On a recent car-free weekend in wine country, we discovered the lesser known pleasures of Napa Valley, from a classic 1960s-style diner to educational adventures in aging caves to a 13th century-inspired castle on a vineyard.
I set up base camp at the Wine Country Inn (1152 Lodi Lane), a quintessentially quaint establishment located just off of the St. Helena Highway. The first bed and breakfast to exist in the area, this is a genuine piece of Napa history, with a vintage country feel.
The Inn is all about old-fashioned escape. It’s a “TV-free” zone, with plenty of opportunities to savor and enjoy, including cozy nooks, tranquil trails, edible gardens, and a pool-with-a-view. The main building is wood and welcoming, and each room has its own character, with antique furnishings as their common denominator.
Service is exuberant and friendly, headed by a knowledgeable staff that is always ready to lend a hand with everything from dinner reservations (there’s a free shuttle to select restaurants so you don’t have to drive!) to activity suggestions. Plus, there are plenty of “B&B extras,” like daily gourmet breakfast buffets and afternoon wine socials, all included.
Conveniently, the Wine Country Inn lies on the same property as the cult favorite vineyard, Hourglass Winery. After his father, who founded the inn, experienced difficulty planting fruit trees and Zinfandel on the land, Jeff Smith learned that the soil was ideal for Cabernet, and enlisted vintner and rocker Bob Foley as winemaker for the label, which generated buzz almost immediately.
The winery itself is located not five minutes away from its vineyards, nestled among the grapevines of its sister site, Blueline Estate Vineyard (Dutch Henry Road). I got the chance to tour the its sleek modern facility and was especially taken with the spectacular “aging caves,” which were blown out of a bedrock mountain.
Jeff is one of three guides who leads the reservation-only tours, which last nearly two hours and fully immerse oenophiles in the wine-making process, including tastings of aging wines at rest in the barrel and a current bottled release. Visit hourglasswines.com for more tour information and to make reservations.
Visit the Castle of Love
Where Hourglass is the elegant and modernist approach to the wine industry, elaborate Castello di Amorosa (4045 Saint Helena Highway) presides as St. Helena’s own “wine Disneyland.” It’s a massive construction of a winery, created to imitate a 13th-century Tuscan Castle. Moat and all.
The winery is the brainchild of Dario Sattui, whose fascination with Italian wine and architecture inspired him to construct a full-sized and as-accurate-as-possible castle on his dream property in Napa Valley. If you just want to pass through, you can circle the castle at your leisure, or you can get up-close-and-personal with a full tour and tasting of vino that’s only sold on the property.
Small-town Main Streets are often the source of charm and then some, and St. Helena’s doesn’t disappoint. The quaint little stroll of about six blocks, is chock-full of lovely shops, restaurants and attractions.
One not-to-miss spot is Martin Showroom (1350 Main Street), the storefront of St. Helena’s interior design darling, Erin Martin. The highly curated space is a store and museum, and is a good 20-minute exploration of furniture, sculpture, lighting, and a melange of other goods—all in the name of inspiration.
Just a couple of doors down, the restaurant Cook (1310 Main Street) is a quiet and unpretentious eatery, offering up a classy take on Italian fare under the dimmed lights of a minimal but homey bistro. The pastas are all handmade, and more than what you would expect of traditional Italian fare (just imagine a “foodier” version of the country’s classics).
In St. Helena, if it’s not wine, it’s food. And one of the first places any local will tell you to visit is the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone (2555 Main Street), the epitome of culinary tourism. The imposing mansion houses historical chefs-in-the-making, as well as exhibitions on culinary and wine history and a stocked “Spice Islands Marketplace” gift shop.
Grab Even More Grub
Did I mention that food’s the thing in St. Helena? It is, and Gott’s Roadside (933 Main Street) is another must-visit spot. You may have visited the restaurant’s Ferry Building outpost, but the St. Helena original looks and feels like a classic 1960s diner and serves up some beautiful burgers, to boot. They’ve also got a whole selection of unique lunchtime meals (like the famous ahi tuna burger) and just started serving brunch as well.
If you’re feeling less roadside diner and more picnic, head over to the New York staple Dean and DeLuca (607 Saint Helena Highway). This beautifully merchandised grocery store has sections for just about anything, including an olive bar and a candy case. It’s also got a deli/sandwich maker, café and bakery, and some casual outdoor eating areas to enjoy your overpriced (but worth it) picnic.
I would’ve liked to have had more time in St. Helena, but at just around an hour and 20 minutes from the city, the town is perfectly placed for a series of visits. Whether you take public transportation or drive, there are many ways to roam car-free once you’re there, including a variety of bike rental shops like St. Helena Cyclery (1156 Main Street).
Take the Baylink ferry to the Vallejo ferry terminal, then board the Vine northbound route 10 bus to St. Helena.
Photos: Kaitlyn Ellison