What to Expect When You’re Expecting…in Napa
I’ve never had luck with Napa and men.
Five years ago, my long-term boyfriend and I booked a much-anticipated stay at Meadowood, a last-fail attempt at mending our tattered relationship. The moment we arrived, his 100-year old grandmother died. We took the next flight home, and called it quits a month later.
More recently, I brought a cute, rather un-vetted guy to Calistoga Ranch, a hotel I’d dreamed of visiting and finally could, thanks to a story assignment. New Guy—lovely and well meaning, but who should never leave New York City again—inharmoniously closed business deals the entire time, hastily guzzling his California Cab. Meanwhile, I tensely, tipsily, read memoirs, plotting how to memorialize him.
Food writers—a cadre of whom I technically belong to—like to moan that you “can never get a meal back.” I don’t believe that goes for travel. Which is why I booked one more do-over last month, with a man I’ve been in a long-distance, loosely knit, ultra-caring relationship with for more than a year. Romantic Napa, take three.
Two small caveats I should mention: I am pregnant, and he is sober. (And for another layer of modern love, he isn’t the father. In February, I chose to get pregnant on my own…but that’s another story!).
Did I set my Man Friend and I up for failure, choosing wine country as our nicest vacation yet? Doubtful. We had a lot in our favor. We travel beautifully together. We’re similar early-to-bed, early-to-risers. We’re both, inherently, shoes-off, music-up, simple-pleasures people. And so it began.
Our opening scene was al fresco at Oakville Grocery. Fried chicken for me, a colossal BLT for him. My first revelation was that without alcohol, there was so much extra real estate for calories. So we bought a big bag of gooey chocolate chip cookies “for the road.”
The road led to Calistoga Ranch, where we’d spend our first night. At check-in, the gracious staff offered us wine from their vineyard. MF, who’s been sober for several years, has no trouble in such situations. Me, pregnant only four months at the time, tentatively declined.
Floating around our indoor-outdoor, haute-hippy bungalow (complete with outdoor shower), we decided the first thing we’d do was take a long ride on the complimentary bikes, one of the several perks of Calistoga Ranch—second only to stargazing from the porch. Pedaling down the Silverado Trail with MF’s floppy-musician hair ahead and my little fig inside was intoxicating on another level.
That night, we ate at the pretty patio that is Evangeline, a new French-Creole spot in Calistoga from Michelin-starred chef Brandon Sharp. From certain angles, Napa can feel slightly too stuffy-country-club, and that’s a glimpse of what I got there. The standout frites and a bright “white corn macque choux” (pronounced "mock shoe," a Cajun-inspired fresh-off-the-cob corn salad) more than made up for the fact that I had to sip Pellegrino while watching everyone around me slug their Sauvy-B.
The next morning, we woke up at 7 a.m. Travel without even the mildest hangover is a quiet luxury I learned to value enormously in Napa, especially on our misty, early-morning hike through the mossy, woodsy Bothe State Park. Peaking in on yurts and campsites, it felt like a touch of Woodstock amidst the oaks and redwoods.
Unsurprisingly, mama was starving after all of that physical activity. As I waited, happy if hungry, under the hazy Northern California sun, MF hand-delivered grilled cheese and tomato soup to our sidewalk table at Model Bakery in stylish St. Helena. In the history of my pregnancy, no meal has hit the spot more.
To supplement our lack of wine-tastings—an activity that can actually feel quite monotonous once you’ve done it enough times—we visited Round Pond in Rutherford, a postcard-ready family-owned estate, complete with one of Napa’s most coveted private olive oil presses. The iridescent villa is a portrait of gardens and poppies and puppies, and after a fun tasting of olive oils, vinegars, and fresh-made citrus syrups, we ate wild strawberries, ogled their robust chickens, and bought hand-pressed olive oils that come shipped with recipe cards and rosemary sprigs.
Just in time for our essential afternoon naps, we pulled into the 62-room Bardessono in Yountville. I wasn’t sure we’d like it there, as it’s smack in the middle of the buzzy town, a stone’s throw from Bouchon Bakery and its long lines of macaron-munching tourists. But the eco-obsessed hotel was so tranquil and chic that I never wanted to leave. And so, we didn’t. We napped, deeply, in a handsome poolside cabana, and ate dinner on-site at Lucy’s. We started with the red kale pesto gnocchi, then ordered a second one—and could have had a third, but felt too embarrassed to ask. Once again, no wine, no problem.
The last leg of our trip was a night at Meadowood, a Relais & Châteaux property. On the way, we met up with Ryan Harris and Kevin Folan from The Proper Sandwich, the Uber of organic picnic food. As with many clients, they set us up on a table atop Farella Vineyards in Coombsville. Over smoked heirloom carrot sandwiches and giant white bean salad, we talked indie bands and baby names. The guys—radical foodies—swore we were in for the meal of a lifetime that night at Meadowood. I wondered, though, would it feel sad without wine?
The answer for me was yes. Thankfully, I was saved by a bartender named Sam Levy. Meadowood being Meadowood, he knew two non-drinkers were coming in at 7 p.m. Before I could curse the Cabernet, Levy had a rhubarb and elderflower “mocktail” in my hands, and a lemongrass-and-green-tea soda awaiting MF. Course after course, he surprised us with fresh, thrilling, non-alcoholic pairings. We finished the evening drunk on life, love-stoned off togetherness. The next day, I left Napa with an extra glow, living (and growing) proof that when it comes to la bella vita, fine wine is indeed optional.
More good reads from T+L:
• Best Countries for Solo Travelers
• Best Places to Travel in 2015
• It's Time to Forget Everything You Know About Napa