Napa Valley can stoke some excitement in people who visit for the first time. There is nothing wrong, after all, with the obligatory stretch limo, cellar tours, buying wine by the case and boisterous conversations with the winery folk. In fact that is kind of how it should be done when you first visit. Some people, however—especially those who have visited numerous times—might be looking for a little more privacy and tranquility. Something a little different; off the beaten path.
If you’re looking for something a little different without compromising on quality—from the food and wine to the place you rest your head—here are a few “under the radar” places to consider next time you visit Napa.
Where to stay
Not long ago Napa Valley had few luxury lodgings options. Auberge du Soleil pretty much had a monopoly on the market. Yet today, visitors looking to pamper themselves can choose between lux juggernauts such as Carneros Resort and Spa (formerly Carneros Inn), Calistoga Inn, Solage and Meadowood—to name a few. These 5-star accommodations offer everything you could ask for from beautifully appointed rooms and cottages, Michelin starred dining, spas and more. However, with popularity comes a certain volume of people.
Opened in 2005 by Cliff Lede (owner of Cliff Lede winery) Poetry Inn is one of the most secluded luxury boutique hotels in the Napa Valley. It literally defines the term “boutique luxury.”
The elegant five-room property is a hidden gem perched high above the valley floor and is the only accommodations in the Stags Leap District. Accessible only to registered guests by way of a steep gated drive, it is the ultimate wine country sanctuary for those seeking privacy with the tailored service of a personal concierge. Designed by Howard Backen, no two rooms at Poetry Inn are alike, and each room offers sweeping views of the Napa Valley. All rooms are appointed with a king sized bed, a wood-burning fireplace and luxury Italian linens. Rooms feature hand-hewn wood floors, original artwork and private balconies. These balconies face west, making sunset a spectacular time to relax and unwind. Bathrooms are spacious and built of Beauharnais rose limestone and Palladiana Marmo Giallo Reale marble. Each has lounging furniture, dual vanities, a large soaking tub and both indoor and outdoor showers with rain showerheads. The romantic nature of the rooms has fostered many return visits and several marriage proposals.
Poetry Inn’s treatment room is one of the most tranquil and intimate spaces in all of wine country. Therapists can be arranged for massages, facials and a host of other treatments.
Looking to relax with a glass of wine after your treatment? Poetry Inn also serves wines from the Lede Family Wines portfolio—some of my favorite wines Napa—through the property’s private cellar.
Where to eat
Goose & Gander (Downstairs Bar)
A ton of new dining options have opened in the valley over the past decade, from the many boutique restaurants in Napa and Yountville, to the vast Oxbow Market in St. Helena, which serves lunch and dinner everyday but can also service larger corporate events. Dining options in the valley abound these days but there is something about the downstairs bar at Goose & Gander—which has been around for a couple decades under a couple different names—that always brings me home. Originally the Martini House (a St. Helena institution till it closed in 2010), Goose & Gander opened under new management in 2012 and did right by not changing much. That goes, in particular, for the downstairs bar which, thankfully, has not changed at all. Hey, if it ain’t broke. And this gem of a watering hole, with the roaring fireplace, wood-beam ceiling, dim lighting and eclectic group of patrons—usually including some local winemakers who are regulars—certainly ain’t broke.
While Goose & Gander’s main dining room may not be a place to lay low, the downstairs bar exudes the kind of clandestine creature comforts many of its inhabitants are looking for—especially in the off season. In fact, on many a cool night, its’ nearly perfect.
Yountville has perhaps the world’s highest per capita concentration of Michelin stars—the Napa Valley town has only 3,000 residents but six stars. One belongs to chef Richard Reddington, whose REDD restaurant has, since its opening in late 2005, been a favorite of those looking for innovative cuisine in a casual setting. Before REDD, Reddington had stints at San Francisco’s Masa’s and Jardiniere, as well as Napa’s Auberge de Soleil. In 2012 Reddington opened a second restaurant—the even more casual Redd Wood, located in the North Block Hotel. If the décor is old world—with dark woods, brass fixtures and tiled floors—the California sun still fills the room. While REDD’s is heavy on French and Asian influences, Redd Wood is an osteria meets pizzeria. Charcuterie is prepared in-house while roasted main dishes like quail (served with polenta, spinach and apricot agrodolce) emerge from the wood-burning oven. Perhaps needless to say, but the arugula, mushrooms, spinach and other produce that top the pizzas are all locally sourced, as are the cheeses. Main courses range from $26 to $31, but with pastas from $15 to $18, the restaurant is refreshingly more accessible than many of the town’s starred options.
Redd Wood is not exactly “under the radar.” In fact, it’s quite popular. But it’s relatively easy to get a table at, is low key and won’t break the bank thus meeting our criteria.
Where to relax
While you certainly won’t be the only ones there, Indian Springs in Calistoga provides a bit of anonymity in Napa Valley. I’m not saying the chances of running into someone you know are not likely. Well, yes I am. It’s just that kind of place. Maybe it’s because so many of the new resorts have great spas and there’s no need to visit a place like Indian Springs. Or maybe people just don’t know about Indian Springs these days. But that hasn’t always been the case. The swimming—“soaking”—experience here has drawn guests since the 19th century who have sought the restorative powers of thermal water from their geysers.
Indian Springs was founded by Sam Brannan, who subsequently founded and named the town of Calistoga. In fact he named it Calistoga by combining California and Saratoga, a resort in Upstate New York he admired which also has mineral springs.
The more famous pool is the Main Pool, an Olympic-sized mineral pool, one of the biggest pools in California. Newer is the Adult Pool, which is smaller, quieter and more intimate. Both pools are kept quite warm, from 82–102 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the season. Immersing yourself—or “taking the waters” as they say—adds a healing element to the swimming experience that just isn’t available anywhere else in the valley.
Where to get some culture
Restored in 2008 by Blackbird Vineyards’ Founder Michael Polenske, this historic 1904 stone building serves as a stylized backdrop for Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley—“a life aesthetic.” As an art, design and collective wine-tasting gallery among an outdoor sculpture garden, Ma(i)sonry offers guests a differentiated lifestyle experience in wine country. Located in Yountville—a world-class culinary, wine, and tourism destination—Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley features a rotating collection of limited-production wines and internationally renowned art and furnishings to appreciate and acquire. Guests are welcome to peruse Ma(i)sonry’s galleries seven days a week, with seasonal evening appointments until 9pm. As an art, design and wine gallery set amidst a contemporary, landscaped sculpture garden, Ma(i)sonry offers guests a respite and a retreat. While its past may not appear to play a prominent role in its new incarnations, the history of the former Charles Rovegno House still permeates the walls and rooms of this elegant stone structure.
Where to taste wine (off the beaten path)
Garden Creek Vineyards (Alexander Valley, Sonoma County)
Just a short drive away, nestled between Sonoma’s Russian River and the Mayacamas Mountain range, lies Alexander Valley, in Sonoma County. Unlike Napa, which, due to its hot temps, produces mainly Bordeaux varietals—Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc—Alexander Valley benefits from many more micro climates that allow it to produce a variety of wines from big Cabernets to more delicate Pinot Noirs as well as Chardonnay, Syrah and so on. It’s also beautiful countryside with tons of wineries but in a much more bucolic setting than Napa Valley.
You wouldn’t stumble upon Garden Creek unless you knew the exact address and called for an appointment, but that’s why we like it. Celebrating 50 years of winegrowing this year, it was not until 2001 that husband-and-wife team Karin and Justin Warnelius-Miller started bottling very small quantities from the best lots on their 100-acre vineyard, under the Garden Creek label. These are allocated each release to winery members. The vineyard has been selected as one of Sonoma County’s benchmark vineyards for sustainability, and the couple continues to sell most of its premium fruit to neighboring wineries. Garden Creek produces only two wines. “Tesserae,” their proprietary Bordeaux Blend features Cabernet Sauvignon blended with components of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec and aged for a whopping 7-years prior to release. Meanwhile their Estate Chardonnay is a blend of 6 to 9 different clones (of the estate’s 11 clones). French oak barrel fermentation and 11-months sur lie barrel aging results in a complex chardonnay with many layers.
If you’re looking for old-world style wines with impeccable quality in a truly rustic—yet beautiful setting—this is your place.
Sullivan Rutherford Estate (Rutherford)
While technically right off route 29 on Galleron Road in Rutherford, they are set back a bit, almost between 29 and Silverado Trail with the nearby Napa River meandering through the landscape. The 26-acre estate was founded in 1972 by James O’Neil Sullivan, a visionary and pioneer of Rutherford. Under new ownership, Sullivan is coming out of a sort of “reorg” (as Bill Lumbergh might say with air quotes) which makes them a bit under the radar. The new owner has kept talented winemaker Jeff Cole on board and is firing on all cylinders with a new vineyard team and plans for a new hospitality center. Their wines however already speak for themselves with Bordeaux varietals Cabernet and Merlot dominating. Their wines are on the pricey side, but absolutely delicious with well integrated tannins that make them enjoyable today but can also be cellared for years.
Sullivan’s Cabernets and Bordeaux Blends are some the best I have tried in Napa in recent years. Expect to hear more about them.
Stony Hill Vineyard (Spring Mountain)
Founded in 1952 in the Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District, Stony Hill holds a reputation for producing Old World style wines of impeccable quality and longevity.
Fred and Eleanor McCrea bought the property that would become Stony Hill in the early 1940s, and planted the first vineyards on the property in 1948. The 40 acres of planted vines vary in elevation from 800 feet to 1550 feet. The McCrea’s dedication to dry farming over the last 65 years forces the vines to stretch roots ever deeper year after year.
Today, Stony Hill remains one of the few early Napa Valley wineries operating under the same family ownership to produce small-lot wines from a small estate. Beginning with Fred McCrea, and continuing with Mike Chelini who became winemaker in 1973, Stony Hill wines have been made in a consistently restrained style and a minimalist approach. Operations are now under the direction of Stony Hill President and third-generation steward of the estate, Sarah McCrea.
Stony Hill produces four wines: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer. A Semillon de Soleil and Rosenda de la Sombra are also produced in small quantities.
Mi Sueño Winery (Town of Napa)
Tucked away just south of downtown Napa there’s an industrial park that’s home to a few wineries that are hidden gems, and for the most part, winemaker-owned and operated. One of our favorites is Mi Sueño Winery. Husband and wife team Lorena and Rolando Herrera started the winery in 1997 as a side project while Rolando was assistant winemaker at Chateau Potelle. The brand represents the couple’s love story (their marriage year) as well as the culmination—a dream come true—of Rolando’s journey from being an immigrant dishwasher at Auberge du Soleil to his role as a winemaker more than a decade later. He later became director for both Paul Hobbs Winery and Paul Hobbs Consulting, before giving 100% of his time to his own winery. Rolando has serious winemaking chops and continues to consult. Tasting in the cellar here offers a snapshot of many distinct areas of the Napa Valley, for he also farms the land from which he sources his fruit, from Carneros to Mt. Veeder. It is fun too, for any baseball fans to visit the winery, for it is a practical museum of MVP baseball players, fueled by a 2006 visit from Chili Davis, who spread the word about the great wines to his circle of pro ball players. Tastings at Mi Sueño are available by appointment only Monday-Saturday.