Insider’s guide to Napa Valley and Sonoma County
Zinfandel grapes grow in a Napa Valley, California vineyard. (Reuters)
Discover the local vineyards and delicious cuisine of California’s wine regions.
St Helena, Napa Valley, is a culinary epicentre, surrounded by vineyards and farmers. Go for lunch or Sunday brunch at Market restaurant to enjoy its intimate, buzzy vibe. It uses locally sourced, organic American ingredients where possible – try the crispy calamari with nopales (prickly pear pads), fresno chillies, green tomatillo sauce and chipotle aïoli, $13.
Another great place in St Helena is Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen. Sit on the fig tree-shaded patio and order a pancetta wrapped quail with grilled polenta, wild mushrooms and sherry sauce, $25.95. If you feel like splashing out, order a bottle of the wonderfully savoury 2008 Capiaux Cellars Pinot Noir, Widdoes Vineyard, Russian River, $74.
The pizzeria at TraVigne, on the outskirts of St Helena, is a favourite hang-out of the Napa Valley vintners. Try a delicious funghi pizza made with crimini, shiitake and beach mushrooms, fontina cheese and truffle oil, $14.95. Bring your own wine, as there’s the advantage of no corkage fee.
Located in one of Napa Valley’s oldest vineries in Yountville, Bottega is the restaurant of celebrity chef Michael Chiarello. Order wood-grilled octopus, olive oil braised potatoes, pickled red onion with salsa verde, $14. Chiarello also produces wine, and I recommend trying his Chiarello Family Vineyards Ribolla: CFV Ribolla Gialla Chiara, $9 glass, $48 bottle.
For the ultimate in fine dining book well ahead for Thomas Keller’s three Michelin-starred The French Laundry, Yountville. There are just two nine-course tasting menus, ‘tasting of vegetables’ and ‘chef’s tasting’ and both are $270 per person. Indulge in oysters and pearls, a sabayon of pearl tapioca with island creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar. Head sommelier Dennis Kelly recommends pairing it with a glass of Gaston Chiquet, Blancs de Blanc d’Aÿ, Grand Cru MV, $32. Turn to Starters for details of The French Laundry’s pop-up restaurant at Harrod’s.
One of my all-time favourite places is the gorgeous town of Healdsburg, Sonoma. The four-course tasting menu Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen features dishes such as flash seared kampachi, avocado mousseline, pickled rhubarb, purslane and kaffir lime oil, paired with Aureole cuvée sparkling wine, Green Valley, NV, $76 including wines. The wine cellar here stocks more than 600 Sonoma wines.
Also in Healdsburg is Zin Restaurant where the produce comes from its own organic farm. Try its signature dish, coq au zin; chicken braised in zinfandel, with zin bacon, pearl onions and roasted mushrooms over celery root mashed potatoes, $22.
The fabulous Dean and DeLuca deli and store, on the St Helena highway, offers local farm-grown produce, artisan cheeses and a huge range of Californian wines. The store is smart, the service is efficient and friendly, and it is a great place to browse and sample. Take home Araujo Eisele Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2010, an elegant citrussy white wine – $54 a bottle, but worth it.
Another amazing grocery store, Oakville Grocery, is located on Healdsburg’s historic town square, where you can sit and enjoy lunch on the patio and then browse a fantastic array of food and wine. They also have a St Helena highway branch in Napa.
Many of the Napa Valley wineries offer tours where you can ask questions, see the vines, and, most importantly, taste the wines.
Robert Mondavi Winery is a must. The legendary late Robert Mondavi established it in 1966, and although the winery now belongs to the Constellation group, it’s still worth visiting. Taste the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon if you can, bottle $135.
Francis Ford Coppola’s winery Rubicon is a must too, for wine as well as film memorabilia. The top label Rubicon (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon) is a real treat, from $175, but the more affordable CASK Cabernet, $65, is also excellent.
Hotel Healdsburg in Sonoma County inspired us to create our own hotel, TerraVina. Perfectly situated right in the centre of Healdsburg, the building has character and the materials are of the highest quality. It’s also home to Dry Creek Kitchen restaurant. Doubles from $450.
For traditional décor, great vineyard location and superb views try Wine Country Inn, St Helena. The hotel offers free afternoon appetisers and local wines, as well as wine excursions and shuttle service to nearby restaurants such as Market. Doubles from $215.