The Happiest Place on Earth: Napa Valley

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Far Niente Winery

DSC_0347Contrary to popular belief, the happiest place on earth is NOT Disney World. Not even close. The happiest place on earth is Napa Valley. What’s not to love? The sum of perfect weather, food, and wine equals pure joy. Neatly nestled within acres of distinct wineries, Napa Valley is also home to some of the best restaurants nationwide. If you love to eat and drink to your heart’s desire, this is the perfect place to visit year round. A very HAPPY one at that.

Five years ago, I visited Napa Valley for the first time. Someway, somehow, I have found myself back each year and I cannot stay away. Based on those trips, here are some tips and suggestions that will hopefully help you plan your next visit.

DSC_0508Lodging

There is no wrong time to visit. Each season in Napa Valley offers something special. Whenever possible, I  prefer to stay in the Yountville area. Not only are all of my favorite restaurants located near each other there, but Yountville is also conveniently close to the most  sought-after wineries.  Note that when you travel in the fall (during harvest season), prices will most likely be double (or more) than the usual year-round rate. Although everything is relatively close, if your priority is to take part DSC_0504in wine tastings, then I don’t recommend staying in Downtown Napa: it adds a significant amount of driving time to your schedule. That being said, Napa now has Uber! You will never have to worry about driving around the valley again.

La Belle Epoque is a charming bed and breakfast in Napa. It’s a little further south than I prefer, but charming enough to go the extra mile. Each room’s decor varies. I’ve stayed in Caroline’s Suite, the mini mansion across the street. This gave us a little bit of extra privacy. You can choose to dine in the main house or have their homemade breakfast brought to your room each day. Lavender Inn and Bardesonno are both at the heart of Yountville, but offer different experiences. Drive by Lavender too quickly and you might miss it. Provence inspired decor and a scrumptious breakfast in the main house await there daily. If you score French Laundry reservations, you will be in luck! Hidden in a residential neighborhood, Lavender Inn is just steps away from this gourmand mecca. If luxury is what you are looking for, Bardesonno is where you will find it.  Besides spacious rooms, this resort offers sustainable design as well as elegant and modern decor. My favorite hotel perk at Bardesonno? Saturday morning rooftop yoga overlooking the rolling hills. You WILL pinch yourself and wonder if you are dreaming. I did just that!

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The wonderful world of BARDESSONO

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Rooftop yoga, anyone?

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iphone update 09252012 281Breakfast/Brunch

Given the absurd amount of food and wine one consumes on a daily basis while in Napa, you might not want to indulge in a heavy breakfast each day (I know I never do). Should you want to treat yourself though, just head on over to Bouchon Bakery. Thomas Keller didn’t stop at giving us three amazing Yountville restaurants (French Laundry, Ad Hoc and Bouchon). He went a step further and created heaven Bouchon Bakery. There’s always a line outside, but it moves quickly. Be patient; it’s worth every waiting minute! For an amazing brunch experience, Michelin starred, Auberge Du Soleil restaurant has always impressed me. Incredible, unparalleled views of the valley take center stage as you feast on delectable, seasonal courses. Service is so on point, you will think there’s a hidden camera watching your every move. Maybe there is? Hmmm…

The view from Auberge Du Soleil

The view from Auberge Du Soleil

Wine, wine and more wine

MDC and CA 304Scheduling your wine tastings will take some careful planning months in advance. I prefer sit-down tastings over the walk-in, over touristy types. Sit down tastings usually limit the amount of visitors per seating and offer more privacy. As a result, you learn more from the presentation and you are able to taste the wine at a slower pace. By far, my favorite tastings have been at Far Niente, Darioush, Palmaz, Cakebread, Honig and Caymus. The most lavish of them all being Far Niente and Darioush. Everything about Palmaz Vineyards will convert you into a fan, long before you even try their wine. The vineyard grounds are simply stunning and rich in history. The view from the entrance terrace is breathtaking. To date, charismatic Diane from Palmaz (and formerly of Darioush) is the best host/tour guide I have ever met. The wines will, of course, also blow you away. Tastings at Cakebread, Honig, and Caymus are simpler, but equally enjoyable. Don’t blame me when you come home a proud owner of several wine club memberships! Unless perhaps you are willing to share with me, then we can talk.

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DSC_0554Lunch
When it comes to fine dining, it’s hard to find a place that has this many award winning, impressive restaurants in such close proximity.  There are endless possibilities for lunch. Mustards Grill is wonderful (as long as you make a reservation. The wait during lunch hour can be exasperating). Bistro Jeanty is another great option. I, however, prefer to forgo a traditional restaurant lunch reservation in favor of the following options.  Option 1- Choose to schedule a wine pairing during lunch time. Most wineries offer sit-down pairings that include multiple courses as well. Option 2- Visit Oakville Grocery and be transported back in time. The small market is full of character, but more importantly, it’s full of delicious finds. Perhaps you fancy a muffaletta? A turkey club? Never mind, just make up your own sandwich! Choose your bread, cheese, spread, and any other ingredient you love from their extensive, locally sourced selection. You can take it to go or even better, enjoy your lunch while overlooking the rolling hills, from their charming picnic area.

Dinner

IMG_0549IMG_0541I prefer to schedule our dinner reservations late in the evening. This allows me to squeeze as much as possible into my day without feeling rushed. It also allows ample time to return to my room and relax before venturing out yet again. Believe me when I say, you will need your rest to tackle some of Napa’s ambitious dinner menus. The ultimate reservation to snag for your trip is at The French Laundry. Without a doubt, it is a once in a lifetime experience. Reservations are made two months in advance, to the calendar date. It’s not inexpensive, but if you can find a way, do it. It is a dinner you will be talking about for years to come. My other must-do dinner when in Napa is at Bottega: a casual, warm, and hip restaurant in the heart of Yountville. Chef Michael Chiarello can often be seen in the kitchen and even outside in the dining room, mingling with guests. The polenta and raviolo alone are worth the trip. Order Chiarello’s own bold Bambino Cabernet Sauvignon to go with your dinner. It is easily one of my top 5 favorite cabs that just happens to be the ideal pairing to most of Chef Chiarello’s courses.

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Other tidbits

– Avoid Highway 29 whenever possible. You can usually take Silverado Trail to get to the same destination and it will reward you with endless, breathtaking scenic views.

One of the views off Silverado Trail

One of the views off Silverado Trail

– I have found that two to three tastings in one day are enough. It is perfectly normal to begin drinking wine at 10:00 a.m. while in Napa Valley. I don’t know why I am always given such a hard time when I do the same back at home. No, save it; I don’t want to hear it.

– Make sure you check out the dress code requirements at each restaurant before your arrival. Casual resort wear seems to be the proper attire for most daily activities in the valley. However, some restaurants have strict dress rules requiring formal attire (sports jackets or even ties for men). Plan ahead and dress accordingly. Leave those flip-flops at home!

– Remember to include some bubbly in your tasting reservations as well. I found the Mumms seated (outdoor) wine tasting to be spectacular.

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– When traveling to Napa, I prefer to fly in and out of San Francisco. The drive to the valley can easily be done in under an hour. Doing so allows me to sneak in a dinner (or two) in the city as well.

That’s all for now. It was not an easy feat to narrow down all of my favorite spots to one post. I can talk about Napa Valley for days!

Until next time, from my palette to yours, pinky up and cheers!

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French Laundry

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Palmaz Vineyards