Napa, the largest city in Napa County, does not have an off-season. As proof, check out the heavy foot traffic at the corner of Main and First streets during the weeks following the grape harvest.
The primary difference between Napa’s high seasons (spring, summer and fall) is in its lodging rates, which tend to drop during the time of year we locals call Cabernet Season.
Mornings may be near freezing, but by early afternoon, a sweater and/or scarf is all that’s needed to comfortably roam the city that has recently experienced a renaissance—there’s an abundance of lodging options, tasting rooms, one-of-a-kind shops, restaurants, entertainment and wellness options, mostly located off Highway 29 , downtown and along the Napa Riverfront.
Leisure options are seemingly endless with choices that include The Opera House, weekend brunch and a concert at The Blue Note, the foodie paradise that is Oxbow Public Market, and a year-round farmers market every Saturday morning.
You can also book a themed excursion on the Napa Valley Wine Train. Vintage Pullman cars run north from Napa to St. Helena and back again, with murder mystery rides, winery stops and express lunch excursions among its many options.
Four years ago, I was a visitor to Napa. Today, I am a local, happy to share how best to spend a few days here, and I recommend a mix of well-known local hangouts, combined with “insider” hot spots for dining, indulgences and wine-centric experiences.
Morning might begin with a detox, in my case, to recover from yesterday’s sensory wine and food experience at Ashes & Diamonds. In fact, I followed yesterday’s wine tasting with more wine (hey, it happens); you might require a meatball and polenta starter, followed by pizza at Don Bistro Giovanni’s – a hangout for vintners in the Napa Valley.
Clearly, a wellness stop at True Rest Float Spa is in order. Inside a pod with your choice of colorful lighting options, a load of Epsom salts poured into a mere 10 inches of water dissolve to create an ideal floating environment. The pod experience is meditative but also healing, with benefits that include deeper sleep, decreased symptoms of jet lag, relief from chronic aches and pains, stress reduction, and a boost in endorphins for a pleasant sense of euphoria.
Pretend you’re an oyster; you can close your one-person pod (shell) fully, open it a crack, or leave it wide open during your one-hour soak. The experience varies by individual. Some floaters can feel their own heartbeat, allowing an unfolding of tensions and full relaxation – falling asleep is possible! Others might focus on the sound of their own breathing to reduce anxiety and come to complete calmness.
At first, I felt like I was simply lying on a hard surface, but one small motion of my limbs cemented the reality that I was indeed floating. It may take a few visits to True Rest to totally succumb to the float and clear your mind. All I know is that I breathed more deeply and slept better for the next few nights than I had in a long time, and my minor aches and pains had disappeared. Floats’ effects can be boosted by a eucalyptus or other essential oil-infused treatment at True Rest’s Oxygen Bar post-soak.
With no caffeine or breakfast before the Float Spa, I was more than ready – and you will be, too – to stop at Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Co. for a pick-me-up while strolling downtown.
The newest tasting experience is on the First Street block, at the Alpha Omega Collective, which is an umbrella brand for Alpha Omega, Tolosa and Perinet wineries. These three wineries have their base in St. Helena, San Luis Obispo and in Spain, respectively, and Robin and Michelle Baggett are the owners.
Take a seat in the al fresco tasting room and begin with a crisp, yet creamy unoaked Tolosa chardonnay made with grapes grown in San Luis Obispo. Then move on to my personal favorite: an elegant ruby-toned 2016 Tolosa 1772 Pinot Noir.
A close second is the taste of Spain evident in a 2015 Perinet Red Blend of grenache, syrah, carignan, and cabernet sauvignon made with Spanish grapes grown in a region with vineyards covered in slate rocks.
Adjoining the tasting room is Pennington Provisions, where one can indulge in some cheese and charcuterie while seated at the Collective and chatting about wine. You may choose to return later for some gourmet takeout at its offshoot, The Dutch Door, where kale salads and Spanish fried chicken are among some of the locally sourced, seasonal offerings available. You can grab and go or grab a seat at a sidewalk table and enjoy a glass of wine from the Collective with your food order.
A few blocks away, take the elevator at the Archer Hotel to Sky & Vine Rooftop Bar to try their unusual lobster corn dog, paired with a Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon. After all, it is Cabernet Season, when tannic cabernets are the most popular choice for sipping. If it’s Brown Bag Wednesday, you can play a game of guess the vintner, varietal and vintage in a blind tasting format. Guess all three correctly and you’ll get the bottle in the bag for one dollar.
Before you go, be sure to check local listings to see if Blue Note Napa has any live musical performances; if so, you can purchase tickets online in advance.
No music today? Then head to the Westin Verasa Hotel, home to Chef Ken Frank’s Michelin-starred La Toque, whose Bank Café and Bar offers brunch until 3pm, followed by a late afternoon bar menu with your choice of small plates and/or entrees. Begin with lobster-butter topped popcorn and a glass of Peju merlot and watch the bustling scene—see if you can guess the locals-to-visitor ratio.
Still hungry? Try their perfectly sautéed sea scallops with chorizo – and maybe order a side of cheesy grits.
With a new day of adventure in store, another way to clear your head after a full day of tasting and eating is to head down to the river for an hour or two of kayaking — in preparation for a lunch of moules frites and Chablis on the riverside deck at Angèle Restaurant and Bar.
Feeling romantic? Opt for an afternoon at the Tuscan-inspired Spa Terra at the Meritage Resort. Once upon a time, I enjoyed both a stay and a couples spa treatment inside the spa cave. Before a neck and shoulder massage, we enjoyed a couples soak in a jacuzzi while indulging on sparkling wine and chocolate truffles, all to the serenade of classical music.
Feeling like retail therapy is in order? Feast it Forward is the spot for kitchenware and wine-tasting. Across the street is Oxbow Public Market—don’t pass by Kara’s for the amazing s’mores cupcakes.
Adjacent to Oxbow is Copia at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). You can’t miss it: its rooftop features bright white sculptures of Robert and Margrit Mondavi toasting passersby.
I highly recommend the “France is a Feast” exhibit which runs through March 1, 2020 and features the photographic journey through France by Paul and Julia Child. Also, at Copia, a “Hall of Fame” wall showcases the work of Vermont sculptor Larry Nowlan and his array of bronzed portrait reliefs in homage to various wine industry pioneers, including Mondavi and Robert Parker.
Other Napa Highlights
Napa Lighted Art Festival, Jan. 11-19, 2020. This free, nine-day festival turns iconic architecture into painting at a unique outdoor event. The festival installs art created by local and international artists at approximately 16 locations in Downtown Napa, the Oxbow District and within the city. Highlights will include light art, video art, 3D video mapping projections, lighted sculptures and projects that utilize technology or interactivity. The festival program includes Artist Experiences, a series of gatherings to meet the artists; Culinary Experiences, available at the CIA at Copia; and six different tours of the seven historic buildings featured in the festival. (donapa.com/lights)
The Wine Foundry/Anarchist Wine Co. offers guests the chance to explore each step of the production process with their new two-hour Crush Camp experience. Led by the Foundry’s Stuart Ake, visitors will sort, de-stem, and crush grapes, manage fermentations, and sample wines that are two hours; two days; and two weeks old. (thewinefoundry.com)
Downtown Napa’s newest tasting room, WALT Napa Oxbow, opened in June across from the Oxbow Public Market. WALT’s wines span California’s western coast and visitors can experience “1,000 Miles of Pinot,” a tasting of current releases from vineyards located along the coastline. There’s also “Root 101,” where guests deconstruct culinary dishes and delve into how each element interacts with WALT’s Pinot Noir. Finally, at the Wine & Chocolate Pairing, guests taste wines from six appellations, paired with a variety of chocolates from Chris Kollar. (donapa.com/thingstodo/walt-napa-oxbow)
Hal Yamashita Napa recently opened on Main Street in downtown Napa. It’s a new Japanese restaurant from Master Chef Hal of Iron Chef All Stars, Japan. After traveling around the world, Hal is known as a maestro of contemporary Japanese cuisine Shin-Washoku. His menu includes an Akamatsu course with seven dishes, and a Goyomatsu course with nine dishes. (halnapa.com)