Explore: Napa Valley

St. Helena and Yountville roll out the welcome mat.
Barnett Vineyards in St. Helena, Napa Valley
Barnett Vineyards in St. Helena.

In 2019, several of my girlfriends eagerly shepherded me to Napa Valley two days before my wedding. On the classic bachelorette romp, we wine-tasted, went for a short hike in Bothe-Napa Valley State Park and then had a fine picnic lunch under heavy oak trees. It was August and blazing hot, but the vineyards and dreamy oaks and peaceful hills still provided an idyllic setting to bask a bit in my last moments of singlehood.

That outing came to mind on a more recent visit to Napa Valley, which now looked quite different. Barely a year after my bachelorette gathering, a seemingly relentless wildfire galloped across the picturesque hills, eventually scorching nearly 68,000 acres and damaging more than 1,500 businesses and homes. Thirty-one wineries, restaurants and lodges—among them the four-decade-old Chateau Boswell Winery near St. Helena and California’s oldest resort, White Sulphur Springs—were destroyed in the Glass Fire, which raged for nearly a month.

The wine cave at Barnett Vineyards in Napa Valley
The wine cave at Barnett Vineyards.

From my perch at BARNETT VINEYARDS this past October, I gazed across to the eastern slopes above the Silverado Trail. They were still charred, with California’s drought worsening my sadness at the loss. Recent rains have begun to green up the hillsides, but fire damage will remain for quite some time.

Napa Valley was a regular destination in the early 1960s for my parents, who met and married in San Francisco. They’d tool around the wine country on a Sunday afternoon, woven wood picnic basket in the back of their Volkswagen Beetle, stopping every now and again to sip at a winery, and I recall my father telling me that tastings were mostly free of charge back then.

I had never driven through the hilly terrain along Spring Mountain Road to reach Barnett, and only later did I see on a map just how many wineries are tucked back there. Nor did I realize that these hillsides had escaped wildfires in previous years, but the Glass Fire had devastated the area. Nonetheless, the secluded forested byway with more than 25 relatively small, family-owned and exclusive estates was a pleasure to drive, as I swerved around thick eucalyptus groves and passed vineyards and estates until I reached Barnett’s entry gate.

Tastings are by reservation only, and after my host, Enrique Mora, welcomed me among the vines, he sat me outside a cavern overlooking the valley with a fine view toward Howell Mountain and introduced me to Barnett with a 2020 sauvignon blanc, with its hint of white peach and honeydew. The vintage made the wine—which was excellent—all the more poignant. The Glass Fire initially had seemed confined to Napa’s eastern hillsides but soon had leaped across the valley floor and onto Spring Mountain, Mora told me, adding that 30 percent of Barnett’s vineyards had been damaged.

Barnett Vineyards is still standing after family and workers pitched in to save the winery and home during the Glass Fire.
Barnett Vineyards is still standing after family and workers pitched in to save the winery and home during the Glass Fire.

“We’re grateful to still be here,” he said. Fiona and Hal Barnett bought their future vineyard in 1983 and spent a year clearing the land and building terraces, eventually planting 14 acres of vines. There was no road around Spring Mountain then, and their modest plan was to produce just enough wine for themselves, family and friends. But as Napa Valley’s wines grew in recognition and prominence (particularly its cabernet sauvignons), they started to think bigger, seeing that their Spring Mountain vineyards benefited from a microclimate allowing up to three additional hours of daily sunlight. In 2019, Mora told me, Napa welcomed 4 million visitors, “and we do get a sliver of that.” Barnett’s wine club members number close to 2,000.

“The soils are sparse in nutrients and contain much rock, the richer topsoil having washed down to the valley floor over the course of millennia,” I read in Barnett’s brochure as I moved onto the vineyard’s voluptuous 2019 pinot noir with its notes of cranberry, cherry and pepper. “This comparatively deficient soil compels the vines to work harder to produce fruit, resulting in lower yields and smaller, more intensely flavored berries.”

On another day, I headed slightly north of Barnett to SCHRAMSBERG VINEYARDS. German immigrant Jacob Schram started cultivating his vineyards in 1862, making it one of Napa’s most historic wineries, most notably in reference to the hillside caves (for wine aging and storage), which he hired Chinese laborers to dig. In 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson visited, later chronicling his stay here in a book called “The Silverado Squatters.”

Schramsberg Vineyards
Schramsberg Vineyards

Before my guide, Matthew Levy, led me from the lovely garden and pond at Schramsberg’s entrance to the caves where the tasting would be held, he pointed to a row of photos inside the visitor center, first indicating an image of President Richard Nixon, apparently at a state function in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Schramsberg’s blanc de blancs, Levy told me, was used in the 1972 “Toast to Peace” with China’s premier, Zhou Enlai, and its other sparkling wines have accented U.S. presidential functions ever since.

Schramsberg blanc de blancs
Schramsberg blanc de blancs

Leading me through the caves, Levy spoke in detail of acidity, fermentation, riddling and dosage before arriving at the tasting table. There, he introduced me to four Schramsberg varietals, including a 2017 blanc de noirs extra brut and a 2018 brut rosé, which was especially fine and memorable as I typically avoid rosé altogether. A fifth tasting: a J. Davies Estate cabernet sauvignon from 2017. In 1965, Jack and Jamie Davies discovered the abandoned Schramsberg property and committed to resurrecting it to its prior century’s glory and, moreover, to producing world-class sparkling wine. Their blanc de blancs would be the first commercial use of chardonnay in the American market.

It was early afternoon by the time I drove into St. Helena, where I had a few hours to stroll before I could check into my hotel room. Among the many inviting shops and attractive storefronts, MEUSE GALLERY lured me inside with a view from the sidewalk of the colorful paintings inside. The gallery exclusively represents the work of English artist Simon Bull, who lives in Carmel. The brilliant colors of his art just wowed me, and I’m evidently not alone: Bull has been commissioned to paint portraits of both Barack Obama and Muhammad Ali, and in 2019 he was honored as the official artist of the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C.

Meuse gallery in Napa Valley
Meuse gallery

I had another feast for the eyes just a few doors down at NAPA VALLEY VINTAGE HOME, with its cornucopia of ceramic wares, brightly colored throw pillows, chic lamps and furniture, scented candles and decorative frames.

My first night in Napa Valley, I stayed at the expansive and woodsy HARVEST INN, where I decided to swim a few laps in the heated pool before heading to dinner. It was midweek, but the grounds were still busy with cheerful groups of golfers and wine aficionados.

harvest inn in napa valley
Harvest Inn

At the hotel restaurant, HARVEST TABLE, I was seated on the veranda overlooking a redwood grove. It was a perfect setting for a perfect meal: pear and chicory salad paired with Galerie’s 2019 Napa Valley sauvignon blanc, and fennel-dusted monkfish paired with Lang & Reed’s 2018 Napa Valley cabernet franc. I barely had room for the apple tarte tatin, but I’m glad I managed.

The next day, I would work all this off after checking out an e-bike at NORTH BLOCK YOUNTVILLE, a resort hotel where I would spend my second night in the valley. But I first took some time in North Block’s beautiful courtyard, which could be easily mistaken for an Andalusian oasis. With just 20 guest rooms, this boutique hotel felt both familiar and exotic, part Californian and Mediterranean, part Moorish. Enchanted by the beautifully tiled open staircases, a rippling fountain center stage, and roomy though cozy quarters, I might have just kicked my feet up for a long while.

But I’d yet to try cruising around on an e-bike, and I was curious to do it. So after getting a good feel for the pedals and velocity, I found my way to the Napa Valley Vine Trail running parallel to Highway 29, which leads to the city of Napa. It was later afternoon, however, so instead I rode only as far south as Oak Knoll Road, the sun warm on my face, before doubling back and then veering east to downtown Yountville.

In the past decade, Yountville has installed more than 65 outdoor sculptures, including a giant geometric creation by Jedd Novatt. I parked my bike and walked along the path through Van De Leur Park, where my favorite piece was “The Hatch,” two oversized ceramic trout circling an antique stone pillar. I stopped nearby to read from a marble stone recounting the life of North Carolina native George Yount, a contemporary of Kit Carson, whose name the town took in 1867.

I had pedaled by a colony of buoyant dahlias en route to the sculptures and decided to backtrack to the patch, only to discover a small sign informing me that I’d stumbled onto THE FRENCH LAUNDRY CULINARY GARDEN. The sign was a periodic table of sorts, identifying what was growing in each row: Jerusalem artichokes, kale, carrots, turnips, eggplant, strawberries, radishes, beets and on and on.

I didn’t have a coveted reservation at The French Laundry but felt I was onto something similar at the award-winning restaurant at North Block Yountville—it was added to the Michelin Guide in 2021—back at the hotel. My server evidently noticed my indecision as I perused the extensive menu and wine list, and so I was grateful when he suggested chef Nick Tamburo send out the best he had. That commenced with tomato, scallops and compressed watermelon ensconced in gelatin with fresh-baked sourdough bread and garlic butter, followed by corn and seaweed fritters and trout roe. Next: delectable grilled rockfish with tomatillos and gooseberries, rounded out by a strawberry sorbet topped with astonishingly fragrant geranium petals and served on a bed of white chocolate. A feast like this is typically served in small portions, but mine were very pleasantly generous.

On my last day in Napa Valley, I found myself back at BOTHE-NAPA VALLEY STATE PARK. It was the middle of the week so there were just a few other visitors. Instead of hiking into the hilly interior, I decided to hike to the neighboring BALE GRIST MILL STATE HISTORIC PARK. I reached the grist mill and unpacked my lunch at a pretty, silent picnic area. Built in 1846, the water-powered mill—one of only two remaining west of the Mississippi River was once a community social center. For Napa’s settlers, it was where farmers brought grains to have them ground into meal or flour and got caught up on market news. Its handsome preservation and sturdiness evoke a time when water flowed freely here.

While heading back to the trailhead, I stopped to have a sip from my water bottle and happened to turn toward the valley, with verdant vineyards tumbling down hillsides. This may not be, I thought, the Napa Valley my parents knew and loved, but it was still a place where I could eat and drink like royalty, admire its resilience and disappear into its beauty.