A trip to wine country this season is a chance to delight all your senses, because the scent of the crush is heavy in the air.
But the expense of visiting Napa Valley has sometimes made us pause. Few hotels in the region are “budget”, and wine country seemed out of reach — especially when we were both at school.
Then we discovered Calistoga, the small city of about 5,500 at the top end of the valley (also known as “Upper Napa”).
It’s an intimate spot to explore wine country at its best, and has had its own AVA (American Viticultural Area) since 2010.
Calistoga is the most rustic part of the valley, the way Napa was before it became home to celebrities. It began as a western town in the 1850s, and still has some of that flavor.
City Hall, built in 1902, is a cross between Mission elegance and Wild West brashness. The city declares it has a “practical, down-to-earth philosophy of sound government and fiscal responsibility.”
You can still buy farm supplies at the 153-year-old Silverado Ace Hardware (it had a differerent name in the 1860s; it’s now owned by brothers Mark and Tim Petersen, who are celebrating their family’s 50th year in the business).
Given Calistoga’s great weather in fall, you’re likely to meet plein air artists, painting the quaint neighborhoods here.
Deirdre Shibano has been painting and teaching in Calistoga for more than a decade, and often has students at their easels around downtown. We met her, with rescue dog Darby at her feet, capturing the delights of Calistoga’s main street. Lincoln Ave. is filled with restaurants, tasting rooms, art galleries, and affordable stores.
“It’s so expensive to eat out in most of Napa,” said Shibano, who moved here from New York. “Who wants to pay $12 for a glass of Chardonnay?”
Shibano emphasized “full glass of wine” too, echoing an often-heard lament in wine country that visitors pay a lot for a splash.
Locals prefer BYOB restaurants, where they can eat and drink well and enjoy the company of friends, she said.
“It’s been getting a little out of hand,” she complained. “If you don’t want to pay $200 to enjoy yourself, do what locals do — bring 4 or 5 bottles and just sit around” at restaurants with no corkage fees.
Shibano recommended Checkers as one of the most “artist-friendly” eateries preferred by locals.
It’s a telling sign of Calistoga culture that Copperfield’s Books has pride of place in the center of the city. This independent bookstore has shops in five Napa and Sonoma communities, so visitors never have to buy a book at a chain store while they’re in wine country.
Many visitors just drift from one tasting room to the next, sampling new vintages and learning about Napa Valley wines.
Check the weather forecast for this week in Calistoga — sunshine and 80˚temps every day — and you’ll see why this is a great wine country destination in fall.
STAY: EuroSpa & Inn is one of the most reasonably priced and laid-back hotels in wine country. Great location — vineyards on one side (next to the pool/hot tub), and only a short walk along leafy streets to downtown.
Cottage-style rooms are cozy and spacious, with retro furniture, gas woodstoves, and tables-for-two outdoors on a redwood porch. Breakfast is included in the room rate, and has all kinds of fresh fruit, pastries and cinnamon rolls, granola, yogurt and more, at an outdoor patio. It’s sweet for snuggling around the firepit after dusk. Rooms also have microwaves, coffee makers and fridges for BYO meals.
EuroSpa & Inn: 1202 Pine St.; 707.942.6829; eurospa.com; fall-winter rates: $117-$214.
EAT: Must-have: Organic fruit smoothies at Calistoga Kitchen, at the entrance to Calistoga. The staff was busy getting ready for a catering event and weren’t serving lunch, yet whipped up smoothies for two hot and tired travelers who just popped in to check the menu. We met Chef Rick Warkel, talked about his plans for growing a catering business into an intimate restaurant, and wandered off.
Days later, on assignment, our catered picnic lunch — courtesy of the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce — was exactly as ordered, vegetarian and salmon, full of fresh, local ingredients. “The KITCHEN”, as it’s known, is mostly open on high-traffic days, because Warkel and company are so busy with catering.
Calistoga Kitchen: 110 Cedar St.; 702.942.6500; calistogakitchen.com.
In a valley full of restaurants, we picked Bosko’s Trattoria for dinner, because it offered our favorite food group — homemade, fresh pasta — and we could eat outdoors in October. The tiny, street-side patio at this restored, 1888 building reminded us of Rome. The family-owned restaurant is so authentic Italian, it’s celebrating its 30th year in business.
All pasta dishes and pizzas here are less than $20 (basic pizza is $14.50), unless gluten-free. Bosko’s boasts that is has “the largest selection of gluten-free meals in the Napa Valley.” (Best secret about gluten-free pasta: You can eat more and feel less guilty/stuffed than regular pasta.) Bosko’s serves only free-range chicken and grass-fed beef. Italian and Napa wines are expensive ($25 to $235 a bottle) here, so we just ordered a glass each. That way, we could afford to try more wines at tasting rooms later.
Bosko’s Trattoria: 1364 Lincoln Ave.; 707.942.9088; boskos.com.
PLAY: Walk — sip. Walk — shop. There are plenty of tasting rooms on Lincoln St., for trying out-of-the-way wines. Or visit such independent vintners as Lava Vine, where free-range chickens mingle with hip, young wine connoisseurs. Guitars play; wine drinkers sing (surprisingly well); and everyone talks wine and grapes outdoors on a patio. It’s the most fun we’ve ever had at a winery anywhere. Watch for bunnies, geese and the odd goat too.
Joe and Jill Kabral have the best tasting notes around. (About their 2012 Suisun Valley Verdejo: “This is a new varietal for Lava Vine that we just could not resist exploring. These grapes originally hail from the Northern part of Spain and have grown considerably in popularity. On the nose, our 2012 vintage opens with dusty “Flintstone” Vitamin minerality and a whoosh of night-blooming Jasmine. Then comes the fruit: fresh kiwi and sweet cantaloupe. A crisp Granny Smith apple entry broadens to a rich mid-mouth palate with a hint of lemon zest in the background. The mid palate increases in volume through the smooth finish.Balanced now, and ageable for up to 3 years.”)
Lava Vine: 965 Silverado Trail; 707.942.9500; lavavine.com.
WEST COAST WEEKENDS TIP: “Ride the Vine” — truly. Take the Calistoga Shuttle at only $1 one-way.
It’s a great way to shop downtown, tour vineyards, and stop often to sample wines without going near a car.
This trip was partly sponsored by the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau.