Escape: Niches of Napa Valley


When someone says Napa Valley, you automatically think of wine, right? Of course you do—even if you don’t drink wine. But a visit to this bucolic region can involve much more than wine tasting. Our writer gives a shout-out to several other pleasurable pursuits—think dining, olive oil and vinegar tasting, shopping, stargazing, even beer drinking—and tastes a little wine along the way.

On the Waterfront

My pals and I arrived late in the afternoon at the River Terrace Inn—a plush yet cozy establishment close enough to walk to downtown Napa, but nestled far enough off the main drag to be shielded from traffic noise. Our balconies overlooked the Napa River, which, by day, is apparently a popular destination for kayakers. (I admit: The only watering hole I jumped into was my room’s whirlpool tub.)

We dined at Restaurant Cuvée, which shares a parking lot with the inn. Cuvée’s menus are designed around locally sourced and seasonally available fruits, vegetables, herbs and distilled spirits, obtained from local purveyors and its own on-site garden. And by menu, I include the bar’s. Because it’s always nice to share, we sampled a number of drinks, including the Peachco Sour, made with fresh spearmint and local peaches, and the Mayacamus Cooler, with cucumber and jalapeños from Cuvée’s garden and tequila from St. Helena’s Charbay Winery and Distillery.

Cuvée’s outdoor dining area—tables, sofas, trees, a fire pit—is perfect for an idle fall evening in wine country. There, more sharing took place: salmon steaks graced with oyster mushrooms and fresh tomatoes; golden tomato gazpacho; chicken-fried okra with a jalapeño rémoulade; parmesan truffle fries.

After dinner, we couldn’t resist Cuvée’s Sugar Bar. Spiced chocolate spoon bread, anyone? Too decadent? A cobbler or galette made with seasonal fruit sounded more healthful. I indulged, deciding that I needed sustenance for the next few days (as if we wouldn’t be eating again).

A Different Fruit

Olive trees are immortal; they can produce fruit for thousands of years. So said Ross Rubin, the olive mill educator at Round Pond Estate, which has 2,200 of ’em, some more than 100 years old. Rubin was a never-ending font of knowledge, but his ecology and history lessons were secondary to the fact that olive oil is awesome and we were going to taste a bunch of it.

As with wine, there is a right way to taste olive oil. Using a proper tasting glass, you swirl, sniff and slurp. It’s an odd technique that helps emulsify the oil with the air in your mouth but also inadvertently makes you perfect your Hannibal Lecter impression. It also can make you cough—a reaction that Rubin assured us was not rude, but desired. “A three-cough olive oil means it’s really good,” he said.

Round Pond also produces vinegars and citrus syrups. Did you know there’s a right way to taste vinegar as well? Pour a dab onto a sugar cube, then suck the sugar cube before it dissolves between your fingers.

I’m a vinegar lover, so let me warn you: These vinegars are not to be disrespected. One sugar cube of the Sangiovese-Nebbiolo-Petit Verdot red wine blend will knock your sunglasses clear back to that 2,200th olive tree, and it’ll be worth it.

Look, Up in the Sky

Believe it or not, there are spots on the river bank dark and secluded enough to be perfect for star-gazing. Through the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville, we “rented” two amateur astronomers who hauled out giant telescopes to show us individual stars, constellations, planets, even galaxies. We unapologetically geeked out when the lens sharpened to reveal the teeny rings of Saturn.

Look, There in my Wallet

Downtown Napa has its own smattering of empty storefronts, but there’s still great merchandise to be scoped out. We visited shops such as Toy B Ville, a lively toy store that’s secretly educational; the celebrated Shackford’s Kitchen Store; and clothing retailers including the long-standing McCaulou’s; sassy vintage/consignment shops Wildcat Vintage Clothing and Betty’s Girl Boutique; and the Mustard Seed Clothing Co., where I found a darling charcoal wool jacket.

A Little Wine,Then Beer Me!

The vineyard tours we went on were about more than just pretty red wines in pretty big wineglasses. At Monticello Vineyards, which created a limited edition blend (Tribute) to celebrate its founder, Jay Corley, and the winery’s 40th harvest this year, winery manager (and son) Stephen Corley explained to us how Napa’s unique soil and climate help create the valley’s world-renowned wines.

Vic Bourassa, who founded Bourassa Vineyards at the encouragement of Robert Mondavi, taught us how to properly taste and blend wines. He also took us to a cooperage to help us better understand the painstaking process of crafting—much of it by hand—the perfect wine barrel.

My compadres were curious about beer amid wine country, so Napa Smith Brewery went on the to-visit list. I’m not a beer lover, but I interpreted comments such as “Stop hogging the pilsner!” as tentative approval.

A 2010 California law restricts instructional tasting rooms from offering wine and beer together—“Why there are so many regulations against trying to support our fellow producers, I don’t know,” said an employee—but on the bright side, it encourages creative promotional opportunities: The brewery, which also makes wine, is partnering with Bourassa by using an adjoining space in its new tasting room.

Back to Food

With nearly two dozen specialty merchants offering artisanal food and wine products plus several eclectic eateries, Oxbow Public Market is a dream destination for foodies. At Anette’s Chocolates, I purchased a bag of chili lime tequila tortilla brittle; C Casa serves some of the best mahi mahi tacos this side of Hawaii; and Whole Spice Company carries about 300 spices, kitchen staples and exotics alike. (Note to bakers: Sorry if you tried to buy unsweetened coconut shavings the day I was there—I bought out the supply at my mother’s request.)

Within Oxbow is the Hog Island Oyster Co. One day, we breakfasted there on oysters and sparkling wine. If vacation isn’t a time to turn one’s diet a little topsy-turvy, when is?