With all there is to see, do, sip and taste in Napa and Sonoma, you could easily overlook the pleasures of their neighboring Calistoga countryside. Located in the northernmost part of Napa County, this laid- back community is a treat to discover.
The small town of Calistoga (just over 5,000 denizens) sometimes swells to several times its size with visitors who would just as soon keep its treasures to themselves. Even with those numbers, you’ll find no parade of tourists, no local traffic jams, no glitz or ego to spoil a true wine country experience. Instead, you’ll find charming boutique wineries and some of the most iconic labels cozily interspersed along the country lanes that retain their old time charm. The compact downtown area is artsy, quirky, quaint, downright funky and surprisingly uptown with its restaurants and boutiques.
The retro mom and pop hot springs establishments are all eager to have you experience their soothing properties comprised of mineral pools, massages and famous mud baths. Stop in at Indian Springs for your favorite spa treatment, take a hot dip in the Olympic-sized hot springs pool where you can float away all your anxieties, and exit in an altered state of calm and repose.
Just minutes away from hot springs central, and almost deliberately concealed, you’ll find upscale lodging boasting all the luxury amenities, fine dining establishments and gourmet cooking classes that you’d expect to find in wine country. It’s these juxtapositions of indulgence and wellness, sophistication and countrified shabby chic remnants that make Calistoga so endearing.
As you approach the town of Calistoga from either Napa or Sonoma Valleys, you sense the subtle change of scenery, pace and place. Your first stop is The Chanric Inn, which is a designated Condé Nast Johansens Collection affiliated property. French Innkeepers, Joel and Jean Marc recently renovated this seven room property and turned it into a stylish, modern abode adorned with their worldly collection of art, artifacts and carefully orchestrated luxurious touches.
While almost a museum-like feel, the residence is made inviting and comfortable with its opened kitchen, silent movies projected in the common parlor, comfy bedding, elegant bath amenities, self-serve refreshments, fireplace and pool with Jacuzzi on the patio area for lounging round the clock. The inn’s three-course gourmet breakfast, served with Schramsberg Sparkling wine, is the tour de force of this upscale B&B.
Speaking of gourmet fare, book a table at Michelin-starred Solbar inside Solage Calistoga for an exciting dining adventure. Executive Chef Brandon Sharp, who honed his craft at Gary Denko, August and the French Laundry, now has his own culinary playground at Solbar. Using à la minute fresh and local ingredients, Chef Sharp adds an exotic touch to his Napa Valley-inspired menu with global influences and spices. His artfully presented dishes are layered with components that render each bite a new dining discovery.
Just when you think you’ve experienced the dish, another mouthful gives you deliciously different taste sensations. The combination of inventive preparations (finished with superb technique), gorgeous plating, a seductively sensual ambience, great wine and bar menu, make this a Calistoga culinary destination worth the trip.
If traditional B&B’s with the close proximity to other guests is not your cup of tea, The Cottage Grove Inn, is for you. Nestled among a lush grove are individual cottages with all the amenities of a home and an ensured privacy is ensured. The inn may be the epitome of a wine country experience since it offers your own private abode just minutes from hot springs, spas, restaurants, shopping, wine bars, boutiques and wineries. Gourmet breakfast and happy hour wine receptions plus complimentary bicycles and shuttles to local places of interest, make this locale safe for those who want to enjoy their wine vacation.
Just across the street is the Indian Springs Resort and Spa. Soak and float in their Olympic-sized hot springs pool before or after a signature massage or mud bath and allow your body to take in the soothing, healing geyser springs. If cuisine is high on your list of interests, attend a cooking class at Casa Lana where Chef Lana Richardson will inform, entice, and excite you with her knowledgeable and approachable teaching style. You will listen, observe, and try your hand at each step of a recipe so that you can truly say you cooked each dish. After eating the fruits of your labor with carefully paired wines, you will debrief the experience and leave more enlightened and confident in your culinary skills, ready to reproduce each dish at home for friends and family.
Don’t leave the area without a trip to Chateau Montelena Winery, whose fame starts with the “Judgment of Paris” — a blind wine competition in 1976 — where both the winning top wines (both red and white) were from Napa County. The white, a 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena, put this winery and Napa on the world’s wine map. Watch the movie Bottle Shock, to get a sense some of the drama involved in this seminal contest. Today, Chateau Montelena’s Cellar Club has over 9, 000 members eager to purchase their elegant, old-world wines and picnic on Jade Lake, which is part of their property. The winery is open to the public and happy to welcome new fans to their loyal following.
If you have only one dinner to enjoy on Calistoga’s main street Lincoln Ave., JoLe is hands down, the one to choose. JoLe’s contemporary American cuisine is noted for its ever-changing dishes and distinguished wine list featuring boutique wines that change as often as the menu. Its excitement comes from the juxtaposition of culinary influences created with local ingredients by passionate chefs who want their flavors to shine. The multi-course menus with optional wine pairings are a great way to explore and savor the many choices, textures, and presentations that are a signature of this casual, fine dining star in the heart of Calistoga.
For an unforgettable culinary experience book a table at The Conservatory at Greystone at The Culinary Institute of America in the neighboring St. Helena. The institute’s new pop-up restaurant, headed by Master Chef Larry Forgione is part of the Farm-to-Table program. Culinary students plant, harvest, cook and serve their seasonal best every Friday and Saturday to guests who are all too happy to support their efforts. This is one class act with bright, passionate students, who are eager to surprise and delight with their talent. They compose and execute a sophisticated six-course menu with wine pairings that successfully competes with the finest dining in the area.
Castello di Amorosa, an authentically-styled 13th century Tuscan castle, boasts a moat, Italian al frescoes, a drawbridge and wine production facilities that took 14 years to complete. Visit the building and grounds of Castello di Amorosa and book a wine and food pairing experience to enjoy the ambience and award-winning wines that surprise even its staunches critics who can’t quite believe that serious wine could come from this storybook-like castle.
Before leaving Calistoga, walk Lincoln Ave. and enjoy its wine bars, boutiques, cafes, and breweries. Maybe even make a promise to go back soon to this quaint town which reflects the authentic wine country.
Diane Sukiennik & Michael Reiss
Diane Sukiennik is an internationally recognized writer, coach, keynote speaker, consultant, educator and licensed therapist. She is the author of The Career Fitness Program: Exercising Your Options, 11th edition, Prentice Hall, the most widely used text in colleges and universities in the subject area. A self-proclaimed 'leisurologist,' she speaks French and Spanish, is an avid world traveler...(Read More)