I think about wine all the time. I drink wine all the time. I bathed in wine at one point. I’m drinking a glass now, and there are eight more bottles I picked up in Napa Valley last week, where I celebrated my 35th birthday. I was so obsessed with vineyard-hopping, wine tastings, and sucking the living grapes out of that valley that I almost forgot about the awesome food which, ironically, turned out to be the highlight of my trip.
As a world famous wine-growing region, Napa Valley is an easy destination. You eat and drink and crash in luxury hotels. You can drive along the Silverado Trail flanked by gorgeous country landscapes and rolling hills and stop at virtually any winery of your choice. It’s perhaps the foodie destination of the west coast. In fact, Napa seems to be more about the food than the wine these days, thanks to new trends in kitchens that, well, get better with age but are still real damn good in the now.
My first stop was at the new-ish Ram’s Gate (pictured), which is technically in Sonoma and arguably the most cosmopolitan winery in the valleys (you pass Ram’s Gate to get to Napa). It’s the type of place young professionals would do happy hour if it existed in San Francisco, or where a techie would take a first date to impress (and declare bragging rights). An interesting note is that there’s no distribution: to enjoy their wines you have to drop by the winery or become a member to order wine directly. The food did to me what zinfandel does for hardcore zinfanatics, thanks to executive chef Taylor Behnam. The Spanish octopus and crispy arancini are delicious, and don’t get me started on the almonds, complete with smoked brown sugar, paprika, fennel pollen, and sea salt. Ram’s Gate will be offering Sunday dinners in the vineyard soon, perfect for that sublime sunset.
If you need a reason to stay at The Inn On First in Downtown Napa, make it the food. Opened by a gay couple in 2007, this 10-room B&B housed in a 1905 building is crazy chic … for a B&B. While there’s nothing new here, Jim got a culinary degree in 1994 so he’s in the kitchen All. The. Time. And guests are jumping aboard this hidden-gem train. In fact, they stay overnight specifically for his satiating breakfasts. Jim dishes out 120 made-to-order recipes (most B&Bs have 6 to 10). Expect homemade potato chips, risotto tater tots, and even hot dog omelets with pepperjack cheese and green onions. Snacks are served throughout the day, and when I return—which I will—you can bet I’ll empty out the cookie jar again. The homemade chocolate-chunk cookies are insanely addictive.
The new Goose & Gander (formerly Martini House) is fronted by Kelly McKown, known for hearty New American dishes, but I put food temporarily on the back burner for the cocktails by master mixologist Scott Beattie, author of Artisanal Cocktails. At the basement bar, expect the usual when it comes to the craft cocktail movement (hand-carved ice, fresh herbs, science, and higher price points) and make sure you have a designated driver. The cocktails here pack a punch.
While Goose tempts oenophiles from their vino bubble, Solage Calistoga’s SolBar is doing the same thing but with Asian food, as opposed to Napa’s Italian and American. In addition to the regular dining menu (American soul food with a twist), the resort just recently launched the Lounge menu, which you can order any time of the day, even at your fancy dinner, and it’s worth a peking, thanks to Michelin-starred Brandon Sharp and his team. Expect creative (and delicious) Asian dishes like Cantonese double-boiled chicken and ginger soup with shitake wontons, chili oil, and fresh herbs, or the slow-roasted pork ribs with Szechuan peppercorn glaze and marinated savoy cabbage. The culinary team even managed to pair wine with Chinese food. Holla. Get it while it’s hot, as this menu is seasonal.
Speaking of menus, how much do they stress you the eff out? Every restaurant should have a tasting course. Or you can just make a beeline to The Restaurant at Meadowood, known for modern American cuisine and perhaps one of the most celebrated restaurants in the valley (next to Morimoto and The French Laundry, of course). Here, the culinary team is now doing that whole thing where you tell your waiter what you feel like eating and they whip up a bespoke dinner. Call me crazy, but this no-menu concept is better than a buffet and, believe me, tastes nothing like one.
[Related: BlackBook Guide to San Francisco and Napa Valley. Download the free BlackBook City Guides app for iPhone and Android. Subscribe to BlackBook Happenings, a free weekly email newsletter with the latest and greatest openings and events in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles.]