Weekend of a Lifetime: Napa Valley*

There’s something magical about Napa Valley; it’s in the air, the green of the hills, and the red-shaded wines. Luxury and humbleness effortlessly co-exist in a town where everyone is intertwined. Napa’s palpable energy has a way of entering your soul and leaving its mark. Once you spot the Grape Crusher Statue on Vista Point Park, you will know you have arrived. The iconic three-ton gatekeeper has stood the test of time for over three decades. Stop in for a quick selfie. You might not appreciate its importance until after you’ve concluded your weekend, but by then you will. Warning: the following itinerary packs in some serious Napa muscle.

Day 1

Before you even unpack, head straight to Pine Ridge Vineyards for their Savor Tasting (formerly ‘5 x 5 Tasting’) featuring cabernet sauvignons from their five estate-owned vineyards throughout the valley (Carneros, Stags Leap, Rutherford, Howell Mountain, and Oakville). In addition, complimentary small bites are served and expertly paired with each one. The intimate tasting room is decorated beautifully to highlight the cavernous natural environment. Their wines will greet your palate nicely and awaken your senses.

Now that you’ve been initiated, head back north on picturesque Silverado Trail towards Oakville Grocery for a leisurely lunch. This charming grocery store has been providing goods to the area since 1881. How is that for authentic? Create your own picnic basket or simply enjoy a panini, while seated right outside the store on the provided picnic tables, with a view to the lush rolling hills. On the menu, you will find mostly selections from local farmers, artisans, and purveyors. Bouchon Bakery? Model Bakery? Rudd Farms? Yes, yes, yes!

After lunch, continue northbound for several minutes to the Del Dotto Saint Helena Venetian Estate Winery & Caves: lavish, and perhaps even a little touristy at first sight, but still worth your time. The tour will take you into the caves where you will taste approximately eight wines right out of the oak barrels. The cave interiors, unlike most others in the valley, have been lined with Italian marble as an ode to the Del Dotto family’s Venetian ancestry. Don’t be quick to judge this book by its cover though, the wines offer something for everyone: fruit-forward and accessible or bold and voluptuous, your call. The tour concludes with a tapas-style selection of cheese and house-made salumi. The sweet ending includes an outstanding port paired with dark chocolate.

o-57Wined, dined, and wined again, you are finally ready to check in to your bed and breakfast. Located in wining and dining mecca Yountville, Maison Fleurie is close to most wineries and within reasonable driving time to the southernmost and northernmost Napa Valley towns. Rumor has it, Maison (then called Magnolia Hotel) has a scandalous past as a bordello in the late 1800s. I can assure you, this is far from what it is today. The inn’s bountiful gardens led to its name, meaning “flowering house.” Exposed stones and bricks from local quarries and distinct details scattered throughout add to its chic design. Don’t be surprised to step outside and find colorful hot air balloons staring at you; they take off nearby. Use your free time before dinner to unpack and familiarize yourself with the area. Stroll into the nearby cobblestoned V Marketplace and peruse its many unique specialty shops, or maybe even sneak in a nap.

When ready, walk to your reservation at one of Yountville’s prized possessions, Bottega. Chef Michael Chiarello’s Italian restaurant perfectly embodies Napa’s vibe with its comfort eats and Mediterranean decor. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried the Raviolo di Uovo. Dinner won’t be complete until you’ve ordered a bottle of Chiarello’s homegrown, Bambino e Mamma cabernet sauvignon. This impressive bottle is hard to find outside of California. Congratulations, you have just completed your first day in the valley. Embrace an early night and give your system a much-needed rest. You’ve only just begun.

Day 2

Savor the signature homemade breakfast buffet included in your stay. Grab your coffee, a seat by one of the windows and read the Yountville Sun. You can also choose to take the 9:00 a.m. yoga class offered at the Bardessono Hotel rooftop pool ($15 for non-guests). You’ve never seen the Napa Valley scenic views until you’ve seen them from your downward-dog pose.

Your first reservation this morning will be at Blankiet Estate. Starting with a brief walk through the vineyards, the winery, and caves, the personalized tour culminates in the private tasting room inside the Blankiet’s actual residence, Castello de Paradiso. No worries, wine for breakfast is perfectly normal and encouraged in the valley. It will be difficult to choose a favorite wine out of this group of exceptional wines. Every pour intensifies and escalates to perfection with each sip. Before you leave the residence, take in the incredible views. The stunning backdrop begs to be photographed.

12045385_10102452610376128_7646858548706559470_oBy now, you’ve surely worked up an appetite. Go north towards Saint Helena and have lunch at Farmstead in Long Meadow Ranch. This farm-to-table restaurant serves seasonal fare that haunts you long after you’ve returned home. The Mini Ham Sandwiches with pepper jelly, for example. Or the Wood Fired Grass-Fed Meatballs with caramelized onions and tomato marmalade. Or the 12 -hour Pulled Pork Sandwich. See what I mean? Can’t stop. Won’t stop.

Back south to the Oakville area, the next stop is at Far Niente Winery. It’s a good thing this tour includes quite a bit of walking after such a decadent lunch. The massive estate is easy on the eyes and includes several surprises. No, not giving those away. The tasting of five wines includes current releases, library vintages, and a cheese pairing. You know, in case you were still hungry.

Afterward, drive south on Highway 29 to find the ‘Welcome to Napa’ sign. Hint: if you reach Dwyer Rd., you went too far. You can park roadside, but be very careful when crossing the railroad tracks. When you are done, return to Yountville. Once again, you are free to continue discovering the area. Perhaps check out the art galleries, stop at Kelly’s Filling Station for another photo op, or even schedule an afternoon spa service at nearby Spa Villagio.

Later on, dinner will hopefully be at three-Michelin-starred The French Laundry by Chef Thomas Keller. For the true gourmand, dining there is a rite of passage and bucket list must-do. Read the following words carefully; reservations can be made exclusively on their website. Two months of reservations are released on the first day of every odd-numbered month. You might also be placed on a wait-list and this is OK. The French Laundry team is very good about following through should a spot become available. Yes, it’s pricey. Yes, men are required to wear jackets (a rule they enforce during lunch and dinner). Yes, they take their food very seriously. Eat, drink, and be merry. YOLO. Whatever. Just do it.

If luck wasn’t on your side this time around or you’ve already dined at The French Laundry, then dine at Redd instead. It’s not a replacement restaurant, per se, but it just so happens it’s another Yountville star: wine-country cuisine with influences from Asia, Europe, and Mexico. Enjoy!

Day 3

The last day of this short trip is here. Skip the inn breakfast today and head to Bouchon Bakery instead. There might be a line, but it moves fast. Order a cappuccino and a cheese danish. Also, purchase a couple of O-noyoudidnts and a package of Bouchons to go. For you, for friends… do you need an excuse?

Today’s tasting will be at Darioush. This is not your traditional Napa valley winery. Design and decor at this Persian-inspired palace are over the top: opulence surrounds and no cost was spared. You will notice a meticulous attention to detail everywhere you look. Thankfully, the top-notch mentality spills onto the wines as well. Hosted in one of owner Darioush Khaledi’s actual cellars and seated amongst his personal wine collection, the ‘By Invitation Only‘ 120-minute tour/tasting will be the tasting to beat for the weekend. Note: you don’t need an invitation, that’s just the name of the tasting. The complexities of the wines stand out like only Darioush wines can: real showstoppers!

The weekend has come to an end, and there’s only one way to bid adieu to Napa Valley: lunch at Michelin-starred Auberge du Soleil. Offering outstanding service, this restaurant is best described as quintessential Napa. Delightful wine-country cuisine and panoramic views conclude this weekend trip of a lifetime. On a clear day, you truly can see forever from their balcony up on the hills. Forever in your heart is where these memories will stay.

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*Originally published on Tabelog USA. Edited further to incorporate applicable updates. 

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