Where to go in Napa

Mike and I have been collecting wine for 13 years, but living in LA, Napa was too far to drive and who wants to fly when you are going on a wine purchasing rendezvous? Not us. We like to baby our bottles. So we settled for Santa Ynez, Paso and Temecula, all easily accessible by car.

Now in the North State, Napa is only three hours away. When we planned Mike’s birthday trip, Napa was the winner.

When we were trying to figure out where to stay and go we were a bit lost. So many choices and we only had four days. Our research paid off—we had an amazing time so I share it here with you if you are planning to go.

Calistoga is the perfect place to stay. Here you are centrally located to about—um, 8,000 wineries or so—and some fantastic dining options. The Pink Mansion is walking distance from town and was the home of the Calistoga water man back in the day so bustles with historic flare. A B&B ran by Toppa and Leslie Epps, the Master and Honeymoon Suite are huge (actually have two sleeping areas) and are steps away from the outdoors hot-tub. (There is also an indoor-heated pool so bring your suits.) We met some great couples from other states, two of which were celebrating their honeymoon. Most notable, were Jim and Pamela from Houston. They met on Match.com (though they were not matched) a year prior. Their first morning there, Pamela was sick and Jim decided to go on an early jog through the vineyard where he found a doe with two broken legs. He called the vet paramedics who came and tried to rescue the doe. Jim told them he would pay the vet bill and take the doe back to Texas as a gift for his new grandson. (Sadly, the doe didn’t make it.) We enjoyed listening to their stories, including the one where Pamela’s had to swim to her house in Texas (past snakes) after Hurricane Ike took down her entire neighborhood last year. The first thing she checked when she got there was her Harley to make sure it still worked. Miraculously, her house survived and now she has no neighbors.

Breakfast at The Pink Mansion is the best in town.

Down the street from The Pink Mansion is the Lavender Hills Spa. (All about the pastel colors in Calistoga.) There, in a little cottage looking up into a lush green forest, you can get side-by-side hygienic mud baths in one-time use volcanic baths instead of the reused mud in some of the other places in town which we thought was just a little gross. A bath attendant gives you remotes to control your bubbles (Note: just make sure your husband doesn’t get your remote) and comes in asking, “Would you like a cool compress?” After a half hour, you move to side-by-side tables for a renewing foot massage and then to separate rooms for a full-body massage. Use this event to detox from the ridiculous amounts of wine that seem to pour from the hills. (Note: do this BEFORE drinking. There are plenty stories of people who don’t and end up curled up next to the tub in the fetal position, which just doesn’t seem like much fun.)

Best restaurant picks: Brannon’s for short ribs, Calistoga Inn for the peanut butter pie, Go Fish for the sushi (all excellent-especially the spicy tuna roll and poke) and Flat Iron for the Meatloaf.

If you are coming from the North State, take Butts Canyon Road and go by Langstry in Lake County. This was one of our favorite stops because a nice Italian guy named Scott, hospitable as all get out, took us through the barrels using his turkey baster (or “thief”) to sample a whole variety of wines. His knowledge ran deep and we had much fun with him. Down the road is small, family-owned Pope Winery which is worth stopping at to see the old blacksmith shop (all with original tools) and the barrel-room built into the side of the mountain.

Then, of course, there is the vast number of wineries in Napa. Many of these require appointments based on an old law which tried to address the traffic and drunk driving issues in town. Many also have larger tasting fees then we are use to paying. Here are the ones that are worth it: Cakebread and Joseph Phelps (need appointment for both), Prager Ports (ports only-colorful), Mumm (all sparkling wine–has nice photography gallery with rotating exhibit—currently Ansel Adams originals and save the planet theme), Frank Family (both champagne and still wines) and Merryvale. We went to more, but these stand out the most. At Joseph Phelps, we carried a bag of cheese, salami, fig & olive compote and crostini from the Oak Street Market in with us so it wouldn’t get warm in the car. As soon as the check-in lady saw it she said, “Would you like to picnic?” and set up at a beautiful table (usually members only but going on weekdays has its benefits) overlooking a hillside of grapes. She even put out a beautiful Tuscan-like tablecloth with a reserved sign. We felt like we were alone in Italy.

In November, the Valley turns a menagerie of fall color. Most of the grapes have been harvested, and the leaves of deep reds and yellow prepare to fall. Where grapes still hang, the deep purple contrasted to the red is pure beauty. The weather for our trip was perfect, though we were told it can be touch and go this time of year.

Though we had planned to get to Healdsburg, we never got far from Calistoga. Dang. I guess we’ve got to go back.

In Search of Fall Color in the North State

Last Friday, Mike and I took a day trip. Our goal: soak up the fall color before the leaves dropped. We found color, but oh so much more.

We mapped out our route to start at Burney Falls. I hadn’t been to the Falls in over 35 years, but remembered them being quite majestic. We stood looking at them, channeling John Muir. (Read with Irish accent.) The spray from the white veils of water misted the forest where we stood, knowing this must be one of the wonders of the world.

Near the top the Falls, a doe wandered, giving us a half-stare. After walking to the base of the Falls and back up, we drove further into the park to discover a still Lake Britton. Surrounded by blackberry bushes, fall color hugged the lake. We walked to the end of a pier and soaked up the quiet. With no movemement but the rings in the water from distant ducks, the color of the surrounding trees doubled, reflected by the glassy water.

The solitude was tempting and we could have stayed all day. But alas, the volocano awaited us!

After taking a side street up to Hat Creek and seeing the observatory where the SETI folks from Mountain View base their alien search (and UC Berkeley looks for astronomical discoveries), we drove into Lassen State Park.

Mt. Lassen is the only plug volcano in the Ring of Fire and is currently active. You realize how much is going on under the earth as you pass by portions of mountain with steam barreling out. In some parts of the mountain, large sulfur ponds boil up in a witchy brew like grey matter. We drove through the park, and through the snow splattered mountain, seeing evergreens far beyond the line of sight.

The park is something to see: meadows below the peak, streams running through fields of tall, wheat-colored grass, vast views of the valley extending clear to Lake Almanor, volcanic rock reminders of the explosion some 90 years ago and trees, trees, trees.

As a child, this trip seemed like a long car ride. As an adult, my spirit renewed, I returned home grounded and inspired. The trip reminded me to keep my eyes open to the journey for it is often there that life’s purpose lies.