Aspen Times Weekly: A Napa Sojourn |

Aspen Times Weekly: A Napa Sojourn

by Kelly J. Hayes



This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Robert Mondavi Winery. Perhaps more than anyone else Mondavi is responsible for what Napa Valley has become. So, in homage I would suggest a glass from the To Kalon vineyard, one of the Valley’s most iconic locations. The wine is dense, dark and balanced. Tobacco, cassis, hints of vanilla and the smell of the earth mark both the nose and the palate. This was a wine that Robert himself would have loved.

“So I’ve never been to Napa,” said a friend. “But I’m going next week and was wondering if you had any ideas what to do?” As a wine writer, this is a question I get with some regularity. And the first thing that always comes to mind is … envy.

First, envy for the trip. A sojourn to Napa Valley is always a welcome interlude. But also envy for the first-time journey. To see the place with virgin eyes, to smell the grapes during harvest, to feel the October sun on my face, to taste the first pour of a valley floor cabernet next to the vineyard from which it was grown, all as a newbie, would be a wonderful thing.

But alas, this was not about me and my nostalgia.

“I’ll put something together, ” I told her, and began to think on it.

The first things that occurred were “Dos” and “Don’ts.” Do have a designated driver and don’t try to do too much. The first one is obvious. You want the freedom to sip and savor as much wine as you would like. Think ahead and put yourself in a position where you can do just that and still be safe.

The next is a bit counter intuitive. You have a weekend or so, and you really want to experience everything. The tendency is to book four or five tastings back-to-back and secure dinner reservations at the hot restaurants you read about in Wine Spectator. That’s one way to do it. But in the end, if you are tied to a strict schedule you may well miss the essence of the valley. Rushing from place to place, measuring pleasure in terms of the preconceived notions, are sure ways to make your trip just another check mark on a “been there, done that” list of places.

Rather, allow time for the serendipitous occurrences that can make a trip to wine country so reaffirming. Leave time to get out and walk into a vineyard. Raise your eyes from your phone and gaze at Mt. St. Helena. Scoop up a handful of dirt. Pick a grape from a vine, even a raisiny, pruney, post-harvest grape, and taste the sweetness — or the bitterness — that has been left behind. Peak around the corner of the tasting room and get a look at the guys with the hoses and the tall rubber boots washing down the winery. And for heaven’s sake, if you meet a real live winemaker, don’t be shy. Ask questions about the wines, what you should try and how this year’s harvest went. They’ll tell you. And while exquisite fine dining is readily available, don’t forgo the roadside haunts. They pour wine as well.

All that said, if I had three days to spend in Napa Valley I would divide my time, planning a day in Carneros and Yountville, a day in St. Helena, and a day in Calistoga. Each of these areas is in a different American Viticulture Area, and each is uniquely different, even though the distance that divides them is only about 40 miles as the crow flies.

Carneros, the southernmost appellation, is home to pinot noir and chardonnay. The feel is a little more like coastal farmland than the heart of the valley. This is the place to sit on the patio of the great French-owned sparkling wine house, Domaine Carneros, and sip a glass of bubbles.

Yountville is the first wine town that you come upon as you drive Highway 29 up valley. It’s a touch touristy but loaded with great destination restaurants (you’ve heard of the French Laundry, yes?). At the far end of Main Street is a tasting room and art gallery called Ma(i)sonry that pours a selection of many of Oak Knoll’s finest wines.

St. Helena and environs lets one experience the heart of Napa style and luxury. This is the most upscale section of the valley and hosts shopping and dining along the main drag, which is surrounded by America’s most expensive vineyard properties. It also is home to Gott’s Roadside, the old Taylor’s Refresher, that is one of the great burger joints in America.

And Calistoga, with its famed mud baths and quaint Lincoln Avenue, is a great final day destination. While there is plenty of fine dining to be found, I favor the ‘cue at Buster’s with a bottle of Zinfandel from Tofanelli bought just down the road.

There is nothing like your first time. Enjoy it, my friend.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at