It was the second time in an hour I’d been asked a question I wasn’t expecting.
“Are you celebrating anything special during your stay with us?”
I glanced at Mike, and then at my left hand.
“No, not particularly.” Our parents would disown us if they weren’t the first to know.
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While the concierge helped Mike haul luggage into our Harvest Cottage at The Carneros Inn, I slipped outside to call Mom.
By dinnertime, we were ready to uncork the news to strangers in the hotel restaurant: “We got engaged today!” Out came two complimentary glasses of champagne. A chilled bottle and two flutes would be sent to our room.
Thus began our Napa Valley “proposal-moon” — five days of floating away in a champagne bubble of bliss. Five days of drinking celebratory bubbles and eating celebratory desserts in a universe that seemed to slow down and wrap us in a vine of happiness.
We’d planned the June trip to Northern California as an early summer vacation. It would be our first time to visit the famed Napa Valley — to experience the wine, food and serene beauty that makes it among the top travel destinations in the world.
But the surprise ring changed everything. Each activity we’d planned as boyfriend-girlfriend back home became stupid-romantic while traveling as fiance-fiancee on our one-and-only engagement trip.
It may have taken more than seven years to get engaged, but it took less than a week to fall in love with Napa Valley. Like a good first date, the region leaves visitors yearning to spend more time together.
Nature has not been particularly kind to the world’s most famous winemaking region this year. The area suffered massive wildfires, one of the worst droughts in California’s history, and then — the earthquake.
In the early morning hours of Aug. 24, a 6.0-magnitude earthquake struck, the Bay Area’s worst in 25 years. It was centered in southwest Napa Valley, killing one person and injuring about 200. Though homes and downtown buildings bore the brunt of the $300 million in property damage, photos of smashed bottles and spilled wine made headlines around the world.
Reports said wineries recorded more than $80 million of damage to structures and inventories. A wine columnist wrote in the Napa Valley Register a month after the quake, “Many wineries lost a complete vintage of wines in the barrel, and structural damage to fermenting tanks ready for harvest has made some scramble to find a new home for their 2014 crop. ... The earthquake even changed the direction of several acres of vineyards in Carneros, where laser-straight rows of grapes are now off kilter by 4 or 5 feet, and broken irrigation pipes and strained trellising are now in need of constant repair.”
By most accounts, the area is recovering well. Napa Valley Vintners reports that most wineries were able to proceed with “harvest as usual,” and winemakers think the 2014 wines will be excellent.
Flavor! Napa Valley, one of the world’s premier food and wine festivals, will go on Nov. 19-23, as planned, with culinary superstars the likes of Todd English, Rocco DiSpirito and Michael Chiarello leading wine dinners and cooking demonstrations. “One of the best things people can do to help the locals now is to visit,” the festival’s website proclaims.
For first-time visitors, the key to getting the most out of a Napa Valley trip is good planning, starting with where you stay. (The traffic up and down the valley’s main drag, California 29, is notoriously slow.)
For the first two nights, home base was The Carneros Inn on the southern end of the 30-mile-long valley. Our charming, light-filled cottage could not have been a more romantic accommodation for an engagement trip; luxury amenities included a bedroom fireplace and indoor-outdoor showers, as well as a private backyard garden with an oversize soaking tub, deck and fire pit. (A fireside butler will fill the tub or light the fire while you’re away, and s’mores kits can be delivered to your doorstep.)
We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of jalapeño-eggs Benedict and house-made doughnuts in the garden our first morning there. One night, we filled the outdoor tub with bubbles, threw on our bathing suits and hopped in with a couple of cheap bottles of wine we’d picked up at a nearby gas station. Yes, even gas stations in Napa Valley carry good wine.
The resort’s fine-dining restaurant, Farm, serves locally sourced dishes (a filet was first-rate) and seasonal produce from an on-site organic culinary garden. And its popular casual eatery, The Boon Fly Cafe, offers more rustic cuisine and a wine list with many Carneros-area varietals.
A bit farther north, Bardessono is a contemporary resort in a perfect location for enjoying the dining, shopping and wineries in and around Yountville. Bardessono appeals to serenity-seekers with its spa suites, which are designed to be quickly transformed into tranquil retreats for in-room massages and other treatments by resort therapists.
Indoor steam showers and outdoor garden showers, gas fireplaces, motion-controlled shutters, excellent dining at the award-winning restaurant, Lucy, and commitment to “green” practices have attracted a loyal Napa Valley clientele since the eco-chic resort opened in 2009. The sleek, modern aesthetic is “vineyard-urbane” and sexy.
But, about that wine. For our inaugural Napa Valley trip, Mike and I chose to explore wineries with cool caves. Before we left, we scheduled tastings and tours at three of the biggest and best: Jarvis, Rutherford Hill and Hall Rutherford. Caves are energy-efficient, eco-friendly places to store wine barrels for aging fine wines; they ensure constant humidity, temperature control and reduce evaporation — even the ancient Romans knew this.
Jarvis Estate Winery doesn’t just have a cave. Its entire winemaking operation happens inside a 45,000-square-foot cave, which is built into the side of a mountain four miles east of downtown Napa. A walk through the underground tunnels and chambers — through cast bronze doors, into a quartz-themed room and over an indoor stream — feels as though you’re exploring Willy Wonka’s Winemaking Factory. The highlight of the tunnel system is a natural underground waterfall. It not only adds to the aesthetics but keeps humidity levels steady, the winery says.
Out of this unique underground lair come world-class premium wines. In a tasting with three other couples, we fell head-over-heels in Bacchanalian lust for the 2012 Finch Hollow Chardonnay; it had notes of honey-butter and not-too-sweet butterscotch. I bought one $115 bottle but should have racked up the credit card-airline miles with several. We also couldn’t resist a 2011 merlot, which our tour guide called her “official wine for when my kids are in bed ... it pairs with my couch.” (Who says a $95 wine can’t be enjoyed in a recliner?)
It was here, on the lush grounds surrounding Jarvis Estate, in front of a small waterfall and with only geese watching, that Mike dropped to one knee and gave me a ring he’d been carrying in his camera case since our 3 a.m. drive to DFW Airport that day. (We’ve nicknamed the ring “Jarvis.”) We returned a few days later for personal photos and bought a reserve cabernet sauvignon from 2006 — the year we met. We plan to open the $230 bottle on a special anniversary.
Another reason we came to love this winery: Founders William and Leticia Jarvis founded Jarvis Conservatory in downtown Napa nearly 20 years ago. It provides training for students of the performing arts — opera, theater, film, puppetry and more — with special emphasis on those that relate to the Hispanic community, such as ballet folklorico. Jarvis Conservatory celebrated its reopening Nov. 1 after undergoing $250,000 in repairs after the earthquake — paid for, the local newspaper reported — out of pocket by the Jarvises.
The Art of Wine
Our second cave-spelunking adventure came at Rutherford Hill, owned by the Illinois-based Terlato family. Top Chef fans know Terlato as the wine featured prominently on the Bravo reality competition show. Owner Bill Terlato has been a frequent guest judge, and the 2009 season finale (the highly-rated episode in which Michael Voltaggio bested brother Bryan) was shot in and around Rutherford Hill.
A private tour took us through the largest wine cave in Napa Valley, and along the way, our friendly, knowledgeable guide imparted tidbits of wisdom and advice, all the while opening new bottles for us to swirl and sip, and letting us smell wine straight from the French oak barrel. Then she led us through a private tasting flight of current releases and library wines on a lovely patio outside. We managed to stuff our suitcase with a few favorites — a 2011 pinot grigio, 2005 merlot reserve and a 2013 sauvignon blanc.
Rutherford Hill has some of the area’s most gorgeous picnic grounds, affording spectacular views of the valley. Mike and I love going on picnics, and if we hadn’t eaten a ginormous lunch before our afternoon visit to the winery, we’d have packed a basket of cheese and fruit and parked ourselves at a table in the romantic olive-grove setting.
At nearby Hall Winery in Rutherford, the romance and spectacle await inside the cave, as the owners’ personal art collection that lines the underground passageways turns the 14,000-square-foot labyrinth into a beautiful gallery.
Owner-vintners Craig and Kathryn Walt Hall are familiar names in North Texas; he is president of Dallas-based Hall Financial Group. Kathryn Hall served as U.S. ambassador to Austria (1997-2001) and worked to promote American wines throughout Europe during her tenure. The wine cave is a testament to the Halls’ strong connection to that country. Austrian firm Friedrich Gruber designed and built it using mason bricks from ruined palaces, cathedrals and schools of the Hapsburg emperors dating to the 1700s.
The tour of the state-of-the-art facility, past the custom-made tanks and through the tunnels lined with contemporary artworks — ends in sparkling splendor. Inside the tasting room, a giant chandelier, adorned with 1,500 Swarovski crystals and called “Chilean Red,” hangs from the ceiling like an upside-down tree. Underneath, a long cherry-wood table inlaid with white onyx changes color with the turn of a knob.
In this beautifully illuminated room, Mike and I enjoyed a private tasting. As our suitcases were getting impossibly heavy, we bought just one to take home this time, the 2011 “Eighteen Seventy-Three” cabernet from the Hall Artisan Collection.
The Halls have received buzz for their new facility in nearby St. Helena, which is California’s first winery to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Certification. But it’s here, at the Rutherford location — a stone’s throw from their private home — where the couple make their high-end reserve and estate single vineyard wines. To enjoy an afternoon on the terraces or a walk amid the legendary Sacrashe Vineyard is to feel as though your good friends Kathryn and Craig personally have invited you to enjoy the good life from their vantage point.
Napa Valley continues to be a gastronomic galaxy of Michelin stars and culinary superstars.
Retaining its one-star designation, it was announced last month, was the renowned Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford. We chose to splurge there for our most extravagant meal of the trip — a multicourse “engagement lunch,” complete with wine pairings. Part of the spot-on service at this acclaimed restaurant includes an eagerness on the part of the wait staff to take patrons’ photos from the terrace overlooking some of the most breathtaking scenery in Napa Valley.
For almost two hours, we relaxed and dined alfresco on soups, salads and entrees from the Mediterranean-accented menu while we sampled a handful of the 40 wines offered by the glass. My $42 Cabernet Braised Short Rib became my favorite dish of the trip. Just when we thought we couldn’t possibly eat another bite, our server brought out a celebratory Chocolate Peanut Butter Mousse, compliments of the house, with “Congratulations” written in chocolate on the plate. We sunk in two spoons and savored every decadent bite.
If you miss a legendary Napa Valley restaurant like The French Laundry (we tried for reservations, and failed, several times), there are endless opportunities to hit outstanding up-and-comers, such as Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch in St. Helena. Housed in a one-time nursery barn, the casual Farmstead serves the farm-to-table menu creations of executive chef Stephen Barber. His is American farmhouse cooking of locally sourced ingredients served in a casual environment. Mike declared the Long Meadow Ranch grass-fed cheeseburger “better than all the burgers in Cowtown” — which is no small rave.
In the city of Napa, newcomers like Torc and City Winery are now luring hip diners to the once-sleepy downtown area.
Torc is a year-old, high-energy restaurant serving the globally influenced American food of chef-proprietor Sean O’Toole. We popped in for happy hour nibbles and drinks one afternoon. The menu reached from Spanish jamon iberico and farm-fresh deviled eggs, to Hawaiian kampachi crudo and Winkler Farm boar ravioli.
Down the street, City Winery has become a hot destination for dining and night life since its opening in April. The company renovated the old Napa Valley Opera House, maintaining from the 1880s-building a stage and cabaret-style seating upstairs and a restaurant with a publike atmosphere downstairs. The liquid attractions here are the dozens of mostly local wines on tap, as well as an extensive offering of beers and liquors. During dinner, Mike and I built a flight of five wines, and we sampled beer made on-site from chardonnay grapes (not bad).
Another new addition to the city of Napa in recent years, Oxbow Public Market is a veritable Disney World for foodies. The 40,000-square-foot marketplace brings eateries like chef Todd Humphries’ Kitchen Door, the famous Fatted Calf Charcuterie and Hog Island Oyster Co. under one roof with food purveyors such as Ritual Coffee Roasters and Three Twins Ice Cream, and unique stores like Napastak “epicurean boutique.” We spent an afternoon nibbling banh mi sandwiches and perusing the fun foodie finds. Locals love this place. The parking lot gets packed.
Mike’s plan, he told me later, was to propose in a hot-air balloon. I’m glad he didn’t. Not because it wouldn’t have been spectacular but because the ride almost didn’t happen.
Napa Valley is one of the most popular (natch, cliched) places in the world for hot-air ballooning, but the excursions are largely dependent on the weather. The same fog that helps grow the grapes can impede ballooning. We’d booked a group excursion at sunrise through Yountville-based, family-run Napa Valley Aloft, but dense fog forced us to cancel. We were lucky to be able to go the next day.
Our first balloon ride was an exhilarating flight that took us over miles and miles of lush vineyards, constantly floating up over the treetops (and going through them in one “hold on, everybody” moment). We texted sky-high selfies to family and posted social media updates from the clouds. After about an hour in the air, our skilled pilot negotiated a smooth landing on a small patch of bare land in a vineyard. Afterward, our balloon mates gathered for a champagne brunch and applauded our pilot at a restaurant in Yountville.
Coming in a close second in the “romantic excursions” department was our first couple’s massage at the lovely Spa at the Napa River Inn, near the Napa riverfront. Massage therapists kneaded and pounded out all of the kinks while we relaxed and drifted off to wedding dreamland (or, at least I did). The pretty, light-filled spa is about a year-and-a-half old and is housed in a historic little building that was, at one point, the city’s police station. We’re pretty sure we got a massage in a jail cell — the “ball-and-chain” jokes weren’t lost on us.
With so much to drink, eat, see and do in Napa Valley, it’s easy for first-timers to 1) overschedule, 2) overspend and 3) overindulge. We wanted to sneak in leisure in a non-eating, non-drinking, non-expensive way, too.
One morning, we hit the hiking trails of Napa’s Skyline Wilderness Park. We spent almost two hours in the 850-acre, protected wilderness area exploring a garden of wildflowers, climbing the hills, eyeing wild turkeys crossing the trail and spying deer drinking from a pond.
Another day, we meandered off the main highway and drove up a winding road until we were greeted by a homeowner’s friendly, furry dogs. While trespassing is not recommended (shhh!) , it was fun to detour high into the hills for pictures and videos off the beaten path.
We explored grocery stores (ask locals which ones have the best wine selection) and even tracked down some hard-to-find, local craft beers for Mike to bring home. (Have I mentioned our suitcases were heavy?)
On our last evening in Napa Valley, we took a spur-of-the-moment drive to a winery called Merryvale Vineyards in St. Helena. By the time we arrived, the tasting room had closed. But in a happy-cheesy proposal-moon photo opp, we took selfies with the sign and texted them to family.
“This trip will forever be called, ‘Eat, Drink and Be Merry,’ ” I typed on the iPhone screen.
Mike corrected me: “Eat, Drink and Be AMerry.”
Because, next spring, that will be my new, married name ... Merry.