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My Hidden Napa

There’s more to Northern California’s wine country than opulent tasting rooms, balloon rides, and French Laundry.
By Todd Johnson |

My search for the ultimate ding dong is what finally lured me off Route 29. I was tired of the bumper-to-bumper traffic along Napa Valley’s main north-south thoroughfare and equally bored with the “quaint” tasting rooms I encountered along the road. Frankly, there’s nothing quaint about standing in line to sniff, sip, and spit overly fruity wine for the masses and then being asked to “move along because there’s other people waiting.”

No, that’s not the Napa I’ve fallen in love with through the years. My Napa is full of hidden surprises around each curvy, picturesque turn. It’s a canopy of trees leading into the lush green mountains where the next great mom-and-pop vineyard that no one’s discovered yet awaits. It’s bistros that don’t require reservations four months in advance. It’s hillside picnics, tranquil spas, and, best of all, a homemade ding dong, the sugary snack cake that led me to my off-road adventure.

THE ALMOST-HOSTESS WITH THE MOSTEST: It’s no secret that Napa Valley is a food lover’s nirvana. But as I brightened my morning with a homemade chocolate croissant at Sweetie Pies Pastries at the historic Napa River Inn, a nearby waitress caught me swooning. “So you like chocolate?” she asked. I nodded, eyes glazed over. “Go to Palisades Market in Calistoga and try the homemade ding dongs,” she suggested. “It’s worth the drive.”

I suddenly recalled childhood days of Twinkies, Snoballs, and various other Hostess snack cakes. But the Ding Dong? By far my favorite. (How did she know?) So around lunchtime I drove up Route 29 to Calistoga, at the northern end of the valley. Formerly a mining town, this little burg retains a rugged, turn-of-the-century charm and is known for its spas and mud baths. Palisades Market is downtown and stocked with hard-to-find oils, sauces, and seasonings. But it’s the baked goods that really shine. The aforementioned homemade ding dong was a 3-inch-thick confectionary delight: rich devil’s food cake filled with homemade whipped cream and encased in a dark chocolate shell. Who needs a spa with something so blissful?

THE BEST BUBBLY: Back up Route 29, between St. Helena and Calistoga, you’ll find the famed Schramsberg Vineyards. Founded in 1862, this winery is tucked in the mountains and accessible only through a series of bumps and turns. When you come across it, you’ll believe you’ve uncovered some great secret. But, alas, Schramsberg’s classic sparkling wine—made in the traditional méthode champenoise, using only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes—has been famous with fans of the fizz ever since it was served by President Richard Nixon at a state dinner for Chinese Premier Chou En-lai in Beijing. Happily, the vineyard’s seclusion keeps crowds away. By appointment only, the tour takes you through Schramsberg’s dusty, dank caves and ends with a lovely tasting of the bubbly brew.

A REFRESHER COURSE: Yes, we all know French Laundry, the lauded bastion of French cuisine, is the best restaurant in Napa, if not the country. Fine. But for my money, it’s hard to beat a basic burger at Taylor’s Refresher, a clever roadside attraction open since 1949 that many tourists whiz by on their way to the next winery. The Gott brothers—who also own Palisades Market—took over this open-air diner a few years back and have restored it to its past glory while adding a few gourmet touches. Yes, you can feast on burgers, fries, and hot dogs. But you can also get the best ahi sandwich in the valley. Served with ginger-wasabi mayo and a vinegary Asian slaw, it’s one of the more memorable meals I’ve had in Napa. The rich, thick espresso-bean milkshake that followed certainly helped.

BEST ROOM WITH A VIEW: If you’re going to end your wine-tasting experience on a breathtaking note, end it at Artesa Vineyards & Winery. The Pinot Noirs are outstanding, but it’s the view you’ll remember most. The winery is bunkered in a hilltop of the Carneros region and takes a little work to find, but it’s worth the drive. The road snakes through rolling topography and fragrant green hills. A sweeping staircase, bordered by cascading waterfalls and reflecting pools, leads to Artesa’s visitor center. Sleek and minimal, it’s a nice change from the faux French and Italian wineries that populate Napa Valley. The panoramic vistas of Napa, Carneros, and the San Francisco Bay are unrivaled. Far above the exhaust fumes of traffic-clogged Route 29, you’ll be glad you took a few back roads and discovered the other side of this magical wine country. Here’s to your next adventure. Cheers.

HOW TO GET THERE
Most major airlines fly nonstop daily to San Francisco or nearby Oakland. Rent a car, and from either airport it’s about an hour’s drive to Napa Valley.

WHERE TO STAY
Auberge du Soleil

180 Rutherford Hill Rd., Rutherford. 707-963-1211. www.aubergedusoleil.com.
Elegant and tranquil, this is the best place to stay in Napa.

Napa River Inn
500 Main St., Napa. 877-251-8500. www.napariverinn.com.
Enjoy historic charm in the heart of downtown.

WHERE TO EAT
French Laundry
6640 Washington St., Yountville. 707-944-2380. www.frenchlaundry.com.

Palisades Market
1506 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga. 707-942-9549.

Sweetie Pies Pastries
520 Main St., Napa. 707-257-8817. www.sweetiepies.com.

Taylor’s Refresher
933 Main St., St. Helena. 707-963-3486. www.taylorsrefresher.com.

WHAT TO DO
Artesa Vineyards & Winery
1345 Henry Rd., Napa. 707-224-1668. www.artesawinery.com.

Schramsberg Vineyards
1400 Schramsberg Rd., Calistoga. 707-942-2414. www.schramsberg.com.

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Wine Worth the Search
Man cannot live by Mondavi alone. Skip a few of the big boys and discover the pleasures of these offbeat and off-the-beaten-path wineries

Caymus Vineyards
When you come to Napa, you want classic California Cabernet, and that’s why you visit Caymus. Owner and wine master Chuck Wagner cultivates his own grapes or buys them from carefully selected growers, and that care shows in his robust, chewy wines. His 2001 Special Selection Cabernet received a 95 from Wine Spectator. Go sip and see what all the fuss is about. 8700 Conn Creek Rd., Rutherford. 707-967-3010. www.caymus.com. By appointment only.

Chateau Potelle Winery
Pack a picnic. This is one of the prettiest estates in Napa. Far above the valley floor on Mount Veeder, Marketta and Jean-Noël Fourmeaux’s winery is located in a small mountain valley, framed by breathtaking views. The wines are just as lovely. Chateau Potelle’s highly lauded Zinfandels have a luscious complexity, full of berry, smoke, and cedar layers. 3875 Mount Veeder Rd., Napa. 707-255-9440. www.chateaupotelle.com.

Del Dotto Vineyards
Talk about a spelunker’s delight. This is one fun tour. The Del Dotto family takes you deep into their cave—one of six original caves hand-dug in the late 1800s that are still in use. There, guides share the secrets of aging wine and let you sample some stout sips straight from the barrel. By the end of the tour, you’ll be flying high and spending freely. 1055 Atlas Peak Rd., Napa. 707-963-2134. www.deldottovineyards.com. By appointment only.

Joseph Phelps Vineyards
If you’ve ever enjoyed a glass of Phelps’ famous Meritage, Insignia, then you know how special these reds can be. So is the tasting experience at this handsome winery just off the picturesque Silverado Trail. The staff here takes its time with you, treating you more like a guest than a customer. 200 Taplin Rd., St. Helena. 707-963-2745. www.jpvwines.com. By appointment only.

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Beyond the Vine
Wine isn’t the only good thing to consume in Napa Valley.

The Wappo Indians were the first to discover the potential delicacies of the ripe soil, mild climate, and fertile valleys that make up the Napa “land of plenty” Valley. Spawning salmon filled the waterways, clouds of migrating waterfowl darkened the skies, and the valley floor served as home to wildcats, elk, black bear, and grizzlies. Today, grapes and more than 230 wineries cover much of the area, but Napa is also exporting an impressive variety of artisanal food products.

Tulocay’s Made in Napa Valley (www.madeinnapavalley.com), an all-natural ingredients gourmet foods company, took first prize in the Outstanding Product Line in this summer’s prestigious Fancy Foods Show in New York. The products reflect Napa Valley’s love of food, wine, artisan quality, and simple elegance and include delicious condiments (artichoke with orange and Chardonnay), tapenades (fig and shallot with sherry), and balsamic vinegars (blackberry with pear).

Napa also boasts plenty of locally made cheeses, and some producers invite you to tour their farms and facilities. Perhaps one of the most picturesque, and certainly one of the newest, is Cowgirl Creamery (80 Fourth St., Point Reyes Station. 415-663-9335. www.cowgirlcreamery.com), housed in a rambling hay barn. Under the direction of Sue Conley, former chef and owner of Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley, Cowgirl produces fresh cheeses. Mild, young, and unaged, they burst with the sweet taste of organic milk.

Love a good culinary celebration? January through March, the fields, vineyards, and hillsides are abloom with mild mustard, and the Napa Valley Mustard Festival (707-259-9020. www.mustardfestival.org) celebrates the rich agricultural and historical bounty of the area. —Nancy Nichols

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Nibbling in Napa
Downtown Napa’s burgeoning culinary scene is a foodie’s dream.

Angéle
Chef Christophe Gerard has fashioned a menu of comforting classics at this rustic French cafe along the Napa River. It’s relaxed and inviting. 540 Main St., Napa. 707-252-8115.

Bistro Don Giovanni
Let the tourists pack Tra Vigne in St. Helena. I think the best Italian cuisine in the valley is at this romantic hideaway where the locals dine. Chef Scott Warner makes a mean ravioli with lemon cream. 4110 Howard Ln., Napa. 707-224-3300. www.bistrodongiovanni.com.

Cole’s Chop House
Who says you can’t get a decent steak in granola-happy Northern California? This manly steakhouse is big on meat, from 21-day dry-aged Prime steaks to New Zealand lamb. 1122 Main St., Napa. 707-224-6328. www.coleschophouse.citysearch.com.

ZuZu
This is where the pretty people of Napa dine, and rightfully so. Chef Angela Tamura’s tapas are the perfect party food. But be forewarned: this stylish cafe doesn’t take reservations. 829 Main St., Napa. 707-224-8555. www.zuzunapa.com.