Calistoga, California: the anti-Napa that's part of Napa. Does that make sense?
CALISTOGA, Calif. - What a great town.
I'd known a little bit about this little town at the north end of the Napa Valley for quite some time. My great aunt lived many years in Calistoga, and I'd spent the odd part of a day in town. But I'd never spent the night until this past weekend.
I booked two nights at the Mount View Hotel, a fun spot on the main street, Lincoln Avenue (how American is that?). I had one night in a cottage room with a hot tub on the patio and the other in a balcony suite overlooking the action.
It's a great town, with wooden storefronts like an old movie set and a great mixture of trendy and traditional, with more traditional than trendy from what I could see. The apple and parsnip soup at Jole restaurant, attached to the Mount View, is terrific, as is the duck confit. Solbar at the Solage Restaurant was particularly outstanding, with an elegantly casual decor and monstrously good local food; ranging from perfectly seared bass to local lamb. The salad was quite inventive: escarole and red endive with pears, prosciutto, caramelized honey and a pear-verjus dressing. And there's an outstanding wine list, not surprisingly.
I did the tourist thing and took the ski-style tramway up the hill from the valley floor to the winery at Sterling. The wine's okay and the tram is kinda silly, but the views from the patio are perfectly wonderful as the north end of the valley is more closed-in than the southern part of Napa and you great views of forested hills and craggy hilltops.
I didn't go in, but there were hundreds of folks outside Castello di Amorosa winery, taking snapshots and gawking at the faux-Italian castle architecture. The "castle" comes complete with turrets, a drawbridge and, apparently, a torture chamber. They say it took more than a decade and many million dollars to build. I would imagine the wine is a bit of an afterthought, but I"m sure they'd disagree.
More to my liking, and thanks to T'Anne Butcher at Wine Sensory Experience (a great way to spend a couple hours learning about wine, by the way) for the tip, was Vincent Arroyo. It helped that winery worker Ted Wiebe (I hope I spelled it right!) is from WInnipeg, but I LOVED their Petite Sirah and other red wines, and they've spent all their money on the product and not on the decor, which is a good thing if you want value and not entertainment. It's well worth looking for the place, or making an appointment.
I also checked out the Old Faithful Geyser nearby, which is actually pretty decent. And I had to stop by Chateau Montelena, perhaps the most famous winery in these parts.
It's a beautiful old stone structure on a hill at the north end of the valley, complete with an Asian garden out back. But it's not a tourist trap by any means. Wine afficionados or movie fans might recall the recent flick Bottle Shock with Bill Pullman. It's the story of the famous Paris wine tasting of 1976, when French wine judges did a blind tasting of French wines with upstart California wines - and gave top prizes to the California stuff, including Chateau Montelena's 1973 chardonnay.
It set off something of a revolution in wine circles, one that's still being felt today. It's a decent if not great movie, and it's a fun place to stop and taste some wines. Be warned, however, that most of them are in the $50 and up range. It's not a bargain spot, but when you take on French burgundies and win you can't be expecting $15-$25 bottles, I guess.
Calistoga is definitely part of the Napa Valley, tucked in at the far northern end. But it feels more like funky Sonoma to me, and that's a good thing. Much less crowded than most of Napa, and much more relaxed, with food and wine that's just as compelling as the more trendy spots down the road in St. Helena or Yountville.
More to come in the pages of Star Travel.