September 28, 2012

My Favorites in Napa + Sonoma

I get asked for recommendations for Napa all the time. And I love it, because I love Napa, and I love giving recommendations. I recently revisited my recommendations list for Jules' parents, and decided, instead of a Clippings post this week, I'd share these recommendations with you. Oh, Napa. Golly. I miss you.


1) My number one pick for wineries is Peju, which is on Highway 29.  It is a small, family owned, organic winery.  The tasting fee is $10, but free if you purchase a bottle, and their bottles are very reasonably priced.  They give big pours, and tell you a lot about the wine they make and about the winery, and it is just charming.

2) In St. Helena, next to Sutter Home is Prager Port, (it's hidden behind Sutter Home) which makes a beautiful port.  When we were kids we loved going there because they served chocolates.  Family owned and well worth a visit if you like port, or want something special for the future. (Ergo, a great honeymoon spot. 20 years from now, you've got something to celebrate and something to celebrate with.)

3) On the Silverado Trail, there are a lot of good places.  SilveradoRutherford Hill, and the gaudy but amazing Darioush.  My favorite, though, is Mumm Champagne. They have an hour tour of the winery which explains the entire process of making champagne.  The last tour is at 3. If I were to take people to two wineries it would be Mumm and Peju.

4) The only Italian style winery in Napa is a V Sattui, which is great fun because they also have cheeses and meats and picnic grounds. There is also the Castle di Amorosa. Literally, Castle of Love. It is a little too theme-park for my tastes.

Nota Bene: Avoid Mondavi, Beringer, Franciscan, Sutter Home (clearly), and the other big name wineries; they aren't as fun or personal and you can get their wines everywhere and they are crowded.


1) While out and about you should stop by: Oakville Grocery. It's on HWY 29 in the middle of the valley, you can see the big hand-painted Coke sign on the side from a ways away.  It's a landmark, and inside you'll find a delicious deli, with a great cheese counter, good sandwiches and meats, and tons of jams, mustards, and marinades.  Plus a very nice little wine shop.  Everything they sell is made in California, which means there is a lot of stuff you can get there that you can't get elsewhere. I worked here when I was in college!

2) Yountville: The small town of Yountville is basically a dining Disney-land, and you can't really go wrong. But the perennial favorites are: Bouchon for an elegant-worth-every-penny French Bistro meal, or their sister shop Bouchon Bakery for breakfast or mid-afternoon-sweet tooth snack. These are both run by Thomas Keller of The French Laundry.

3) St. Helena: Mom loves Market in St. Helena. Gott's Roadside for burgers is the traditional fave, and Napa Valley Roasting Company for coffee. I love Gillwood's for breakfast and Woodehouse for chocolates and gifts.

4) Napa, the city: you must visit Oxbow Market, which has basically anything anyone could ever want to eat in the history of the whole world, including but not limited to gourmet pizza! oysters! amazing cheese! Peruvian corn cake sandwiches! Cupcakes! Amazing Ice Cream! Burgers at neighboring Gott's. Plus a butcher, a farmer's market, a charcuterie shop, and a bakery that is out-of-this-world goodTuscany was marvelous last time I went there. My parents love Bar Ber's Q. And our family loves Pizza Azzuro. I have dreams about La Taquiza's fish tacos and Sweetie Pie's pies and cakes all the time.


The Carneros region, which stretches across the bottom of both Napa and Sonoma, is chock full of awesomeness. There is a really wonderful Italian winery called Viansa. All the other wineries in the area are great too: Cline is fun and inexpensive, Artessa is secluded and has a stunning view on a clear day. Gloria Ferrer and Domaine Carneros have sparkling wines. Plus there's the Di Rosa Art Preserve, and Cornerstone, with it's famous blue tree. If you're feeling super adventurous, you can fly a vintage plane!


The Square in Sonoma is a real old-California town square, and has lots of great little bakeries and restaurants on it. I like the Basque Cafe, for breakfast or lunch. And The Girl and the Fig for dinner. Oh my gosh, The Girl and the Fig is the restaurant I want to own someday. There is also the Sonoma Mission, which is the plainest of the California Missions, but one of the original missions, all the same. There is also, from the CA Republic days, the Sonoma Hotel, and an adobe. And lots of great shopping.

Sonoma and the Northern parts of Marin county are especially known for their beers. Favorites: Laguintas, North Coast, and Russian River Brewing Company, which has a 17-beer tasting tray that is...well, 17 intense flavorful beers.

You've heard me sing the praises of downtown Healdsburg. There's great shopping, and several tasting rooms right on the square. (There seem to be a lot more tasting rooms in downtowns in Sonoma Valley. Not sure why.) For dinner, I recommend Bistro Ralph. For anything I recommend Bistro Ralph.

Have you been to Napa? What are your favorites? What have I missed?

1 comment:

  1. Mags, I see a post about Napa recs, and naturally, I HAVE to give my two cents. Not like we were raised there together or anything...

    First, I totally agree about the following: Prager (super laid back and kinda kitsch, plus free tasting if you are a Napa Native,) Darioush, of course! It's so Las Vegas, so over the top, but the energy there is out of this world. If you like big reds, go for Darioush, Model Bakery (a must!) Fatted Calf (duh!) and the whole oxbow in general (not like I am biased or anything.) If you want good cheese assistance, you have to talk to Ricardo (because yours truly is no longer there!

    I also recommend:

    For bubbles: Schramsburg! SO DELCIOUS! And I've heard the tasting room has a great atmosphere.

    For Laid Back/Off the Beaten Path Winery: Ladera, they do single source Howell Mountain Cabs. Reasonably priced, no frills, great for a sunny afternoon. Pack a picnic and sit out on the patio, drink wine, chat with friends, and soak in all nature. The tasting room staff is super laid back and fun! This is the MOST relaxing way to spend a Sunday afternoon, end of story.

    For Cocktails: Angele, it's honestly one of your only options in Downtown. The Barbacks are insanely good, know their stuff, are super passionate about proper, well balanced cocktails. No Mochatinins or Redbull and Vodkas, or other crimes against humanity! Enjoy in house made bitters! I recommend getting an order of sweetbreads to soak up the A, and to stave off hunger until you grab dinner.

    Speaking of Dinner, this is the hardest one for me to recommend, because Napa is SO EXPENSIVE for dining. I usually just say to go with Oenotri or Norman Rose Tavern for downtown, or Bistro Jeanty up in yountville, if you want a laid back proper french meal (plus their corkage policy is great 2 bottles for $20, not bad considering what others charge.) You're going to pay to eat out in Napa, there are no great middle-range restaurants.

    I think the best advice to give people visiting the Napa Valley is DO NOT overbook! The best thing to do is choose two wineries, pack a killer picnic, and just relax. I've down four tasting, and two meals out, all in one day. I think I nearly died of liver failure. It was however a whirlwind blast, but left me totally exhausted!

    Ok, done ranting.