Napa’s Sweet Spots

NapaNorthern California’s 2013 harvest is mostly behind us, but with the Flavor! Napa Valley food and wine celebration coming up November 20-24–not to mention the many individual wineries’ harvest festivals and autumn dinners–now’s the time to plan your fall wine-country escape.

Just looking at a map of Napa Valley excites. It can also intimidate: There are just so many famous and new appellations, so many landmark and emerging wineries–where to start? Typically, I start at the top. In the far northwest, Calistoga’s small hotels boast access to the town’s natural hot springs, and homey B&Bs are nestled among the trees.

On my most recent trip, I stayed two nights at the newly refreshed Chanric Inn, simply the best little B&B in Napa. Be welcomed to this modern hilltop hideaway with bubbly from nearby Schramsberg Vineyards, then let proprietors JM Dollard and Joel Haddad ply you daily with a three-course breakfast that includes house-baked breads; delicate seasonal fruits marinated in cachaça or pineau des Charentes; and dainty entrées, such as smoked salmon with eggplant-Kalamata olive compote and California caviar.

Well fortified, you’re now ready to drink. But where? That depends on what sort of a visit you seek. I ambitiously did nine tastings over four days, and the experiences–as well as the wineries–were all over the map.

The tasting experience was the most traditional at Beaulieu, where we were welcomed with our reservation to a reserve tasting room for a flight of serious reds. The proceedings were more personal at Newton, which requires a tricky drive to a breathtaking ridgeline deep within the Spring Mountain district, and also at tiny Hyde de Villaine, where vintage chardonnay is king and picnics are welcomed next to the vines under a shade tree. We also were able to picnic at Whitehall Lane, picking up a few cold bottles of the 2012 sauvignon blanc to enjoy with our meal. Wine and cheese pairings are must-do at Pine Ridge and Paraduxx. We tasted two 2011 pinot noirs standing right in the vines at Twomey, and for historic significance, there’s no denying the appeal of Chateau Montelena, made famous in 1976 when its chardonnay and Stag’s Leap’s cabernet beat out the French wines in a Paris competition, putting Napa on the world wine map. And no foodie should miss out on a tasting at Hill Family Estate, accompanied by a tour of the Jacobsen Orchards, which provides produce to Thomas Keller’s restaurants and raises the only certified organic snails in the U.S.

The house sounds begin very early at the Chanric Inn, soft stirring followed by the scent of really good, hot coffee placed in the hallway, as if to say, “You’d better hop to it–a full day of tasting awaits!”