The Insider’s Napa

Festival del Sole looms large on the Napa Valley Calendar and so, in advance of attending it in July of this year with a group of people, I structured an advance trip to dust off relationships, build new ones and iron out logistics for the Festival. Crossing the Mayacama’s from Sonoma it hits me right away just how manicured Napa is, almost as though everywhere is the extension of a proud homeowner’s front yard. It also strikes me how intimate and accessible the valley is. Finally it strikes me how imperative it is to find the insider’s Napa.

Favorite Wine: Palmaz 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon
Favorite Restaurant: Ad Hoc, Yountville
Favorite Accommodation: Bardessono, Yountville
Most Memorable Moment: Tasting Blankiet with Claude Blankiet in his private cellar

I always deem it to be a very good sign when a hotel room’s bathroom is larger than it’s bedroom, which is the case at Bardessono and why I always use it as a base for Napa Valley trips. In addition, it is one of those hotels that can simultaneously cater to your every mood – urbane, zen, foodie, cocktail centric; all this in the center of Yountville and a stone’s throw away from some of the finest restaurants in the Valley.

My first stop is Meadowood, the much storied country estate along the upper reaches of the Silverado Trail, the venue for Festival del Sole’s Gala event. The surprise package here is Gilles de Chambure, MS, who is the wine educator for the estate and a man whom I would say is quite equally at ease with the busboy clearing glasses from his latest wine event as he is with visiting dignitaries. He is a great asset when you are looking to create experiences that reflect a first hand knowledge of a winery in in the valley.

The culinary approach to the trip was almost as important to wine considerations. In Yountville, I cycled around the village scoping out restaurants. Bistro Jeanty (because it transports you instantly to Rrural France), & Ad Hoc (thoroughly affordable Thomas Keller fare where the menu changes on a daily basis) are the standouts. As an aside, Yountville has this type of effect on you: after cycling around you are magnetically drawn to the closest realtor’s office to see which properties are for sale. Further afield, Press in Rutherford is a standout and personifies west coast chic and besides, how can any restaurant that offers a bacon sampler be avoided? Finally, no trip to the valley can be considered a truly rounded one unless you have visited The Oakville Grocery for picnic supplies. Circa 1881, it screams “abundance!” the little market is bursting at the seams with charcuterie, breads and cheesase as well as a super selection of wines…some of which never leave the valley.

The headliner is still the wine experience. And not just the run of the mill wine experience, not ambling along Highway 29 and bellying up to tasting room bars in Disney like settings to taste a few sips of the current vintage. No, we’re talking barrel tasting, meeting the winemaker/vineyard owner, touring the facility and the vineyards and hearing the dream that created the life of the wine in the glass that you are drinking from.

Cue Claude Blankiet. In the 70′s there were blue jeans and there were blue jeans, until an enterprising Frenchman introduced the concept of stone-washing and the world of jeans was forever changed. After building an empire that consisted of 5 factories operating around the clock and employing in excess of 2000 people that at varying points in time was the largest manufacturer of jeans worldwide, Claude identified a stellar piece of property on the Mayacamas ridge overlooking Yountville and with the same focus that took him to the pinnacle of his former career, he went about crafting a top tier Bordeaux style blend in Napa Valley. To spend two hours with him on a Sunday morning listening to a dissertation on the services of renowned celebrity consulting winemakers and the minutiae of his vineyard’s micro-climate is truly enlightening. To end the visit off in the cellar of his home tasting through his portfolio of highly rated wines is a religious experience, and I hadn’t even been to church that morning.

Palmaz is the best little winery in Napa Valley that no one knows about, but they will and you should. Dr Julio Palmaz invented the coronary stent & parlayed some of that not inconsiderable fortune into a 610 acre property (only 55 acres under vine) in the southeastern end of the Valley. The old Cedar Knoll vineyard had been neglected and he took four years to design and seven years to build arguably the finest gravity flow winery I have had the privilege of visiting. 18 vertical storeys set into the mountain side. Mark my words, the fermentation room with it’s docking station for an Ipod and it’s (proprietary) app that can “manage” the winery’s operations remotely, will be a set on a James Bond movie in the near future. And the wines? Rocking. Simply delicious Burgundian style Chardonnay and a silky Cabernet Sauvignon (2006 was the standout year). Buy these wines before you are unable to.

A perfect balance between the rustic Blankiet estate and the nouveau Palmaz is Chappellett. Set on gently sloping mountain slopes overlooking Lake Hennessey, it has to be one of the most serene vineyards in the valley. The love and care for this estate by the family that owns it permeates every aspect of the property. The line up of wines is broad and faultless. At a picnic table elevated above the lake with sweeping views into the distance, the Chenin Blanc and the merlot tasted particularly well. Grown up wines made by a very steady hand, an ideal and balanced portfolio to get on the mailing list for. And get there before the charming Henri returns to make wine at the family operation in Gigondas.

Tastings and visits do require an element of fortitude so thankfully there is that deep soaking tub at Bardessono to revive you as you prepare to choose between the three Thomas Keller restaurants in Yountville for dinner that evening…