting chocolate sundae that greets you at the entrance. Julia Child's retirement and move to California a few years ago coincided with COPIA's opening, and her influence can be felt everywhere. The restaurant is even named Julia's Kitchen, in her honor.
A few blocks from COPIA is the sage green façade of Pilar, the valley's newest restaurant of note and, to us, the embodiment of the latest in Napa dining. Its chef-owners, Pilar Sanchez and Didier Lenders, are marquee chefs, having helmed kitchens at the Meadowood Napa Valley resort and the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant (one of the restaurants at the Culinary Institute of America). There's no sign outside, and only 13 tables. The interior is crisp, even spartan, but the luster of the polished concrete floors and powder-coated bar is softened by the walls, the color of rare olive oil, and the orange silk pillows scattered across the banquettes.
Pilar's menu—small, simple, and seasonal—and its wine list—which pairs California wines with "soul mates" from around the world—show that Sanchez and Lenders are as much curators as they are chefs. Even if Sanchez (visible through the pass-through) has traded her chef's whites for a T-shirt, the technique here is impeccable. At lunch, a touch of cream transformed a mushroom concentrate into a morel "cappuccino"; whole sand dabshad crisp, salt-flecked skin and sweet flesh and were served with a tonic relish of diced cucumber, capers, and dill. The dining room had quieted by 2 P.M., with Sanchez, behind the stove, accepting congratulations from a few devotees.
The atmosphere was several decibels louder at Del Dotto Vineyards, a winery not far from downtown Napa at the base of Atlas Peak. Josh Groban arias echoed through the tubular chamber of one of the earliest surviving caves in the Napa Valley, excavated by Chinese laborers in the late 19th century. The walls were furry and moist; they flickered with the lights of hundreds of votives balanced on barrels. Although it was 95 in the shade outside, in here it was cool enough to see our breath.
"We're the barrel guys," our guide announced as he dipped a long glass pipe into a barrel and dispensed for each member of our group a couple of swallows of wine. Del Dotto is a winery with a mission: to demonstrate the nuances of flavor that various types of oak barrels impart to wine. Though the attitude at Del Dotto seemed at first glance frivolous, its Cabernets, we had read, consistently earn high ratings from the people who take tastings most seriously. The tour turned out to be fascinating and instructive, but never didactic. In fact, our chummy leader was positively bibulous; with each successive comparison (the same wine aged in oak from different forests in France), the group began to catch his spirit and roar at his jokes.
That evening we went to Angèle, a restaurant that overlooks the Napa River. Like many Napa restaurants, it gets its inspiration from somewhere between Paris and Aix-en-Provence. But there are no RICARD or GAULOISES signs on display, and the signature cocktails use Napa's own version of the anise-flavored spirit, from the boutique Spring Mountain distillery Domaine Charbay. The kitchen at Angèle turns out contemporary spins on Provençal cuisine, such as a brilliant oxtail and lentil salad, and the lively patio scene typifies the casual energy of dining out in Napa these days.
The so-called Chefs Market on Friday nights takes that vitality to the streets. While there are excellent produce vendors to be found here, the real draw is the street fair. There's live music on virtually every corner as well as food stands selling free-range barbecued chicken, bottled beer booths, and roving bands of giddy middle schoolers. It's exactly the sort of wholesome block party that in another, bigger city might be a dreary, underattended affair. In Napa, it is the place to be. In a town where even prom parties are held among barrels of Cabernet, we'd feared that the teenagers would all be indoors, studying their Brix levels, but they were all here—packs of pierced Goths, droopy-lidded skaters, Britney look-alikes. The wait for the barbecued oysters is 20 minutes, but nobody's complaining.
We'd heard that the area had rediscovered its roots, but we never imagined we'd get as close to them as we did at the Frog's Leap winery in Rutherford, digging in the dirt with its founder, John Williams. We were drawn to Frog's Leap because organic, sustainable growers—long considered hippies with no business skills—are being heral-ded as the new geniuses, and Frog's Leap, founded in 1981, was one of the first organic wineries in the modern era.
Williams, a fiftysomething man with a close-cropped beard and a wide sombrero, refers occasionally to "the life force" and could have wandered off Haight Street in an earlier decade, but he is among the savviest organic growers in the valley. The soil of Williams's vineyards (and the vines that grow there) is so well adjusted and so vigorous that he is one of the few valley farmers who do not have to use irrigation.
"A healthy pound of soil will hold nine pounds of water," Williams said, striding out into the vineyard, a spade resting at his shoulder. There hadn't been a drop of rain for six weeks, and the surface of the soil looked parched around the vines. But when Williams dug out a shovelful, he turned it over to reveal dark, black, wet earth. We grabbed damp handfuls—the dirt had a mellow scent that suggested cocoa powder, simmering mushrooms, and wilted greens. "It smells like a living thing," he said, beaming with the satisfaction of a man whose wines sell out year after year.
Whether the tasting and touring experience is roundly holistic, as it is at Frog's Leap, or unabashedly hedonistic, as in the case of Del Dotto Vineyards (or "Del Blotto," as we'd later hear it called), Napa wineries are doing an admirable job of distinguishing themselves from one another, both in the style of their wines and the way in which their grapes are grown. Nontraditional Napa grapes like Sangiovese (the chief grape of Chianti) and Petit Verdot (a peppery component in Bordeaux blends) are being cultivated experimentally and may find a place here. In the past few years, Napa has added more American Viticultural Areas, or AVA's, to its portfolio of sub-growing regions, which has brought increased attention to differences in terroir. Microclimates (and the nuanced flavors they produce) can be so extreme as to undercut the notion of a single "Napa" style.
In the world of haute cuisine, however, that four-letter word means one restaurant: French Laundry. We were fairly giddy early that evening as we glided to a halt alongside an unassuming frame building on a quiet Yountville avenue. The fact that Thomas Keller's much-lauded restaurant, which more than one esteemed critic has called "the best restaurant in America," had reopened just two weeks earlier after a five-month hiatus only added to the jitters. In the darkened hush of the dining room, we found a few tables of wine-industry bigwigs entertaining the high bidders who'd begun arriving in the valley for the annual wine auction. Label envy set in: their champagne almost certainly cost more than we would spend on our entire dinner—atasting menu and a vegetarian menu, each 13 courses long—which, practically unbidden, began its parade from the kitchen. And as delicious as these tiny dishes were, we struggled to keep up with the filmstrip of exquisitely crafted food images that kept advancing. Some dishes, like a braised fennel salad with kumquats and green almonds, were as loosely composed as spilled mercury; others—a pickled, deviled "hen egg" with truffle syrup—were as tightly wound as a Fabergé egg. What they all shared was an impressive intensity of flavor and an almost godlike restraint. Horseradish, in one sauce, was tamed to a tone as mild as milk; snails were a revelation, with the mineral taste of a Pacific oyster, but also grassy and almost embarrassingly naked, tender, pale—barely poached.
When we inquired about the escargot, our waiter told us it had been raised a stone's throw from where we were dining, and we felt compelled to seek out the source. That's how we found ourselves in Peter Jacobsen's backyard the following morning. Jacobsen—the only actual dentist we encountered on our trip—and his wife, Gwen, bought their Yountville property, with its collection of 121 fruit trees, in the early eighties. They kept the fruit trees, added an array of heirloom vegetables and, a few years ago, summoned the courage to drop a box of figs at the French Laundry's door. Now their entire garden's production is under contract to the restaurant, and twice a day chefs harvest cardoon blossoms, la ratte potatoes, wild arugula, tiger figs, and—yes—plump, cornmeal-fed snails.
"We're so lucky we can grow things that don't have to travel far," Jacobsen said, and pointed out that his gardening c0-0p has encouraged several neighbors to get their land certified organic and to grow heirloom vegetables. He compared the small-town network of purveyors to Old Europe, but this place seemed even more inspired—where else in the world does a restaurant turn its neighbors into gardeners?
"St. Helena has attitude," said a waiter drinking at Pancha's, Yountville's dive bar and the after-hours watering hole for restaurant employees in the valley. He was in no shape to elaborate, but we think we know what he meant. The boutiques that stretch along the town's Main Street, such as Footcandy, which carries the latest Edmundo Castillos and Jimmy Choos, and Woodhouse Chocolate, a sparkly gold-leafed store where white-gloved attendants handle chocolates like jewels, seem more St.-Honoré than St. Helena. But there's also a down-home air here, nowhere more evident than at Market, where Douglas Keane—whose stints at Restaurant Gary Danko and Jardinière earned him the San Francisco Chronicle's Rising Star award—is running the kitchen. Ingredients at Market are thoughtfully sourced—the mac 'n' cheese is laced with a smoky, local bacon and aged California cheddar—but it's kid-friendly, too: it offers tableside s'more service.
The high proportion of great restaurants per capita in St. Helena seems to draw a lot of attention to the place; it's Taylor's Refresher, however, that put this town on the map in 1949. Taylor's is a spiffy outdoor canteen with a mid-century look, absent the retro detritus of a new diner. But then the menu isn't exactly nostalgic, either. Besides the burgers and BLT's there are impeccably rare ahi burgers with gingery slaw, chile-laced fish tacos, and bright-green garlic-dipped fries. We lingered as long as possible at the dining bar and washed the meal down with a white-pistachio milk shake and Roto, Napa's homegrown red soda, modeled on the slightly bitter Italian soft drinks.
That night, we arrived at Calistoga Ranch, a sexy resort east of downtown Calistoga, developed by the owners of the wine country-classic Auberge du Soleil, farther south in Rutherford. But where the yellow stucco Auberge juts out of the mountain, Calistoga Ranch is a resort for the new age: a clutch of cedar-shingle lodges with copper detailing hidden in a forest just east of the Silverado Trail. With its vaguely Aztec rooflines and carefully placed windows, it's a complex that seems designed for a discreet heiress or tycoon who loves nature, architecture, and buttermilk baths (available with a walnut-oil massage at the ranch's Bathhouse overlooking Lake Lommel).
All eyes are on the Calistoga Ranch, to see what influence it has on low-key Calistoga. When we checked in, a tiny field mouse darted into the reception area, and nobody flinched—not the employees, not the lady in strappy spike heels, and not her tanned escort. They get it here: Napa is wild—embrace it, or get out.
Despite all the new construction, there's a palpable spirit of preservation, one that has spawned, of all things, a vigorous cave-building industry (old caves, like Del Dotto's, are rare). Rather than carve a new winery or warehouse out of precious open space, winemakers today are creating storage vaults underground, putting their barrels where the temperature's a constant 58 degrees. The wineries save on the air-conditioning bill, and they leave a smaller divot in the landscape. At Von Strasser, a boutique winery in the recently designated Diamond Mountain District, the entrance of the brand-new 7,000-square-foot cave is tucked behind a 19th-century barn. Dirt excavated from the cave at Long Meadow Ranch, where Ted and Laddie Hall grow organic grapes, press organic olive oil, and raise grass-fed Highland Cattle, was recycled to build the rammed earth structure that houses the winery and olive press. Hall's organic, sustainable philosophy—what is better for the earth is also better for the bottom line—seems to be spreading to the big players too. He was recently tapped to be the CEO of the Mondavi Corporation, one of the largest wine businesses in the state.
The following afternoon we assembled for the Napa Valley Wine Auction, held since 1981 under a stadium-sized tent on the fairways at Meadowood. We were able to have more of French Laundry's signature salmon cornets, this time straight from the hand of Thomas Keller in a booth set up outside, and listened with a mixture of awe and embarrassment as high rollers from around the country bid on 137 lots of mamma mia-quality wine (a vertical Stag's Leap Wine Cellars lot that included a bottle of the 1976 Cabernet went for $80,000).
Our table gradually filled up with a crowd of young locals who'd left their kids with babysitters. There was a winemaker, an ex-winery owner, a couple of wine publicists, and Sheila Rockwood, the only valley native at the table, and who, having started a boutique soap operation, was uniquely qualified to take the long view.
"We lost Napa for a while there," Rockwood said as the gavel pounded and a few more bottles sold for a five-figure sum. "Now it's back."
When the final gavel struck, the auction had raised $5.2 million. It seemed like a lot of money, but the folks around the table agreed: it was definitely more temperate than in years past.
There may be hope yet for those dentists. Later this year, the ribbon will be cut at a place for the big dreamers who in a headier time might have bought that 25-acre parcel and "Tuscan" in Oak Knoll. Called the Napa Valley Reserve, it's a club that's the brainchild of Bill Harlan, owner of Meadowood and the boutique Harlan Estate winery. Members will play winemaker, doing as much or as little of the work as they wish to grow, ferment, and blend (and even design the label of) their own wine while someone else takes care of the real headaches: the water bill, grape-skin disposal, hiring the seasonal pickers. Live the Napa wine-making dream without owning any property! Alas, the price is high—the entry fee alone (not including dues) is $125,000 a year—but compared to $9 million, that's small change.
Matt Lee and Ted Lee are contributing editors for Travel + Leisure.
A car is essential for touring Napa. Highway 29 is the main artery of the 30-mile-long valley; the more scenic Silverado Trail is less crowded on weekends.
WHERE TO STAY
DOUBLES FROM $525. 580 LOMMEL RD., CALISTOGA; 800/942-4220 OR 707/254-2800; www.calistogaranch.com
DOUBLES FROM $315. 4048 SONOMA HWY., CARNEROS; 888/400-9000 OR 707/299-4900; www.thecarnerosinn.com
Meadowood Napa Valley
Ask for one of the newly remodeled lodges at this full-service resort. DOUBLES FROM $600. 900 MEADOWOOD LANE, ST. HELENA; 800/458-8080 OR 707/963-3646; www.meadowood.com
BEST VALUE El Bonita Motel
Clean, no-frills rooms just minutes from St. Helena's shops and wineries. DOUBLES FROM $135. 195 MAIN ST., ST. HELENA; 800/541-3284 OR 707/963-3216; www.elbonita.com
WHERE TO EAT
Country French bistro on the river, from Claude Rouas, founder of the Auberge du Soleil. DINNER FOR TWO $90. 540 MAIN ST., NAPA; 707/252-8115
Young scenesters congregate at this bistro's raw bar nightly. DINNER FOR TWO $65. 6534 WASHINGTON ST., YOUNTVILLE; 707/944-8037
Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen
Haute-comfort food maven Cindy Pawlcyn's most personal restaurant yet. DINNER FOR TWO $65. 1327 RAILROAD AVE., ST. HELENA; 707/963-1200
Best restaurant in America?Expensive, and worth it. DINNER FOR TWO FROM $250. 6640 WASHINGTON AVE., YOUNTVILLE; 707/944-2380
Julia's Kitchen at COPIA
Produce from the center's organic gardens and dishes inspired by Julia Child herself. DINNER FOR TWO $95. 500 FIRST ST., NAPA; 707/265-7500
Careful comfort food from a Restaurant Gary Danko alum. DINNER FOR TWO $50. 1347 MAIN ST., ST. HELENA; 707/963-3799
A newcomer with a simple, personal approach to seasonal California cuisine. DINNER FOR TWO $70. 807 MAIN ST., NAPA; 707/252-4474
America would be a happier place if every roadside diner were this outstanding. DINNER FOR TWO $40. 933 MAIN ST., ST. HELENA; 707/963-3486
Southern French cuisine with Asian influences, by chefs Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani. DINNER FOR TWO $90. 1345 RAILROAD AVE., ST. HELENA; 707/963-8931
BEST VALUE La Luna Market & Taqueri'a
Policemen and CEO's alike flock to La Luna for terrific Mexican takeout. DINNER FOR TWO $15. 1153 RUTHERFORD RD., RUTHERFORD; 707/963-3211
WHERE TO SIP
Cabernet may be king, but there's a dramatic range of wine- tasting experiences available in Napa. Call ahead; most wineries require appointments.
The Chenin Blanc is usually sold out, but the reds are outstanding too. 3451 SILVERADO TRAIL N., ST. HELENA; 707/963-5783
Chateau Montelena Windery
The winery that took first place at the 1976 Paris tasting still produces whites and reds of great distinction. 1429 TUBBS LANE, CALISTOGA; 707/942-5105; www.montelena.com
Del Dotto Vineyards
A superb tour with generous pours and one of the oldest wine caves in the region. 1055 ATLAS PEAK RD., NAPA; 707/256-3332; www.deldottovineyards.com
This irreverent winemaker was a pioneer in the region's organic renaissance. 8815 CONN CREEK RD., RUTHERFORD; 707/963-4704; www.frogsleap.com
Long Meadow Ranch
Organic wines and olive oils and a grass-fed Highland Cattle ranch. 1775 WHITEHALL LANE, ST. HELENA; 707/963-4555; www.longmeadowranch.com
Spring Mountain Vineyard
These steeply climbing vine-yards produce a head-turning Bordeaux-like blend, Elivette, and a great Syrah, too. 2805 SPRING MOUNTAIN RD., ST. HELENA; 707/967-4188; www.springmtn.com
Von Strasser Winery
Owner Rudy von Strasser pushed through recognition for the new Diamond Mountain AVA; he creates some lusciously complex wines. 1510 DIAMOND MOUNTAIN RD., CALISTOGA; 707/942-0930; www.vonstrasser.com
WHERE TO SHOP
A boutique for the jet set: shoes by Camper, handmade leather totes, and travel journals. 1422 MAIN ST., ST. HELENA; 707/967-9594
Napa Valley Orchids
Debra Atwood's clients include Calistoga Ranch, but her orchids are reasonably priced and can be packed for travel. AT THE NAPA AND ST. HELENA FARMERS' MARKETS; 707/255-8266
Napa Soap Co.
Watch Sheila Rockwood make handmade soaps from buttermilk, Cabernet Sauvignon, and roasted coffee. 651 MAIN ST., ST. HELENA; 707/963-5010
Olivier Napa Valley
A foodie haven with Staub kitchenware, a blend-your-own olive oil bar, and a superb line of tapenades and flavored oils. 1375 MAIN ST., ST. HELENA; 707/967-8777
Fine chocolates made with ingredients like orange blossoms and passion fruit. 1367 MAIN ST., ST. HELENA; 800/966-3468
Buffalo's Shipping Post
This experienced wine shipper will wrap your bottles and get them safely home to you. 2471 SOLANA AVE., NAPA; 707/226-7942