California’s Napa Valley is justifiably famous for its viticultural gems. But beyond poetry in a bottle, other temptations await.
It’s probably the most famous — and over-used — wine-related aphorism of them all. Wine, said Robert Louis Stevenson, is bottled poetry. These days, the quote is indelibly connected to the Napa Valley wine region, but Stevenson wasn’t actually referring to Napa wines. In 1883, when he coined the phrase, Californian wines were thought unworthy of such high-flown rhetoric. In fact, American drinkers of the time were so sceptical of locally produced wines that Napa vintners were known to label them as Spanish.
But the “bottled poetry” line is from a book Stevenson wrote about Napa Valley and its nascent wine industry, and that’s enough for locals to have taken the quote and run with it, affixing it to everything from billboards to souvenir throw cushions. And why not? The Napa Valley, an hour north of San Francisco, is now one of the world’s great wine regions, producing prized (and pricy) cabernet sauvignons, buttery chardonnays and plenty of California’s most famous grape variety, zinfandel. But there’s more to the valley than just wine. Here are a few suggestions to make the most of your trip.
FOLLOW IN STEVENSON’S FOOTSTEPS
Published in the same year as Treasure Island, Stevenson’s The Silverado Squatters (the source of that famous line) is his account of a penniless but happy honeymoon spent in an abandoned miners’ bunkhouse near Calistoga, at the northern end of the valley. It was Stevenson’s only visit to the area, but his presence is celebrated still. The Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in St Helena claims ownership of the largest collection of “Stevensonia” in the world, including his library and hundreds of other possessions. The wedding ring from his scandalous marriage to US divorcee Fanny Osbourne, 11 years his senior, is here, as is the snuff box in which his father stored Parmesan cheese — inspiration for a vital Treasure Island plot point.
With more than 450 wineries and 125 restaurants in a wine-making area one-eighth the size of Bordeaux, it can be hard to know quite where to begin eating and drinking. Enter “Flavor! Napa Valley”, a five-day festival showcasing the best of the valley’s food and wine. At last year’s festival, I stuffed myself at a fried-chicken cook-off, taste-tested gourmet hamburger and wine pairings, and learned fish preparation techniques from the star of television’s Iron Chef, Masaharu Morimoto. But the festival’s undoubted highlight was its signature feature: the Appellation Trail, a head-spinningly huge wine-and-food-tasting event (100 wineries, 25 restaurants) held at the Culinary Institute of America’s historic St Helena campus. Flavor! Napa Valley returns March 16-20, 2016.
EXPLORE THE WINERIES
It’s perfectly acceptable to have no other goal for your trip than simply tasting as many wines as is humanly possible. A tasting-room tour starting with the pinot noirs of the valley’s cooler southern end (try Etude Wines) and meandering north via the scenic Silverado Trail is easily doable in a day. But why travel all that way for the standard tasting experience, however delightful? The valley is full of wineries offering something a bit more interesting. The buildings at Sterling Vineyards, for example, are inspired by the whitewashed architecture of Mykonos and house bells from a 10th-century London church destroyed in WWII. Transport from the carpark into the winery, high above the valley, is by solar-powered aerial tram. At Domaine Carneros, the US outpost of French champagne house Taittinger, you can take a yoga class on the lawn, then reward yourself with a glass of bubbly inside the chateau. Winery restaurants aren’t quite as big a thing here as they are in New Zealand, but the Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch is one of the best. LMR is an award-winning winery, olive oil producer and organic farm all rolled into one and its restaurant menu is authentically farm-to-table: it’s a rare ingredient indeed that isn’t sourced from their own land.
HIT A FESTIVAL
With its proximity to affluent San Francisco, the brilliant weather, a vigorous arts community and plenty of locally grown social lubricant on tap, it’s little wonder Napa Valley’s calendar is peppered with cultural events and festivals. Billed as a “music festival, an arts festival, and a festival of wine and food all wrapped into one”, Festival del Sole stretches over 10 days each July, featuring more than 60 events and performances (mostly classical, jazz and dance) at wineries and other venues around the valley. Headquartered in Napa’s gorgeous art deco Uptown Theatre, the Napa Valley Film Festival combines independent cinema with (you guessed it) fine food and wine. Get lucky and you may run into cinema legend and long-time Napa winemaker Francis Ford Coppola. The annual music festival BottleRock also has a culinary bent. Alongside performances by No Doubt, Robert Plant and Imagine Dragons, last year’s festival paired chefs, vintners and master sommeliers with artists including Snoop Dogg and the felicitously named Flavor Flav for food demos and other food-meets-music events.
EAT LIKE A KING
There’s some excellent, affordable eating to be had here: check out Gott’s Roadside, for example, which flipped its first burger at its St Helena location in 1949 and is now also at the Oxbow gourmet food market in Napa township. But the thousands who make culinary pilgrimages to Napa Valley come for fine dining, not fast food. Halfway up Highway 29 lies the tiny town of Yountville, home to 3400 residents — and one of the most famous restaurants on the planet. Housed in a two-storey wood-and-brick building on Yountville’s main street, The French Laundry has been smothered with accolades ever since genius chef Thomas Keller took over in 1994. It serves only a nine-course tasting menu, with no single ingredient repeated during the meal, and tables are notoriously difficult to snag — if a Napa Valley visit is on your horizon, book now. And if you miss out, don’t despair. A few metres down the road you’ll find more acclaimed eateries, including Keller’s other two Yountville outposts, Ad Hoc (American classics) and Bouchon (a French bistro and bakery).